Consuming Ourselves


What love, in stark opposition to a mere desire of satisfaction, needs however to be compared to, Kilma suggests, “Is the creation of a work of art… That too requires imagination, total concentration, the combining of all aspects of human personality, self-sacrifice on the part of the artist, and absolute freedom. But most of all, as with artistic creation, love requires action, that is, non-routine activity and behavior, as well as constant attention to one’s partner’s intrinsic nature, an effort to comprehend his or her individuality, and respect. And last but not least it needs tolerance, the awareness that one must not impose one’s outlook or ideals on one’s companion or stand in the way of the other’s happiness.”

Zygmunt Bauman in Consuming Life quoting Ivan Klima

This post is about the difficulties musicians face when buying an instrument or bow. I’m not writing about technical considerations, but about the deeper social and economic factors that highlight our dual roles as artists and consumers, and which often lead us astray, causing many to make choices we may come to regret.
PART ONE – Consumer and Consumed

An important consideration here is the reality of the consumerist culture we live in and the effects that the shift from a society of producers to a society of consumers has had on our cognitive ability to conceive of our relationships with ourselves, others and the artistic tools we use to create music.

In a system that has shifted many of our private and personal lives into a public confessional social media culture, where the public exposure of our private world is so highly prized and the healthy boundary between our inner lives and our public lives are increasingly blurred, we are becoming both the consumer and the consumed. The drive for personal betterment through social media self-promotion, where we desperately try to enhance our perceived human value through post likes, has in many ways led us to a place where we have become the marketers of ourselves. This attitude influences many of our life decisions and relationships. Increasingly human interactions, and here think of dating apps like Tinder, have taken on the sense of commercial transactions rather than emotional interactions. In a society of consumers where our very identities are becoming commodified, capitalism as we know it has begun to reduce our every experience into a transaction, or at least that seems to be the ultimate goal. There is always less personal risk and discomfort in the online transaction versus the interpersonal one as actual social interaction is always fraught with potential danger. We have to wonder if as a society we are shifting into a mode of behavior where exposing one’s self to the unknown in the real world is becoming less attractive than simply pointing and clicking through an endless online menu in the cozy confines of our homes.

The speed and intensity of online stimuli can be overwhelming. As consumers there is a sense of a constant seeking of gratification that never comes. There is a short term focus on the process of consumption rather than a wiser longer view involving an actual, desirable goal. We have an obsession with change, of getting rid of the old for the new. We seek to get rid of what we perceive as not working in a highly superficial effort to use the next purchased object to hopefully better meet our needs. Even when change is needed, we have difficulty making choices, many times because of the fear of the unknown. The problem is that seeking something significant like a life partner and /or friend (like a great violin or bow) resists the buying and shopping model. This is a relationship that is not easy, does not provide instant gratification, and requires us to be in touch with the deeper parts of ourselves.
PART TWO – Enslaving Ourselves for What?

In a 2014 blog posting on Elbow Music, Ariane Todes writes about the advice that Arnold Steinhardt of the Guarneri String Quartet gives on the purchase of new violins. He simply states that when a student is in the market for a new violin or bow, they need to realize that they are putting their parents in debt and that there are bigger considerations than price alone. He states,

“You have to work your way round an instrument and it’s a process. Every instrument is hard to play at the beginning because it’s as if you don’t know Portuguese: it’s hard to know what people are saying until you learn the language. Every instrument is another language that you don’t know at the beginning. Of course not completely – you can pick up a violin and play it, but each violin does have a different language to learn.”

In another piece called “Me and My Violin” Steinhardt writes that the relationship of a musician to her instrument is most comparable to that of a friend or partner. It’s a relationship that demands intimacy, one which involves the highs and lows of any relationship. The musician, he points out, is mute without the instrument and bow and the bow and instrument are mute without the musician. The connection is not a simple one and demands sacrifice, struggle and hard work. Choosing a bow or instrument is not the mere act of finding the next best thing, it requires the musician to be profoundly connected to herself as an artist, as a human being.

I have had many clients express regret at having sold or traded in an instrument that they now realize was something special. I also regularly see musicians desperately shopping for a new music making tool, buying one thing, selling it, then trading it in for a more expensive option, repeating the cycle over and over again. They seek the new magical object that they believe will meet their needs and gain the approval of colleagues and teachers, or help them pass an audition, for example. I want to emphasize here that many times change is good and necessary. The idea here is not to resist changing bows or instruments, but to do it wisely. Also, if one has the money and the means to purchase a fine vintage bow or instrument, power to them. Yes, a great violin or bow will help you grow and technical considerations, often unknown to even the most seasoned musicians, are indeed important, but the point I want make is that the musician makes the music, the musician is the artist and if one is not in touch with herself and her real goals, it will be nearly impossible to find the right partner. This is a decision that demands logic, self-knowledge and instinct.

Lastly let me return to the real world of economics. The fetishization and commodification of the instrument or bow is an unhealthy phenomenon financially in most cases. The concept that older or newer is better, that the more expensive an item is, the better its inherent quality, must be discarded. Players in music competitions are told that they played well but need a more “important“ instrument to succeed, dealers push old Italian violins as great investments, and modern makers publish studies that show their premium priced new instruments are superior to vintage examples – the field is filled with such examples. The questions are more fundamental ones: What are the qualities of a good violin or bow? Who am I as an artist and what do I need?

Being a musician in this world is hard enough, but the drive for artistic self-expression and all the power and connection with the sublime it can bring is too important for us to enslave ourselves financially to these music making tools. Student debt compounded by instrument purchase debt stand in the way of artistic and personal well-being. Often times the thing we seek is not to be found in the next violin shop or in the next swipe of the finger: like so much in life it is often already in your hands, right there in front of you, yours for the taking if could only see it.