Finite vs. infinite

One of my Latin assignments at high school was to go around Wellington looking for old Victorian and Edwardian buildings with Latin mottoes on them. My friends and I piled into a car and went for a drive around the central city. We didn’t have to look hard. There were all sorts of Latin mottoes in places we hadn’t expected, including “Lumen accipe et imperti” on our own school grounds. Wellington’s nineteenth-century Catholic cathedral had lots, and others, on various public buildings, encouraged virtue and industry (and membership of the exclusive club of Latin-knowers). Somewhere, I can’t remember where, maybe at an art gallery, we saw one that really spoke to me: “Ars longa, vita brevis.”

Art is long, life is short. I was very taken with this, since I’d already decided to dedicate my life to music. I knew it wasn’t an easy life. There would be no nine-to-five, no idle evenings, no free weekends.

At the same time, it suited me well, since I saw (and still see) my life as a ceaseless campaign of self-improvement. There’s a certain kind of obsessive personality that’s always trying to learn new skills, self-educate, and figure out ways to get better. There are the things you do every day to maintain your existing skills, such as scales and hard etudes, and then there are the things you do to build new ones, such as score study, learning new repertoire at the instrument, and tackling even harder etudes.

There are two problems with this obsession. One is that sometimes you labour over something for hours, days, weeks, and don’t necessarily notice any improvement.

Another is that it really never does stop. I’m convinced that if you skip a day of cello practice, you lose a week. In other words, if you don’t maintain your skills constantly, you lose them. And the best bit? If you don’t keep your chops, you can’t have your career. Ars longa.

I recently started the planning process for three major new projects, including a big multimedia performance project that will require significant grant funding if I’m to get it off the ground. Brainstorming how I was going to do this was partly exciting and partly so daunting it made my head hurt.

That’s when I started a new hobby. I tend to watch television late at night to calm down the relentless firecrackers of ideas that keep going off in my mind (thanks, ADHD brain). Trawling through Netflix, I found the perfect diversion: a British reality TV series called The Great British Baking Show

If you haven’t watched this glorious show, you must. It’s sweetly wholesome, well-mannered, and orderly. The sets are decorated with bunting and Union Jacks. Its sunny world reminds you of a paradisiacal, nostalgic, half-imaginary Britain where there’s no litter or graffiti or dark drizzly days, where everyone sportingly plays in cricket matches on the village green before sitting down for a nice cup of milky tea to the soundtrack of Elgar. Even when the judges have to vote contestants “off the island,” they’re kind and gentle with them. No one swears, shouts, or snarks. Everyone involved is supportive and earnest and intensely interested in how to make the perfect choux pastry.

I was charmed.

One thing led to another (those shows make you so hungry), and soon I developed a little baking habit of my own.

I know this might sound like the time-honoured concept of procrastibaking, but it wasn’t.

Rather, I found a certain comfort in the finite-ness of the concept. If you have a recipe by a reputable author and all the right equipment and ingredients, and you follow the instructions exactly, you will have an acceptable finished product.

Quite unlike practising the cello.

And yet, because I’m me, I couldn’t just make a recipe or two and leave it at that. Suddenly, I had an urgent need to get extremely good at baking, to figure out how to improve my existing skills, to tweak this thing and that thing, to refine, to build, to perfect.

I ransacked the internet learning about the science of baking, scribbling notes on things I’d never had much interest in before, such as the gluten content of different types of flour and what to use them for, melted vs. solid butter for scones and cookies, the caramelization rates of different types of sugar, and how to adjust leavening for when you live at a high altitude. I tried out my new knowledge with punctilious exactitude. I couldn’t eat all the things I baked, so I gave them away until all my friends were sick of receiving them. I suppose you could say I applied my customary obsessiveness to my new hobby.

And yet, there was something so immensely satisfying about it. With every refinement to my technique, I saw an improvement. (Want your scones to have a better texture? Cake flour! A greater depth of flavour? Buttermilk!) And unless I made some catastrophic mistake, or forgot to set the oven timer and burned what I was making, I would have something tangible to show for my labour.

So, so unlike practising the cello.

Now, obviously, I’m not going to become a professional baker, and I’m sure that if you are one, it’s every bit as exacting and neverending as being a musician. But as a good amateur, I found myself feeling reassured, successful, and relaxed at the end of an evening’s baking. I had finished. I could load the dishwasher and go to bed.

What’s more, I could leave off baking for weeks or months and still be able to do it when I started again. I could probably even replicate my results exactly as long as I took exact notes on what I’d done last time.

And that, I think, is the big difference between comfort baking and cello practice. One is finite, the other infinite. With one, you can pick it up and put it down when you feel like it. With the other, you have to use it or lose it.

When I spoke to my husband about my love for my new hobby, he surprised me by saying that his love of playing online games came from a similar place. “If you’re smart enough, you can figure out how the system works and take pleasure in being really good at it,” he told me. Yes. Exactly.

Maybe all of us who play instruments professionally need an outlet like this. Is that why so many musicians are gourmet cooks and amateur tennis players?

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