I’m sure a lot of people have jobs that feel stressful. I’m sure that many people have jobs with long commutes, and erratic schedules, and jobs that require them to do extensive preparation outside of their paid work hours. I’m positive that everyone in this day and age has to keep a lot of details and loose ends in their heads, and constantly manage their email inboxes in order to get to their real work. None of these 21st century stressors are unique to musicians. For that matter, I bet that many people have bosses whose abilities they question, and colleagues who annoy or enrage them. A job is a job.
I bet, too, that people not in music still have moments in their jobs that inspire them. That make them glow inside. Moments of personal triumph.
But I wonder how many other professions offer the regular opportunity to just DO the thing you do. I mean, JUST do it.
When I sat down for a concert with the Northwest Indiana Symphony last night, I was very conscious that it had been a hard day. A short night, first of all, due to my long commute home and my daughter’s early school start, which I didn’t want to miss since I’d barely seen her the whole hectic week. A morning rehearsal and a concert with my quintet – not the easy kind where we just run down a show we’ve done many times but one where we had to piece together a program for a diverse audience and perform it with a lot of subs in our group, making up our speeches on the fly and also cuing and collaborating actively during the pieces. I drove 50 miles to teach some makeup lessons, and three miles from my exit the traffic came to a full stop and I was trapped on the interstate for 55 minutes, apologetically texting my students and fuming. After I taught, I microwaved a burrito which blew up during the cooking process so I had to eat it in my parked car before I left which made me later than I wanted.
Not an unstressful day, but not anything to complain about. Everyone has stress, and traffic, and busy weeks.
But as the concert started – as the lights dimmed and the concertmaster walked out – I realized that the ONLY thing I had to do for the next two hours was play the oboe. It’s the part of my job that I’m best at, and the part that first inspired me. Making each of my entrances work, and playing in tune with the ensemble. Striving to be as one with the conductor, and the soloist, and the musicians around me. Working to realize the vision of a composer. Finding that blend that makes the oboe sound like a flute, like a piano, like a string section, like a proud oboe. Reacting to the tiniest nuances of phrasing from my colleagues.
These are hard things to do while distracted. I can play passably well while simultaneously composing a to-do list in my head or planning the agenda for an orchestra committee meeting I’m about to run, or mentally mapping the route to my next appointment – but to really be there, in the moment, is a kind of mental discipline that I love, and crave. Rehearsals can require a lot of attention, but there’s always more on my mind there – it’s a different kind of critical thinking, a “how can I analyze what’s going wrong here”, or “how can I do this better”, or “what can I say now that will solve the problem I’m hearing without antagonizing the conductor or my colleagues.” Concerts are just purely about finding the zone, that flow state, and riding the wave of energy all the way to the end.
I hear people rave about the benefits of meditation, and the joy that they take in being in the moment. I wonder if this is what meditation feels like. I wonder if this kind of focus exists in other jobs. I wonder why anyone would choose a different life than this.