Midlife and the Artist’s Soul

I saw this fantastic documentary tonight: Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened. Lonny Price, who was in the original cast, directs the story of the Broadway premiere of “Merrily We Roll Along” in 1981. The show flopped and closed after 16 performances. The documentary uses film footage from the casting and rehearsal periods in 1980-1981, along with many interviews with the cast, Stephen Sondheim, and Hal Prince. It was a very interesting and moving film.

This film struck a special chord in me because the people in that cast are my age. Hearing their stories about the excitement of being in a Sondheim show, most of them on Broadway for the first time, and then learning where they have gone since, was emotional.

When I was a very young child, I was interested in show business and I wanted to be an actor or a stand-up comic. As my teens went on, I became focused on classical instrumental music. From my mid-teens until about 10 years later, my goal was to get some kind of graduate degree in flute, an orchestra job, and a college or conservatory teaching job.

Then, in the middle of my master’s degree, with a teaching assistantship, I saw that academia was not a paradise, but rather full of compromises and politics that disillusioned me. My second year of my master’s I took a course called “Seminar in Ethnomusicology” that woke me up to the ways that people outside of the Western classical tradition learn and perform music, and I was suddenly perplexed about my allegiance to the conservatory model of doing music. Why did I think this was my path? What were other possibilities? Why did I feel anxious all the time doing this “thing I love”? Did I enjoy or feel right pursuing this anymore?

After grad school, I decided to try some new things to get the joy back in my musical life. I took long breaks from the flute during which I developed a rather high proficiency on the bass and the viola. The bass in particular was fun, but I was still stuck in thinking that I needed to play in an orchestra. Slowly it dawned on me that I didn’t like playing in orchestras no matter what the instrument! I’m not cut out for the regimentation of it. I also fell in love a couple of times, had my heart broken, and learned about adult financial survival, among many other things. Music was a therapy for me during the difficult times, but it was iffy as a career, which was frustrating because I thought it “should” be my career.

I was playing viola in a pit for “Peter Pan” and looked around at all the middle-aged folks sawing and blowing away on their instruments for peanuts, then looked up at the stage, and said “I’d rather be up there”. I had not been in a musical since high school, and had abandoned voice lessons (disaster!) in college, but I was determined to try again. I wanted to feel excited about performing again, and I was more open about how to do it than ever before. A couple of community theatre productions later, and with voice lessons with a good teacher, I got my enthusiasm back. Developing my singing was the best thing ever for my soul and it still fascinates me. Helping others to find and grow their unique voices is a wonderful vocation to go with my own joy in singing.

Still, seeing a film like I saw tonight stirs up feelings about hope, inspiration, and aspirations that can be upsetting. How much of what we do is an unsatisfactory compromise compared to what we hoped for? Are dreams worth the trouble?

Jason Alexander’s first Broadway show was “Merrily We Roll Along” and he is prominent in the documentary. He said that often he remembers the line from Pippin where someone is commenting on a war and says “I thought there would be more plumes.”  He says that he thinks about that in relation to his career. Perhaps when we are young, we think everything will be amazing and perfect and ever-inspirational. Then with the years come challenges and changes in our outlook. Often, we don’t get to our Promised Land, or we get there and are disappointed.

Maybe if I had kept moving in a certain direction, I would have achieved more. Maybe I’d have higher status, or have had more amazing high-level performing experiences. Or maybe the best is yet to come. I know that at this age, I no longer judge people who haven’t “made it”. The definition of success for a life is a very personal one. Being a “successful” artist isn’t necessarily better than being a fine teacher or mother or librarian or soldier. How stupidly presumptuous I was in youth!

It is harder than hell to keep going sometimes, but doing it anyway is what maturity is about. If you value love and beauty, and can add those things to the world a little or a lot, you are doing fine in my book.

3 thoughts to “Midlife and the Artist’s Soul”

  1. What a beautiful meditation on what it means to be an artist and success. It raises so many questions. Please keep writing about this. You are asking what is at the heart of a meaningful life, versus what is the fantasy. I love that your touchstone has been joy–where is the joy? I love that you found singing as a way to pursue joy.

    1. Thank you, Jennifer. At some point even us heathens have to take something on faith, and I choose to believe that joy is an operating principle for living.

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