Monthly Archives: November 2013

Total Perspective Vortex

The Total Perspective Vortex is a concept from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams.  It is a device that shows a hapless soul the infinitely vast universe and exactly how infinitesimally insignificant they are in it.  In the novel, it’s used as a form of capital punishment, as no one (well, almost no one) has any semblance of sanity once they are exposed to it.

The total perspective vortex I want to talk about though is basically the opposite, despite the fact that I still find myself reeling from its effects.  Allow me to elucidate.

Last week I had a sudden flashback to Fall 2011, when I went to the Tritone to see a band called the West Philadelphia Orchestra for the first time.  For the past year or so I had been hearing amazing things about this Balkan brass band, and I finally made the time to check them out (damn 9-5 job!).  I arrived early to scope the place out, and the band was slowly trickling in.  I only knew one member of the band from a gig I had played with him about a year earlier, so when he came in I said hi and reintroduced myself.  Just about everyone else was a stranger.

I only stayed for one set, but it was an incredible experience.  Their sousaphone player was a powerhouse, and the music itself was challenging, infectious, and fun.  I lamented that I could only stay for one set, and also that they already had a killer sousaphonist, so my services wouldn’t be needed.

Flash forward to last week.  On Wednesday, I got a call from Larry, one of the baritone horn players in the band, asking if I’d like to play with them on Friday.  Of course, Jimmy, the sousaphone player would be on the gig, so I’d be playing as one of the three baritone horns.  When the night arrived, several members of the horn section joked that since baritone was the third instrument I had learned the music on (after sousaphone and accordion), maybe I’d like to learn their parts and sub for them.

Clearly, what a difference 2 years make.  I had first started subbing on sousaphone in rehearsals and a few shows.  Then I filled in on accordion when a few players couldn’t make it.  Finally last week, I broke out the baritone and started learning those parts.  Along the way, I got to be a part of this amazing group of musicians.  In fact, my band Polkadelphia is made up of several members of this group.  And hey, they’re all really nice people too (except for this one guy named Duffy…).

Unfortunately, that’s not the total perspective vortex I’m referring to.

Last Tuesday I had just finished a rehearsal with the group, playing baritone for the first time.  As I was driving home, all I could think about was how I was not playing the parts well enough, and how much I needed to practice and improve.

Tuba Perspective Vortex

Tuba Perspective Vortex

Let’s back it up and look at the whole thing again.

2 years ago, I knew nobody and was playing zero shows with them.

2 years later, I know everybody, and am playing consistently with the group.

And all I can think about is how I’m not playing well enough?

I think we found our total perspective vortex.

I know this is a bad habit of mine.  For years I was consistently dissatisfied with my tuba playing, ripping myself apart after each show.  It really didn’t matter what anyone else said or the kinds of praise I was receiving, I was not living up to my own standards.  Even though I was getting consistent work, it didn’t seem to matter.

Interestingly, I found this as a theme in other areas of my life.  When I first started working as a software trainer, I was sure I wasn’t good.  I dreaded standing up in front of the class every day, sure somebody would call my bluff and reveal that I was a fraud.  About 6 months in I won an award for my teaching, and it wasn’t until that point I started to lighten up on myself.  Started to anyway.

Around the time I started treating my depression, about 9 years ago, I began to be able to find joy and beauty in the music I was playing.  I can’t begin to express the feeling of hearing myself and finally liking what I heard, after so long.  Since that time I’ve had relapses and recoveries.  It could just be that I’m in need of another recovery at this point.

But how do I do that? I mean, it’s clear that I recognize my perspective is skewed.  How do I snap out of the negativity?

Well, acknowledging it and putting it out into the world can help.  Thank you blog!  Sometimes just hanging your fears out to dry in the sun can take away the that mildewy lack of perspective.  Or as Nintendo has taught me:

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.

Beyond that, gathering perspective can be a useful tool.  Someone recently told me that as I am climbing this ascent to new and fantastic parts of my life, not to just focus on the peak ahead.  Sometimes it’s important to also look back at the paths I’ve already crossed and feel the gratitude and awe at having been able to make it this far.  I think my flashback to 2 years ago was my mind’s way of enforcing that idea.

Because while I get anxious and tend to pile on myself, I also feel this immense sense of gratitude for what I have been able to accomplish in my life so far.  I’m thankful for the people I love, the abilities I have fostered, and the challenges I continue to encounter.

Hey, you know, maybe they should come up with a holiday where we talk about how thankful we are.


Pining for Novemberfest

The other day, I posted to Polkadelphia’s Facebook page:

Well, our first Oktoberfest season has come and gone. We had a blast playing from Philly to northern Jersey to the Polkanos. We had so much fun that I've decided to continue the party into... NOVEMBERFEST! Break out the insulated lederhosen, the polka Thanksgiving tunes, and beer beer BEER! We're coming for ya!

It was a kind of tongue in cheek way for me to both take pride in what I had accomplished over the previous month, as well as express some anxiety about the holes in my working schedule.

October was a very good month for me.  Polkadelphia was playing at least once a week, often much more.  While 2 or 3 shows per week for a polka band during Oktoberfest season seems a little low, I’m really proud of how much we accomplished as a band that hasn’t been around a whole lot.  I also had great gigs with 5 other groups across the month some of which were bands I had never played with before.  I got to play accordion in the West Philadelphia Orchestra, giving me the opportunity to expand my role in the group and learn new repertoire on that instrument.  I also got to write new songs as Neon and Shy and perform in one of my favorite venues (shoutout to the Zen Den).

Novemberfest!Last month I got to amp up my business acumen as well.  Booking Polkadelphia repeatedly taught me some new skills for finding work and negotiating.  I actually began to look forward to calling clients, instead of cringing any time the phone rang.  I had the opportunity to teach sousaphone lessons to a colleague, jumping back into the teaching world.  I was hired to build a new website for a client, and I got a few graphic design projects thrown my way as well.  And of course I got the brilliant idea for Novemberfest which, while not a full-fledged idea yet, has great potential for the future.

In October, I managed to meet my financial goals, meaning I earned enough to pay my monthly expenses.  This is an accomplishment of which I am especially proud, as it gives me the confidence and reassurance to continue working hard to make music my primary source of income.  It’s yet another reason I pine for Novemberfest, since I know running a polka band during Oktoberfest contributed greatly to my financial security for the month.

That last sentence there is the insecurity in me talking, and it has been nagging quite a bit lately.  The real trigger for it was the end of October, when I got my car inspected and found I needed major repairs.  The bill made a massive dent in the earnings I had worked so hard for, and I started second guessing myself.  Talking with a few other freelancers who assured me this sort of thing is always happening has made it a bit easier, but I still feel like I’m not accomplishing enough.

It’s an odd pattern.  There’s a very small sweet spot between when I start a project (book a show, write a song, arrange a new piece for a band) and see it to fruition (play the booked show, perform the written song, showcase the new arrangement) in which I’m feeling like all is well in the world and I’m being productive. After that, it’s easy to start to panic that I’m not doing enough.  While it’s important to have a strong work ethic, it’s far too easy to be, as David Bowie says in Rock ‘n Roll Suicide, “religiously unkind” to myself.*

Looking back over October, I can see why I might feel this way.  I’m still finding ways to be physically comfortable after my back injuries.  It’s cutting into my productivity, as one of the few places where it doesn’t hurt to work for over an hour is in bed (where I’m currently typing this).  And as business-like as my bed is, there’s no escaping the fact that I go there every night to rest.  Also, as I learned in 9th grade, you can’t really practice the tuba (or any other instrument) in bed.  It just doesn’t work.

I’m also a little gun shy about performing too much.  It’s hard to feel the correlation between the pain I feel and the performances, so I don’t always know what specifically to stop doing.  While performing is sometimes about landing those big lucrative gigs, I am finding that it’s also about just getting out and being present.  So I’m trying to do that without overdoing it.  As a whole, I’m trying to continue my experiments in productivity without damaging the future of my productivity.

So I’ll continue to find new approaches, develop new ideas, and create new opportunities.  Now that I’ve seen it happen for one month, I know financial solubility can be a reality.  I’ll keep on pushing through the thin veneer of terror and impossibility that can cling like a film to see what’s on the other side.  Onward to Novemberfest, Decemberfest, and beyond!


I’ve been really loving this song lately.  While it’s ostensibly part of the Ziggy Stardust story at a point in which he is washed up and depressed, I find it a timeless inspiration.  We as creators feel that timeless drag towards self-destruction, the clock ticking away our time left to say something, anything, and the solitary confinement of the path less traveled.  And in one soaring ride, David Bowie offers consolation and respite.  It’s really such a gorgeous journey.

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