19 June 2013

Exit Strategies II: The Two Dignities

In many ways, the day jobs I have held have engaged, challenged and utilized my entire physical and intellectual capacities to a much greater extent than many of the paying tuba gigs I have played. Those prone to hawking music as the ultimate multi-disciplinary task for the developing brain will of course accuse me of exaggerating, but I'm not so sure I am. In fairness, it is true that I have invested quite a bit more time and effort in improving my tuba playing than I have in becoming a better security guard, and that this has made certain kinds of tuba gigs much easier than they would otherwise be. That being what it may, in facing the transition from academic to civilian life for the second time, I find myself far less fearful of the indignities associated with low-wage jobs than of those which inhere in the musical cultures I inhabit.

As with so many other musico-cultural issues, a disconnect with my peers is palpable when it comes to weighing these two dignities against each other. One consideration, of course, is instrumentation. I cannot demand $100 for a $50 gig where the contractor truly needs about $20 worth of tuba playing, and I struggle to take pride in imbuing that $20 worth of music with $100 execution. Of course, I understood from a relatively early stage that this is what it means to play the tuba. All of this came quite a bit more easily to me then, a time when I more readily embraced the idea that any musical task is as hard as you make it for yourself, when I enjoyed the particular challenge of being an accompanimental voice, took pride in being saved only for the biggest and best parts of the piece, and found fulfillment in doing the little things. I was constantly commended as a young adult for my "maturity" in such matters, scoffing at that evaluation with increasing frequency as neither I nor my less "mature" peers seemed to change much as we aged. With time, however, the politics of orchestration have indeed eroded my willingness to sit idly by while the bulk of the music is made without me. As the saying goes, I set out to change the the world and the world changed me instead.

By any number of measures, this is a rather petty and selfish tantrum to throw, not very zen at all, and potentially rather destructive to just the kind of collaboration that sustains creative musicians like me. And yet I don't think it can be denied that there is something profoundly unhealthy and equally un-zen-like about living one's musical life bottled up; about so rarely being necessary to the whole of which you are a part; about enduring the absolute insistence by careerist colleagues that the indignities and injustices the rest of the world suffers through on a daily basis makes the life of a $100 tuba player being paid $50 for $20 worth of work into one of the world's higher privileges. Perhaps it very well should be. For me, it is not.

By and large, tubists as a group have quite admirably taken to heart Jacobs' admonition to seek out greater challenges than our established roles present to us on a daily basis. I would, of course, agitate for casting a much wider and less stylistically conservative net throughout this process, and I have written plenty about that already. The point I want to reprise this time around is that because of this overwhelmingly conservative orientation, we have not succeeded in establishing idiomatic roles for the instrument in living contemporary musical traditions, roles which are commensurate with our newly evolved technical achievements. Instead, the emphasis has been on getting better at the roles which already exist. Neither as performer nor as listener would I want to live in a world devoid of those traditions, but nor can I say that I have much of a shot at a dignified existence within the confines of that music. Earth to tubists: we need this music more than it needs us, a surefire recipe for an unhealthy relationship in virtually any sphere of human existence.

Such it is that when the dignity of making a living through one's life's work gives way to the indignity of boredom and superfluousness, it doesn't matter how much we're getting paid to play whole notes or how beautiful those whole notes are. Raising the technical bar is only half the battle; only in applying these advances to great, living music do we ensure ourselves a share of the musical future, by which I mean the dignity of being necessary to a living musical tradition. (Quick! Somebody reading this convince me that the tuba is "necessary" to a "living" musical tradition! No, seriously, I really need to know!)

I certainly have found my way into some interesting tuba work over the years through my investment in playing changes. Perversely, that is my most marketable skill, with both competition and demand being almost non-existent. Yet by and large, the gig that absolutely needs me and my skill set just to be able to happen is a rare bird, and the more gigs I play as an interchangeable piece, the stronger I sense that there is an indignity here for me of the type I've never sensed at any day job. Of course, in the professional music world, you are supposed to be thankful that people want to hire you, period, no matter who they are and what the occasion might be, and all of that should go double when someone else could just as easily have gotten the call. "He's a great player and a swell guy to work with." The meritocrats admonish us that this is no less that the essence of dignity in our chosen profession. Where is the dignity in walking away from it?

I have already given part of the answer, but the more important part, I am only recently coming to think, has everything to do with what might be called "family values" (note lower case). Music history is of course littered with major and minor figures alike who rankled their parents by abandoning more stable, respectable, lucrative paths in order to follow their respective muses. Other aspirants are themselves rather terrified when they first fully grasp the reality of the situation they are facing and either take up a fallback career or become the most rabid of self-promoters. Still others were raised by parents who suffered true indignities of various stripes along the way, leading both them and their children to aspire to something better. It seems quite clear to me now that most of my peers have been shaped by one or more of these factors and that perhaps I am rather exceptional in not having been shaped by any of them: my career choice met little parental resistance, I was raised to fear bourgeoisification more than poverty, and economically at least, there was scarcely a better life my parents could have aspired to give me than the one we had.

As for place, it may or may not be relevant in my case:

The culture in Minneapolis is very comfortable. Our guest artists almost always comment on how much they love Minneapolis--the clubs, the scene. But they also comment on the lack of drive in local players. They're all like, 'I love it--but where's the fire behind these musicians?'

Well...there's fire, and then there's fire. There's rehearsal, practice, listening, study, diversion, and then there's hustling. There's proving something to yourself and then there's proving it to others. For whatever reason, my thing has always been outward humility and inner fire; I think that derives from an upbringing where achievement was valued, self-importance was discouraged, and basic needs were never in jeopardy of failing to be met. Meanwhile, ever since I discovered the degree of misjudgment and misinterpretation that goes on in the professional music world, as easily in one's favor as against it, it has been rather difficult to get fired up about controlling my own narrative. I decided to direct that energy into my work instead. That way dignity lies.

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