Conceptual Desire Paths and the Modern Musician

Many of my students know that I’m big fan of podcasts, and one of my absolute favorites is the design-focused program 99% Invisible. The shows are usually about 25-30 minutes long and cover all number of topics from architecture and city planning to the everyday objects you use and broad societal concepts that have been designed into our lives. It’s a brilliant show and it’s opened my eyes to so many new ideas and patterns in our world.

One of the latest episodes, a sort of compilation story they do every now and again with shorter ideas that can’t make up a full episode, introduced me to the concept of desire paths.

A desire path (formally referred to as desire line in transportation planning, also known as a game trail, social trail, herd path, cow path, goat track, pig trail or bootleg trail) can be a path created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal foot-fall or traffic. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination. – Wikipedia

Of course we see (and use!) these everywhere, but I had no idea they had a name. The concept sat with me a few days, percolated, occasionally surfaced in real life (I cut across grass yesterday while gleefully bubbling a little ‘desire path!’ tune), and then suddenly came crystal clear as the description I’ve needed all along for how I’ve built my career and life.

Our lives are desire paths. We shape our careers, relationships, lifestyles, homes by shortcuts (and longest) to the most efficient or desirable ways of being ourselves.

Musicians trying to make a name these days are learning this the natural way- understanding how to navigate a changing field and career market and make an impression in the best manner possible. We have an industry structure: 1. Practice hard 2. Win a gig 3. Success, but we’re realizing more and more that that serves a distinct and small part of our musical population, and the opportunities to follow this path are not available to everyone. The rest of us can either quit in frustration, stymied by a metaphorical sidewalk that doesn’t go the way we want it to, or walk around it, making our own path.

My desire paths as a musician include:

-Seeking out effective resources to help me build a teaching studio and to teach effectively and inspirationally; developing my teaching philosophy (stay tuned to see that in writing, finally!); expanding my outreach and values geographically to the people who are ready to receive it

-Building a list of skilled and competent musicians (with a strong focus on women and/or performers of color) from which to build my community; finding my audience and incorporating it into that community

-Choosing the gigs I want- and developing the skills for them- carefully; being consistent with the image I want to portray and the healthy career/life balance I strive for: changing the ways in which the embedded musical concepts of ‘industry standard’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘virtuosity’ affect my mindset and my performance and taking only what is valuable

What are the ways you’ve incorporated metaphorical desire paths in your career and life? What ways can you see yourself trying new directions in the future? How can you help someone else navigate their own desire path? Let’s redesign this business, one dirt track at a time.

2 Replies to “Conceptual Desire Paths and the Modern Musician”

  1. Love this! I’ll have to check out 99% Invisible… I’ve been reading a lot about creativity/innovation. One thing that’s struck me in particular is the idea of “disruptive innovation.” Basically, most “innovation” is designed to maintain the status quo and serve the same narrow group of people. Disruptive innovation makes things simpler, more accessible, and “good enough” for a wider group of people. Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to pitch my own brand of disruptive innovation, but, “It’s HIIT…for jazz bass!” has a nice ring to it…

    1. Would love to have you meet my friend Roque. We’ve been talking lots about this, and working out the idea of creating an organization for musicians that helps us all navigate the ‘new’ world of freelancing, career-building, etc. I used a lot of your resources in our initial conversation, especially your idea of ‘versatility, not virtuosity’.

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