Zen parable: Maybe
Once upon a time, there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
This story is a reminder that there's a natural order to life. Within this order, there are highs and lows, sunny days and cloudy days, good times and bad times. We do not know whether these events in our lives will bring good fortune or misfortune. These things are out of our control. Life is a perfect chain of events, connected by perfectly arranged, imperfect links.
For each event that happened in the farmer's life, he had the wisdom not to get too excited over the good things, nor too upset over the bad--for all were necessary for his journey. And where each of these events eventually led, were revealed in due time.
As musicians, we must approach our music and careers with the same wisdom. Whether we're seeking the high-profile gig, the sweet record deal, top billing on festivals, or accolades from those in the industry, we should not put too much importance in any of these. Some of these things will lead to our happiness, some will leave us perpetually sad. And as demonstrated in the story about the farmer, you just never know.
I used to be roommates with a guy named John, who kind of approached life in this way. John always appeared negative or pessimistic, because every time something seemingly good happened, he would always respond with "We'll see." Our conversations we're usually Like this:
Me: Hey, John, your two-week tour in Europe should be nice.
John: We'll see.
Me: John, when your record comes out, that's going to be some great exposure.
John: We'll see.
Me: John, your new girlfriend seems nice.
John: We'll see.
I always looked at John as a skeptic. He was never really emotionally invested one way or the other. Today, however, I understand his feelings.
Thinking about all of these things takes me back to 1999 when I got signed to a record deal with Columbia/Sony. I finally thought that I had a chance of having a career as a solo artist. Unfortunately, I was dropped from the label a year later. As you can imagine, I was pretty devastated. But like the unfortunate events in the farmer's life, this, too, ended up being a blessing in disguise.
Losing my recording contract taught me that relying on others for my sound was artistically too risky because all of my success was too beholden to others. Consequently, I was forced to dig deeper to find my own sound, which I was able to do through recording solo saxophone CDs. Playing solo taught me how to be interesting as a player and tap into that which is uniquely me. I never would have discovered this with my group Global Unity. I was too preoccupied with trying to project my vision through the members of my band rather than through my own instrument. So where I lost an opportunity to have a successful career as a solo artist, what I gained was a musical voice--which is much more valuable.
As musicians, we must approach life, our music, and careers with a certain level of indifference. Like the farmer, we must not get too emotionally invested, one way or the other. Our story and the effects of our music will continue long after we're gone. That album you released that only got two stars in Downbeat, might change lives decades later. That tune that you wrote, last minute, might define your legacy. You just never know.