NYT Op-Ed Article

June 3, 2012

I didn’t like it.

School was over and I was sick of it, and I thought it was about time to go to work. I had gone straight from high school to college to graduate school, and I was pretty burned out. I had loved everything I had been doing in school, but as I got further along I became confused.

The paradox of a musical education is that the more sophisticated you become about how it all works, the further away you move from the things normal listeners actually hear. It’s like car mechanics talking about the wiring under the hood — good wiring is essential but cars exist because ordinary people need to get places. So I was feeling isolated from the audience, and itching to get back into the real world, where the real listeners live.

While I was in college I had started producing concerts of weird music and I thought that I might be able to parlay that into a job. I had friends in Cambridge, Mass., so I moved there and found work as an administrative assistant for a nonprofit arts management company, putting on concerts and theatrical events. I thought this would be fun.

And it was fun, for a lot of people in our office. The point of my job, however, was to do the things that would get in the way of all the other people having fun.

I did the books; I reordered supplies; I opened the mail; I photocopied stuff; I went to the bank; I kept the calendar of the fun things all the other people were doing. This was not what I expected, or wanted, when I got the job. I had wanted to meet artists, to help them make their art, to be on site at the events, to help set performances in motion. But instead I was in an office, making copies.

Very quickly I developed a bad attitude. I was surly and uncooperative. The only part of my job that allowed me any individuality was writing thank-you notes to the small-money donors. (The big donors got fancier treatment.) And so I poured all my stifled creativity and much of my unhappiness into those letters. The language and grammar became increasingly formal, almost arcane, until they were twisted into something out of a Henry James novel — dark, hard to follow, pulsing with thinly repressed frustrations. “Madam, My superiors have instructed me to write, the better to acknowledge the kindness of your contribution, and to thank you. And so I do.” I pity the poor donor who gave us $25 and got one of these.

I stuck it out for about six months. During that time something unexpected happened — I started missing graduate school. I missed the focus on composing, on philosophy. I missed being together with the other true believers who worshiped at the same musical shrine.

Most of all I realized what a gift it had been to be off the street. School was a place of great protection, but until that job I hadn’t realized what it was protecting me from. I would sit at work and daydream about all the things I could be doing if I quit and went back to school. So I did.

It turns out that, all these years later, even though I am busy writing music, I am still doing the books, reordering supplies, keeping the calendars, making the copies. Still composing the thank-you notes.

But now it is for my own work, so at least I get to go to the events.