I teach 2 students who have memory issues. One is a charming retiree who is a formidable visual artist and has what I think of as a “leaky memory”. Every now and again, something will just sort of fall out of her brain, and I’ll have to re-teach whatever it was. These things are usually nuances of technique or other things that people with absolutely no diagnosed brain injuries also struggle with. She is a beginner with a background in piano. The other one is a man who played for 15 years and was in a catastrophic mountain biking accident a few years back. He has major short term memory issues along with some interesting logical and temporal distortion.
It got me thinking about growing up around artists and academics. So many have some affectation like an accent that fades from northern to southern London over the course of a session, a bit of faux-dementia, or the odd repetitive compulsion. Good lord, have I sat next to some head cases in my symphonic experience. One woman I used to run into a lot had the personality of a bulldozer. Her goal was to mulch every cellist in the vicinity with the force of her presence and the volume of her voice to bolster a fragile ego. But that’s just her way, they say. We all know one steely-eyed, caustic violist who cries in the car or the hot headed brass player looking to philander and then self-loathe in the intermission. All of them, working professionals, their quirks a badge of their artistry. It’s just their way. Unquestioned, unmentionable, leaving the rest of us with no such habitudes to make up the less interesting rabble of alleged artists who are alarmingly normal.
Which brings me back to my two students. They are always waiting with a self-deprecating disclaimer when we encounter difficulties due to the shadow of synaptic failure. One of them joked about wearing a sticker that said, “I have a brain injury” so people who heard would know why it sounded so rough. What they don’t realize is that the cello is difficult for everyone, and that the only difference between them and the rest of my clients is that they have a diagnosis as to why. It seems to me that the ones who need the disclaimer are those who are on the other side of the learning process. Certain people should wear a shirt that says, “I play out of tune because practicing takes time away from gazing in the mirror” or a badge that says, “I will be tardy to any gig you hire me for because I have bad time management skills and a penchant for late night strip clubs”. Maybe a hat that says simply, “Overcompensating”. If the obsession with the artifice of personality didn’t affect the way sound recordings turn out, I would have to shrug and let sleeping dogs lie. But it does. I have played too many times in ensembles where egos scream louder than any instrument could ever play, and the discord it creates seeps off of the stage and onto film, ProTools or 2 inch tape.
I think the real artist is the student with a blank spot in the brain making the effort to circumnavigate it, or the scholastic overachiever who has a hard time grasping the nature of a key signature. I think art, at its very essence, is laced with humility and sincerity. And before I come off like I think of myself as some bastion of egoless virtue, I believe that I am so sensitive to this stuff because I have been enveloped by it from time to time. It is easy to get lost in the haze that surrounds art. It is seductive stuff, the movie lots, backstage “talent” credentials and adulation. But in the end, you have to decide that the humility that was with you as a student is key to leading a meaningful life in any form of art. Staying curious and humble is a great way to experience new things, and also has a way of keeping the day-to-day process fresh and full of wonder. And that has to be good for art, as well as the person who sits next to you at rehearsal.