The Art of Giving Things Up

MARCH 2018
Justin
C.
Biology

I’m not sure if I would be a graduate student at MIT if I had kept playing the double bass.

I’ve had many identities including son, brother, student, runner, and musician, but one of the challenges of becoming a scientist is that research becomes your sole identity. As a professor of biology once told a work-life balance panel, “I have hobbies. I mean I definitely think that doing experiments is my hobby. It’s definitely the best.” In research, there is always the ever-receding promise of the new insight held in the next experiment or in the unread paper. There is a compulsion to find out what happens next and the need to better describe something beautiful.

The lasting relic of my life as musician is a double bass that stands in a quiet corner of my childhood home. When I’m visiting for a week in the summer, I’ll examine the instrument’s cherry brown exterior and pluck its strings, the ghost of muscle memory pulling me through a wobbly scale. The bass is less of an instrument now then a portal to a previous version of myself—a reminder that growing older and pursuing a career is the art of giving things up.

It was not my idea to play the bass but when my parents insisted that I join the middle school orchestra I decided, partially as a joke, to choose the largest and most inconvenient instrument possible. The bass was almost as tall as I was and barely fit in the back my parents’ SUV. In schools and concert halls, walking between rooms required holding the bass in one arm, groping with my free hand to spring the door ajar, and using my foot to completely clear the entrance way. I had spent the first few lessons learning how to balance the bass against my legs and chest, and when I played it would occasionally tilt from side to side. Upon listening to my early attempts at twinkle twinkle little star, my teacher joked that I sounded like a car starting on a winter morning.

After my first uninspiring lessons, I ended up playing the bass for nine years. The instrument’s ungainly physicality became its most attractive quality. There was the sensation of sculpting sound—controlling the pitch, tone, and intensity through the speed of the bow in my right hand and the pressure of my left hand against the fingerboard. I could feel the vibration of the strings travelling through the bridge and into the body of the instrument. At a certain pitch, the loose screw in the living room light fixture would buzz.

Playing with an orchestra was more intense. Standing at the back of the stage, with the rest of the double bass section, I could see and hear the entire orchestra—the timpani drums and French horns immediately to my right, the cello section in front of me, beyond that a great plain of violins, and finally the conductor standing on a platform, the pulse beating in her neck, and the outstretched baton poised like a needle about to pop something large and invisible. The audience was a dark void and, submerged in stage lights, the orchestra seemed to be in its own world. The music came, sometimes the voice of an individual instrument and sometimes a pillar of sound, but always having the incantatory power of drawing forth emotion from a distant time and place.  It was easy to be swept away. During my junior year of high school, I informed my mother that I wanted to be a musician. I can’t believe it she had lamented in uneven English to her friends at the supermarket my son wants to become a magician. My mother, in her distress, had slipped over the syllables but in her mind I might as well have been abandoning a stable future to learn card tricks.

I gave up bass at the end of my sophomore year at Oberlin College. I was majoring in biology but had also auditioned into the Conservatory orchestra. Surrounded by pre-professional musicians, who practiced six to eight hours a day, I realized that I couldn’t keep up. I had begun working in a laboratory and was running for the cross country and track team. To steal a few hours of practice time, I was stumbling bleary eyed into the Conservatory at five or six in the morning. Despite these efforts, I had reached a plateau where I was maintaining my skill level but not improving.  

I thought about quitting for a few months, the idea filling me with excitement and dread. In the end though, there was no grand dilemma but a gentle fading and relief. The memory of the last concert or last time stepping into the practice room have disappeared from my mind. I do recall the drive back home to New Jersey—my father at the wheel and the bass tucked into the trunk and back seat beside me. I slept most of the way but sometimes I would open my eyes and see an unreachable distance where the land fused with an overwhelmingly blue sky. I saw signs leading to other signs and toll booths and new lanes and hundreds of subdivisions of space. I kept staring, feeling the soothing rush of going nowhere in particular and for the first time my head was free from thought.     

Nine years after quitting, I’ve become a developmental biologist studying how a single cell becomes a complete animal—how nature makes something from almost nothing. I spend hours watching intricate body parts arise from what previously seemed to be an inert lump of cells. Each day there seems to be a never ending stream of tasks—experiments to perform, data to analyze and collate into figures, papers to read, meetings to attend. In this way, I had settled into my existence as a research scientist, when one winter evening I left the lab and walked towards the Red Line. It was already dark and my breath hung in the air. I hadn’t thought about music in years. Coming up out of the T, like a hallucination or mirage, a musician was carrying a double bass wrapped in a black nylon case. I wanted to run over and say I know what it’s like. Then the man passed by and I was left dislocated in time watching a previous version of myself walk away.