You can have anything you want, just not everything you want

This past week, I seriously considered buying a digital piano. Perhaps it’s because I love Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Arabesque and thought maybe, just maybe, I could learn how to play them someday. I played piano many years ago, so I wouldn’t be going in cold. I even found a piano to buy and cleared a space for it.

Luckily, good sense prevailed. I barely touch the keyboard I currently have except to work out music theory stuff. Playing Debussy? Fat chance, especially when classical guitar occupies all of the time and brain space I’ve allocated to music study. Even my ukulele is an afterthought these days.

And that doesn’t change the other things I already have on my plate. I want to spend more time writing again. I need to get back in shape. I’ve hardly knitted this year, which is unusual for me. Friends and family deserve my attention too.

I’d written before about trade-offs when deciding how we want to spend our time. It was relatively easy to drop my volunteer commitments because I didn’t care about them as much as practicing guitar. But prioritizing also requires ranking, and possibly cutting, things you like. The harsh truth is that as long as we can’t clone ourselves, we have to pick one activity over another for any given chunk of time. Prioritizing and choosing among things that are important to us is uncomfortable, but it’s unavoidable. I’ve observed people who try to avoid this truth and they’re always spinning in circles, rushing around, and wondering why they can’t make headway on the things they say they want to accomplish.

When I asked myself what I’d be willing to drop to fit piano practice into my life, the answer was “Nothing.”

So piano is off the table for good. A nice side effect is I can set aside that money to upgrade my classical guitar. Based on input from my teacher, that may end up happening sooner than I planned. If I still want to play Debussy in the far-off future, there are always guitar arrangements.

Time and trade-offs

This week, I quit my last ongoing volunteer committment and I feel so much lighter.

Volunteering is encouraged in our society, but I seem to lack the personality trait that makes for a happy volunteer. I’ve also noticed that when you give your time away, people don’t value it. I guess it’s human nature not to value things you get for free. Realizing that made my decision to quit volunteering a lot easier.

I especially don’t like groups who use social pressure and guilt to squeeze more work out of people. I resent that kind of manipulation, especially when the group is disorganized and wouldn’t need to ask so much from its volunteers if it were run more efficiently.

These days, I’m much more aware that saying “yes” to something necessarily means saying “no” to a lot of other things (for more thoughts on this, check out Scott Young’s post here). I now reflexively say, “Let me think about that” when I’m asked to do something. This is a big improvement from my old people-pleasing ways. I now ask “Would I rather do this or that?’ to consider what I’ll give up if I say “yes” to something. Even something as seemingly small as two hours volunteering at the library means giving up two hours of music practice, spending time with my family, writing, working out, loafing, reading or whatever else I might rather do. Explicitly asking myself how I want to spend my time forces me to make a real choice instead of saying “yes” by default.

The only volunteer activity I’ve kept is writing for Postcards to Voters, which is a fantastic organization that allows me to commit as much or as little time as I want with zero pressure and on my own terms. They really seem to understand that volunteers are providing a gift and appreciate any effort, no matter how small. They are also constantly improving their own processes (there’s that deliberate practice again!), which makes me respect them even more.

As much as we don’t like to think about it, our time on earth is finite. Others will gladly seize control of your time, energy, and attention for their own purposes if you let them. Don’t let them.


I recently watched They Came to Play, a documentary about the Cliburn International Amateur Piano Competition. Contestants must be over 35 years old and NOT professional musicians (i.e., they don’t derive their main source of income from playing or teaching piano). Pianists from all over the world submit a CD and the top 75 are invited to Texas to compete.

What struck me was the sheer level of dedication among the contestants. Among the pianists featured in the film are a retired tennis coach, an eye doctor, a manager at Lockheed Martin, a lawyer, a church musician, a dental assistant, and an AIDS survivor. All of them are highly accomplished musicians who happen to have day jobs. I doubt anyone listening to them would think they are unskilled simply because they’re not professional concert pianists.

The word “amateur” has its root in the Latin word amatorem, which means “lover.” The first definition of “amateur” in The American Heritage Dictionary is “a person who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession.” Being an amateur simply means doing something primarily for love rather than money.

But somewhere along the way, “amateur” became a dirty word, especially in the arts. I’ve read so many articles over the years highlighting the differences between professional writers vs. amateur writers. These articles assume that amateurs are unskilled and uncommitted to improving their craft. I suspect many articles about amateur vs. professional musicians are the same way.

Where does this assumption come from? Perhaps it’s because our culture loves to attach a market value to everything. As Austin Kleon noted in Keep Going, we compliment people by telling someone they’re so good at something they love that they could make money at it. But the flip side of that view is that if someone isn’t making money at something, they must not be any good.

In artistic fields, where luck and access to resources are huge factors for commercial success, the push to “be professional” makes little sense to me. Perhaps “be professional” is used as shorthand for “treat your craft seriously,” but if that’s the case, I think we should be clear about that.

Professionals aren’t automatically more committed or “better” (whatever that means) than amateurs. People choose not to make a living from their art for all sorts of reasons, such as lack of opportunities, not wanting the pressure, not wanting the lifestyle, not being marketable at the time, whatever. Denigrating amateurs simply because their art isn’t their job ignores the complexity of the decision and the fact that there isn’t enough market demand for most artists to get paid a living wage, or at all. Amateur artists can be as serious, skilled, and dedicated to improvement as professionals, and we shouldn’t automatically assume they’re dabblers (and if they are, that’s fine too–not everything has to be taken seriously).

If you have a chance, check out They Came to Play (I borrowed it from the library via Hoopla). Be wowed by the featured musicians and then give the amateur artists around you some love. Check out a community theatre production or a community band concert or an open mic night or a self-published book. The level of skill may surprise you.

How my relationship with classical music reminds me of Logan’s Run

When I started studying guitar, I tried to keep classical guitar off the table as a possible next step. But as I explored my options, I kept returning to it. My teacher says that we naturally gravitate toward the musical styles that reflect the qualities we possess. I gravitate toward indie singer-songwriter acoustic guitar, which I embrace. But classical guitar too? Well, that’s more complicated.

Why do I have a complicated relationship with classical music? It isn’t because I don’t love it, because I do. It’s because of the emotions and memories tangled up with it.

Like many immigrant parents, my own parents believed music was a great hobby but a terrible thing to continue beyond high school. I was told I would be an electrical engineer when I was eight. It didn’t matter that I had zero interest in it. “Liberal arts” was practically a swear word in my house, and my dad, who taught at a commuter engineering college, often ranted about the uselessness of liberal arts degrees and even looked down on other types of engineering. It was easy to ignore while I was young, though, because I had more pressing stuff to deal with–surviving school.

Playing music was the one thing that got me through my teen years. It wasn’t easy being a nerdy, non-athletic Chinese kid in an over 99% white Michigan county. Like every good Chinese kid, I played piano. In sixth grade, I started playing clarinet, then switched to bassoon when my hands grew large enough to reach around the instrument. By eighth grade, I made it into the Michigan Youth Symphony. After that came All-State, other honors bands and orchestras, chamber groups, solo and ensemble competitions, and two amazing, intense summers at Interlochen after my junior and senior years in high school.

Meanwhile, as college application season loomed, I tried everything my sixteen-year-old brain knew how to do to go somewhere with a music program. I planned to double major in engineering and music so my parents could get what they wanted and I could get what I wanted. I was accepted at University of Michigan for both schools and even received scholarship money, but it wasn’t enough. My parents refused to fill out financial aid forms, so I couldn’t borrow or get grants to make up the difference. Since I could attend where my dad taught for free (and I even got a merit-based full scholarship at the same place–too bad I couldn’t double-dip and bank that money), that was the only acceptable option for them. It didn’t matter that the college only offered seven majors, four of which were in engineering (the others were architecture, business, and computer science), making it almost impossible to broaden my horizons. To them, college was for job training and nothing more.

So a few weeks after my final summer at Interlochen, I was at a commuter college I didn’t want to be at, majoring in something I didn’t want to study, still living with my parents, and abruptly cut off from the music world. The college I attended had no music groups, no arts or culture, no friends I knew, barely any campus activities, and few social opportunities. We barely even had sports to gather around because the only sports they had were Division III bowling and hockey. Forget about getting a liberal education–only three non-technical classes were required for an engineering degree, and even those were perfunctory because apparently getting engineering students to read something longer than a short story was too much to ask.

I also later learned that when I was a high school senior, a recruiter called my home wanting me to join the Army Band. That would’ve been a sweet deal, continuing my music studies while serving my country and having college paid for. My mom told the recruiter that I had a full scholarship at the commuter college and ended the call without telling me about it. She now admits that she should’ve told me about the opportunity so I could’ve decided for myself. I’m proud I did NOT flip out when I learned this. #maturity

I’m the first one to say there’s a statute of limitations for blaming your parents about things, but I also know how difficult it can be, especially when major life choices (or in my case, non-choices) are involved. I’ve managed to wring the best possible outcomes out of those non-choices, but I’m not going to lie to myself, or to them, and say their decisions were “right” because of those outcomes. They weren’t right because those were never their decisions to make.

Could I have continued studying music despite the obstacles? Of course, and I tried. I even played in the campus orchestra when I was in law school. (Why did I go to law school? To avoid being an engineer.) But a teen/early 20-something in the pre-internet era could do only so much without support. Learned helplessness may have also played a part–there are only so many times you can run into a brick wall before you just decide your life desires don’t matter. Once I started my law career, I lost all hope about continuing to play bassoon and sold it.

I’ve since moved on, but I can’t honestly say I’m over it. Irrational emotions still bubble up when the topic of college arises in conversation. I avoided returning to classical music for many years because it hurt too much. Orchestra concerts are bittersweet when they perform something I’ve played. Parents who actually respect their kids’ choices still push my buttons. I wince when people say college is to learn how to learn (I agree, but unfortunately this wasn’t the view where I attended). Even the phrase “the college experience” sets me on edge because people who believe in its importance don’t seem to recognize how privileged it is. I don’t show any of this outwardly, though. It’s my issue to deal with, alone.

Now that I think about it, it’s kind of like Logan’s Run, where my musical life clock was pushed forward to a premature Last Day. Also, like the youth-obsessed culture in the movie, there’s a pervasive belief in the prodigy-obsessed classical world that it’s impossible for an adult student to reach a high level in music performance. I suppose it’s good I chose guitar because it removes a lot of emotional baggage. Playing in an orchestra or concert band is not a option with guitar, which eliminates a lot of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. With classical guitar, I get to explore new paths while taking advantage of my past experience.

If I seem intense about my music studies now, it’s because I’m racing against time. I don’t want to be patronized and congratulated for “taking up a nice hobby” while being told to “be realistic about my goals.” Music is, and always has been, more than a hobby for me, and I want to see how good I can get. Perhaps someday, like the old man at the end of Logan’s Run, I can demonstrate that there are no limits to what you can become.

Deciding to quit writing fiction

I was going to post some ukulele thoughts today, but other things are on my mind.

The pandemic has forced me to rethink why I write in the first place. I’ve chased the publication dream for 20 years now (16 in fiction) and have had some work published here and there. Over that time a lot has changed, and I’m especially glad that self-publishing is much easier now.

But writing and publishing are two separate things, and I’ve forgotten how to do one without thinking of the other. This isn’t unexpected–if you check out any article, forum, or blog about writing, it invariably focuses more on publishing than writing. Every writing conference I’ve been to has been the same way. Lately, I’ve been side-eyeing the advice that getting an agent or publisher or readers is simply a matter of hard work and good writing (and by the way, the people providing this advice almost always have something to sell to hopeful writers). I suppose it’s nice to think writers have that level of control over what happens with their work, but hope is a poor substitute for reality when making decisions.

A staggering percentage of the population doesn’t even read a book a year, yet at the same time hundreds of new books appear on Amazon each day, adding to the millions already there. Most of them go unnoticed. That’s not anyone’s fault–it’s simply the result of too many writers chasing too few readers. Plus, asking someone to read my stories is a big request. I’m asking them to invest a large chunk of their limited attention on me, and if they do, it’s a solitary experience that’s hard to share with others.

Whenever I’ve played music, on the other hand, the connection is easy and immediate. People don’t have to focus exclusively on my playing–I can be sonic wallpaper and still feel I’ve connected with them in some way. They’re free to give as much or as little attention as they want. With more than one listener, it easily becomes a shared experience among them. I don’t need Amazon or social media to find listeners–I can simply go outside and play in the park. If I want to connect with people via my creative work, music seems far more effective than writing.

There’s also a more personal aspect: my parents. They don’t read much (declining eyesight and language barriers can do that), but they both love music as much as I do. Dad doesn’t play an instrument. Mom plays piano and sings. I can’t connect with them through my writing, but I easily can through music. This is more important to me as I get older.

This isn’t to say that I won’t write fiction or submit stories ever again, but I’m relegating it to “whatever, whenever” status. No plans, no goals, no habit tracking, no imposed schedules or discipline. All that effort properly belongs in my music studies instead. The fact that I’d rather spend two hours practicing a tedious guitar exercise than writing is a sign I can’t ignore.

I deleted my Submittable account and my submission tracking spreadsheet and I already feel so much lighter.

Author Stephen H. Provost sums it up best when he detailed his own reasons for why he quit writing fiction (after having much, much more success than me):

If I come up with a killer story idea that grabs me by the throat and demands to be written, who am I to argue? But I’ll have to feel like it’s worth my while. Right now, it simply isn’t. I’ve got better things to do.