notes on the page

After several retirement blogs about first our Scottish holiday and then, straight into grape picking and all that went with it, it feels like time to reflect on a different aspect of my retirement, namely my jazz piano ambitions. A couple of weeks ago the Guardian colour supplement carried an article entitled, Dive In : Six myths about retirement debunked. It was based on a book by Celia Dodd with the title I wish I’d thought of – Not Fade Away: How to thrive in retirement. Damn that’s a catchy title and she got the book published, something I still aspire to.

Anyway back to the article. The article said quite a few interesting things about retirement and a very brief extract (I may return to the article in a later blog) is that retirement could be a time to find new sources of fulfilment and a time of increased proactivity given that we are freed from the non-negotiable demands of our career.

Of course those of us that have done a bit of thinking about what makes for a ‘successful’ retirement would know this but it bears repeating nonetheless. Fulfilment and increased proactivity (planning for things to happen rather than sitting back and hoping they do) are interesting terms. I’ll leave the retirement proactivity for now.

Fulfilment will come in many different forms for the retired person. For some reason I haven’t quite worked out, my fulfilment seems linked to the setting and meeting of a number of challenges. These challenges seemed designed to replace the challenges that just came hand in hand with my working life. I didn’t really need to set any challenges, they were simply part of the job (of being an educational psychologist working with children with learning and behavioural difficulties in schools). And then, with retirement, they stopped, so yours truly thought it would be a great idea to replace them with some new, self-designed ones.

Regular readers of this blog, and I know there are one or two, will be aware that learning to play jazz has been one of these challenges. I never listened to or played jazz for all of my working life, so it pretty much counts as a retirement challenge. There have been many times when I think I might have set the bar too high with this challenge. I wrote in a recent blog about having given up one jazz group because the pleasure (also known as a sense of achievement) / pain ratio was out of skew. Too much pain and not enough pleasure. Those who worry about my goal-setting in a retirement context will be relieved to hear that, far from giving up jazz altogether and along with it any musical challenges, I have signed up (not literally) to a new group.

It’s actually the same group as the summer school people I’ve written about several times in past blogs. They didn’t have a keyboard player and the invite was there, not exactly being head-hunted but close enough for my battered retired ego. So I went along and the first week could almost have been designed to make me feel at ease. A C minor blues for those who know about these things, my kind of tune and a format that’s relatively easy to sound alright in.

However, life is never entirely straightforward is it? This weekly Monday night group has a different tutor on a fortnightly basis and the second tutor had a very different idea of what we should be playing. To cut the long story short this session was about sight reading, a part of music I haven’t really done since I was learning the piano over 50 years ago. It means looking at the dots on the page (like the one above) and playing them as they are written. Doing it ‘right’ you might say.

So to say I was rusty would have been an under understatement. My retirement keyboard playing thus far has consisted either of comping (playing chords as part of the rhythm section) or soloing / improvising (an activity, in a jazz context, in which you can get away with playing just about any note. If you play a ‘wrong’ note then play it again and people will think you were being creative and meant to do it and may even think you’re clever jazz player). Or maybe not.

So to return to my pleasure / pain reference, this last Monday night was painful but, and here’s the thing, and I need to remind myself of this, I enjoyed it and felt motivated by the experience even though it was painful. And there’s nothing more exposing than being required to play a particular piece even if only a few bars, in front of the group, as it is written, out loud that is. I did my best, poor though it was, and didn’t feel too humiliated as I have sometimes in the past. Why not I pondered on the way home and as I was trying to explain to Mrs Summerhouse the nature of the challenge?

The best answer I could come up with was that the exercise felt ‘right’. What the tutor was teaching us was exactly what I needed, wanted even, to know to be able to improve my soloing. Though the exercises were hard they were what were required for me to improve and I realised this. And also they weren’t impossible, just difficult. I’ve always said in a professional capacity if you want learning to take place the task needs to be set at a level just above what the learner can already do. In addition the targets were clear. I knew what I was supposed to do even if I couldn’t quite do it. This was how Monday night felt.

So three key criteria for learning were in place – relevant, achievable, clear targets – and also an encouraging tutor and a largely supportive group also helped. So as I walked home, yes, the old self-esteem had taken a bit of a battering in my on-going desire to set myself retirement challenges, but it felt OK. The light at the end of the tunnel probably isn’t the on-coming train. Of course I’ll probably regret all this positivity, just asking for trouble and by the time you get to read this I will have attended my third class and my views may have changed. I may have time to include a brief summary of this class, watch this space.

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