Robyn Sarah is a Montreal poet and writer whose latest book is the memoir Music, Late and Soon.
People often dream of returning to a lapsed, once-loved activity, something they once excelled at, that fell by the wayside when they found their livelihood elsewhere. They believe it’s too late. Yet a longing to go back to what was once so central and fulfilling can haunt the years. In my own case, longing became impulse became action at the age of nearly 60.
Whether it’s a performing or creative art, a team sport or an individual athletic discipline, the serious passion with which a talent is pursued in youth often does not carry through to career years. For a while, perhaps, the activity is kept up “on the side,” but motivation to make room for it in a busy life soon fades. That’s how it was for me as an aspiring clarinetist, on the verge of playing professionally when I drifted away from music in my early twenties, took a job teaching college English, and slowly established myself as a writer.
But the thought of going back to study piano again with my old teacher nagged at me periodically for decades. I had last taken piano lessons around the same time I stopped playing clarinet, but had never entirely given up playing piano. Apart from a few rootless student years when I had no instrument at home, I continued to noodle around on the keyboard, untutored, as the spirit moved me. Once my kids were grown, I had more time and was more frustrated by my inadequacies as a pianist. Still, the wish to overcome them didn’t take shape as an idea until I was 59, during a period of writer’s block. Maybe I just needed a change. Maybe I could devote myself to piano intensively for one year, with the goal of playing a small recital for family and friends on my 60th birthday. To justify the undertaking to myself, I attached it to the idea of writing a book about the process.
Somewhere inside I must have known that the whole construction was just an excuse to take piano lessons again, but I clung to the concept: a one-year musical commitment culminating in a recital, a manageable narrative with a clear beginning and end. (I actually imagined, when I started writing, that I could dispense with my 10 years playing clarinet in a footnote!) Not for a minute did I imagine that within a year of my return to lessons, it would become clear I was back at the piano very seriously, and for life.
“Seriously.” What exactly does that word mean, in context? At 60, it can hardly suggest aspirations of “getting to Carnegie Hall” (practice, practice, practice – as the old joke goes). What does it mean to be “serious” about something – a relationship, an enterprise, an interest, a political cause? It’s a word that bespeaks long-term intentions, directionality, measurable attainment. A word that comes with expectations. And this is where we get into trouble. This is where longing founders. Are we ready to take something seriously? Do we have a right to, if we aren’t going to “do anything” with it? How do we justify expending the time, the effort? What is to be gained from such a commitment at a later stage in life?
My return to studying piano was also a return to the extraordinary (and unconventional) teacher and mentor of my formative years, who from the beginning taught me to pursue excellence as a musician out of love for music rather than out of career ambition. “Serious” was always one of his favourite words. “Let’s get something serious happening here.” “You know we have serious work to do on this.” “Remember what I just said, because it’s very, very serious.” But he didn’t use the word the way we usually understand it. We hear it as goal-oriented – directed toward achieving professional standing or status, validation in the outside world. Our model for “serious” is the talented youngster whose love for the activity is intertwined with the competitive drive to succeed at it in a publicly recognized way. My teacher meant something else – something more holistic, if no less demanding. For him it was about the challenge of integrating mind, body and spirit in order to engage more and more deeply with the music – putting the whole self in service of the music. It was about holding oneself to the highest standards purely for the sake of the music, in a process that is continuing and self-validating.
I think that as long as we yoke “seriousness” to the idea of a career, we set ourselves up to lose the thing we love if the career fails to materialize. It’s as if, once we have relinquished the idea of making it our life path, we lose our rationale for taking it seriously. We’re no longer driven by the need to compete, to keep up with “serious” fellow practitioners. As we settle into a new vocation and identity, we have less inclination to maintain our skills through regular practice. This is self-perpetuating: the more ground we lose, the less satisfying our attempts to get back to it. We may still harbour dreams or longings, but too often, myths and superstitions get in the way. Besides the myth that it’s too late (too late for what?) there’s the myth that it “doesn’t make sense” to invest significant time and energy in something that “won’t go anywhere.” And there may be fear of humiliation or disappointment if we fail. (Fail how? By whose measure? In whose eyes?)
Such habits of thinking make it hard to give ourselves permission to pursue a serious interest in the absence of professional involvement or intent. It can be equally hard to give ourselves permission to reclaim such an interest (or to take up a new one) at an age when professional intent is no longer an option. It took me 30 years to come back to studying piano seriously, and even then, it seemed I couldn’t just start taking lessons again without an excuse. I had to invoke my established professional identity – telling myself the “real” intent was to write a book.
We should need no excuse to hold on to or reclaim something we love. Whether it’s in tandem with a career in some other field, or postretirement, there’s so much to be gained from pursuing a loved activity seriously for its own sake – setting our own parameters according to the limitations of our situation, allowing them to evolve as they will. I could mention joy. Balance. Stability. Self-knowledge. Ongoing challenge. Insurance against boredom. New friendships. A break from the pressures and drudgeries of workplace and domestic routine. A refuge from the freak show playing out on the daily news. Something to look forward to every day. A secret reason to get up in the morning.
I’ll say it again: We should need no excuse to hold on to or reclaim something we love.
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