On giving with a cheerful heart

Posted on November 4, 2011

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If you’re friends with me (in real life or on Facebook) or you follow me on Twitter, you know that my wife and I recently bought a house in Denver (Arvada to be exact). And if you know me in real life, you know that while I am loving our new house, I despise home improvement-type work. I suck at it. I don’t know how to do much of any of it, and trying to learn how just makes me angry and leaves me feeling completely incompetent. Thankfully, I have a couple of friends who are really skilled at the sort of things that my wife and I want/need to have done around the “new” house. These friends are in the home building/improving/etc. industry, so the things that they are helping me with are things that they do (or at one time did) for a living. Yet what have they been doing after their long days at work? Giving their free time on evenings and weekends to do what they could get paid professionally to do, and doing it for free out of the goodness of their hearts.

In the classical music world, I’ve heard more than one person talk about how they don’t give free lessons to anyone because “that’s my source of income” or because “I should be compensated for my time.” Certainly no one expects anyone to work 24/7 for free, but the generosity of my friends has prompted me to ask myself what I think is an important question for musicians to consider: how often to I actually give someone the gift of my musical ability, and do it 100% for free; no bartering, no strings attached, just helping someone who needs or wants my help?

For me, the answer is clear: almost never.

Sure. These guys love playing with their tools and doing stuff that they don’t get to do all that often anymore, and it might be tempting to use that as a reason for justifying my non-compensation of their work. But I happen to be fortunate enough to also have a job where work and fun often overlap. In fact, they’re often one and the same. So when I’m “off the clock,” does giving my musical abilities to friends/family/community for free or a drastically discounted rate suddenly become less fun than it is when I’m getting paid for it? More work-like? Even though I’m giving it to people that are supposedly good friends or unquestionably in some kind of musical/financial/emotional need? Surely not.

I think that society and music school subconsciously (and sometimes not-so-subconsciously) teach us that certain kinds of work have greater value and importance than others. This is a lie, and we would do well to put it out of our heads forever. My friends have already saved me thousands of dollars in just one week; the equivalent of a year or more worth of free voice or guitar lessons. Is there anyone that I would give free lessons to for a year? Two years? Just out of the goodness of my heart? Any musical activity a friend was doing that I’d volunteer to help with for free that would take 20 or 30 hours of “my” free time? I guess I’ve never thought about it before. I’ve certainly never done it before. But here’s the answer: if I’m not willing to do that for a close friend or someone(s) that I know are musically/financially/emotionally in need of what I could offer them, then I sure as heck shouldn’t be accepting the generosity of my friends who are helping us with our house.

If you accept the generosity of friends, family, even strangers who have skills in areas that you simply don’t have, be sure to give back whatever you have to give whenever you can give it. Musically or otherwise.

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