I came very close to giving up box this year. For those that know me (or have bothered to read the rest of this blog), that may seem inconceivable. But I did come very close to giving up.
There are a couple of reasons why I lost heart. The most straightforward is that I have reached a standard which, though admittedly relatively high, is proving difficult to improve upon. My playing has plateaued slightly and I feel that I am making much less progress than I have done over the last four or five years. That isn’t a nice place to be, but it isn’t unusual. Whenever you are learning, your progression is never linear. You always progress alternately in leaps, bounds and stagnant period of ill-tempered underachievement. But it wasn’t just that my playing wasn’t improving, it was that my ideas on what I wanted to do on box were moving on and my playing couldn’t keep up. Which isn’t pleasant. And it didn’t help that I was at the same time outgrowing my principle instrument, the Saltarelle (which is as of yet unresolved).
The second thing is that I was bored. Not bored of the instrument, but bored of where and for what purpose I was playing it. Since going up to Cambridge in 2008, most of my playing has been with the Cambridge University Ceilidh Band, which has been an enormously positive force on my development as a player. But after over 80 gigs with them (!), CUCB ceilidhs have rather lost their appeal. I’ve played so many of them that I know exactly what to expect and so I won’t sign up for a gig unless I know that it will be something special. I still love playing for dance and so I’ve tried to seek out other places to play, such as other ceilidh bands, reeling evenings, morris and so on. But what had been my bread and butter musically for four years is no longer something which inspires me.
The third (and most crucial) thing is that for a long time, music was a therapy for me. My box would permanently live out of its case by my desk and every time I was frustrated, unhappy or bored I would take a break by playing it. I played every day. My degree was tough but my box got me through it. But once I’d graduated I was unemployed and I crashed somewhat. Suddenly the box wasn’t a good enough therapy for the apathy that I felt. At university things are relentless, you are surfing the wave the whole way. After university I felt that the wave had landed me in Slough. Not hugely unpleasant, but not where you want to be after years of effort.
That apathy is to a certain extent still with me. I now have a job, and a good one. I work in an office in a nice location with nice people with work that I find interesting. But some spark of motivation, of life has gone out of me and I don’t know how to get it back. The next 45 years stretch in front of me and I am struck by the thought that whatever I do now, those 45 years will still be there.
And so what I have done is not play much music. And that has made things worse. For now when I see my friends develop musically I feel wistful, when I see friends achieve I feel jealous and when I see friends joyful in their music making it makes me sad. I feel like that path is shut to me now and I don’t know how to get it back. But the more time that goes by with me not playing, the wider that divide feels. The more time that goes by, the more difficult I find the idea of playing and the more frustrated I am with my own inability to play and to play well.
I went to a CUCB rehearsal and session last week. It was the second rehearsal and the third session that I’d been to since January I think. I was out of practice; my fingers had forgotten where to go and my bellows control was weak. This made me sad. But the upside to that was that because I didn’t have the energy, enthusiasm or seemingly ability to play the fast tunes that I once loved, I was doing other things. Playing rhythm, riffs, RH chords and harmony, that sort of thing. This was a small consolation prize. The session was much the same, except that the session repertoire (which of course constantly changes) had progressed such that many of the tunes I didn’t know and wasn’t sufficiently on the ball to pick up. I felt very cut off, both from the music and those around me – my friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen in some time. So I left in a melancholy frame of mind.
But I am going back there tonight. And this is the answer to my question in the title of this post. I didn’t give up the melodeon because I remember what a huge part of my life it once fulfilled and how happy it made me. I remember the catharsis of a gig gone well and the adrenalin of a good session. I remember the quiet pleasure in doodling alone and the satisfaction in getting better. I remember this because it wasn’t long ago. And I can get it back. How, I don’t know, but I will try.