Friday, December 27, 2013

Musical Preparation for Retirement

Sherman Walt, the former principal bassoonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra decided to learn to play the viola when he retired. He bought an instrument from my father, and had a lifetime of making reeds and playing solos moving towards his rear-view mirror. I was devastated by his sudden death in 1989 at age 66 when he was struck by a car while walking across the street in the Chestnut Hill section of Brookline. Reflecting on Mr. Walt's desire to play the viola was one of the things that gave me courage to become a string player. I told myself that as soon as I found a steady job I would start playing a string instrument again. I remembered noodling around on the viola that my father would sell to Mr. Walt, and I felt a special connection. Even a responsibility.

I suppose I can say that the job I got at the university radio station was steady. Year after year the powers that "were" suggested that my job was slated to be a full time job, but year after year I ended up being paid for just 15 hours per week. I though that those 15 hours came without benefits, but one important benefit came as a surprise. After twelve years in the job (regardless of the meager number of hours), I became vested in the university retirement plan, which in Illinois is the state retirement plan. I left the job (for reasons too complicated to discuss) after 13 years, and a portion of the small amount of money that I have drawn over the years since leaving the radio station (teaching at a community college) has made its way into this fund. The upshot is that when I officially retire I will probably "make" more money than I have ever made as a working-age person (not that it's enough to live on). The "steady" aspect of the job, and my personal vow made it possible for me to find a very full musical life after a frustrating one as a flutist without prospects, and keeping that promise to myself has become its own great reward.

That's not the point of this post, however. The point of this post is that viola may not be a usual retirement for bassoonists, but is a common retirement instrument for violinists. Some go to the viola because the high register of the violin becomes physically difficult to hear, and some go to the viola because they imagine that viola parts are less demanding than the first violin parts in chamber music and in orchestra (many are).

I know from experience that playing the viola can be physically taxing, and I also know from experience that the strain on shoulders and elbows grows as the body ages. I know that vibrato slows down and that hearing changes. I know that the pleasure of playing both the violin and the viola has a lot to do with having the hands and arms respond quickly to the musical landscape, and I know that eventually the response begins to slow.

I have many older friends who can no longer play. I know that I could not bear to not make music on a daily basis, particularly when I get into my 80s and 90s, and the world as I will know it will be as drastically different for me as it is now for my friends in their 80s and 90s today. It is for that reason that my preparation for retirement is to continue my daily piano practice, and approach the instrument and its music seriously (it isn't hard to do at all).

I imagine that when fiscal retirement comes, I will be one of the few people around to have a pension without ever working steadily for more than 15 hours a week. I imagine that when I reach the age when I will have to put down the fiddle and bow, I will be a pretty good pianist. I will also probably be able to get along fine without ever developing any kind of virtuosic technique. I will have a built-in excuse: I'll be old. But I'll be happy in my musical company.

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