Stop the World (and let me off) Lessons Learned from a Pandemic

In 1957, Patsy Cline sang “oh, stop the world and let me off, I’m tired of goin’ round an’ round, I played the game of love and lost, So stop the world and let me off.” A few years later, during his first Nashville recording session, Waylon Jennings squared up the edges of Patsy’s dreamy 1950s “Stroll Dance” version and in 1965, turned Stop the World and Let Me Off into a Country Music Classic. 

Across the pond, in London’s West End, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley staged the complex and multi-faceted musical Stop the World: I want to get off before bringing it to Broadway in 1961. The Play focused on the self-centered life of Littlechap from the moment of his birth until his death. Throughout the play, whenever faced with a difficult situation, he exclaims “stop the world, I want to get off,” then turns to address the audience directly: famously breaking the imaginary fourth wall. Though you may not know the play, you might be familiar with its most famous song: What Kind of Fool and I?

And in a darkened movie theater in 1963, Hank Cochran was inspired to write the lyric “make the world go away, get it off of my shoulders, say the things you used to say, and make the world go away.” Make the World Go Away became a hit that has been recorded by everyone from Dean Martin to Elvis, and from Donnie and Marie to Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley. It became a career defining record for Eddie Arnold whose version was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry in 2019, perhaps foreshadowing the events of 2020.

Why were people in the 1960s so interested in stopping the world? The sixties were a tumultuous time: the Vietnam War, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement, and the death of a president and a Civil Rights Leader. But who has never wanted to tap the brakes—have time to stop and think—to escape the anxiety of current events? A friend recently told me “I just want it all to stop—put Iowa in the rearview mirror and keep driving.” 

But it’s not easy to just hit the snooze button because those decisions are usually out of our control. Most folks have responsibilities, commitments, and aspirations that are difficult to walk away from without the imposition of some catastrophic event in our lives. A few months ago, no one could’ve imagined that a worldwide pandemic would indeed stop the world. 

In the course of a few weeks, everyone’s plans for 2020 evaporated. People worldwide were affected in some way which is what a pandemic is by definition. Many were forced to transition to an on-line work/school experience or worse—lost their livelihood entirely. Quarantines and lockdowns closed workplaces and changed things, quite possibly, forever.

On March 10, Mat Britain and I were in the middle of a tour, playing concerts and doing workshops with the Britain Moore Duo. We were sitting in the Hilton Garden Lounge in Terre Haute, Indiana having a nightcap and watching the rain when Mat’s phone blew up with messages. It seemed Vanderbilt University, where he directs the steel band, was joining several other colleges to be among the first to cancel face to face instruction, and all concerts, for the remainder of the semester. As would be the case for the next several months, there were more questions than answers.

We were in disbelief, and with three stops remaining on our junket we held out hope that we might at least finish the tour before things got bad. The next day we played a concert at Indiana State University (their last one for the year), and headed to Cincinnati for two more gigs including presentations at the National Society of Steel Band Educators conference (NSSBE). We completed our next engagement in Batesville, Indiana and had dinner at a quaint local restaurant across the street from one of the nation’s largest casket companies (foreshadowing again?). 

The NSSBE meeting cancelled as we were turning in for the night so we decided to head home the next morning. Mat and I embraced at the gas pump before going our separate ways. He recalled recently that “it was the last time I hugged someone.”

Stories of “runs” on grocery stores and school cancellations began to fill the radio waves, then reports that baseball had postponed the opening of the 2020 season. I thought “what the heck is going on?”

As I drove, I also started to think about what might happen next.

A year and a half earlier I had begun the process of applying for a sabbatical from the University of Iowa and was only a few weeks into what was supposed to be a coveted semester away from teaching, filled with performances, recording projects, a percussion festival in Thailand, a tour in Japan, and another BMD tour.

During the lockdown, the Voxman Music Building—where all my instruments and recording equipment are housed—was shut down completely for the foreseeable future. After our tour cancelled, Mat and I started a quarantine project in memory of Bill Withers who had recently passed away. We had barely finished recording the audio and video when everything closed for good. 

With all of my instruments and equipment locked away, my sabbatical projects were officially kaput.

So, what does happen next? You try to move on and—with any luck—learn something about yourself.

For me—and from what I gather from my students, colleagues, friends, and family—the pandemic unfolded in three stages: paralysis, depression, and adaptation.

Most people are familiar with the concept of Fight or Flight. It is the commonly held belief that there are two choices when facing eminent danger: stand your ground and fight or turn and run away.

“He who fights and runs away 
May live to fight another day; 
But he who is in battle slain 
Can never rise to fight again.”

But there is a third—possibly lesser known—mechanism known as “freeze.” Many in the animal kingdom use this approach: some with great success and others with disastrous consequences. Think “deer in the headlights.” 

The constantly changing definition of what was going on and the uncertainty of when (if) the pandemic was ever going to end created a growing sensation that I wasn’t going to be able to finish anything I had planned, so why start? I froze.

Adding to the stress was the thought of being held accountable for not completing the project I had proposed for my sabbatical. I remember a former colleague who was pilloried in the newspaper for getting a sabbatical to study the effectiveness of different types of French horn mouthpieces. It was held up to ridicule—an example of wasted taxpayer dollars—even if the community of hornists worldwide benefitted from the results of his research. I didn’t want to make page two of the Des Moines Register with the headline “Music professor gets paid to work in his garden at tax payer expense.”

I needed to come up with ideas to replace the now quite out of reach project I had proposed some eighteen months earlier. “How hard could it be? You’ve got lots of ideas” I thought to myself. But herein lies the “curse of the creative.” Most who undertake any sort of labor-of-the-mind can go along blissfully unaware of their gift, without a care in the world, enjoying an endless wellspring of ideas until—that is—someone takes notice. Once they call you a “creative person,” prepare yourself for a headlong crash into writer’s block, artistic stagnation, analysis paralysis, stage fright, or a batting slump.

Where paralysis has taken hold, depression can’t be far behind. 

Trying to imagine what comes next during a global pandemic is exhausting and debilitating. To a creator, it can be devastating: blocking the childlike wonder that fuels the imagination and feeds the creative spirit. I feel blessed that I have never had a shortage of (dare I say) creative ideas. I’ve had shortages of everything else including time, money, resources, energy, strength, and resolve, but never ideas.

But once the initial shock of something like a pandemic begins to wear off, the creatives get to work. Soon the damnable denizens of Facebook and YouTube began to fill the internet with endless and wonderful projects such as virtual ensemble performances, imaginative low budget music videos, and even a show about nothing more than Some Good News from around the world that broke the internet for several weeks (Thanks, John Krasinski). People were creating new projects and trotting them out daily. “Man, you better get on board or you’ll be left behind.”

Determined not to lose the creativity arms race, I opened my bag of incomplete projects and dumped them out (literally) onto the dining room table. In an effort to not be overcome by paralysis, I now had too many projects. I started (or restarted) a number of ambitious stay-at-home endeavors that would soon begin to collapse under their own weight. The reasons for their demise were as inexplicable as they were varied. 

“Behold, I have created depression” sayeth paralysis.

Like most of us, I have been given plenty of opportunities in my life to learn how to adapt but thanks to COVID, this time I was officially stuck.

So, now what? You adapt! Adapt and make a deal!

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear one of my former students speaking about her time at college. She recounted some advice I had given her about finding excellence as a composer. It was an affirmation to hear one of my oft repeated parables coming back to me some 30 years later. 

I still tell my students that when facing any type of writer’s block or loss of motivation, observing someone (anyone) who is at the top of their profession be it an Olympic athlete, an actor, a waitress, or a bus driver can inspire you to be a better performer in your own field. If my desire is flagging or I want to find inspiration, I need look no further than the local movie theater, library, or art gallery. The student, Sarah Vowell, went on to a very successful career as a writer, author, voice actor, and radio and television personality—if not a composer.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

So, I decided to take my own advice and turned to the Library, Amazon Prime, and once again, YouTube. I took the opportunity to read books I had been promising to get around to and delved deeper into the treasure trove of interesting YouTube channels to watch and learn.

One of the more unique concepts I stumbled upon was of people attempting to recreate the daily routines of famous people such as Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo DaVinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, and others. Guitarist and singer, Mary Spender, attempted to inhabit Beethoven’s daily routine and shared her experiences and takeaways in a popular YouTube video.

But not every routine seemed to work for everyone. DaVinci’s lifestyle was based on a polyphasic sleep pattern, meaning that for every 4-hours awake, he took a 20-minute power nap which provided him 22-hours of work time and a scant two hours of sleep per day. Needless to say, this schedule would be a bit of a challenge for most of us. Spender, however found benefit in following Beethoven’s routine while acknowledging that some adjustments were needed to fit her own lifestyle and workflow. 

Comments on her video were interesting and also amusing. One commenter wrote: “Many artists are trying out Van Gogh’s daily routine: wake up in a daze, drink in a haze, isolate from society for days, appreciate nature from a gaze, paint and paint and paint and be amazed… at how you can forget to eat or drink, or love, or hate, or feel anything other than the inter-connectivity of you, your art, and the world it exists in.” And another simply wrote: “I tried Hunter S. Thompson’s daily routine. I died of a cocaine overdose four weeks ago.”

Establishing a good routine is a time-honored technique recommended by many efficiency experts, but as someone whose inspiration can strike in the middle of the night, I have long relied on the freedom to access my studio whenever an idea hits me. Losing that autonomy was a significant blow. 

Between 2008 and 2016, I worked in a 750 square foot double-wide FEMA Trailer as a result of the Iowa River Flood of 2008 (an excellent opportunity to learn to adapt). It wasn’t the most acoustically perfect environment for composing and recording music, and occasionally the racoon family living beneath the trailer provided some extra-musical material, but I was able to work completely alone and unfettered during what became one of the most productive periods of my career.

Others know the value of being able to go from zero to creativity at a moment’s notice. I once read that guitarist Carlos Santana kept a crew member on call to make sure his studio and guitar rig were ready to go at all hours. If he got inspired to work in the middle of the night, he only needed to make a phone call and put on some pants (I can’t say for sure about the pants).

The first step toward getting myself back on track was to make a deal. 

I made my case to the powers-that-be and assured them that I would sequester in my studio and make every effort to avoid contact with any other humans. They agreed to allow me to work from 1:00 to 5:00 pm Monday through Friday so as to minimize contact with the custodial staff. Not exactly the unlimited access that I was used to, but it was something. The new schedule would require a change in my work habits, but since everyone else was walking a mile in another person’s shoes, I thought why not give it a try?

Multi-tasking—another time-honored technique for productivity—requires the ability to juggle several different projects at once. In our daily lives we are often called upon to keep many plates spinning simultaneously, but multi-tasking doesn’t always work well for me, particularly as I have gotten older. I found myself having to redo tasks to fix a mistake caused by working too quickly or while distracted. Since about 2008, I have tried to become more one-project-at-a-time oriented. I focus my mental energy on one task, project, or part of a project until it is complete before moving on to the next. As this approach often benefited from the aforementioned autonomy, the new routine would take some discipline. 

As a result of my restructured work schedule, I needed to pare down the number and scope of my projects, plan daily sessions in advance, and then upon arrival in the studio, immediately get to work on what had to be accomplished that day. No checking the COVID statistics on line, reading the news, or responding to emails. 

My take away from the COVID lockdown experience is that the new routine helped me to become more focused and to waste less time in the studio. As a result, I was able to get back on track for the level of productivity I had hoped to achieve during the sabbatical. The projects were different than what I had proposed but they would certainly withstand any scrutiny, and definitely keep me off of page two.

As Summer turned to Fall and the Music Building reopened to prepare for the new school year, I enjoyed the return of unlimited access to my studio. The practical lessons I learned during the lockdown seem to be sticking with me, but the most important lesson was remembering to seize every opportunity to take stock of what’s most important in your life. For me those things include faith, family, and friends, and perhaps the value of stopping—whether you want to or not.

In writing about one of the songs from his latest album, Love is the King, singer/song writer Jeff Tweedy wrote: “At the beginning of the lockdown I started writing country songs to console myself… ‘Guess Again’ is a good example of the success I was having at pushing the world away, counting my blessings—taking stock in my good fortune to have love in my life.” 

Tweedy’s approach to stopping the world is slightly different, and perhaps more realistic, than the songwriters of the 1960s, but it feels more applicable to our current situation, and it certainly resonates with me. I tell my students that “every day we are allowed to create music together is a gift that we should take advantage of and cherish.”

Today, I’m back to my more typical look-on-the-bright-side attitude. I know that life will be different—maybe it will never be the same—but I am confident that people will still want to hear music just as much as musicians still want to compose, practice, and perform it. 

I also hope to continue to benefit from the lessons learned during the Pandemic: the year the world decided to stop on its own and let us off.

Recommended Listening:

Make the World Go Away, Eddie Arnold

Stop the World and Let Me Off, Waylon Jennings

Guess Again, Jeff Tweedy

5 Replies to “Stop the World (and let me off) Lessons Learned from a Pandemic”

  1. Hi Dan,
    I’ve always been impressed by your musicianship, scholarship, creativity, and humor. You were a great addition to the U of I faculty. This is the first blog of yours that I’ve read and I enjoyed it thoroughly. You’ve given me much to think about.
    Just wanted you to know.
    I wish you continued success with your work.
    D

    1. Don,
      Thank you so much for your kind message. I have always valued our friendship and appreciated your support when I came to Iowa. I hope you are having a great year!
      Dan

  2. Right On Dan!
    Love you baby. I have been re-reading Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. A former student had borrowed it for three years and just got it back to me.
    I love how folks went to work and then most of them enjoyed life.
    I have been doing well at reimagining the hectic schedule I have been used to for most of the past 30 years. I create deadlines for projects etc..
    I have been using this analogy. This period is as if the lifeguard has blown the whistle to get out of the pool. I know we will return to the pool.
    I feel bad for young folks, like Audrey, who were all suited up and ready to dive in the pool just as the whistle was blown. We must support their endeavors and encourage and welcome their ideas in ways of staying inspired and hopeful.
    Love you baby!

  3. I finally had the time to read your blog! You are a wonderful writer and I think its so cool that you taught Sarah Vowell!
    Your song choices are perfect too!
    Virtual Hugs to you and Liesa!

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