Primate Priorities

This week my eye doctor told me I’m starting to develop cataracts. My hearing is getting a little less acute too. For a 63-year-old I’m still very, very healthy, but time is starting to catch up with me.

My career has been devoted mainly to helping other musicians. That was the mission at Keyboard, where I worked as an editor and staff writer for more than 25 years. Since being laid off ten years ago, I’ve written four books on music topics, plus a couple of hundred more magazine articles. I’ve also been teaching cello privately.

All this has been very rewarding. But in whatever time remains to me, I think I would like to concentrate on my own music, thank you very much. I think I’ve done enough to help others — this is my time.

Our ancestors evolved as social creatures. They lived in small, roving bands. Being part of the group was vital. If you wandered off on your own too liberally, your genes tended not to be passed on to the next generation. Today, we all actively seek social approval, and that’s why. Not being part of the group induces anxiety.

I’ve identified three factors that are keys to my music-making. I need to have creative input, I need a commitment to excellence, and I need some sort of social approval for the activity — some form of social feedback that keys into my instinctive need to feel that I’m part of the group.

Recently I’ve been playing in my local community orchestra. This gives me a very adequate level of social support. I’m part of a large group, we get applause, and because I’m the principal cellist I actually get a small paycheck too. Unfortunately, my creative input is approximately zero, and I would have to say that the orchestra’s commitment to excellence is marginal at best. I could give you some graphic descriptions of occasions on which excellence has not been demonstrated, but out of respect for your delicate sensibilities, I will refrain.

What I’d really like to be doing, with whatever years remain to me, is sitting here at my computer, composing and recording my own music. I have a suite of amazing, exciting tools with which to do this, and I’m proficient in the use of the tools. I have plenty of musical ideas and a high level of understanding of music theory.

This activity would be very creative, and my commitment to excellence is whatever I choose to make it. (Usually it’s very high.) The difficulty, and it’s an enormous difficulty, is that this is an activity that provides no social support whatever. When I’m doing it, there’s nobody else in the room — and when I finish a new piece, nobody cares. Sure, I can put it up on my website, but my website gets no traffic. Nobody will ever hear the music. When I die, it will be just some files on my hard drive, and the hard drive will be hauled off to the electronic recycling center and that will be the end of it.

As a practical matter, my awareness of my isolation produces waves of sadness and loneliness. I end up not producing much music, and it’s because I’m keenly aware that nobody cares. I might as well turn on the TV. If I put hours, days, weeks, months, years of creative effort into creating new music, there will be no applause. I will never get a check in the mail. I will never have anybody patting me on the back and saying, “We appreciate your hard work.”

Please don’t tell me about online self-promotion. I know all about that. Online self-promotion is, in an emotional sense, a way of courting enormous amounts of rejection. You send out emails, you send out demos — and 98% of the time, nobody cares. I don’t have nearly enough emotional stamina to put myself through that wringer.

What I want to do is what I’ve always done: I create the content, and somebody else promotes and distributes it. Unfortunately, there seems to be no way to find or create a setting in which I can do that with my own music. So I end up playing in a second-rate community orchestra, because that’s where the social support is. What a fucking waste.

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1 Response to Primate Priorities

  1. I’ve read many of your pieces in magazines and always found them interesting and helpful. So I’m sorry to hear that you won’t be doing that any more.

    I think I have some idea of how you feel about finding an outlet for your music. I’ve had the same thoughts about my music as well as about a large collection of what are now historically relevant photographs that I’ve accumulated. Your comment, “Nobody will ever hear the music. When I die, it will be just some files on my hard drive, and the hard drive will be hauled off to the electronic recycling center and that will be the end of it,” is genuinely sad, really sad. It certainly resonates here. But isn’t it simply how life is? Everything is transient. In a few dozen years nobody will even know we were here. I often think about that. Possibly, as a result, I’ve been learning to let go of the idea that “me” and “my work” are terribly important. These days, when I get out of bed I ask myself “What do I feel like doing today?” And that’s been incredibly liberating.

    Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with your readers.

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