MEDITATION ON TURNING 72
Hancoff is a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, MD,
and a long-time Rolfer and acoustic guitarist. Jazz Review
Magazine once wrote that "he is an interpretive master
who plays with fluidity, grace and passion." He has concertized
all over the US, and for about 15 years, he represented the United
States in about 50 countries throughout South America, Africa,
Asia and the Arab world as an Artistic Ambassador, presenting
the story of the development of American music in concerts, media
appearances and master classes. Feel free to purchase his recordings
and books at www.stevenhancoff.com.
Today is my birthday. It’s really hard to believe that I
am 72 years old. I feel like 'a man,' not 'an old man.'
older I get
The more I think
You only get a minute, better live while you're in it
'Cause it's gone in a blink
Older I Get” is by Alan Jackson.]
I was young, time seemed to move so painfully slowly. As the years
go by, time slides by like a speed-skater on ice. But I wouldn’t
choose to be young again, not even if you paid me! Bouncing off
of too many walls. Too angry. Too frightened. Too sad. Too lost.
Jon Hendricks’ lyric: “Life is given for livin’.”
It’s best to make the most of the opportunity of having
been given the grand gift of having a life, even though it has
apparently been given by virtue of no special virtue of myself.
That is, I am not aware of having done 'anything' to deserve this
most-precious gift. I believe that the Catholics refer to this
phenomenon as “grace.”
And the older I get
The more thankful I feel For the life I've had,
And all the life I'm living still
72 equals 2x3x2x3x2 = 72
23232 is a guitar fingering for a trill, usually added to the
score to embellish a melody. In music, this is called an ‘ornament.’
An ornament is a device used to make a melody line more attractive
than holding a single note for a length of time. I don’t
see aging as an ornament. And it’s hard to imagine that
I look more attractive from the outside than I used to. But aging
perhaps renders a person more attractive in the sense of becoming
a bit more wise, or more experienced, or maybe even just more
calm or patient? Or at least less impacted by the power of the
waves of irrational feelings.
if they found a fountain of youth
I wouldn't drink a drop and that's the truth
Funny how it feels I'm just getting to my best years yet The
older I get.
body, when I was younger, I used to be able to hike forever. On
treks I used to be able to leap from boulder to boulder. Nowadays,
I need to step slowly and carefully lest I fall and do serious
damage. And I can’t go nearly as far as I used to. In other
words, I am not as energetic or as coordinated or as agile as
I once was. The last time I tried to row a raft down the Colorado
River in the Grand Canyon there was no way I could keep up with
the younger boatmen who were able to plow through the current
and the rapids. Same on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
more slowly and less far than I used to. I need to rest more often
than I used to. I can’t satisfyingly eat as much as I used
to. Thankfully, I am still what they call ‘healthy,’
and I can still concentrate on things that matter to me. In short,
my body can not do what it used to -- not the same stamina, strength
or coordination. I do miss that body, even as I identify less
with it than I used to.
the other hand, the travails of the world don’t trouble
me the way that they used to. I guess I am saying that the matters
that seemed important or unimportant have changed.
and genuine pleasure matter. Getting my way, not so much. Discerning
that which is true is entirely meaningful, pleasurable, somewhat
triumphant and important. Discarding discredited beliefs and attitudes
is an unmitigated good. Being ‘in truth’ matters immensely.
Lying is unthinkable. It is hard to fathom how young people think.
Being able to do deductive reasoning is more and more significant.
the older I get
The better I am
At knowing when to give
And when to just not give a damn
anything is worse than useless; it is destructive. Truth matters
more than anything. Deconstructing and discarding the long-ago-self-constructed
mask matters. I’m not the ‘good boy’ my mother
so wanted. Acknowledging my own ‘lower self,’ and
exposing and discarding it, letting it go, is valuable. There
is no longer any purpose in feeling shame, baseless anger, hatred
or envy. There is grand purpose in feeling genuine admiration,
gratitude and occasional amazement. Genuine insight is rewarding.
age, it has become abundantly clear to me that the purpose of
a life well-lived is transcendence -- the recognition -- the certainty
--- that the ego identity with which I have identified and lived
my life, is not the ultimate reality of who I am. After all, my
body – ‘body’ from the word ‘abode,’
meaning ‘house,’ presumably of what some of us call
the ‘soul’ -- is kind of like my ‘earth suit,’
that structure without which I can’t wander this world with
this consciousness, this ego-identity, and in this body. The soul
is on a transcendent journey toward the recognition of an ultimate
reality of knowing who he actually is.
qua soul? I suppose one can’t say for sure, but
it seems clear to me that transcendence actually means coming
to identify with the soul whose journey compels the ever-present,
ever-incompletely answered, question: “Who am I.”
As the Don Williams song puts it:
. I’m an ordinary man
Sometimes I wonder who I am
we all start off life in Socrates’ cave (The Republic,
Plato). The point of life is to emerge from its shadows of misleading
impressions into the natural luminescence of ultimate reality.
So, who is this soul? Well, one quality of consciousness is the
ability to fathom true things, and discard false things, in particular
concerning who I am and what is so. And inasmuch as insight seems
to be the currency, the mechanism, of discerning truth and motive,
perhaps the soul is on a journey toward greater, and perhaps ultimate,
insight . . . all of which sounds like qualities of what some
call ‘God.’ Is the final self-identification of the
soul that we become aligned with, or unified with, the Creative
Force of the Universe? That is, is the soul on its way to recognition
of itself as what humans sometimes call God? Are we each a single
cell in the spirit of Creation? Maybe.
older I get
The longer I pray
I don't know why,
I guess that I
Got more to say
endured my share of tragedy and heart-break, God knows. That said,
I have also had my share of pleasure and joy. I have devoted my
working life to Music and Rolfing. I am grateful and happy that
I somehow (I don’t know how) managed to discover fulfilling
ways of expressing my being here on this Earth during this oh-so-
short, blink of an eye we call a lifetime.
able to love matters. I am beyond lucky that I have found the
love of my life, and that she feels the same about me. This quality
is called intimacy, and the engine of it is transparency. The
inestimably great Ida Rolf once pointed out that we are each an
electro-magnetic entity trapped in the gravitational field of
the Earth. As such, we each express a unique vibratory frequency.
Maybe that’s what makes each of us who he is. I suspect
that falling in love actually means that two souls who express/embody
mutually consonant electro-magnetic vibratory frequencies connect
at that level. That’s how they recognize each other. When
we were much younger, we spoke of ‘vibes.’ That’s
what vibes are.
deepest pleasure is sharing and feeling love with one another,
hiding no part of myself, mutual nakedness of spirit, admitting
every part of her gratefully into my heart, never resistant to
or frightened that she sees me for exactly who I am. Helping one
another to transform rather than to blame and resent and hide.
And doing that suggests that we can see something of the Divine
in one another, mutually realizing we are both on THE Soul’s
Journey, striding together, and that we are steadfast in joining
with one another’s soul on our earth-wandering during this
lifetime. We both deeply hope that path continues in the next
plane of existence, whatever that experience may be . . . like
Aristophanes’ separated souls that Plato described in The
words, even though Freud is mostly disdained these days, he was
right to assert: “Love and work are the cornerstones of
our humanness.” I would have to add being in truth and opening
the capacity to love -- the merging of one soul wit-- and the
determination and ability to cease hiding one’s nature from
oneself and one’s beloved.
of my parents lived into their 70s. So, what about my genetics?
How much more time do I have to live? I don’t fear death,
but I know I have many years’ work still to do. I hope my
energy, creativity and physical capacity last long enough to complete
that which I wish to do. If I don’t apply myself to that
work, I feel I will have betrayed whatever creative gifts were
given me to use to do the work I have felt impelled to do in life.
I don't mind all the lines
From all the times I've laughed and cried
Souvenirs and little signs of the life I've lived
During the last couple of decades the world has evolved to become
a digital domain. “For ways in which digital is better than
analogue, press #2.” As the Internet has grown more and
more powerful and pervasive, the way people spend their time and
money and attention has shifted, and continues to shift, in ways
that nobody predicted. And it looks like the world will continue
to move -- evolve? devolve? -- in the direction of cyber-space
and AI becoming the realm in which we live more and more. My judgment
is that it is better to live in physical reality than in an imaginary
one constructed of zeros and ones, because being grounded -- feet
solidly planted on the earth -- is more secure, and provides,
well, groundedness; that is, a deeper, more immediate connection
with physical reality.
will be the ultimate impact of this techno-revolution? I never
would have imagined that a powerful entity, like, say, a government,
having my phone number, would enable them to know every sort of
pertinent detail about me, what I do, what I like etc. Whosoever
has access to so much information -- what I purchase, where I
go, what web-sites do I look at, what interests me etc. -- how
will they not give in to the temptation to use that information
for personal power and accumulation of immense wealth? It’s
impossible not to conclude that the more technologically advanced
societies -- i.e., those countries known as ‘free’
-- are inexorably headed to totalitarianism, where the powers
that be control and manipulate everybody by virtue of knowing
everything about everybody. The future is Orwellian, totalitarian,
a future where actions will be controlled and free thoughts will
be crimes. I just don’t see how it can be avoided.
find myself more and more relieved that I won’t be around
to be part of it or witness it. Old goat that I am, I still prefer
actual physical and person-to-person contact to website connections,
Facebook ‘likes,’ and e-mail. I suspect I will be
dying as the digital revolution zooms. I feel sorry for the next
generation, even as they seem to be at one with it, and entirely
unaware to where they are being led. It seems to me that the process
is inexorable, and the outcome inevitable.
Lord Byron’s poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,”
an omnipotence, whose veil
Mantles the earth with darkness, until right
And wrong are accidents, and men grow pale
Lest their own judgments should become too bright,
And their free thoughts be crimes, and earth have too much light.
We all took part in the so-called sexual revolution. I guess the
invention of the pill (and antibiotics) changed everything. At
72 I have had the experience of knowing that random sexual connection
has its pleasures, not to mention its dangers. But it has nothing
in common with actual love. I am grateful and fulfilled that I
have been able to learn and embody such a profound lesson. My
sexual inclinations are as robust as ever, but, sad to say, I
am less virile than I used to be. Sigh . . . Culturally, we have
witnessed the mistaking of license for liberty. Our societies
are paying, and will continue to pay, the price. I can’t
help but think of the archetypal myth of the destruction of Sodom
Jewish: To be a Jew a person can experience what it means to be
hated for who he is as opposed to being hated for what he has
done. Put another way, being born a Jew is a very interesting
karma. One of the qualities I embrace most about being a Jewish
person is that I love the humour. There’s plenty more to
say, but not in my birthday rumination. I think there’s
an entire book waiting to be written about being a Jew.
I guess I have more than some people, and less than others. Clearly,
accumulating money has never been a goal, but whenever I had enough,
it felt better than not having enough. One thing you can do with
money is buy stuff. And as we are packing up our belongings right
now to have our things shipped to move to Israel, I can say with
certainty that we have too much damn stuff. So, maybe I didn’t
need as much money as I thought I did, because I must have bought
too much stuff. I can’t escape the feeling that less stuff
is better than too much stuff. And maybe even not-enough-stuff
is better than too much stuff. I think maybe owning things might
be an expression of the Western materialistic illness. People
I have met in Africa, for example, whose belongings all easily
fit into a single room of one grass hut, didn’t seem to
me to be less happy than we Westerners who are filled to the gills
with things we thought we needed and wanted.
the older I get
The truer it is
It's the people you love, not the money and stuff
That makes you rich
Perhaps with good reason, there is a kind of cultural hysteria
about people taking drugs. People take drugs because they like
them. And they become addicted (from the Latin ad –
‘to’ and ducere – ‘lead’
-- people are ‘led to’ drugs because they like them.)
to what they like. As the old Fats Waller song put it, “This
Is So Nice, It Must Be Illegal.” I’ve taken my share.
Some illegal substances are useful in helping people navigate
the labyrinths of their minds. And by and large, they’ve
done me good. Or at least I am happy with how I have used them.
and for the last years, I seem to have lost the desire or urge
to imbibe. Is that a function of aging? Maybe. I don’t really
know. I think the urge to escape oneself by means of drugs is
self-damaging. To me, drugs are for the sake of getting deeper
into coming to grips with your own identity and distortions so
that you can address and change them. They are Theseus’
thread, the one that is designed to keep him from getting lost
in the monstrous center of his own Labyrinth, that he uses to
lead himself out and away from being devoured by the Monster at
the center of the Labyrinth that is himself.
I first picked up a guitar when I was 13 years old, one day after
taking in the first concert I ever attended, a concert by the
folk music group, The Weavers, at the old Lyric Theater in Baltimore.
And I have not ever put the guitar down yet. And music is ‘never’
far from my conscious mind.
is a lot of idealization about music -- “the voice of angels,”
“the harmony of the spheres” etc. I don’t know
about all that. But I know that music and guitar got me in their
grip from that first day. I think guitar is the easiest instrument
to play poorly, and the most difficult instrument to play great.
There’s always one more thing to get. The shape, obviously
the shape of the feminine, is seductive. But the music itself
is what is, was and remains so completely compelling.
I have performed in about 50 countries -- a grand education into
the ways of the world and how countries treat or mistreat their
citizens -- and I have recorded seven records/CDs, and I have
written three music books. Reviewers have almost unanimously recognized
me as a virtuoso. One reviewer called me “a master of interpretation.”
It feels good when knowledgeable people think so well of my work
and me. But their opinion is not the point.
have loved the concerts. But fame and notoriety have eluded me.
In my heart of hearts, I know I ought to be renowned. And I have
been disappointed in the world for not recognizing me. A famous
musician friend recently informed me that I have a small but very
ardent following. I had not realized that.
I do know is that for me, when I am in my element, I sit alone
in a room for 3, 4, 5 hours at a time day after fascinating day
concentrating as purposefully as I can, running my fingers and
hands up and down the guitar neck. And then, when I am done with
the physical practice, my mind stays around whatever music I am
working on, so that the last thought I have before falling to
sleep at night tends to be “What finger plays what string
to get what sound? What harmony works there? Where does the melody
go.” In other words, guitar/music is a demanding mistress,
but one so compellingly alluring that I simply can’t resist
surrendering to its Siren call.
of my gift as a better-than-mediocre one, but not a great one.
But whatever it is, I only know I just can’t help it. I
just have to play -- it’s a compulsion. A music friend once
told me that when he once met the iconic jazz pianist, Teddy Wilson
(Benny Goodman’s pianist and a grand soloist in his own
right), Wilson scowled and told him, “I hates music.”
I know the feeling -- the music and the instrument always collaborate
to defeat you. They gang up! For me, it is impossible to translate
the sounds/concepts of my mind to a perfect performance. There
is always at least some frustration and the feeling of defeat.
On the other hand, there is also the feeling of satisfaction and
sinking into a place of immense inner comfort when I play well.
The guitar always defeats me. Idealizing music is self-destructive.
But, as I say, I just can’t help but work at it, dive in
Hedges once pointed out that melody is the heart of a piece of
music, harmony represents the intellect, and rhythm represents
its sexuality. I like that concept. My unsuppressible motivation
is in harmonic structures and ideas. So, maybe there’s not
enough heart and sexuality for the listening public to adhere
to my style. Or maybe my harmonic conceptions are just too far
out for most people to relax into, or to appreciate. I really
don’t know. All I can do is to just keep on doing it, deepening
the process, being grateful, and loving it . . . and practice,
practice, practice. There’s a saying among some of us musicians:
“He’s so good, no one’s ever heard of him."
never sought fame for its own sake. It’s just that fame
is the necessary ingredient for making a living, if you are a
musician. By now, I want to play music for the sake of making
music. That’s my soul talking. One old friend has suggested
that I probably ought be angry at the public neglect. I have been.
But I’m not angry now. I just want to continue on the path
of discovery that articulating my meaning musically entails. In
the end, I imagine I’ll be playing until I die. As Leonard
Cohen beautifully and poignantly, begins his anthemic Hallelujah:
heard there was a secret chord,
That David played and it pleased the Lord...
But you don’t really care much for music
I began this irresistible and insistent love affair, I fell in
love with American folk music. And thus began my journey. Then,
at about 21, I was seduced by classic Ragtime, that under-esteemed,
prototypically American pre-jazz magnificent musical innovation.
I transcribed and recorded a lot of piano rags for guitar, and
I recorded two lps of classic rags. Being a member of the tiny
but passionate and intelligent and very knowledgeable ragtime
world led me to traditional and then New Orleans jazz. Playing
jazz naturally led to Swing, and I immersed myself in the music
of the swing bands, most notably the songs of Duke Ellington and
his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn.
the almost inexplicable detour -- eight years of transcribing
for guitar, researching, writing my four-volume Bach biography,
practicing -- a transformative and intense immersion -- into the
world of Johann Sebastian Bach, the “God of Music”
(Mahler), and to the degree that it is unavoidable when being
intimate with Bach, Felix Mendelssohn. Now after years of practicing,
arranging, transcribing, researching, writing, collecting, creating
about 50 videos and two full-length performance pieces about Bach
and the Mendelssohn family, it’s time for the next schwung.
I am full of ideas, and raring to go!
culture, musical fame equals glory. Homer’s masterpieces
(along with the Bible, our foundational myths) are, in large,
measure, the myths of the glorified. They are warriors. I am a
warrior too doing daily battle with my own limitations. I’m
no Achilles. But I -- like all mortals -- must fight my battles.
That’s one of Homer’s points, right? And I don’t
argue with a giant like Homer. It’s a battle, a struggle,
to get the sound I am after. And the Greek heroes mostly died
tragic deaths. I don’t want music to represent my tragedy.
I love it better when I feel like the music is my fulfillment.
once warned me that being a musician is a hard life. I have found
that indeed there is often wisdom in lyrics of songs. As one song
you want to play the guitar?
Bring your money home in a jar.
end, I have come to imagine that I am an acoustic soul, albeit
a somewhat inspired one, living in an electric world.
From all the above, spending so much time alone with my inspiration
and instrument, it is obvious that my musical path is not one
that leaves much space for being very social. I am inside of myself
most of the time. I wish I had made more close friends. (When
he was old, Ty Cobb said he wished he had made more friends too).
For me, it’s not easy to find people with whom I wish to
be transparent, open-hearted, and who will reciprocate, and whom
I want to know so intimately. I wish there were more. Maybe we’ll
find one another soon in Israel. I hope so.
older I get
The fewer friends I have
But you don't need a lot when the ones that you got
Have always got your back
Al Rose, the pre-eminent New Orleans jazz historian once advised
me, “You don’t want to be laying on your death bed
thinking ‘I blew it.’” I took that wise advice
to heart. When I am dying, I want to be able to feel that my life
expressed my heart. I want to feel that I have left behind something
worthy of a life well-lived. Inasmuch as this is the only planet
I will get to be able to explore, I want to be able to see much
of it, especially those parts that evoke wonder, awe and mystery.
I want to be able to complete those recordings I am inspired to
work on. And I want to be able to leave behind a body of work
that those who follow will be able to take pleasure from, and
maybe even learn something from. I hope that my music will have
touched some people in a deep place. That is a worthy life.
is written on the gravestone of Franz Schubert, an almost universally
under- regarded but inconceivably towering genius:
art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer
Just read every word. Quite a journey you have been on.
Your gift for writing is every bit as much as your musicianship...
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