The Aging Pianist




Baby, baby, baby
Let's investigate 
The other side of life tonight. 
The lovers and the fighters 
And the risks they take 
Are on the other side of life tonight. 
Let's lose our way, 
Go completely astray 
And find ourselves again. 
You know the only way to get there 
Is to take that step 
To the other side of life tonight
—from The Other Side of Life by The Moody Blues

One of the bravest Facebook posts I’ve seen recently came from a Big Name Pianist who wrote that he was considering no longer performing an extremely difficult concerto.  This concerto—one that the Big Name Pianist has recorded and has had in his repertoire for years—is  (in his words) such “a massive undertaking physically and mentally that it is time to smell the roses of the rest of the repertoire even more, and leave this immensely great work of the Twentieth Century to those with the youthful stamina to bring it off in the way it deserves.”

It’s rare to find blunt self-reflection and honesty in a society so obsessed with youth that the natural changes brought on by age are considered something close to failure.  Somehow (through virtuous eating, exercise, mindfulness, etc) the expectation exists that we’ll never grow old or weak or frail.  We’ll stay “at the top of our game” forever.  We’ll scorn retirement.  We’ll “age gracefully” (i.e., not get fat, not get bald, not get wrinkled).  We’ll keep our reflexes and flexibility.  We’ll—in other words—be immune to the realities of the human condition.

Pianists, like all people in the performing arts, must struggle to keep getting work in an environment obsessed with youth.  The added harsh reality of declining skills (and aging countenance) makes this even more acute.  Frances Wilson of The Cross-Eyed Pianist, wrote recently of the added burden female pianists carry in her blog, The Menopausal Pianist.  In my admittedly small sample size of colleagues and friends, I’ve seen two approaches to aging: wise adjustment (such as the one Big Name Pianist is making) and dangerous denial (people who pretend time hasn’t changed them—usually to disastrous results).

The brutal truth too many want to ignore is that if we’re gifted with long life, everybody ages.  Denial of  this transition not only dismisses the wisdom of those who have lived past their “use by" date—it sets every one of us up for failure because we can’t adhere to an impossible standard.  Age isn’t “a state of mind.”  It’s reality.  And refusing to embrace the reality of aging guarantees that we miss all the gifts it has to offer us.

If we’re blessed with good health, aging gratefully (and gracefully) is all about editing our lives.  We let go of what no longer brings us joy and keep what matters.  We choose quality over quantity.  We find our “enough” point and we don’t let ego push us out of our true selves.  We stop glossing over our flaws, but we don’t obsess about them either.  We have fewer relationships, but deeper connections.  We may not be “trending” on social media, but we know the deep satisfaction of playing music that feeds us on a soul level.  

For most of us, aging brings irrelevance and invisibility. But these two things carry with them a delicious freedom.  We settle into radical honesty. We no longer have to spend every waking moment figuring out how to build a career and instead spend our time playing and doing what we love. The need to “get ahead” is replaced by the gift of not having to “get ahead.” We speak and live our truth and we really don’t care if other people agree with us.  As we watch our loved ones die, or struggle with serious health problems, we live each moment with gratitude, knowing that time and people are precious and transitory. 

As age and time transition us into a slower way of life, it’s our task to surrender to it.  In this surrendering, we learn about patience and silence.  If we’re lucky, this move to the other side of life allows us to be grounded in reality.  Or, as the philosopher Henry Bugbee expressed to eloquently in his book, The Inward Morning

“It seems that there is a stream of limitless meaning flowing into the life of a man if he can but patiently entrust himself to it.  There is no hurry, only the need to be true to what comes to mind, and to explore the current carefully in which one presently moves.  There is a constant fluency of meaning in the instant in which we live.  One may learn of it from rivers in the constancy of their utterance, is one listens and is still.  They speak endlessly in an univocal exhalation, articulating the silence.”

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