Create Magic In Your Music Through Discernment

By Laurel Black and Michael Cerreto

Leonard Bernstein wrote in his book The Joy Of Music, “The most rational minds in history have always yielded to a slight mystic haze when the subject of music has been broached, recognizing the beautiful and utterly satisfying combination of mathematics and magic that music is….We are still, in our own day, faced with this magical block. We try to be scientific about it, in our bumbling way— to employ principles of physics, acoustics, mathematics and formal logic. We employ philosophical devices like empiricism and teleological methods, but what does it accomplish for us? The “magic” questions are still unanswered.”

Music is magical - unexplainable - because it is deeply personal. From the mind of one, to the hands of another, to the ears of all, our impulse to relate to, contextualize, and personalize musical sound is natural, not yet understood, and one of the unique beautiful things about being human.

Giving Magic Room To Flourish

Magic in music needs room to surface and flow. Musicians need to create the appropriate inner state to enable the magic to surface—through insights, imagination, nuance, style, interpretation, freedom— by giving it room to flourish and express itself. If music is viewed and performed only through a technical lens, the magic - your magic - will never have room to grow from the inside out.

How do you give magic room to flourish inside of you? It starts with removing the “shoulds” as a musician. It starts by using the quality of discernment to create music based on your own values and personality.

Say No to the World’s Noise

Music and the world in general are full of suggestions, advice, “shoulds,” and opportunities. It doesn’t stop talking. But you don’t always have to listen. Learning when and when not to listen to the talkers of the world is a matter of discernment.

Discernment is the ability to grasp, comprehend, and judge which things of a particular kind are good or bad for you. Discernment takes knowing your values: what is most vital to you in order to maintain artistic growth and satisfaction.

Discernment Is Rooted In Paying Attention

Discernment is rooted in your values as a person and musician, and requires you to pay attention and notice. When you are presented with an artistic project or opportunity, ask yourself:

  • Does it cause me to pause and momentarily hold my breath when considering it?

  • Does it resonate with me in a way that I breathe freely with a smile, and have a feeling of excitement flow throughout my body?

Your visceral reaction provides insight into what truly resonates with you as you navigate the world and your aspirations.

Liking Is Not Enough

It’s important here, though, to establish the difference between “liking” everything you’re doing and viewing projects as what they are: stepping stones to artistic growth and satisfaction.

Momentum in music requires you to experience successes in areas that resonate personally but also lead you forward artistically and professionally. Just because you like an opportunity doesn’t mean it is a good investment for your future. Your personality, talents, and drive are gifts that need to remain focused on your passions and stepping stones that lead to your artistic aspirations.

Discernment and Mentorship

One of the most important acts you will do at every stage of training and life is choose a mentor. This person should have traits you want for yourself, successes you want, and perhaps a satisfaction with life that you want. A mentor is someone whose word you trust above most others. It is usually a person with more life experience: sometimes a teacher, colleague, someone with a similar belief system, or someone you’ve never met but whose writings or teachings align with your values. If you don’t have such a mentor, find one soon and leverage his or her support and wisdom.

Say Yes To the Voices That Create Magic In Your Music

An effect of practicing discernment is the acknowledgment of music as a long haul pursuit. The road to mastery is long and, as some would argue, never ends. Realizing that you may not “like” everything along the road is a matter of maturity and perspective.

Discernment frees you to express magic in your music from the inside out. It helps you find congruency in decisions about where you focus your energies. The world’s “shoulds” never stop coming, but you can use discernment to identify which ones are clearly not for you. Saying no to the noise is just as important as saying yes to your own voice and the voices of others that put you on a path to artistic growth. Only through creating peace in your soul will you create magic in your music.

“And whatever your labors and aspirations,

in the noisy confusion of life,

keep peace in your soul.”

- Desiderata, Max Ehrmann, 1927

Written by Laurel Black and Michael Cerreto

Laurel Black is a professional Percussionist and Pianist, and a Professor at James Madison University’s School of Music. Michael Cerreto is a Mental Performance Coach with A Talented Mind Clinic in Virginia. They are the founders of PercussionMind, a research and coaching organization that helps percussionists and all musicians reach their potential by effectively managing their mind, emotions, and career. To learn more, contact Michael at 804-337-1884 or