|Photo taken by Lance Trumbull -|
In May of 2011, at the Juilliard School in New York City, composer John Adams addressed the graduating class with these words -
All the paradigms of success that we routinely encounter in our everyday lives - on television, in movies, in the online world, in the constant din of advertising, even from our friends and families - all these "models" for success and happiness American-style are about what is ultimately a disposable life, about a life centered around material gain and about finding the best possible comfort zone for yourself.
He continues on to say -
But by choosing a life in the arts you've set yourselves apart from all that.
Have we in the world of the arts really done that though? Have we really set ourselves apart from the rest of the world? As a whole, I'm not so sure. I think that many of us fall into the same trap of craving success and recognition even though the root of our career choice is all about the passion we have for music, not about something as tangible as money. Whether we're in an orchestra, a teaching position in a university, or a choir, we seem to always be striving to get to the next level. I know my husband and I have recently caught ourselves on this very same ladder. But is it any wonder? I don't think so. Because in order to survive comfortably in this country we are forced to march up the very same ladder as our friends in the non-musical world in order to provide ourselves and our loved ones with "security."
I am no politician. I don't tweet or put Facebook statuses up about politics because quite frankly I don't know a whole lot about it and am not as well-read as I sometimes wish I were - I'm too busy playing the piano and trying to make my own living. But this past week I was forced to examine this whole topic in a very personal way thanks to my husband essentially losing his job at the university he's been working at for the past 6 years. (You can read all about that in my blogpost, "Turning one's back on the tenure dragon.") As is part of the denied-tenure process he was given a contract by the institution which would enable him to teach for one final year at the same salary, but with something of a demotion. We were given one week to decide whether or not to sign that contract. Saying that week was a soul-searching, mind-blowing one would be an understatement.
We started with the practical benefits of signing the contract. I would label this the, "Staying on the Ladder" approach. With another year of teaching we would get a good salary and our health benefits would continue. There was also the thought that staying another year might look better on my husband's resume than if he were to not teach another year.
But that's where the benefits seemed to stop.
My husband was dejected, lost, and exhausted. He was also struggling to see himself as the musician that he has been since he was a little boy. Speaking as a music lover myself, questioning one's abilities, one's self, is like the kiss of death. And being the stubborn self that I am I refused to accept the type of year we would face if he continued down this same path. I strongly urged him, in spite of all the "benefits" and "security" that we'd be giving up, to back down the ladder. After all, there aren't great views just from the top of a ladder. If we keep our eyes open and minds open there are great views from just about anywhere. Besides, I questioned, are tall ladders really that secure anyway? I seem to remember learning that whenever one is on a tall ladder it's good to have someone at the bottom, holding tight to the base. Considering how isolated and unsupported many on these tall ladders feel, depending on someone to be at the bottom seems a unrealistic.
In the end, after much deliberation and discussion with many friends and family, my husband decided to not sign the contract to teach another year. There were many reasons behind that decision but at the root of it all was the desire to start anew now rather than delaying the inevitable and to head down a different path that will hopefully take us back to where we left our breadcrumbs - back to a place where the joy of music-making and the thrill of sharing it with others can be found. Perhaps it would have served us well to have been in that graduating class last year, and to have heard these words from John Adams:
A life in the arts means loving complexity and ambiguity, of enjoying the fact that there are no single, absolute solutions. And it means that you value communicating about matters of the spirit over the baser forms of human interaction, because you know that life is not just a transaction, not simply a game about winning someone's confidence purely for purposes of material gain.
Those words make sense to us. A lot of sense. They excite, they inspire, they have value. A different, less practical value, perhaps, and value that doesn't put as much food on the table but value nonetheless.
This next year will be interesting, there's no doubt about that. And our lives may not be as "secure" or comfortable as they have been ever since we've been married but our hope is that our journey back down the ladder will provide us with the time, space, and reignited passion to see the things around us that have a value that will bring more joy into our lives.
Many thanks to my friend, Jeff Prillaman, @vatenor, for pointing me to John Adams' commencement speech.