The shoulder tap
“Perhaps the simpler truth is that each of us has only so many heartbeats. All artists have fat years and leaner ones afterward. They just hope that the lean years don’t turn into a famine, and that there’s enough seed corn left over for sweet if stressed fruit. To have had a rich harvest more or less guarantees a comedown later. The issue is the grace with which you fall.”
– Adam Gopnik, “Long Play: the charmed lives of Paul McCartney”
Anyone who’s been around the piping and drumming game long enough has seen the unfortunate circumstance of a player’s career coming to an awkward, uncontrolled and sad ending.
It’s being dropped in final tuning for no self-apparent reason. It’s the once-great and now-confused piper finishing at the bottom of the results. It’s the former World’s-winning leading-drummer befuddled as to why his corps was at the bottom, when he was willfully ignorant or, worse, didn’t even realize that he lifted his sticks several times in the performance. It’s the tap on the shoulder by the Grim Reaper of piping and drumming.
But, but . . . I’m not ready to go. I don’t want to go. I’m having too good a time.
It is a sad situation that too many self-unaware people go through.
Now is the time of year when many will take a look at our past and our future, and do a bit of soul-searching. Jim Kilpatrick clearly did that. The most successful competitive pipe band drummer in history took a look at his legacy, his options and his reputation and decided it was time to call it a career while he was not only leading what he said was his best corps ever, but having a great time doing it.
Still playing as well as ever, and well capable of continuing on for years, he took his destiny into his own hands and went out while still on top of his game. It’s an example to follow.
Others aren’t as astutely self-aware. Their best playing years have eluded them but they don’t want to go. They’re having way too much fun. You can’t fault them. After all, who cares if they decided to keep going and going until they’re told to stop or finish last or get dropped at a practice or their entry to a big solo contest is denied? It’s their business.
But our hearts bleed for those who sully their reputation by staying around too long, ignoring the adage that you’re only as good as your last performance. They seem willfully ignorant of their declined abilities. We dare not tell them for fear of offending them, and they dare not ask for fear of what they might hear.
So, ultimately, it often comes down to a bitter end, going out on someone else’s terms, a sad ending to a rich career.
I’ve written about it before in so many words, but perhaps it bears repeating: control your destiny and your legacy. Go out with your best, whatever that best might be. Go out proud. Leave with your dignity and legacy intact.
Be sure to look back not in anger, but in happiness for a career well concluded.