I’m the one in black

Those of you who have been reading this retirement blog for a while may just remember a blog I wrote about a year ago. The topic was my attending a four day jazz summer school. If you haven’t read it or, perish the thought, forgotten it, you may care to refresh your memory. If you do read it you will be surprised, nay, amazed, to read this one which is about the same summer school but a year later. The point being after last year’s effort I swore I would never attend another one, or sentiments to that effect. To say it was a painful experience would be something of an understatement. My exposure to this ‘learning opportunity’ prompted all kinds of soul-searching in these blogs about the fine balance between setting challenges in retirement and damaging, it feels, permanently, one’s self-esteem. Step outside one’s comfort zone occasionally by all means, but do not pitch your tent there on a permanent basis. Sometimes our retirement feels like we’re camping full-time in a war zone but these are stories for another time.

So back to the jazz summer school and my clear-eyed determination never to put myself in harm’s way ever again. And I meant it – until recently and the invite to participate once again. I’m still on the jazz group’s email list so the invitation went out to all, not specifically to me. I wouldn’t want you to think that I’d received a personal invite along the lines of, we can’t do without you, please come. After all, had this been the case then you might have been more easily able to understand why I might succumb to such blandishments. But, no siree, Bob, nothing so fairly sensible. Just the broad invite to all.

So why in the name of all that is jazzy would I think it might be a good idea to go again this year? The best I can offer, by way of explanation / justification, is that for the last year, as the fingers on my left hand have become less and less flexible so making guitar playing increasingly difficult, I’ve turned more to the piano. I’ve even written about attending a weekly evening class on playing jazz piano at the local Leeds College of Music. As a result I’ve improved my technique on the piano quite a bit. To the point, see where I’m going with this, of believing I might play piano at the summer school instead of guitar and, and this is the point, do it rather better than I did with the guitar last year. I hope that makes sense.

It made enough sense to me to sign up again and even to practise a bit beforehand. A rare event for me. I will tell you right now that I was partly correct in my optimism but not, of course, as correct as I would like to have been. It was ever thus. One of the plusses of keeping a daily diary is that I can take out last year’s diary from the pile at the side of our bed and re-read last year’s summary along with the above blog and make a reasonably informed comparison as opposed to a memory-obscured, emotional hazy recollection.

Last year I decided upon four areas against which I would make a judgement about the success or otherwise of the venture. The four areas were – amount of learning taking place; pleasantness of social interaction; level of fun had and how well I rose to the challenge I had set myself. The words are slightly different in last year’s blog but these words are close enough to give you, the reader, the idea. And are still, I think, ‘good’ enough to form the basis of the same analysis this year.

I will remind you that last year’s scores were disappointingly low. Scores out of 10 were 4, 2, 2 and 9. That is, I felt I learned something (4) although this score was blighted by a lack of mixed-ability teaching. Social interaction was poor (2) with the other guitarists and one in particular who became my nemesis and damaged my fragile confidence even further, a lack of confidence and minimal learning took any fun (2) element out of the picture. Only my taking on the challenge and resisting the, sometimes almost overwhelming, urge to say f… this and run out of the room, got a high score and it would have been a 10 had I not wimped out on playing at the Thursday night gig.

This year those same scores were 6, 6, 7 and 8. Let me explain. I learned and understood more this year because of the learning I’d engaged in since the last summer school. There were still some areas that made my brain shake but that’s OK. I mean do you know what a tri-tone substitution is? No, nor did I and I’m still not sure. But that’s OK. I think better players than I struggled with some parts of the workshop. The social side of things was interesting. The same guy (how delighted I was to see him walk through the door) I have written about before was there and I made a decision that I couldn’t allow the same silliness as last year to blight the week. So I told him his guitar-playing had really come (which it had) and that seemed to set a better tone for the rest of our interaction for the week. We were sat next to each other because guitars and piano are part of the rhythm section and so need to be together.

But that’s by the by, our interactions and mine with the rest of the group (one of whom told me I seemed happier this year) were good enough to significantly raise the score in this area. A ‘7’ score for fun follows on from the higher score in the first two areas. If you feel you’re learning more, developing new skills, getting on with people better then there’s obviously more fun to be had. I’ve given myself a point less for the challenge side of things because I probably should have performed at the gig, more so than last year. A bit harsh maybe but it’s only a point.

So that’s a score in total of 27 out of 40 as against last year’s score of 15 out of 40. Just about enough of an improvement to justify my attending again. There’s still quite a lot I’m not happy about both in terms of my own performance and the skills of the tutors  when handling the less talented (that’s me, would it kill you to say something nice?), but hey, positive thinking is always a useful prism through which to view and assess these occasions in our lives. In the context of retirement and the opportunities it presents to step outside our comfort zones, to set challenges and to prove to ourselves that we still have stuff going on in the cognitive arena, I think I made the right decision to go this year and have been, on the whole, rewarded for our courage, if that is the right word?

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