Don’t make me choose!

In the run up to London Marathon day (T-7 days, precisely!) I’ve been asked all sorts of questions by all sorts of people, and this looks like continuing into next week with interviews lined up for tv, radio, official social media and the press.  Perhaps we’ll reach trombone-marathon saturation point – peak Nat!  But one question – probably asked without much thought – has stuck with me.  If you had to choose one out of running or music, which one would you take?  My initial response was unsurprising – something like ‘They both fulfil me in different ways and I love them both.  Don’t make me choose!’

Then I started thinking about it.  Music has been with me as long as I can remember.  I was definitely sung to as a child and was always fortunate enough to be indulged in my musical explorations as demonstrated by the trail of (some very expensive) instruments left in my wake, many of which are still sitting in my flat and regularly played.  Music has always been with me.  I can’t claim to be particularly talented and was never considered a rising star growing up.  But the experience of growing up to the point of becoming middle aged has led me to believe that talent isn’t everything – what I’ve got is persistence and a love for making music that has given me a kind of symbiotic relationship.  I make music and it makes me happy.  Perhaps it does for others too – I’m a bit of a showman and really feed off an audience.

But being a teacher is also a learning experience.  Working with a cross section of children has gradually revealed the uneasy truth that (sorry musicians, I’ve got to say this) not everybody is emotionally affected by music.  It’s not necessarily a case of just finding what speaks to you – there are people to whom music doesn’t speak and, unbelievably, they just don’t care about it.  Be this personal, cultural or whatever, it’s true.  A few years ago, I even ended up in a relationship with someone who was uncomfortable with me being a musician.  This is perhaps understandable – the late nights and having other people big you up on stage can’t always sit easily.  And I tried my best to avoid making music for a while and turning down gigs, even if I’d committed to them.  As someone who values keeping commitments, this was incredibly hard.  But more fundamentally, I just couldn’t sustain a life without music.  It took being denied regular musical opportunities to reaffirm how much a part of me it was.  That I’d rather be single and alone than not be a musician in some way, shape or form.

Ok – I got out of that situation, but ever since, I’ve been left with an underlying doubt about the value of music making.  Just because I think something sounds great, why do I deserve to show it off?  What if people in general are apathetic and I’m just wasting my time with artistic expression?  But some experiences come out of nowhere to reaffirm your faith.  The other day I start watching This Town on BBC iPlayer which tells a story of early 80s Coventry through the passionate pursuit of music making and I’m reminded just what music means to people.  And maybe – just maybe – lots of people.  Music is a means to self expression and self identification.  It’s a way to connect people.  It’s a universal language – some of the most valuable musical experiences I’ve had have been with people who I couldn’t communicate with any other way.

And recently, on sick leave, I’ve been able to make a bit more music for myself.  I’m not yet able to cope with the rigours and responsibilities of a full time teaching job, but I can just about get myself along to the odd rehearsal or concert.  There’s a freedom to music making now.  I’ve never really had to worry about making money from it, but even more so.  If it sounds good and feels good, I’m doing it.  I may as well now.

So there have been ups and downs but my relationship with music remains steadfast and unwavering.  We really, really need each other.  But as with any relationship, what happens when a new love interest comes along?  That’s what happened with running.  Over the past six to seven years, I’ve become increasingly hooked on it and have adopted the zeal of the convert.  I’ve gone through cycles of training that have been far more consistent than the trombone practise.  I get all sorts of things from it as mentioned on here before, not least the endorphin highs and borderline superhuman achievements – well for an untalented non-athlete like me, anyway.

At some points at the height of ultramarathon training, keeping the music going too was a big challenge.  I started doing ridiculous things like running too and from Saturday music school to give me a 50k day or in one case, running 40 miles, then rushing on to a concert.   I’ve even turned down lucrative and exciting gigs in order to commit to 100k training weekends or dedicating months to getting ready for a big ultra.

And what now?  Faced with my impending demise and potential last chances to do everything, both running and music have been important and I’ve done a bit of both.  They provide equal reason to keep going to the best of my ability.  Perhaps it helps that I’ve reined in my ambitions in both respects and the priority is no longer progressing further, but having fun along the way.  It’s a cliche to say that we should embrace the process and not focus on the result, but I’m really feeling this right now.  Given that all the plans and ambitions could end pretty much any time from now on, it could be that the process is all I’ve got, so I may as well enjoy it.

This mindset is epitomised by the trombone marathon attempt.  On the face of it, the music and running training have been woefully inadequate, given the chemo and illness that have set me back over the four months where training should have really stepped up.  But my two goes at running and playing at the same time have been great fun with great company and I’ve snuck in some time on camera to help tell my story and get some attention for the charity work etc.

Yes I’d like to be able to say (as with every other start line I’ve arrived at) that I’ve done the training and the race is just a victory lap.  I can’t say that this time round by any means – I’ve run about five times this year and that’s not nearly enough to instil me with confidence for a strong finish.  But this life in the slow lane brings with it some advantages.  I know I don’t need to be fast.  It doesn’t need to be pretty and it certainly won’t be pain free.  But I’m going to enjoy my day out running the London marathon with a trombone.  I’ve arranged to stop at least once and play with the bands lining the course and yesterday’s experience at park run showed me that people don’t mind that I won’t be absolutely constantly playing – the odd tune really is enough, because people like music – they’ve asked me to play all kinds of it next Sunday.

What’s more, 383 people have donated over £15,000 to charity, most of them runners and musicians.  If my story speaks equally to those two completely different communities, why shouldn’t I have a foot in both camps?

No I don’t have to choose.  Especially not on Marathon day!

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