by Wells Hanley
As a self employed musician, I am always in a state of current economic crisis! The sense of security provided to most by their jobs is a luxury which I have certainly never received from my workplace. On the first day of every job, I am holding in my mind the reality that it will end. But the self employed artist finds his security in his ability to adapt and his faith in the strength of his nimbleness muscle. I think it is safe to say that there is a psychological space which the entrepreneur/artist inhabits very comfortably which is now being thrust upon the workers of the world.
For those who have derived their security from their relationship to an institution, being laid off can be as much an identity crisis as a financial crisis. If there is no external stability from which we can derive a feeling that everything is going to be okay, we can either go crazy or find a way to live in an ever changing workplace. My life as a creative professional has taken me to both extremes, and now I find myself in a comfortable middle ground where I am both totally nuts and serenely at peace.
But seriously, when I think about the question at hand, my first reaction is that it is somehow outside of me- that it doesn’t really apply to me…but of course it does because we are all affected by the economy. In examining my reaction, I have come to realize that an economic downturn is something that self employed artists have been practicing for all along.
When we choose to be artists, we are choosing to build our careers on something that is completely out of our control. If we are truly artists, we know that we are in service to the unconscious and that our primary “job” is to be faithful midwives to the emerging creative spirit. To truly live the artistic life is to be willing to listen within and to respond outwardly with every muscle available. One of the primary muscles we strengthen as artists is nimbleness. The mature creator is able to instantly throw out old notions in order to accommodate a shift in creative interest or a change in the professional landscape. Behind this willingness to change is an assumption that our creative identity is not only subject to change but that it must change in order to survive.
When I was in 7th grade, I was getting ready for a career as a rock drummer. By my junior year of high school, on a wise suggestion from my mother, I began to learn piano in order to strengthen my chances of getting into music school to study percussion. I fell in love with the piano and ended up getting a degree in classical performance. I didn’t forget about the drums, I was just on a tangent….a detour. Midway through my classical degree (much to the dismay of my teacher!) I started learning jazz and gigging in the nearby town of Charlottesville, VA. That was such a blast that I took an extra year to graduate so that I could fit school around my busy gigging schedule. By this point, an onlooker might have said (and probably did) that I was unfocused, prone to sudden changes of heart, immature, and when are you going to get serious? Here in the essay I will send out a kudos to all three of my parents, who confidently watched as my interests developed in an illogical and erratic way.
My professional life has been no different. I have spent years surviving solely by playing piano in wedding bands. Sometime around the turn of the century, that source of income almost entirely dried up as the jazz wedding reception gave way to the Chicken Dance and the financial advantages of hiring a DJ. I floated for about 9 months at the Russian Tea Room in NYC until it suddenly closed its doors in 2001. I spent some time doing “odd jobs” as a pianist, the oddest of which was a showcase of professional impersonators at a Jewish Community Center in Scranton, PA. The Judy Garland impersonator insisted we call her “Judy” but then later in the show came out and did an amazing Kenny Rogers!
I hope that those of us flying solo out here can reassure people with an image of responsiveness and creativity which is not squashed by anxiety. Nimbleness is tricky at first but can be so enjoyable. It gives us the strength to be unfettered and free, and to go out into the world and discover again and again who we are and who we are becoming.
Wells Hanley is a freelance musician in Richmond, VA, who performx at clubs and festivals all over the USA and Europe, including the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the Spoleto Music Festival in Italy, and performed and/or recorded with jazz greats Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis, and David Liebman; rock icons Dave Matthews, Carter Beauford, and Tim Reynolds; folk singer John McCutcheon; and Broadway stars Tom Wopat and Darius DeHaas. Wells has a Bachelor of Music from James Madison University and a Master of Music from the Manhattan School of Music. In his spare time, he writes songs which he sings and records. His first solo CD entitled “camels are coming” is in progress. More at myspace/Wells Hanley.com