I’ve been thinking a lot about music, and the role it has in my life.
I’ve been playing clarinet since I was nine. Although my practicing and performing has become sporadic, I’ve only ever completely stopped playing once, and it lasted for less than a year.
After graduate school, I was thoroughly disillusioned with the music profession– I was sick of the nasty insults musicians threw behind each other’s backs. I couldn’t stand all the insecurity and frail egos, especially my own. I grew depressed that I wasn’t progressing in my art. There was rejection after rejection in auditions, performances where I was so nervous I couldn’t hear myself or couldn’t breathe. Playing music simply felt awful and sounded sour and didn’t bring me joy. So I stopped for a while.
What brought me back to playing was teaching. When I was working at the Evil Bookstore (my own version of the Lost Years), I must have mentioned to people that I majored in music in college, for within a few months, I was asked to teach piano lessons to a fellow colleague. His enthusiasm and awe of the creation of harmonious sounds was inspiring to me. Although I had disparaged teaching when I was in school (the adage “Those who can’t do, teach,” although absolutely untrue, was a prevailing attitude there), I found it rewarding. Later that year, I began teaching lessons at a community music school and at an afterschool program.
Performing in front of audiences, and preparing students to perform, was expected at the music school. Fortunately, the school fostered a very supportive environment. The nerves were still there, but I felt less constricted. I hope my students enjoyed playing– some of them seemed to be comfortable on the stage.
I played my first recital with my sister about four years ago. We’ve been playing recitals together every other year, added my friend Frank to the mix two years ago. It’s good to have goals to work towards– the pressure of meeting a deadline hones my craft to a fine edge.
Paradoxically, the older I get, the less serious I am about playing, and the better I play. It has everything to do with relaxing– breathing deeply, letting the fingers move without tightening them, enjoying the music. Without the negative aspects of competitiveness, constant critical judgment, and equating performances with self-esteem, I find I enjoy playing in front of audiences because it feels like sharing a story with them.
I made the conscious decision several years ago to make playing music an avocation instead of a profession. I wanted to enjoy what I did, and not worry about whether playing hackneyed arrangements of wedding songs would be enough to pay rent. I wanted to play music in a collaborative setting, not be subject to someone else’s interpretation that was not negotiable. I wanted no part of the personal politics that come with large ensembles. It was too draining for me emotionally to wait between gigs and take auditions. I felt more stable in a job that was less stressful and less tied to my ego. And it paid better.
And yet, after last month’s performance, and a month into a new semester for teaching, I keep wondering: I’m playing better than I have before. I’ve got to do more while I am physically capable of doing it. When? Where? How? Lately, I’ve been getting signs, too– I turn on the radio, it plays pieces for clarinet, works I know like the back of my hand. A former student of mine wrote me out of the blue.
So I started taiko a couple of weeks ago. I know it’s going to be so good for me– I love playing rhythms, love that it’s a collaborative effort and a great, strong community. But will playing taiko be an even swap for performing clarinet? “Why can’t you do both?” I know you’re asking.
Me: I find that the older I get, the more I want to learn everything — new things and new unexpected adventures within the familiar– but I don’t have the resources or time or energy to do it all at the same time….
Old Cutter John: [Giggle, giggle] You, too, can follow the road to ruin far beyond the last exit.
~from a Moot Jungle discussion
[parts edited for clarity]