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Mind Matters: Retirement

retirement

Imagine this: for many years you and your students have created many personal memories and memorable musical moments. You have contributed to your profession and felt emotionally enriched and, sometimes, financially rewarded. You have established a home, found a satisfying personal and family life, and planted roots in your community. You have attended and presented at more conferences than you can count. You have valuable friendships with colleagues. It is difficult to imagine a more gratifying career than what you have chosen. Your life has been spent teaching and making music. Now you are in a different place age–wise and experience-wise, and you are moving into a different stage. 

You have decided it is time to retire. Perhaps you have set a date. Perhaps that date is now. 

Undoubtedly, you have done some preliminary, if not concrete, planning. Will you stay in your home and hometown? Will you move to a warmer climate? Will you relocate to live closer to family? Have you decluttered your years of precious memories that decorate your studio walls, bookshelves, tabletops, and closets? Have you thought about what you will feel and be doing the day after you leave your studio and close your door for the last time, when the final academic accolades are over? Have you considered what it may be like to wake up in the morning and not have to rush to meet a deadline, a schedule, a practice session, give an extra lesson, or think about what's for dinner? 

Choosing a career is one of the most important decisions one makes in a lifetime. One spends years studying, practicing, giving performances, gaining experience, collaborating with others, helping students solve musical and often personal problems, serving on committees, and chairing committees. One feels a sense of belonging and purpose. 

Typically we have been defined by others, and often define ourselves, by what we do. How many times have you met someone for the first time and introduced yourself as "I teach piano at _______, I am performing at ________, My students just ________".? Too often, we do not think about who we are outside of our professional work or why we are working in music in the first place. 

Career choice is a momentous life decision. It defines us in many ways. But at the time of choosing a career (or, in the case of music, having a career choose you), and pursuing it for most of a lifetime, who among us thinks about retirement—the "other" end of the career spectrum? For so many years, it feels like only "others" retire. 

Our musical and psychological selves intersect early in life and grow in tandem over a lifetime. Music teaching is a seductive and an evocative calling. It creeps silently upon the musician over a lifetime, beginning when one starts music lessons as a young child and discovers one can express oneself through the non-verbal medium of music. To play a musical instrument and teach others to do so is a gift to oneself and to one's students. It is work for sure, but teaching and performing music is so much more. Because musicians begin studying an instrument at a young age and gradually realize that they wish to make it their life's work, music becomes part of one's identity. 

I do not believe one can imagine retiring as an early-stage music teacher when one is establishing a class of students and forming a personal identity. Retirement planning, even at mid-career, feels remote. Planning the next studio class or recital, networking, and managing finances all demand energy. Packing boxes to store scores and memorabilia from years of teaching is not part of one's daily routine. Retirement is a theoretical "someday." Yet the retirement process, like all psychological development, begins in the earliest days of teaching. One does not arrive at retirement without creating a legacy for oneself and for the students whom one teaches. 

Retirement, like career choice, is a major life decision. It occurs for various reasons and is not necessarily due to chronological age. Some people never retire. Some choose early retirement. Others pursue different directions, both in and out of music. Some people, due to health, are forced to retire. Others teach into old age. Some, like me, blend two careers instead of retiring from either one. 

I remember when my doctoral dissertation advisor was retiring. We had a very warm and productive relationship for many years. One day, he invited me to come to his home to choose some books from his professional library. I was flattered and honored, but I told him that I hoped his family would own his library. He told me that they had already chosen what they liked, and that he wanted me to have whatever was of interest to me before he donated the rest of his books to the library. 

As a newly minted Ph.D., I could not imagine myself retiring, much less ever getting rid of any books or papers. If you saw my basement today, you would see rafts of my raw data and drafts of my dissertation sitting in boxes, almost thirty years after earning my doctoral degree. It was difficult to identify with what my advisor was going through, and how he would live his life not surrounded by his library. I came to realize that he was offering me more than books, but passing on a continuation of a history and legacy that we had established together. It is important for teachers, at all stages in their careers, to find mentors and to be mentors for others. Retirement crystallizes this realization. 

The poignancy of retirement brings into sharp focus the unending circle that represents the power of the teacher/student relationship. Cherishing books that belonged to my advisor was one way to keep him with me as I launched my own work, which to this day reflects his influence. The lesson of his generosity has been imprinted emotionally as well as the lesson about sharing with another generation, letting go, and moving on. 

Interestingly, one may retire from an occupation, but one never retires from being a musician. Retirement is a time of serious reflection upon one's life and accomplishments as well as fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams. It represents a future that is yet unknown. The stereotype of a retiree lounging carefree on the beach or couch has long been outdated. Retirement is a time of both interesting potential for creativity and for the realization of life's limitations. The routine and predictability that define the formal work years become a different window of opportunity. Music teachers can take pride in revisiting their achievements, which include giving to others and receiving pleasure through music. 

Retirement, like graduation, is both an ending and beginning. This new stage (literally and figuratively) in life offers music teachers the chance to take stock of where they have been, but it also helps them make new plans for where they will be going. To any retirees reading this column, Bon Voyage! 


This column is dedicated to my husband, Louis Nagel, now Professor Emeritus, who retired this year from The University of Michigan School of Music after 47 distinguished years teaching piano, piano literature, and giving concerts.

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