18 October 2010

It's Not Cute Anymore

When middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow, Middle-American people encounter a musician in their teens or twenties, they tend to look as if they've encountered a grown adult playing with blocks, or perhaps a poodle wearing a Girbaud onesie. Thanks to the physiology of the human central nervous system, the uncontrollable reflex to smile at the sight of such a thing always manifests itself a split second before the conscious mind has had a chance to register and evaluate the bigger picture. Hence, the look the young musician (or the poodle) catches out of the corner of their eye is so often precisely that moment when cognition begins to mediate reflex in quite the opposite direction. The resulting expression is an odd combination of glee and pity.

I've spent years looking forward to the day when I can give a performance without catching one of these looks before, during or after the show. That day seems to be getting farther away even as I get older. In part, this is the bed that arts advocacy's emphasis on extrinsic benefits has made for the rest of us: when our very existence as artists is justified exclusively by our art's worth to the developing brain, what use could those whose brains are finished developing possibly have for us? Music is cute, at least until it's not cute anymore. It makes kids good at math, at least until they enroll in a conservatory where they won't so much as smell a math class. It's harmless, that is until they're saddled with five-figure student debt and unable to find a job of any kind. It's good for the soul, unless, well...you know, it sounds like that gobbledygook modern stuff that no one really listens to.

We have Legos for kids to play with to help them with spatial relations and clarinets for them to blow into to make them good at math. Then, once the test scores are compiled, the measurable outcomes achieved, and the grant funding secured, the clarinets and Legos get packed away together in a polystyrene tote, whisked out of sight and mind until the first grandchild is born. At least that's how it's supposed to work. God help those of us who never learned to put our toys away.

If in your adult life a perfect stranger your age or older has ever encountered you, alone, earnestly playing with Legos and summarily shot you one of those looks before their conscious mind has had a chance to inventory all of the possible explanations for why they're seeing what they're seeing, then perhaps you've felt a small fraction of what it feels like to walk in front of an entire audience of people your parents' age and older, unpack a tuba, and do something with it to betray the fact that you've done little else for the last decade. If not, hopefully this summary of what it feels like to be on the wrong side of the smirk will help you stop the next one before it starts.

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