In which life is not like a piano playing competition

This blog post is brought to you from a cold day in Devon, at the turning of the year. I hope it’s warmer wherever you are. I am flipping chilly. Perhaps the chilliness of my fingers is causing a certain chilliness of the soul, thus prompting me to get mad about stuff. Anyway, I present to you: my final rant of 2014. Happy New Year!

This post was prompted by an article in the Guardian shortly before Christmas, in which various representatives of professional bodies bemoaned a terbil falling-off in the number of sons and daughters of this ruined empire learning to play Mozart sonatas on the pianoforte. In particular, the chair of the British Federation of Narked Piano Teachers is apparently most put out that there are not enough children in the lanes and shires of this great land squaring up to a baby grand on the regs and being all like ‘C’mon, Wolfgang Amadeus, let’s be having you’. Those who are engaging in the Great British Arpeggio-off are all too often, she complained, doing so on electric keyboards, which will not do at all. Most significantly, she informed the Grauniad, parents are leaving it far too late to sit their darlings down at the pianner with a book of ‘My First Godawfully Difficult Arrangements of Nursery Rhymes’ and threats of naptime sanctions. Many children don’t start learning, she said, until they are seven or eight: far too late to compete with children from the Far East, where they play piano good and know how to do other stuff good too.

[pause so you and I can just headbutt furniture for a bit]

I wish, I really wish, discussions about education didn’t devolve so frequently into hair-rending over how we can’t compete with China! We can’t compete with China! We can’t compete with these generalising and racist ideas we have about Chinese kids where they’re never seen as individuals but as a terrible superhumanly-skilled threat to – what, exactly? To us ‘being the best’ at something that’s never really quite defined? Is this about the death of empire again? Is this about missing ‘being the best’ at subjugating and enslaving people at various corners of the globe? Because it sure as hell isn’t about playing the piano.

Going ‘we have to compete with China!’, slapping ourselves and them into an implied league table of Good Pianner Playing, is scaremongering; and it’s also missing the point entirely. Appealing to xenophobic competitiveness in this way is basically a way of manufacturing a motive: why learn piano? to beat the Chinese! to be the best, considered via the terms of value of international renown! There’s no acknowledgement that there might be value to this endeavour outside of this closed circle – playing piano is something you do in order to be a virtuoso, not for anything else.

I had a big rant about this with my dad’s partner, who’s an English educator who also plays the piano very well, having started when she was about eight upon managing to acquire a relative’s old piano. She plays the piano because she loves to play the piano. It is a thing that she does that makes her happy (and makes people around her happy, too). There are complicated things that go into and come out of any playing of the piano, and a hell of a lot of them have nothing whatsoever to do with virtuosity and its values. Is it necessary, always, to make things about being the best, about being a virtuoso?

This kind of guff is not confined to the ol’ Joanna. It can sometimes seem that, whatever sparks your interest, you really should have started it ages ago, you know. Here’s a partial list of topics I’ve encountered people saying this sort of thing about:

  • Various musical instruments.
  • Foreign/dead languages.
  • Dance.
  • Football.
  • Skiing.
  • Horse riding.
  • Cycling.
  • Coding.

I’m not saying that the people who tried to teach me these things said this – by and large they didn’t in the slightest – or that my lack of skill in them is not, at base, due to my own abilities and interests and laziness. But ‘get ’em when they’re young’ is so engrained into the discourse surrounding these sorts of things that it can be very offputting; it can feel that you’re already starting on the back foot. Should have started earlier. I’ll never speak French like a native now. That chance is long gone, like my youth.

Did we learn nothing from Beverley Knight? Shoulda woulda coulda are the last words of a fool!

If we treat education – in anything, from geometry to gardening – as something that only has a very narrow range of valid outputs, we have a problem. Some people take up gardening, and love it, and are competitive about it, and compete in the Chelsea Flower Show, and that’s brilliant. Some people take up gardening, and love it, and tend wonderful gardens that bring them joy. Some people start community gardens. Some people breed new kinds of roses. Some people become botanists. Some people write books about gardening, or contribute to helpful gardening communities online, and some people go to National Trust gardens and look at the borders and dream. All of these things are valid and wonderful and infinitely changeable and combinable, and damn anyone who goes ‘You really should have taken a proper horticulture course after your GCSEs, you know. It’s too late to do anything about that now’.

I’m reminded of turning up at university as an undergrad and thinking ‘Yeah! I’ll do some extracurricular activities!’ and finding – it felt, at least – like everything was about achievement: you played sports to get Blues, you directed plays to get a start in the theatre world, you wrote for the student papers because you were damn well going to be an award-winning journalist. The outcomes weren’t, of course, as singular as that, and I don’t want to be disrespectful to the people for whom that was the case – they are hugely talented and driven and awesome, and well done to them. But it felt – to my unseasoned, imposter-syndromey eyes at least – like there was little room for trying things out, for doing them for fun and curiosity.

And that brings me (cough. ahem) to 2014, and the profession I’m currently engaged in. I love academia. I quite possibly love it more right now than I ever have done: I’m working with ace, inspiring people, on things that are 100% up my intellectual street (I keep pausing in my proofreading to go ‘ahhhhh this is so cool! Listen to this!’ to my long-suffering officemates. That’s how much I like it). But dang me if there isn’t a lot of shoulda woulda coulda in academia, and dang me if that hasn’t been a trouble for me this year. 2014 has had, er, its challenges (please imagine me dancing through the Land of Euphemism in shoes made of Decorous Lies, there). What didn’t help – what never helps – is the feeling of belatedness that professions that rely on self-direction tend to foster. I’ve felt, at times, like I slipped, and like all the shoulda woulda couldas, all the stuff I should have done last week or last month or while I was in the womb, stampeded over me like the herd of wildebeest over Mufasa in The Lion King. Sorry for reminding you of that traumatic moment at such a festive time of the year.

For example: I bought a book about ‘surviving your viva’ shortly before, er, my PhD viva. The argument of the book was basically that one should start preparing for the viva before one even starts one’s PhD (I am not even kidding here). One of the first points informed me that if I was reading this a week before my viva date, that was too late.

I mean, when the hell else would you start reading a book about vivas? It’s not exactly a fun read. ‘Ooh, when you’ve finished Game of Thrones, you must start reading That Dumb Viva Book! It’s so thrilling, I couldn’t put it down!’

The author of said viva book is pretty savvy, though. They know their market. Academia is a goddamn guilt industry. Ask any academic of your acquaintance how work is going, and count the number of things they say that have to do and that they feel bad about not having done yet. This isn’t just the province of PhD students and early career researchers, reading THE articles about whether or not we’ve done enough publishing/teaching/black magic to succeed in today’s competitive job market: it’s the lecturers and the professors and the professors emeritus, juggling teaching and supervision and admin and writing books and editing collections and organising conferences and sitting on the university development committee and lord knows what else. ‘I should have done this review. I should have typed up these minutes. I should have read this thesis I’m examining already, oh god I don’t want to rush it’.

Having a lot to do is, um, common to pretty much every job. And so is stressing over it. But it does frustrate me how at times the discourse around academia, and especially early academia, is so fixated on belatedness, and so fixed on a particular end result. The perfect academic always eludes us, no matter how much we chase it: I’m not sure I can ever be all the things that the THE tells me I need to be. And, frankly, you can exhaust yourself trying to do this – not just publishing lots or whatever (this is a pretty good thing, tbh) but self-censoring, never talking about problems, because you’re afraid of being seen as less than the perfect academic automaton. The pressure to do that is great; it’s a cultural pressure rather than one coming from specific people and places, but it’s there.

I quite desperately want to believe that this isn’t the only way to do academia. Firstly, that there’s other avenues for people with scholarly experience outside the academy – they are most certainly there, and I know wonderful people who are engaged in them, and it frustrates me how little lip-service is paid to them while people are doing PhDs and MAs. Secondly, and more personally to me right now, I desperately want to believe that I can be an imperfect scholar, my imperfect self, and can make jokes and talk about my problems, and learn enough French to use it in my work and in my life even though I came to it late. And pick myself up even when I trip.

That’s my new years’ resolution, I think. More Beverley Knight, less stressing over whether I should have done things earlier, or more quickly, or entirely differently, in the past.

(I have nothing much more to add to this, and can’t think of any pictures to draw, so here is some meme-ing that was inspired by my current work and illustrates my highly professional attitude to everything)

John Doge

John Doge