By Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
Not that long ago, I was not an advocate of online magick. Classes? Sure. But the actual doing of magick? No.
Despite being a full-time Witch immersed in writing, philosophy, and theology, I have a Bachelor of Music Performance with a minor in Music Business. My early adulthood was filled not only with Witches and occultists, but also musicians, artists, and poets whose work ranged from classical and jazz to glam rock and heavy metal, which is where I honestly fit a bit better. While I sang opera and art songs, I dreamed of rock and roll stardom, as many of my peers did. After graduation, I worked in the business for a few years professionally, more behind the scenes than as a performer. I had an emotional trauma around the end of my band and immersed myself in the business side, not the artistic. And soon I was out of the business altogether and slowly working my way in the realm of metaphysics, something I would have never predicted.
When I looked around years later at my peers, I only needed a few fingers to count those in my graduating class who were still involved full-time in music business, education, or performance. Now that all of us are in our forties, there are even fewer. Some of us joke that nothing kills your love of music like music school. My artist friends will say nothing kills your love of art like art school. And there is some truth to that, but why?
I found music school incredibly challenging. I was amid people who had taken music lessons since they were three, whereas I came to a serious love of musical performance at sixteen. I struggled to read music or sight sing, and I needed practice to get things down. I had never sung in a choir before, and suddenly was doing that four times a week, required. While voice was my instrument, I found myself learning keyboard and conducting. Creative classes were equally challenging. Your art is judged and critiqued with the desire to make it better, but I often disagreed. Sometimes students were challenged to write for a different instrument or in a different style, and explore exercises in creativity that they never would have chosen and found little inspiration doing. I knew what I knew, and I liked what I liked, and found myself challenged by everything else. I had always overcome all challenges in the past, and I did this time, but where math, science, history, and the like were relatively easy for me, music school forced me to explore things that I didn’t instantly or easily master. And I didn’t like it.
Now that I run a Witchcraft school program, I find the same process happening with some students. Why do I run a Witchcraft school? Because every step I’ve taken in service has led me, often by request, to do so. I had my own practice. People wanted to know what I was doing. I started a discussion study group. My own teachers stopped teaching publicly for a bit. People wanted something more formal. I created classes based on what I learned. People graduated that program and wanted more. An advanced study group became an advanced class, and then more people wanted the basics. Graduates wanted community, a chance to gather. People sought an identity, but when they started doing things in my name that I wasn’t comfortable with, I created some guidelines. People at a distance wanted to take the class before the days of online teaching, so I created books. People who had the books wanted direct guidance. I started to widely travel to teach intensives. Graduates of the intensives wanted long-term training and mentorship. I opened a school online, and when it became too big for me to do alone, we formalized a tradition with more teachers and even deeper and diverse classes.
I created what I wanted. I would have loved to have had a school where I could have cohesively learned things with mentorship and community. Putting together the pieces was a different struggle for me, but I’m glad to have done it, and continue to do it. Yet as I offer this, there are always problems. We have conflict, hurt feelings, and all manner of dramas that pop up. I think they are all part of the esoteric teaching process, but I am reminded of music school, and I don’t want to kill anyone’s love of magick.
My first realization is that I had a lot of youthful, naïve expectations around my music school days, and some people come to a Witchcraft school, coven, or teacher in a similar state, as completely unconscious of it as I was in music school. In the “big fish little pond” that was my virtually non-existent high school music scene, I was recognized as being already good. I had that recognition with academics, with art, and with my new depths of music.
But I had no deep mentorship. Things came easy because I was rarely challenged. I had an expectation that this was killing time at college until I would be “discovered” and go onto a trail of fame and fortune for my insightful songs and performances. Everybody had their own version of that dream in school, and most were much better musicians going in than I was. I expected to be praised and have fun because music is fun. I didn’t expect it to be tedious. I didn’t expect critical feedback. I didn’t expect to fail and didn’t always learn from my failures.
I see many people expecting only praise and no challenge in magick. I see many people expecting every moment to be fun, with no effort placed into learning a craft. I see many people expecting study with a “famous” Witch will result in their own fame and fortune, without necessarily doing anything noteworthy. It used to bother me, but I think back to music college. That was me too.
My second realization is that no person or thing “killed” my love of music. I changed. I had experiences in school, but also outside of school, that refocused my priorities. I met my husband. I fought with my bandmates until we broke up rather dramatically. I entered into an unhealthy business filled with wonderfully damaged people with whom I never bonded because I kept really strong boundaries, and my path led me to what I am doing now, which I love. My past experience with academics, art, and music inform my current experience. I had some wonderful, masterful professors, some really eccentric ones, and some bad ones, and each taught me something I carry with me. If I had tried to pursue music full-time professionally, I wouldn’t be where I am.
For some people, life is defined by their music, their art, their dance, their writing. Others by career, family, or religion. Most people are a blend. For me, magick is the blend of many things: the science, art, and religion, as Laurie Cabot teaches. We often have a romantic notion of magick and Witchcraft from books, movies, and television. We fantasize of rich cohesive traditions and wise mentors, vast libraries and schools of learning. I think back when scholars talk about the Druid colleges and the ancient Mystery Schools. I also think about Buddhist temple retreats today, and how we usually don’t have access to something similar. It’s one of the reason stories like Harry Potter are so popular among Witches themselves, not just ordinary readers. We are seeking that. Yet we often find interesting fragments and eccentric people not quite living up to our expectations. And this is good because we should always be challenged to take it to the next step, but we shouldn’t always have to start over from square one, rediscovering it all. I think back to my high school guitar jamming in my bedroom, the excitement of stumbling into a 7th Chord. Little did I realize that if I had only picked up a good book, or stuck with a good guitar teacher, I would have had access to it earlier. In music theory in college, I got an education in understanding all the chords, the types of rhythms and forms, each discovery widening my creative palette.
For me, a Witchcraft school or teaching tradition is a repository for both what has been and what is growing now. Like any student learning operative skills along with philosophical concepts, you’ll be challenged in various ways. It won’t always be easy or affirming or fun, but other times, it will be joyous and magickal and will flow through you. I think of all the tedium of scales that led me to amazing performances on stage that were truly magickal. If you don’t want or need access to structure and training and guidance, or the form is not right for you, or you prefer to hunt down things on your own, that’s great. Do it. But don’t come to a school, group, or teacher with vast unconscious expectations of ego satisfaction and then be upset when it doesn’t happen. Know thyself just a bit, and figure out what approaches are best for you at this time. If something doesn’t work, does it truly not work for you, or are you being challenged in uncomfortable ways? Leaving for either reason is fine, but knowing why is the most important thing.
There is room in my vision of Witchcraft, and hopefully yours, for all eras of the Witch as we forge new futures. Some will be the Temple priestess, others the wild eccentric at the edge. Many will seek deep roots, and others will float about like thistle down. You are all my Witch kin, Witchfolk drawing from the same ancient source, because at various times, I’ve been all of those things. The trick is knowing what I am today and where I want to be tomorrow. I might be in for an unexpected twist and end up someplace completely different than my expectation. I usually do. But that is truly the heart of the path.