28 May 2020

Pre-Endgame Strategy

In my current situation I find the long-term rather than the short-term impacts of the quarantine most concerning, and perhaps for this reason I've frequently found myself thinking about one particular long-term concern.

Stay-at-home orders are nearly superfluous in my case, hence the lockdown has, for me, so far been little else than a welcome sabbatical from rat-racing, and a fruitful period of study (both self- and other-). The near-total lack of structure is nonetheless something which I've always found slightly hazardous. And so here is one extrinsic benefit of music education that I'll toast to: as a brass player, I figured out even before the clickbait psychojournalists did that having a routine would be essential not just to parochially musical concerns but to the general preservation of sanity. Thus the tuba hour commences at noon daily. It is really more like 20 minutes and almost never starts before 1pm. I hesitate to call this "discipline," since the timing is too loose and too brief to qualify. If it is "maintenance," then disrepair carries the day. The main objective is not to forget how to play. There are a couple of mild conceptual challenges involved and no technical ones. Part of me laments that this is what it has come to for someone who veritably haunted the practice rooms in college, and who, gun to head, still claims the tuba as the center of his increasingly entropic intellectual and creative universe. All of those misgivings being as they are, I have no doubt that I'm making made good on my frequent admonitions to young students that even this amount of practice, when it is logically structured, narrowly focused, and adhered to daily with the devoutness of a sacred ritual, can be productive and worth the trouble.

It never occurred to me to promote this ritual as a prospective lifeline to structure, invocable if the rest of the world seems to have frozen in time. Maybe I'll try that if and when I next return to teaching, since none of my other spiels have ever been the least bit effective in inspiring commitment where it did not previously exist. I am of course reluctant to expose students to the multi-layered ambivalence of the mid-career professional; that sort of radical honesty might be a bit too radical even for me. To take music and, more specifically, a musical instrument as not just a specialty but an identity, to face society as a tooba player, encompasses, as I have probably already written enough about, quite the dizzying array of privileges, struggles, and absurdities. In the present absurd conditions I do feel quite fortunate to have a readymade vehicle of routine, and I do believe the sanity-preserving function to have been borne out by this experience, but all of that merely represses the reality that it has been a decade and a half since I last found rigid adherence to a practice regimen fun and fulfilling for its own sake, and that both the duration of adherence and the intensity of "fun" have steadily diminished with time. This, taken together with the long-term inevitability of physical and mental decline, paints quite the discouraging picture of the aging brass player. Can this downward curve ever be flattened?

For all that I've invested in book learning, I am guided on the endgame question almost exclusively by two fond anecdotes which I've never bothered to investigate. First: a friend is fond of remarking that 50 year-old drivers have the fewest accidents and the lowest insurance premiums. They sit at an optimal point on the x-y graph of accumulated experience (lots) against physical decline (not yet). This seems to me a supremely relevant consideration for brass players as well, i.e. with an eye toward balancing cumulative achievement with quality of life by determining the optimal time to walk away. On which point the second, more morbid anecdote is salient, a nugget of my mother's dime-store-Marxist antisheltering, and a burden which more conventional American parents would never reveal to a pre-adolescent child: when all people do for 50 years is work, they often don't know what to do with themselves upon retiring, even if they thought they would; and when people don't know what to do with themselves in this profound sort of way, even when they thought they would, they often just die.

If the "x-y graphs" and "optimization" of the first anecdote sound too fully rationalized or mathematical to be useful in Real Life, then the urgency of death inspired by the second anecdote ought to be motivation enough to embrace them. Overlaid on all of that, for me at least, is the question of what Erikson called "generativity," essentially the province of culture's 50 year-old drivers, and for me split (not always happily) into generativity that pays the bills and generativity that feeds the soul. While I certainly tend to look forward to a day when I have played my last corporate ice cream social, even I would grant that a withdrawal from that kind of work represents a certain loss of identity in a society where your work defines you. (I think I want to live in a society that is not like that, but this is unlikely to happen.) By the same token, having developed out of tuba playing all kinds of peripheral intellectual and creative interests, the thought of someday making those peripheral interests central, without the tuba there to ground them, has always been both superficially appealing and deeply scary. Be it a privilege or a chore depending on the day, tuba playing is both the initial inspiration and the ultimate outlet for those other pursuits. Hence I fear equally the old-age regret of having stopped playing too soon, leading to a loss of focus in the other areas, and that of hanging on too long, wasting time doing subpar tuba work when that time could be more fruitfully devoted to the other areas. To be sure, both of these prospective regrets seem, literally, deadly. Thus I think it is reasonable to consider such scenarios ahead of time, before moments of choice are upon you. Tweeting about having a "no regrets" outlook regarding the things you can't control is no substitute for seeking foresight and taking initiative regarding things that are very much within your control.

To wit, I would conjecture that the optimization function f(tuba) is bimodal: either (a) give up playing young enough that a new generative identity can form, or (b) hang on to the one you've got til the bitter end, perhaps reinventing your aesthetic as your declining technique dictates. The third, more conventional option, as mutually determined by social and structural norms, is Retirement at the socio-structurally appointed Retirement Age. Many musicians simply aren't able to pursue this the way people with real jobs can, and some who could and should pursue it neglect to do so. The denouement of COVID will have a lot to do with whether or not this course is even available to me. That aside, I think that Retirement is plainly incoherent with not one but both of the above anecdotes; it is incoherent with considerations of identity, aesthetics, and achievement alike; in a word, it is incoherent with psychobiology itself. And so without denying that Retirement represents a privilege of sorts, I think it is my third choice. I view it as a privilege only relative to the fourth option: working myself into the grave. And so as events continue to unfold, I will be focused on playing a good pre-endgame.

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