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Old and Improved by Joe Mills

I love to make New Year’s resolutions. I love the yearly reset, the cycle of hope, the belief that you can become a better person because you have decided to do so. In this sense, I am a Franklinian. In a famous passage of his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin outlines a plan for self-improvement. He designs a schedule and an accounting system, and you can draw a line from it to every Parade, O Magazine, and pop culture article that promises “10 Ways to the New You” or “5 Steps to Building a Better Butt.”

I too believe in the power of self-improvement plans because, despite my cynical-seeming and gruff manner, I am fundamentally an optimist. I believe people can change for the better, but I also believe that, although we can help one another, the impetus has to come from the individual. (As tempted as I am to come up with New Year’s resolutions for family members, colleagues, neighbors, and, well, almost everyone I know, I’m smart enough to resist. Usually.)

Some years I make long lists of resolutions; once I had as many as fifty (yes, I recognize I may have a problem, especially since I honestly believed that I would achieve them all, and, even now I suspect that if I reviewed that list, I would think, “Oh, I could totally do this!”). I often design complicated schemas, reward systems, quotas, and schedules. This year, however, the list is short – just a half dozen items (although, to be honest, I also have some “supplementary” B-list resolutions. These didn’t end up being the official selections, but they were on the shortlist as I made my final decisions at the end of December, and I’m trying to keep them in mind. Plus, I’m always coming up with new ones, like resolving to cut down on my parenthetical statements).

This year there was a notable absence, a resolution that has always been a perennial inclusion. Phrased in various ways, essentially it has been “Play a musical instrument.” I have no need to make the resolution this year because in 2015 I finally began doing it. Sitting at the piano became a daily practice and a daily pleasure, an example of Franklin’s belief, “Happiness consists more in the small pleasures that occur every day, than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom to a man in the course of his life.”

Yet I do have resolutions concerning my piano playing, and they came to me at a Chicago bar on a night out. This holiday season, I took my sister-in-law and wife to The Green Mill. Although I meant for us to hear a jazz vocalist and pianist, I misread the calendar, and we ended up seeing a band called Swing Gitan fronted by an amazing “gypsy” jazz guitarist, Alfonso Ponticelli.

We stayed for all three sets, and I was mesmerized. The musicians were so accomplished there was never a thought of “I want to play like them”; nevertheless, they were inspiring. Two of them – Johnny Bany – who played the upright bass – and Alex Udvary – who played the Cimbalom (a Hungarian string instrument struck with mallets) — were old. If they weren’t grand-fathers, or even great grand-fathers, they certainly could have been. Yet these men in their seventies or eighties played fiercely and beautifully. Gypsy swing is an intense, physical music. It requires a great deal of athleticism on the part of the players. I was exhausted just watching while they, as befitted jazz musicians, were models of aplomb.

Afterwards, I made one of my “official” six resolutions: “Go out more. See more unknown (to me) performers and art works.” I also was struck how they loved the 1930s music they were playing, and how they clearly had been engaging with some of the songs for decades. Although I appreciate the lessons in my piano books, I don’t love the pieces. Many I don’t even like, and I end up skipping. They are there to teach certain techniques, but they give me no pleasure. So, in 2016, I’m going to find more songs that I want to play regularly, ones with which I want to have an extended relationship. Because I may be doing this for a while.

I often have bemoaned that I wasted my teens. When I could have spent all that time learning to master guitar or some instrument, instead I devoted hours to Gilligan’s Island, The Partridge Family and The Monkees. I was watching TV shows about musicians, instead of becoming one. But it may not be too late. I may still have years to learn and play. Earlier I called those band musicians “old,” but that’s not true. They are younger than many in my generation. As Franklin said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”


Joe Mills

Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published five collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition). A new book of poetry is coming out in April: Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

Read Previous Columns by Joe Mills

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