I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore gamer, but like so many from my generation I grew up with videogames and continue to play them to this day. One of the games I have really loved playing in recent years is called Portal. If you are not familiar with it, let me give you the premise: as the heroine, must navigate your way through a series of increasingly complicated puzzle rooms created by an intelligent robot. The only tool at your disposal is a “portal gun,” which creates two separate portals on any surface in the room that you can then travel between. As the rooms become more challenging, simply using the portals to bypass obstacles is not enough. You are forced to hit switches and move platforms to make it to the end. The robot mastermind continually entices you onward with the promise of a cake as your reward. Quickly, it becomes apparent that the robot has more nefarious plans and the cake is a lie designed to lead you into a trap of endless puzzle solving.
Okay, did I lose some of you…perhaps. Let’s turn to Urban Dictionary to help explain:
The cake is a lie, “roughly translates to your promised reward is merely a fictitious motivator.”
Too many teachers still tell students – and too many students still believe – that there is a simple and relatively direct way to a successful career. The cake shaped lie of our musical lives is that all we need to find success is be able to play our instruments well (and even more, to only be able to play one type of old music well). I, like pretty much everyone, really want to believe the lie. A large portion of our musical training builds us up to this. It is comfortable and requires no deviation from what we find most comfortable. And because the cake is so enticing, we are willing to sink endless hours of time and energy into getting to it. We believe that the more we dedicate ourselves to the lie, the less of a lie it becomes.
But just as in the game, buying into that lie leads (for most of us) down a path of endless frustration. Thankfully, there is another lesson to take away from the game as well. We can focus our musical energies in any direction we choose, creating our own portals to success. Just because no path seems immediately apparent does not mean that one does not exist. It may require more time, more planning, and even doubling back, but the reward is being able to stand at the end of a route that once seemed completely impassable and say, “I made it.”
If no one you know has become successful being the type of musician you are or making the music you are interested in making, now is the opportunity to stand out. We must all tackle the same large obstacles – cultivating our art and expression, building a brand, rising above the noise, etc. – but we are able to complete those points in the way that we find appropriate for our art. There is nothing wrong with the well-worn paths (and some will be successful following those paths), but we live in a world with room for practically infinite variation. So find your portals and get to work.