Friday, April 20, 2007

Hardening of the Categories

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. As the principal bassoonist, that certainly gives me lots of work to do, especially when "full time musician" hasn’t been my day job for quite a while. However, as this piece is one of the stalwarts of the bassoon canon, all those hours in the practice room over all those years kick in, even the subtlest and strictest of points. This is my turf, where I belong.

Or not. The second bassoonist is bored, sloppy, without nuance (or the ability to play anything resembling soft). The musicians are talking incessantly, socializing instead of paying attention to this challenging piece. Regional orchestras lack funds, so we have just three rehearsals to put together this performance. Time’s a-wasting, but this apparently bothers no one else—performing well isn’t the point for many of them. Nor, it seems, for the conductor.

Anderson Consulting once had an ad featuring a lion with its paw on a ball of yarn: “Are your skills being underused?” This seems a common occurence; we belong and not, so we (and our abilities) are accepted and not. I teach at my college because of my work, and my students respond best when I’m straightforward, but I can easily get into trouble if I’m not careful to hold back—and that restraint handcuffs the work. [Colleges like to see themselves as bastions for free, critical thinking, but really they want you to do that original thinking within the guidelines of the traditional thinking.] I live in the country because I love it, even raising lumber, fruit, nuts and berries on my land (I grew up with farming), but I also have to balance this with living in a very conservative, small town where living in the country means riding ATVs/snowmobiles and driving pickups, not hiking, cross-country skiing and driving a Toyota Yaris. And at the end of the Tchaikovsky rehearsal, the concert master walked outside, took one glance at a strikingly beautiful crescent/planet conjunction and said “Oh, look at the moon,” immediately looked away, went to his car and drove off—the same moon I stared at for several minutes.

I’ve always been struck by this curious mix of interests, abilities, and accomplishments. People determined to act become musicians. Serious musicians become famous actors—and district attorneys and writing professors. A steamboat captain becomes a major author, even drawing his pen name from his previous profession—Mark Twain. The movie adaptation of Twain’s "Roughing It" ends with “Life is what happens when you’re doing something else” (which several web sites attribute to John Lennon—take your pick). Indeed.

Yet, instead of appreciating the richness of our many talents, we like to specialize. A cardiologist who prescribes medication with constipation as a side effect walks away—another doctor must prescribe the needed laxative. And academics distain “jacks of all trades,” ignoring that this describes the most interesting, successful people in field after field—renaissance people. Absolutely, specialization is useful, important, and often necessary. But we embrace it to the exclusion of all else, allowing us to put everyone in the appropriate box with the appropriate label—hardening of the categories.

Years ago, one reporter noted that retailers had trouble deciding where to put Paul Winter’s albums—the jazz bin? New Age? World Music? Paul Winter responded, “I don’t care where they put them, as long as people can find them.”

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be hanging out with Paul.


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