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.     


Zackdaddy said…
I agree with your thoughts concerning one's prime focus. As you suggested, the prime focus itself can often be redirected into another 'prime' focus, as you are doing with your writing. Those who managed to rise to the top, or what they perceived as their Parnassus, should consider themselves lucky. Strolling through virtually any music department practice rooms can be a pitiful experience. One can hear many students who are so dutifully practicing "their" Chopin (as one student told me when I suggested she play lesser known stuff), while dreaming of fame and glory, not to mention gorgeous girls mooning over them (as everyone reads about good ole' Liszt). Most end up leaving the profession for something more practical, like selling insurance or real estate (both, by the way, horrible professions). Oldsters can play golf (ugh!).

But I sincerely hope that you never say goodbye to your wonderfully sensitive piano playing. You still continue to move many fellow humans through your unique talent and your incredible choice of repertoire. Ars Longa Vita Brevis.
Rhonda Rizzo said…
Thanks so much for your kind words about my playing. I don't plan to quit anytime soon--just making some long-term plans for the future. You are deadly accurate about the fate of most music students. Music programs everywhere need to be more responsible and tell the young the truth about this industry. We also need to teach them that what they do isn't who they are--in other words, they aren't their instruments. Too many conservatories are producing lopsided human beings.