“I’d love to be an artist but, unfortunately, it just doesn’t pay.” I’ve heard this my whole life but didn’t quite grasp the full meaning of the statement until I graduated from the university. I was in the closet hanging my cap and gown when it hit me, “What now?” It was very unlikely that I’d be making any money as a classical pianist. I had my private students, but I had been teaching for years. I knew a day would come when I’d despise having to explain the importance of keeping high wrists over the keyboard and warming up with scales while using a metronome. I had seen students come and go, taking the hope of ever seeing the result of all my hard work.
While being a piano teacher didn't prove to be my forte, I found a renewed love for teaching in the classroom. There's nothing like the dynamic of many children working together towards a creative goal. I've learned to expect the unexpected, but it keeps me on my toes, keeps me young. But even though my fourth graders are—I’m proud to say—trained to read intervals on the staff in all three clefs, I realize most of them will choose careers that are deemed more practical. And not all parents have a say in that decision. Society at large is to blame. But it’s sad to see young people give up on artistry for the sake of living loftier lives and reaching a prominent status.
Mozart never enjoyed a loft life. He wasn’t all that famous during his time. Why? Because he chose to be an artist. Here’s the one thing most people are missing. A great lawyer or doctor might reach fame during his lifetime. He might even be remembered for fifty, eighty years after his death. Meanwhile, Mozart’s works are still being performed all over the world more than two centuries later. His music will continue to be well-known for centuries to come. Why? Because he chose to be an artist. Of course, it would be unfair to compare my most talented student to a prodigy like Mozart. A fairer comparison would be to Beethoven who wasn’t born a genius and had to work hard to become one. Regardless, here are the two questions I ask myself whenever I ponder on this issue:
1) What’s more important, reaching your artistic potential or living a life of comfort and high-status? 2) From these two options, which one comes as a natural instinct and which one is a learned expectation?
I don’t know. Give a toddler the choice of coloring on a page with crayons, or high-fashion clothes to try on. Which one do you think they’ll go for?
This struggle is foreign to me. As far as I know I’ve always considered myself a musician. And I’ve always assumed that if I couldn’t play music, I’d find another way to be a full-time artist. I had to. There was no other proper way to live life.
In third grade I was accepted to study in Havana’s music conservatory, Manuel Saumell. There was only one boy, the only violinist; the rest of us were female pianists. We had theory and solfege, chorus, private piano lessons, music appreciation, and chamber music lessons. Us girls would lock ourselves in the Pecera, which was a classroom with a large window that faced the hallway. It looked like a giant fish tank, hence the name. We spent hours on end just playing piano, singing, dancing, pretending to be ladies of the court of Prince Esterhazy. All of us shared one dream in common—one day we’d be professional musicians. That was our goal, and we employed a serious amount of our childhood to reach it. There was a lot of competition but the one thing that kept us united was inspiration.
Maybe it has to do with my Spiritualist upbringing, but I’ve always envisioned Inspiration as some sort of entity that comes to visit when I’m ready to create. It wasn’t until I reached adolescence that I learned about the Greek Muses. By then I had been visited by Euterpe countless times. I had written my own little compositions, my own poetry, and I had been transported to Mount Elikonas by a dashing Apollo that inhabited in the realm of my imagination. But the Muse wasn’t a spirit. She carried a different vibration. Her entrance translated into a strong desire to sit at the piano. I could feel her standing behind me as I brought my fingers to the keyboard and opened the book to the composition I was to play. I would feel the breath of a wispy prayer she’d recite as she draped her golden cloak over my head. I was suddenly inspired to create, to perform, to dream.
In my mid-twenties I began a World Music band that had me confined to my home studio for months. I would only come out to shower, eat, and feed the dogs. Other than that I was powerless but overjoyed. I was being held hostage, at the mercy of the Muse. My friends at the time—most of them musicians and artists—shared my passion for creating. Although we never talked about the Muse, I intuited it was a familiar concept to them. As I grew older I learned She goes by many names, but her goal never changes. She does her rounds, giving nourishment to the ones who carry that insatiable creative hunger in their soul. I suspect she is following up a contract that was signed long before we took our first breath.
What can I say? I live for those moments when my mind is so busy with worries of everyday life that I can’t even think straight, and suddenly She enters. The blank screen before me begins to fill up with words that grow into sentences that shape into ideas that convey feelings. It matters little whether I’m painting with words, pitches, or the colors of my soul. What matter is that I’m being guided by the Muse.
I’m on a mission now to track the comings and goings of the Muse. I've decided to find and share with kindred spirits who share my experience. The idea came to me—and it might have been inspired by Calliope, the supreme Muse—that I should begin an online magazine featuring conversations with artists. I know so many creative people, so many inspiring souls, that I don’t even know where to begin. The magazine is titled The Miami Beach Gazette and there’s a story behind that name.
A few months ago I started writing my second novel which has the working title, The Muse of North Beach. Mimi Balistreri, the main character, works for a fictional local paper called The Miami Beach Gazette, as a columnist covering social events in the city. Under the pen name Dianne Ullman, she also writes a column called The Bygone O-Beach-Uaries where she puts her mediumship abilities to test. Mimi basically sits in front of the Atlantic Ocean, The Keeper of All Secrets, and listens to the waves retell the stories of people who lived and died in the area decades ago. Hoping to leave a footprint of sorts, these souls never crossed to the other side of the veil; instead they reach out to Mimi so that she may give them closure by sharing the meaning of their existence with the rest of the world. One lucky day, Mimi sits on the sand, waiting to channel the voice of the Atlantic when she experiences a strange phenomenon—the birth of a nude Venus, springing out of the rippling water, flying high above the surface of the ocean on her way to the shore. Mimi follows the apparition to a dilapidated building that is occupied by artists. It’s in this building where she discovers a statue of perfect likeness to the ghost she’s just seen. From that point on her priority becomes finding out who the spirit was in life, and why all the neighbors refer to her as the Muse.
The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I’m understanding Mimi Balistreri the more I delve into the subject. But I want to know how you think, how you feel, how you connect with the Muse. I’m on a mission to find out. Move over, Mozart! Stand back, Beethoven! The search for the Muse begins now.