Back when I was in high school, I pretty much thought there were two paths you could take in life.

One was to be a Professional Orchestral Musician. That was called “success” or “making it.”

The other was to do Something Else. That meant getting to explore a wide range of interests, but it also meant never being musically satisfied, ever again.

Let me say right away that this is a false dichotomy, and one that I was caught in because I had such a narrow musical culture. It would take years for me to realize this, and in truth I’m still trying to figure out the implications of it all.

Suffice to say that at the Boxwood Festival and Workshop, I wanted to help our Boxwood Teens avoid the trap that I had been caught in when I was their age. I realized that our adult participants hailed from a wide range of professions, and yet they all kept music as an important part of their lives. So we invited adult participants to eat lunch with us and share their career paths.

Now, adult Boxwood folks are a group marked by both generosity and humility. Time and time again I got the same response: “I’d love to, but I don’t know if I have any real insight. I don’t really fit the story that you have to Choose Your Path and Follow It To Be Successful the way my career counselor in high school said you were supposed to. I kind of fell into a series of experiences that led me to where I am today.”

To which I said: perfect.

pathfinding lunchSo we had lunch with librarians, I/T professionals, photographers and professors. They told us about how they found their way to where they are today. They gave advice based not only on their experiences, but also their ability to listen to the questions behind teens’ questions. We thought about the difference between freelancing and working in a large organization, the risk involved in making any kind of choice, and the ways music helped our other careers and vice versa.

And we did have a day with two professional musicians, one an orchestral violinist and the other a fiddler. They gave the kind of advice that blended the realities of the field with their appreciation for the opportunity to spend their lives in music. It was completely different from the usual advice that happens in this situation (“don’t go into music unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else”). Instead, they were focused on broader themes. It was as though they were saying, “Of course music is a part of who you are, and it will be that way forever, no matter what you do. The question before you is whether one of the paths we’ve taken is going to be the one that will let you express your musical self in its fullest way.” This message was inherently empowering, showing the teens that they could make their choices freely, all the while not denying the ambiguities of life.

thank you note

There was a Part II to the pathfinding lunch: we wrote thank-you notes afterwards. I am on a bit of a crusade to bring back the thank-you note; it seems to have fallen out of fashion, and for no good reason that I can see. So the teens all signed a card and one of them would personally deliver it to the adult at some point that evening.

Because the thank-you note is a bit of a lost art, we did have to talk about what distinguishes the good from the perfunctory. Their messages got longer and more specific as the week went on, and especially after they saw what it meant to the adults when they received their cards.

Personal connections, whether in music or elsewhere in life, are based in genuine sharing. With the teens we talked about how generous the adults were to share their stories with us. And the adults told me how the teens had given something back when they were truly listening to what they were sharing.

And then there was the moment for me to learn that lesson for myself. On the last day of the festival, the Boxwood Teens surprised me with a thank-you card and gift. I opened a card to find paragraphs written to me, filled with inside jokes (“seize the fish!”) and calling forth moments we had shared together. A fish-themed mobile from a Lunenburg artist now hangs in my music studio back home.

I don’t know what on earth I did to deserve any of this. But maybe part of the point is that, in a world where commodity seems to trump connection, sometimes the best gift we can offer each other is to share our paths, even if for a time.