Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Summer Update from "Flyover Country"

(In Time's Unfolding: A beautiful piece by Wisconsin-born composer Chester Biscardi)

“You moved to WisCONsin?” 

This question—like so many others like it—was delivered with a snarl through a curled lip.  Ironically the speaker asked it in the middle of a city that is currently experiencing a homeless epidemic, spiraling housing costs, regular demonstrations and riots, and all manner of urban blight problems.  I’d be more surprised at the speaker’s vitriol except that her words echoed so many other comments that others have made to me since I moved here last January.  

It seems my decision to be happy in the Midwest is not a believable one.  The surprising thing is that so few people on the coasts know anything about the area they dismiss as “backward,” “ignorant,” and “flyover country.”  It has turned me into something of a self-appointed ambassador for all things Wisconsin because this area is so much more than “cheese curds and ice fishing.”  

This is Wisconsin: in early August 220 bands from all over the country arrived in Appleton for Mile of Music—a four-day music extravaganza.  Downtown businesses, street corners, parks, and even busses were turned into performance spaces and the city was awash in music.  Staffed by volunteers, the 700+ performances ran from noon to midnight and were free to the public.  100,000 people showed up for this enormous block party—people of all ages.  Not one person was arrested for drunken or disorderly conduct, despite the bars opening at noon each day.  There was no trash on the ground.  There were no fights or arguments in crowded venues. 

This is summer in Wisconsin:  It’s tidy gardens and multi-generational families at the Friday night fish fry.  It’s trips to Door County and cabins “up North.”  It’s live music and bottomless “Old Fashionends”. It’s saying hello to people on the sidewalk and getting outside every time the weather allows.   It’s “pizza farms” (it’s a thing; look it up).  Dining al fresco.  Thunderstorms.  Balmy days.  Muggy days.  Farmer’s markets.  Sweet corn.  Tomatoes bursting with life.  Cookouts. It’s family reunions, fishing, and boating.  It’s baseball games and tailgating.  It’s living fully because in this part of the world you know these summer days are limited and the cold will come again. People do stuff here. 

Is it the strong middle class that keeps this place so livable?  This is a “can-do” part of the world.  A recent study of the Fox Valley (a region that has about a million people) turned up thirty-two homeless people.  Instead of forming task forces to “study the problem” the city organizations found housing for these people, and they’re in the process of putting up 100 new houses and several new apartment buildings—all for low income housing.  People are proud of their community and it shows in a high level of civvic involvement and in the way they maintain their homes and businesses.  They don’t talk about it; they do it.  

The people here possess a refreshing lack of hubris.  Wisconsin is home to household-name international companies (Kohler, Menard’s, Kimberly-Clark, Sentry Insurance, American Family Insurance—just to name a few) but the locals don’t brag about it.  They also don’t mention that Neenah, WI (a neighboring town to Appleton) once boasted more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country.  When I rave about all the live music, the friendliness of the people, the cheese, the beauty of the farmland, and the sheer livability of the place, they don’t understand why it’s special. They don't know that it’s rare to see multi-generations socializing together, or to be able to walk home late at night without fear, or to be in a place where courtesy is the rule, not the exception.

I recently had a conversation with a woman who moved to Appleton from Sacramento, CA.  After the two of us compared all the reasons why we like it better here than on the west coast, she summed up what both of us were saying with her phrase, “I live bigger here.”  

It’s a phrase I’ve adopted as my own.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Beyond Burnout: Recovery Tips for the Classical Pianist

Entering the music profession is an act of love, not logic.  Logic tells us that we’d be much wiser pursuing work in more stable fields where jobs are plentiful and remuneration guaranteed.  Still, many of us choose music because we can’t imagine spending our days doing anything else.  We expect that we’ll love it forever, and few resources exist to help us cope when we burn out on what we used to treasure.

I went through severe burnout twenty years ago.  That was when I quit music forever.  Well, forever lasted about a year and a half before I was lured back to the piano.  While I’d like to report that my break from music was spent peacefully tending a flower garden and writing sensitive thoughts in a decorative journal (with a comforting cup of tea nearby), the reality was much less attractive.  I worked for a temporary agency to pay my bills.  I tried to figure out who I was apart from the piano.  Like many instrumentalists, my identity since childhood was tied up in being Rhonda-the-Pianist.  Suddenly I was in my early thirties and had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  It was one of the most painful yet rewarding times of my life.  When I did return to music, playing the piano was what I did, not who I was.  That enabled me to keep a healthier balance in my life and to recognize times when burnout threatened to strike again.  

Burnout is rarely spoken about in the classical music world.  Since we’re supposed to love what we do, we dare not admit there are days when the thought of another gig or that full teaching day fills us with dread.  I was surprised when the responses to my recent blog post (Pianists and the Art of the Graceful Exit) uncovered so many tales of burnout, along with some excellent ideas on how to cope with it.  I’ve included those suggestions in this blog. 

Take a break.  This is an obvious solution to burnout, although it can be a complicated one to implement.  Many wouldn’t choose to do what I did and do menial office work just to make ends meet.  There are still ways to get time off without completely walking away.  Can you take a few weeks off in the summer?  How about a month?  Can you consolidate your teaching schedule to four days a week?  How about giving yourself a raise?  Or teaching some group lessons?  At the very least, carve out one day a week that you don’t do anything musical. 

Find the “energy vampires” in your schedule and eradicate them.  How much time do you spend each day in correspondence?  Can you schedule a bit of time in the morning and a bit in the afternoon?  Are there gigs you can walk away from that pay too little for the hassle involved?  Most studios operate on the old 80/20 rule—20% of your studio will cause 80% of your headaches.  Is it possible to drop one or two of the problem students and focus on the ones who are a joy to teach?

Examine your personal life.  This requires some introspection and a hard look at how many demands are being placed on you by others in your life—spouses, children, aging parents, neighborhood associations, etc.  Is it possible to get help in some areas and possibly quit other things?  Are you needlessly contributing to your own busyness because you feel no one else can do what you do?  Maybe it’s time to risk other people’s irritation and frustration to save yourself.  

Be your own caretaker. Many of my readers offered these excellent suggestions: Meditate.  Commit to exercising every day.  Daoism. Qi Gong.  Yoga.  Learning new repertoire just for yourself.  I’d like to add, learn how to say “no.”  Cultivate your friendships—inside and outside of music.  Watch your diet—caffeine, alcohol, sugar, fatty foods all feel good in the moment but eventually contribute to exhaustion.  

Distance yourself from toxic individuals.  I’ve learned (the hard way!) to never underestimate how draining and demoralizing some people can be.  I’ve been in teaching and playing groups that are nurturing and supportive, and I’ve been in groups so caustic and competitive that they nearly drove me out of the music profession.  Choose your friends and colleagues carefully.  If the toxic individual in your life is someone with whom you must associate (family member, work colleague, etc.), set firm boundaries and stick to them.  The other part of this equation?  Create your own informal support group—people who can be counted on to support and encourage you, not tear you down.  Nurture these relationships by making time for them.  

Ultimately, moving beyond burnout means falling in love with music all over again.  My own return to the piano happened slowly and was accompanied by a bone-deep conviction that music is more about fertile earth, heart-to-heart talks with friends, and cooking spaghetti than marble halls and the monolith of perfection.  Soul music is about playing Clair de lune at a friend’s funeral, watching a great-grandmother dance to New York, New York, and seeing a student’s eyes light up when she can play Für Elise.  It’s about going to the piano every day and becoming a beginner over and over again while always waiting for glimpse of the reality behind the notes.  Simply put, it’s about recapturing wonder.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Pianists and the Art of a Graceful Exit

“There’s a trick to the Graceful Exit. It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, a relationship is over -- and to let go. It means leaving what's over without denying its value.”  —Ellen Goodman

“I want to quit before someone tells me, ‘you were great once, but not any longer’," my father always said.  A science and mathematics teacher for most of his career, he followed his own advice. When I asked him how he came to his decision, he replied, "I could feel myself slipping, and it wasn’t fair to the students.”

In an era where people are praised and encouraged to keep working indefinitely, it’s painful to talk about the inevitable loss of ability that comes with age.  When rock stars are still touring in their 70s and some elderly classical pianists are powerful performers, we expect to do the same in our “golden years.”   It’s hard to admit that those older phenoms are the exception, not the rule.  Sadly, no matter how good we are in our prime we will see our skills and abilities decline.  This is especially painful for musicians—our art isn’t just what we do, it’s (in many ways) who we are.  Even those who have a life and identity outside of their art find this a hard transition.  It’s disastrous for those with no sense of self beyond their careers.

Most of us have had the painful experience of watching or listening to a once-great performer who refused to leave the stage before her abilities did.  We’ve sat through masterclasses taught by teachers who are no longer capable of sharing ideas in a coherent way.  We’ve seen some turn bitter and attack younger musicians.  We’ve watched some fall into depression. In a particularly horrifying example, I've watched someone lose all interest in living when her career ended.

Big life transitions are painful.  They don’t happen without a lot of self-reflection and preparation—both emotional and practical.  The biggest question we all have to answer is what to do with the piano-shaped hole in our days when we stop performing or teaching.   Even more importantly, how will we express ourselves when we step back from what has been our creative voice for most of our lives? If this is difficult for someone like myself with modest talents and accomplishments, I can't begin to fathom how disorienting it is for those who have ascended to the top of the pianistic pantheon.  Exiting the profession forces us to acknowledge that we can and will be replaced.  It causes us to stare into the abyss of irrelevance and invisibility.  It is--in short--terrifying.  

When facing these hard questions it helps to look at what we can do rather than what we can no longer do.  One singer I know turned to composing when his voice “went” and his singing career slowed down.  Several pianist friends have created workshops for adult students.  The example of my older friends have helped me start planning for my own transition out of music—a shift that has already started to take place due to my decision to leave teaching and most gig work to pursue my writing career.  This change allowed me to rethink my self-identity. I continue to fill my days with creative and meaningful things outside of music and this is teaching me that new creative outlets can replace the old.  But that's on the good days.  On bad days I just feel directionless and a little lost.

Change is inevitable.  We all have to exit our careers at some point.  The question is, will we do so gracefully?  Will we choose  our exit and plan for it, or will we be forced into it in the most painful way possible?  It’s up to us to decide if our final decades will be spent nursing bitterness or living a rich life pursuing new ways to live creatively and passionately.