Arranging a Tune, Arranging a life

I had the good fortune take a workshop on arranging traditional tunes with Janet Harbison at the Southeastern Harp Weekend in October 2008. I was so thrilled by being able to do harp things at the end of the 90 minute workshop that I couldn’t do when she started the class, that the following summer I attended Janet’s adults only SummerSchool at the Irish Harp Centre in Castleconnell, County Limerick, Ireland.

In both settings, Janet stressed that harpers do not need to learn to play other musicians’ arrangements of traditional tunes. Instead, if first one thoroughly learns the melody, then the spirit of the tune, along with the notes, can become part of one’s repertoire. Then accompaniment can be added, starting at whatever level of simplicity fits with one’s skills at that moment. By absorbing the spirit of the tune and then by doing one’s own arrangements, one can play beautiful and heartfelt renditions of traditional tunes, in a way that fits comfortably within one’s skill level.

And so, our adventures with arranging started with learning the melody. When the tune was completely and comfortably in our fingers, we added simple one-note left hand drones. Once comfortable with single notes, our left hands ventured into playing root position triads.  Once comfortable with the triads, we could vary how we played them. Each new left hand idea built on the previous one. Each new step was taken only when the first pattern was completely comfortable and automatic. Janet called this process “dressing a tune,” and instructed us that a harper will dress and re-dress a tune many times, as one’s skills at the harp develop and evolve. But through this process of dressing the tune, of creating one’s own arrangement, the tune becomes one’s own.

I find myself remembering Janet’s phrase, “dressing and re-dressing a tune,” as I near my retirement date. Now barely two weeks away, the approach of my last day at work is surprising me with new anxiety. I keep trying to reframe this anxiety, keep telling myself that anxiety is one way I am recognizing the impact and importance of this milestone and this change in my life.

The bottom line is, I’m still gobsmacked that I am going to retire in two weeks. Growing up during the era of nuclear bomb testing, fallout shelters, the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War with its lurking Communist menace, and then the Vietnam War, I never really envisioned retirement as a truly possible event somewhere in my future. I’m still amazed daily that both I and the planet survived long enough for me to retire. And while I did hedge my bets on my certainty of planetary destruction by contributing to a retirement savings account, I never had a vision of what my retirement would be, what it could look like.

But today I am realizing that retirement means I can quit living my life by playing someone else’s arrangement, and I now can create my own. I can figure out how my life will be different when I am not squeezing everyone and everything I love into the little time that’s available after working 40 hours each week. I can consider and decide what I want the next hopefully many years of my life to be, to look like, to contain.

What do I want to experience? What do I want to learn? What do I want to accomplish?What do I want to contribute? What is the best possible use of my time? How do I want myself and my life to be different from today and from the years of my working life? Who and what do I want to invite into this new life I am embarking on? This is not the kind of retirement planning that financial advisors seem to advocate. But for me, it may be the only retirement planning that truly matters.

And so, today I am finding comfort in Janet’s words about dressing and re-dressing a tune. Just as with the tunes we arranged, my vision for retirement, for my life, does not have to be the ONE decision that I cling to forever. I can re-dress my life as often as I can re-dress a tune. I can add in more elements, more complexity, as I am ready. The arrangement can change. For now, all I need is to create a vision for a few essential elements: How do I want to wake up in the morning? What do I want my day to include? What do I want to cook and eat? When will I practice? How will I spend time with people I love?

This much I know: I want a morning that starts with coffee, breakfast and reading the morning paper. Then a walk with my dog, and harp practice. Not such a different selection of activities than in my mornings now.  Only instead of starting at 5 am and walking the dog by flashlight, so I can fit in an hour of practice and still get to work by 8, now there is the possibility of a more leisurely awakening, of waiting for the sun to come up before walking, of taking time to explore a tune on my harp and see what choices to dress the tune I like the most. For today, that vision will be enough, I hope.

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