On the Road, Day 10: Transitions

The day started out at Thomas’s Ham ‘N’ Eggery in Westbury, with a breakfast of what is arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization: corned beef hash, poached eggs (with hot sauce), home fries, rye toast, and coffee. It ended with dinner of basil crispy duck at Beantown Pho and Grill on Newbury Street in Boston, which made me contemplate trying to organize a concert tour of Vietnam.

In between the two meals, it was the best of times and it was the not-so-best of times. (You think I’d actually plagiarize?) I wanted to try to avoid the traffic hassles from the Marathon so I detoured up to our place in West Stockbridge for a few hours of R&R. It was a sunny day in the mid-70s, and all kinds of green things were just popping out of the ground. It was the first day in weeks that I haven’t had to saw away on “Havanaise” or Mahler Nine, so the transition from not being preoccupied with performing to being able to commune with nature and let the mind wander was therapeutic.

For me, one day without the violin was a welcome change. For other musicians, though, a day without their instrument would be heresy. Whether music is an obsession or simply taking the fiddle out the case a compulsion, a day without playing can be torture to some. Now, think about the equation when it’s time for an orchestral musician to pack it up for good! A musician who has sat in his/her chair for 30, 40, 50 years; whose whole community and musical world is intertwined with that chair. Whose entire musical experience will be cut off the day of retirement. It can be a very tough call because so many musicians, after so many years of service, have come to define themselves solely by their position in an orchestra. Even if they bitch about conductors on a daily basis; even if they’re bitter about the increasingly fatiguing schedule, have issues with other musicians (who doesn’t?), don’t want to play so much contemporary music…the list goes on an on. Even with all those little bumps and bruises, many musicians, rather than retire, would rather die in their seat. And some have.

The difficulty is, unlike business, there is no quantifiable data that tells you a musician is losing productivity. How does one determine if one’s playing has gone downhill? Is not as good as an imagined standard? Is not as good as one’s colleagues? And even if it has, there’s a gold mine of value to a senior member’s wealth of accumulated knowledge. Of the musical relationships created with the other musicians that holds the musical fabric of the ensemble together. How does one balance those intangibles? Replacing that musician with someone new might ratchet up the technical skills of the section, but it could potentially destroy the musical algorithm.

With orchestral tenure, the days of arbitrary “You’re fired!” are long gone, and thankfully so. Still, Music Directors have the authority to non-renew a musician’s contract, though those decisions can be contested through a very thorough grievance process. Ultimately, it’s pretty much up to the musician to decide. Some musicians play wonderfully into their 70s. Others may pass their prime much earlier. It’s a tough decision and can be a profound transition in one’s life.

I’ve been lucky. After 36 years I knew I had enough of full-time orchestra playing, and had other coals in the fire. And as much as I have loved listening to and playing music, my chair in the orchestra–whether it was in the Boston Symphony second violin section or associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony–was never “who I am.” I knew that I no longer was enthusiastic about 100 concerts a year. I had played all the great repertoire with all the great conductors, and when we would do a Beethoven Seventh for the millionth time, and with a conductor who was doing it for the first time, I would ask myself, “What am I doing this for?” And when I realized I was asking myself that question, I knew I was ready. Fortunately for me, I was still pretty young and have stayed in good playing shape, and have been able to contribute to the BSO on a part-time basis. I couldn’t ask for anything more. For me, a smooth transition. As I say, I’ve been lucky.

I timed my drive back to Boston so that I would have time to spare to return my car to Enterprise in the Prudential Building. I was actually ahead of schedule when I got to the Prudential Center Exit on the Mass Turnpike. To my dismay, the exit was blocked off for the Marathon. It took me an additional hour to circle my way back through traffic on surface roads to go about a mile. But I made it finally, and fortunately Enterprise had an after hours drop box. So that’s why I didn’t say “the worst of times,” because in the end it wasn’t so bad. And definitely worth the trip.

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2 thoughts on “On the Road, Day 10: Transitions

  1. Mac Cheever

    Your comments on retirement (as well as the breakfast) hit home. After 40 years or so of ‘amateur’ orchestral playing, predominantly in the second violin section of several groups, we moved and I ‘retired’.
    Weird, but OK. I don’t miss the late nights and winter driving. I miss the orchestra periodically. Listening is never the same. The obvious and perpetual question is “what next?”.

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