Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train

As a frequent patron of Amtrak’s so-called “Northeast Corridor” trains I’ve gotten into quite a few job-related conversations with my seatmates. It’s comparatively rare for people to strike up conversations on the subway; and while chatting up one’s neighbor is not uncommon on flights, there’s something about the commuter-nature of train travel that fosters talking about our professions.

In almost every case, my seatmate has a more conventional 9-5 office job, and I come off as something of an oddity by comparison. Usually I’m very interested in my seatmate’s job as well, but they are invariably so surprised to be talking to a composer that their questions fly at me as fast as I can answer them: How does a composer make a living? How often do you travel? Is your music on the radio? Whereas my seatmate might have an incredibly fascinating occupation, most people have a much better sense of what any office job is like compared to the hilariously niche-y job of “contemporary concert composer.”

Recently I met a consultant whose job involved interpreting the new healthcare law and helping doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies understand the new regulations. When he mentioned some 20th century composers he admired (something that people seem to like to tell 21st century composers, with no intended irony), I thought he might be interested that I had twice stayed at his beloved composer Aaron Copland’s house in Peekskill, NY.

“You composers,” he replied, “Always travelling.” His brow furrowed and he thoughtfully adjusted his bow tie that belied his status as a DC policy wonk. “Just tell me one thing: would you switch places with me?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m really happy doing music; it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. What about you?”

He smiled as if I’d said something terribly stupid. “Would have liked to, but I’m not cut out for it. Not everyone can write symphonies, you know. That takes talent.”

“Not everyone is cut out to do consulting, either!” I responded. “Did you ever give music a try? Did you play an instrument when you were growing up?”

He looked straight at the seat-back ahead of him as if thinking. Then the train slowed down for his stop, and he excused himself rather abruptly without answering the question.

As the train gathered speed, I thought about the now-empty seat and how the individual occupying it was undoubtedly intelligent, driven, curious; he was lacking in nothing but the initiative he mistook for creative “talent”. Had he stayed a moment longer, I might have informed my seatmate that my “talent” for composing (if any) developed after I decided to try, and not before. Is “talent” just a misleading term for the results of where we choose to invest our time?

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One thought on “Strangers on a Train

  1. Ratzo B. Harris

    Strange indeed …
    about twenty years ago I was riding Amtrak from Chicago to New York (I could put my bass in the luggage rack back then). It was a “red-eye” an overnighter, but I rode coach (because I was my own impresario). I got up to get a cup of coffee and the guy working behind the snack bar counter had a huge hand-written score in front of him. I’m sorry to report that I’ve lost his name, but he was looking over his contrabassoon concerto before it got its premier!

    I think this illustrates something that is overlooked in the discussion about “talent” and pursuing a career in music. Without resources, talent usually runs into the brick wall hunger and homelessness. There is another part, fearless determination, that allows talent a more level playing-field in what is often described as a “cruel world.”

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all if your health-care consultant has quite a bit of musical talent that he never explored for the fear of not making it. The dues that so many of us pay to play can be quite steep. But your story illustrates so well what the price is for not paying them. One of my biggest influences as a musician is bassist Leroy Vinnegar, who often said, “Don’t forsake the muse, or the muse will forsake you.”

    Healthy advice.


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