Sense and Sensibleness

Maybe it’s because I’ve had two lovely trips to Bath this week (once to judge for the Mid-Somerset Festival, once to take part in Bath MozartFest), but Jane Austen has rather been on my mind. Not so much the feisty heroines like Lizzie Bennett, or the well-meaning interferers like Emma Woodhouse… but rather the timid, slightly-too-practical Elinor Dashwood. It’s all very well that Marianne wants to go for romantic walks in the rain (or rather, seems incapable of judging whether it will actually rain)… Elinor’s sense is the thing that I’ve been pondering.

Being sensible is an interesting sort of curse. (I am referring to the modern sense of the world ‘sensible’, rather than Marianne’s ‘sensibility.) It means that you are unlikely to leave your umbrella on the train. That you’ll probably never run out of toilet roll. That things like meal planning, and keeping your diary up-to-date, and considering whether it’s really a good idea to have that fifth glass of wine, are all challenges that you’ll easily master. It means that you are useful. Us sensible people are the ones with heavier bags, because we bring tissues and aspirin and, if you’re me, a complete set of connector cables for your laptop whenever you give a talk anywhere because experience dictates that the venue will have everything except the one you actually need, which will have been accidentally trodden on or mauled by a visiting dog several hours previously. So much has my ability to successfully link my own, and indeed other peoples’, computers to sound systems and data projectors been commented upon that at a festival a few years ago, one of the other speakers assumed I was a technician on the festival team because I knew how to fix her set-up. I wasn’t. I was actually there to talk about Beethoven string quartets. But, you know. Nice to be helpful, when you can be.

In many ways, sensibleness is a great career advantage. It means that you can quietly do the practical planning that other people panic about, and don’t over-commit yourself, and don’t starve or end up surviving on two hours’ sleep. Other people ask for your help. Other people need you, because you’re the laptop whisperer, or the one who can get the photocopier to do what is actually required, or be relied upon to mark up the string parts on time. However, there is a danger point with such thing. And it is that, if you spend all your time being sensible, after a while, people will leave you with precious little opportunity to be anything else.

Pencil on a notebook with crumpled up paper sheet resting on top

And being sensible all the time, let’s be honest, fellow sensibles, is kind of boring, isn’t it? Sometimes, you just want to do something completely NOT sensible. Nay, positively irresponsible. Like saying to hell with it and having the extra glass of wine, or buying something extravagant just because… or taking a risk to allow yourself to actually be creative and without sensible restrictions to see what you could really do if life was approached with no holds barred. That’s when the exciting stuff happens: when you take the risks, and walk the tightrope, and put yourself on the edge of what you might actually be able to achieve, and chuck all your sensible pragmatic thoughts out of the window and dream.

For those of us working in music, the balance is a fine one. I’ve met plenty of young musicians who are terribly creative and exciting but wouldn’t know a sensible way of approaching something if it stood up and tap-danced in front of them. As a concert organiser, I like to feel that the people I’m booking have a healthy dose of sensible. I want them to read the emails and provide the right copy, and be there on time, and check the dress code, and remember their cuff-links, and all that stuff. I also want them to be sensible enough to have practised and prepared properly. And then, once they’ve sensibly got themselves on stage, I want them to throw sensibleness to the wind and play and sing without restraint. It’s the same with speakers, and writers, and all the other musicians and music-related professionals I encounter. We need both.

It’s just a thought, of course, but perhaps we need a little more of both the Dashwood sisters after all. Jane Austen (as usual) was on to something there. So as I sit here in Bristol Airport, sensibly early for my flight to Edinburgh – and yes, I have an umbrella, no romantic staggering through the rain for me – I am delighted to reflect that the last few weeks have included getting a class of adults to colouring-pencil-score their way through ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’; playing students everything from Puccini and Sondheim to Disney songs and stuff from the brilliant Something Rotten; bad jokes and puns aplenty; late-night glasses of wine; seriously pondering tap-dancing in front of my undergraduates (they were spared – little do they know how lucky they were); some truly ridiculous socks and earnestly telling a group of highly skilled musicians that they should, as often as possible, present their concert introductions to soft toys. There is a LOT of fun to be had when you’re not all that sensible. And lots of creativity too. Just so long as you still make the train on time, and remember to bring your notes to class. Sensibility and sense, you might say. Sounds good to me. Maybe someone should write a book about it.

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