Non-musicians are always confounded as to why musicians struggle so much for their art. If you look at it logically, there’s really no reason why some of us would give up promising careers in “legit” businesses to groval for a few bucks in an effort to keep on groveling for one more day. And this is all in the hopes of someday “making it,” which usually means that we can continue making music, just without the day-to-day groveling.
But there’s a reason why we do it. Performing music makes us high. Every musician who’s ever gigged has experienced the rush on stage when you played something so cool that they rest of the band would give you that acknowledging smile. Or when the whole band does something at once in such a tight fashion that it’s like thinking with the same mind. Or hearing the whistles and applause at the end of a song. That’s what keeps us doing it.
No matter if you’re just starting out in the garage or a superstar at his peak, you can’t get enough. We all know it on some level, and we all crave it. And it never goes away. Even if you haven’t played in a band in 20 years, it takes about 10 seconds after the first downbeat to get back into it again. And if you’re “retired” as a player, the thought of performing is consciously suppressed because you’re afraid that you’ll miss it so much and get pulled back in. All it takes is just one small taste.
We know we’re addicted, but to what exactly? Now according to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology, it turns out that performing actually releases measurable amounts of endorphines (the body’s natural opiates) during performing. That means we’re not only psychologically addicted, but physically addicted as well.
The study was conducted at Oxford University by Professor Robin Dunbar, who wanted to see if performing music would increase a person’s pain tolerance. Three experimental groups were studied; church singers involved with communal singing, clapping and lots of upper body movement, people in a drum circle, and finally a group of musicians rehearsing. What he found was that performing released endorphines that resulted in “a mild opiate ‘high’ corresponding with a feeling of well-being and light analgesia (the absence of pain).”
I’ve also felt that performing music goes a step beyond the physical to the spiritual, if I can get metaphysical here for a moment. A musician “in the zone” is unknowingly performing a ritual that’s touching somewhere above the physical plane. It’s a place that’s so compelling that we want to go there again and again, but it goes beyond that. We also open this spiritual link to the audience as well, which is why they want to come hear us play. It’s something they can’t easily reach for themselves, and need us as a gateway. Our music speaks on multiple levels, and has the ability to take us and our audience to places unknown.
So keep on playing as much as you can. When done well it’s good for you, and for everyone around you. You are more special than you know.