The first week or two after the end of the spring semester might be my favorite time of each academic year. While it is true that I only teach full time about eight months of the year, those eight months are so packed with activity (60+ hour weeks are not uncommon in November and April particularly) that the 15-30 hours per week I typically work the rest of the year (musicians rarely get days that are completely “off”) seem positively restful.
One of the ways that I have long facilitated productive academic years is by spending a week or two in mid-May organizing. I will spend a fair amount of time during these weeks cleaning, filing, scanning, reading, thinking, and planning so that when school starts again in August I am able to allow those plans to work themselves out with only minimal retooling and redirecting along the way. Among the casualties of the frenetic activities of the fall and spring are the cleanliness and orderliness of my offices both at home and at the university; as I write now I sit in a half-cleaned office that seems to long as much as I do for the coming return to order and balance. The time spent cleaning and filing gives me time to think and formulate plans for future teaching, practicing, performing, and writing, and I relish the time to do simple work that allows me to be alone with my thoughts for a bit.
While taking a short break from cleaning today I received the regular weekly email with a few selected articles from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Those familiar with ISI will gather from my being on their email list (in the unlikely event that they have not already reached this conclusion) that I am, unlike many of my faculty colleagues, a man who identifies with the political and cultural Right. ISI is, to my reading, more politically conservative than distinctly Christian, though there is a vague, more or less Roman Catholic element to its ethos. In any case, the articles in these weekly emails often exhort readers, particularly those pursuing lives of teaching and scholarship, to return to older ways of thinking, teaching, being, and doing.
The article that I found most compelling this week is entitled “Redefining Leisure,” and in it the author laments that modern Americans structure their lives around overwork, followed by wasting their dwindling leisure time in mindlessness. In contrast, she exalts “low art” and crafts-type hobbies as desirable forms of leisure, activities that “instill virtue and discipline, humility and wonder,” activities which through their repetitive nature provide opportunity for deep thought and reflection while creating simple beauty that edifies and fulfills the craftsman and others. She even suggests that “high art” cannot well exist and thrive in a society without a foundation of thoughtful craftsmen and artisans.
I can’t say that I really enjoy cleaning and filing and organizing, but I do enjoy having time to think, and that is my favorite aspect of this time of year. Applying this to my musical career throughout the year, maybe this is part of why I cling to the Remingtonian idea of a daily routine. That time of repetitive, daily fundamentals practice not only enables me to maintain my performing skills but also allows me to be alone with my thoughts as I play the same long tones, lip slurs, and scale studies as the day before. Sure, I’m listening and evaluating and fixing playing issues, but there’s still plenty of time for contemplation in there. Interestingly, with each passing year I spend less time listening to music for leisure. That might seem unfortunate, but with music making occupying the largest portion of most days for me, the return to silence (or perhaps a quiet news broadcast, sermon, audiobook, or podcast) is most inviting, and maybe even necessary.
Reading between the lines of the aforementioned article just a bit, what the author is suggesting is the forsaking of franticness in both work and leisure. Instead of overworking and then collapsing into mindlessness, she encourages a measured pace and thoughtful pursuits both in our vocations and avocations. I’m not sure our modern workplaces and schedules will permit this, but it is a lovely thought. Come to think of it, didn’t the psalmist give a similar exhortation three millennia or so ago?
Be still, and know that I am God…. (Psalm 46:10)