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Redemption, and the Unanswerable Questions It Raises

Day to day last January, I was continuing to basically function at a basic level. I made it to engagements on time, I ate and dressed normally. I thought I was coping. But the six-month accumulation of sleep debt was such a knock-out that I wasn't really even aware of how disabled I was, until I finally got clear and started to recover.

Now, looking back at my journal, I can observe that that was the point where Zoe's sleep cycle began to turn around. She began slowly to sleep more reliably through the night, and even more gradually so did I, and now, three months later, I am beginning to have some perspective on the awfulness of that time.

I arrived at my teaching this Wednesday, for instance, after my normal one-hour drive, and DIDN'T need a ten minute nap in the parking lot before I went into the school. This would have been unthinkable in the wintertime.

My family and I compete most days in an online crossword game, and pre-baby I routinely won. Post-baby and in the winter I ALWAYS trailed by two to three minutes - losing to everyone. Now I am back in the mix - winning some, losing most, but not out of the picture. This is quantifiable stuff.

The performances this year that I felt the worst about, hands down, were the Mendelssohn Scotch Symphony, and the Joseph Schwantner piece we played on our Martin Luther King Day concert. Both concerts were in January, within a week of each other. I could not, for the life of me, articulate the solos in the Mendelssohn, even though I had never struggled with that particular piece of technique before. Honestly, I'd never given a second thought to my naturally fast single tongue until it started to degenerate in December, though I was a basket case about it by the time January rolled around and I couldn't couldn't couldn't play the Scotch Symphony. I got through by putting in an absurd number of slurs - truly never tonguing more than two notes at a time - which I hope the audience didn't notice but my colleagues certainly did and I felt ashamed. The Schwantner piece we played a week later was just totally beyond my ability to count and keep up in. The piece was not that weird or hard, but I didn't have the concentration to make the mixed meters and fast runs happen. I was very aware that I was not making the grade that month, but incapable of pulling it together any more than I did.

This past week, I was called to play with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. The call came in at the last minute, without time for me to really hesitate and talk myself out of it. They needed me to play the Mendelssohn Scotch Symphony and a John Harbison piece full of tricky mixed meter and fast passagework. I dreaded a reprise of my January experiences, but that was not the case. This was a direct and easy way to contrast me on an actual sleep and exercise schedule with me NOT on one, and it turns out that I'm actually fine. As fine as ever. I could play the music, without trouble or difficulty, at a perfectly normal professional level, as if I had never had a tongue problem or a dumbness problem. I received compliments, even, from good musicians who knew what they were hearing. And I didn't need those compliments to feel validated - I know when I am performing competently and when I am not.

I work hard at my craft, and I'm used to being good at things I set my mind to. I feel redeemed at this point - relieved that the problems I was having weren't just in my head and that there was a reason that I was struggling so much and that that is mostly in the past now.

But this experience raises questions, too.

Should I, in fact, have waited longer to return to work? If I'd taken a full year off I would have just been champing at the bit the whole time. I need the oboe, and the stimulation, and the performances, and the deadlines.

At the same time, though, didn't I owe it to my students, colleagues, and employers to wait until I could really give them my best work? On the other hand, when is that? With Zoe at an adorable nine months, am I done being distracted by her and ready to be fully engaged with the oboe as I was before? Obviously not. When she's two, will I be through struggling with this balancing act? I don't think so. Where does my greater responsibility lie?

This issue can't only apply to motherhood. What about other creative projects? Creative people have lots of things going on, and can become consumed with the new at the expense of the old, sometimes. I've seen my husband, the bassoonist/composer/writer/arranger/tech geek Steve Ingle, be up for nights on end when he's inspired - should he call and beg off a gig claiming sleeplessness? Obviously not - that's unprofessional, too.

I've played performances after running hard races or workouts, and while my body feels great my mind can definitely get pretty foggy in the aftermath of an endurance event. Is that unprofessional of me?

Is it enough that we try to do our best every time we appear? Is it OK that sometimes my best is better than at other times?


  1. no sage wisdom, but boy can I relate!


  2. interesting. If you always wait until you are at your best, how often will you be there?


  3. I love that thought, Sara. And what I've written does sound like a prescription for hiding in a cave until the absolute optimum circumstances roll around, which I don't believe in at all - but there's a gray area there, too. What about the person who is trying their hardest but for whatever reason no longer measures up? It's tricky.

  4. I have three children. With the first I went back to oboing when he was about 3 weeks old or some such ridiculous thing. I remember very little of those days, aside from being very, very tired. And yet I loved what I was doing!

    Was I at my best, performance-wise? Doubtful. But the maestro (who was quite the tyrant sort) was okay with my playing, so I think I was managing just fine. I'm sure you are managing as well.

    Hang in there!

  5. Totally answerable. Live your own life. You do not need our validation.
    Whatever you do, you will not be perfect. ever. Why would you want that?
    Please do not take yourself so seriously! You were the oldest child, guess?


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