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  • Elle Zee

On Personhood

At some point while I was studying at Berklee I heard a sort of adage in one of my classes: "The only requirement for being a songwriter is that you write songs."

These words were aimed at debunking the idea that only people who write 100 songs a month are true songwriters. Or only people who have won Grammys. Or only people that perform, record, and produce all of their own music. Or insert whatever qualification people had been using to believe less in their own creativity here.

So what happens when you aren't writing songs? I've written a handful of songs since graduating from Berklee. The last one I wrote was at some time in January so I can safely say it's been about 60 days since I've written a song. And I do sing randomly to and about my pets or play aggressively on the piano when I'm angry, but am I writing songs?

"The only requirement for being a songwriter is that you write songs..." What is the expiry on this requirement?

I started to think about this again as I've taken on new creative projects. I've been experimenting a lot more with visual art and I've started writing what I think is turning into a memoir (more on this another time). The thing about the memoir is I've always been called to write and for a period of time its main form was in lyric. I started to think, maybe I was never a songwriter truly, but a lyric writer, and maybe that's actually because I'm just supposed to write, period. But I've written I'm a song-writer. And I've written I'm a writer-writer.

So I started to think, what makes someone a musician or a writer or an anything? Why is it that we are taught we must specialize and that whatever we end up specializing in must be who we are for the rest of our lives?

I've always considered myself a generalist. I've gotten backhandedly insulted for being a "jack of all trades, master of none." I sing and I play piano and I write and I play guitar and I play ukulele and I dance and I paint and I philosophize and I breathe and I take showers and I talk to my friends. My approach has always been "just do what you love doing and you'll figure it out." But I love doing A LOT of things. And now I'm a music teacher who can switch hats and study music therapy and incorporate other art forms and express myself in more ways than one and honestly it's really served me in my career NOT to specialize.

This got me thinking about my students. A lot of my adult students come to me with ideas about how it's too late for them to really develop a musical skill. I think part of this comes from the idea that we're adamantly encouraged (read subtly coerced) to specialize. I find it a pretty outdated idea that may help some people develop great skill in a restricted area, but also leaves many others with existential dread, anxiety, and feelings of inefficacy.

I quit my job as an insurance broker to study music when I was 25 and I already had a cacophony in my brain echoing about how I was too old (again I was twenty-five) and not talented enough and I BETTER KNOW WHAT I WANT TO DO OR NOBODY WAS GOING TO TAKE ME SERIOUSLY and I still changed my mind within 18 months. People continue to congratulate me for "finally finding what I was meant to do" but really all I know is that this is what I want to do right now. I've gotten by on that for awhile just fine despite all the mental noise (thanks society).

So maybe the question shouldn't be "what is the expiry on the requirement" but "who cares?"

I'm a person that writes songs sometimes. I'm a person that goes to school. I'm a person that plays the piano. I'm a person that used to play the violin. I'm a person that draws. I'm a person that writes. I'm a person. I'm a person. I'm a person.

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