In February of 1979, I joined my first professional orchestra at the age of fifteen. I remember everything about the night of my first concert, and I still have the program as if to prove it really happened. I remember how my 100% polyester tuxedo didn’t fit all that well, and how my giant bow tie was probably more appropriate for those awkward senior prom photographs than for the orchestra’s attire. I remember the feel of backstage, and the names of everyone on stage with me that night. I was joining a great orchestra, one that was composed of my teachers and mentors. I idolized them, and now they were graciously indulging and tolerating me by allowing me to join them. Walking on stage was so exciting that I kept going back off stage, just so I could experience walking on stage again.
I remember that after the concert, there was a temporary bar in the lobby, selling small glasses of wine. I ordered a glass, and of course they questioned my age. But I replied with a huff and an indignation that only a 15-year-old can muster, saying “I’m in the orchestra.” So, with some pretty apparent reluctance, they went ahead and served me. (I am assuming the statute of limitations has expired.)
I stood there that night thinking that absolutely anything was possible, and decades later I remain haunted by that potential.
Do you know what I mean by “the mirage in the road”? It’s that shimmering illusion of water that taunts you on the highway about 25 yards in front of your car on hot humid days. On the coast of North Carolina, the salt air and humidity combine to make the mirage appear especially intense and enticing. I used to get frustrated with my father for not driving fast enough to catch up to the shimmering pool of water. I swore that, when I was older, I would catch the mirage. I could even imagine the splash as I caught up to it, drove through it, and left it behind.
With the arrival of the new year, literally on January 1, I will be fifty years old. I feel as if a threshold has been crossed, and I’m not certain of what lies ahead of me, or for that matter, what lingers behind.
On that first night back in 1979, there was meaning in everything I saw, heard, and touched. Every note of music seemed to mean more than the last. I sensed that a new age of enlightenment was about to ease the world’s burdens. Music, art, poetry, compassion, love, empathy—these seemed to be the most important things. I was surrounding myself with people who all felt the same way and who were eager to live in ways that would allow them to approach expressing the inexpressible.
One of the Flying Wallendas once said: “Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting.”
I want it back. I want to feel again the excitement I felt when I was hearing music for the first time; I want to be a part of an idealistic community that only musicians can truly create as we live and work together, and I want to believe again, with apologies to Keats, that the truth and beauty to which we aspire is still within reach.
As musicians, we invest our lives in the pursuit of beauty, spending our days (and especially our nights) reaching for something we all know is greater than ourselves. It is all the more remarkable that we still believe at all, despite working in a field that is so ugly at times.
In a field that offers the world beauty, peace, solace, inspiration, and communion, the sounds of our instruments and the voices of Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms must work to be heard over a din of destructive negativity, where self-promoting and self-fulfilling advocates of the demise of music engage in meaningless personal attacks, and a handful of divisive and polarizing figures attempt to dictate the future based on the tenets of their failed pasts. But one thing I have learned in life is that what you allow to continue is what will continue, so we must never allow the negative voices to silence us, either as musicians or as citizens of the world.
I have also learned another truth: people always overplay their hands. Those who deal a negative hand will not be heard, will not be remembered, and through the passing of time will be proven to have been on the wrong side of history.
That is not to say though that change is not required; change must be welcomed in all endeavors. And while I am indulgently reflective for the moment, I think we sometimes approach the future while still facing the past. All of our organizations must change, and every facet of our lives must be ready and eager to adapt. Constant change is here to stay, and I’ve recently heard it said that “only a fool trips on what is behind him.”
Answers may be found in the past, but solutions are found in the future.
Life can be a process of learning how to live with disappointment while still allowing yourself to hope. I find my hope in the next generation of musicians, many not yet born when I repeatedly walked on and off stage that first night in 1979. I see and hear in these musicians the same belief that I had then, and there is no part of me that wants to teach them to doubt. I am not at all eager to tell them “how things really are.” Actually, I’m kind of hoping that they will remind me of how things could be. Some of the leaders and musicians I am working with had not even touched a musical instrument when I joined my current orchestra. Yet I do not doubt that they will achieve far greater things, through music and through ICSOM, than I could have dreamt even all those years ago.
In every orchestra I have joined, I was the youngest member for a while. In 2006 I was the youngest person to become ICSOM chair. Such accolades are past me now. As George Carlin said, “You can’t tell time; time tells you.” Still, I want to chase the mirage in the road again and imagine my wheels splashing through the water as I leave all illusions behind—even if my fifty years have tried to convince me that the goals I once set for myself will always remain ahead of me.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.” ―T.S. Eliot
I wish you all a brave New Year.
With love and admiration, Bruce Ridge