Rediscovering the musician’s high on my rare, restorative vacation
“The World is Too Much With Us”
– William Wordsworth
“Why don’t you just play hooky for the day?”
– My mom
If there is a statute of limitations on truancy, I’m pretty sure it’s expired by now so my late mother would be safe. But when I was in elementary school, Mom kept a keen eye out for those times when I was getting overloaded with all the stuff I was being asked to absorb and called a timeout.
She would suggest a day or two of R&R, and when I had calmed down she would write the requisite note to school alluding to an unspecified ailment. Back I went, refreshed and ready again to learn.
This strengthened our mother-daughter bond, making us co-conspirators against the excessive demands of a 12-year-old’s world. Also, it sustained me through the rigours of long division.
Now that I’m a grown-up, there’s nobody there to write that note, excusing me from work. Taking off days at a time feels almost like going AWOL in the military. But as I soldiered on in my demanding career, I knew that I would need a leave this summer.
I decided to ignore, for a while, my vocation as an arts entrepreneur and attend to my avocation as an (inconsistent) amateur pianist.
I had heard about the weeklong Toronto Summer Music Academy for amateur musicians being offered for the first time this year. Preparing for the piano masterclass would compel me to practise at the keyboard regularly – something I hadn’t done in years. It wasn’t as if there would be no pressure. I would have to perform and be critiqued in front of other pianists. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.
I wavered. Is this what you call a vacation? Putting yourself in a situation where failure is a constant concern?
As it happens, the gratification we get from learning and making music is enormous – something equivalent to a “runner’s high.” The pleasure we take in creating something beautiful – even in listening to music that moves us – has a documented physical effect. Endorphins, the “happiness hormones,” are released, flowing us into the “zone” where we become so intensely focused on the moment that we lose track of time and everything else loses importance.
Immersed in perfecting a piece of music, practising one phrase over and over, you can become almost addicted to improvement, surprising yourself as you look back at the distance you have travelled. A young clarinetist friend of mine once told me: “I eat, I sleep and I practise – and I love my life.”
There are so few places in our lives where we can feel totally in control. Practising music is one. Knowing that you’ve worked hard and can reap the fruits of your labour, brings a tremendous sense of well-being.
One of the lecturers in the program, Dr. John Chong, medical director of the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada, spoke about the “cocaine effect” of making music at a peak level.
Why should I have been surprised to learn that most of my fellow participants in the amateur music academy were accomplished professionals from a broad range of fields: tax law, psychotherapy, arbitration, pharmacy, medical research, journalism? Yet our conversations over lunch were almost always about our pieces, our best-loved performers and favourite instruments. We could have called ourselves Music Addicts Anonymous.
So what is it about this addiction that has allowed me to feel I was going on a really restorative vacation? The very fact that it’s so completely absorbing means you forget about your deadlines, your unfinished to-do list and all the people you still have to get back to. I couldn’t believe I felt no compulsion to check my phone to see who still cared about me. Six hours without looking at my phone is a record for me. It was a perfect escape.
I like to come back from a vacation enriched – having learned something I didn’t know before. Our “tour guide,” James Anagnoson, dean of the Glenn Gould School, offered insights that were not only about our playing, but about life. “You are so busy ‘doing’ that you’re not taking the time to listen to yourself,” he would say. This is my story. For years, I hadn’t been listening to the small insistent voice in my head saying: “You need to make more music.”
Did the week change me? That remains to be seen. What has changed is my recognition that the anticipation of this vacation was just as renewing as the week itself. I’m already anticipating next year’s downtown music-making getaway. I have 12 months to experience the “musician’s high” that is the payoff of practising.
I don’t ever want to recover from my need for making music. It fills a deep longing in my soul. And, unlike other addictions, it has a way of loving me back.
Lola Rasminsky lives in Toronto.