by Rebecca L. Hein
American Reporter Correspondent
April 11, 2008
TUNE UP YOUR TAXES WITH THE CELLO
CASPER, Wyo. -- I never liked signing a tax form for which I merely supplied the W2s and receipts yet relied on someone else's knowledge. So over the past 15 years I've learned the requirements and filled out all of the forms myself. It hasn't been easy, but this task has been smoothed out and accomplished in good part by my lifetime of cello playing.
When my husband and I first cut our budget and divided up the work we were no longer paying others to do, Ellis fixed the toilets while I dealt with the government's idea of paperwork reduction. I didn't expect the cello to come in handy for doing our taxes.
The first five years were the worst. When I tried to decipher even a few sentences in an instruction booklet or set of statutes, I became nearly catatonic. Each year we did something different: sold business or personal property, acquired inventory, or purchased equipment that I had to figure out how to depreciate. So instead of building on previous experience, I felt like I was carving out an entirely new set of skills.
To choose a depreciation method I had to read several paragraphs of which I understood perhaps one phrase in 20, and just because I could grasp the words didn't mean the concept was clear. What is "personal property" when mentioned in a business context? That question required a phone call, and the answer helped me complete the form, but not to understand the logic of the IRS.
Possibly there is none, but we must obey the law. The cacophony of an audit, like your first loud mistake in an orchestra concert, is an episode to avoid. If this isn't possible, you prepare for the worst.
"You are legally responsible for the contents of your tax return, no matter who fills it out," remarked one of my friends from the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra. We were talking during a rehearsal break, and I'd just discovered that he'd been doing his own taxes for years.
When I griped about mushing my mind through the labyrinth of statutes and instructions he added, "The IRS is required to answer your questions. Their advice is free, and if you write it down, it stands up in court."
This conversation plus my own recent experience with depreciation launched my new strategy. Where before I spent too much time struggling over a single set of instructions, now I noted my questions, grabbed a book, and dialed 1-800-829-1040.
My experience varied. Sometimes I stated a question in detail, then discovered that the person listening was not going to answer it. Instead, he switched me to someone who could.
But often that new agent could not, usually because the operator had transferred me to the wrong person or had misjudged the subject of my inquiry. The IRS has so many specialty branches that even when a request is clearly defined there are several possibilities for routing a call. One morning I was transferred four times in 30 minutes and had to wait on hold every time. I soon realized that this was not unlike a normal practice session with my cello in which I confronted deadlines, blind alleys, difficult passages, and other tests of patience.
The curse and delight of my life, the cello sucked time out of my college days the way sun pulls light from the sky at dusk. I spent thousands of hours practicing, rehearsing, and performing, with little to show for it, it seemed, compared with all that effort. The spikes in my learning curve vanished as soon as they appeared and I missed as many notes as I hit.
I thought this stage would never end, but after 20 years large areas of my technique finally settled. Most of the time I could rely on my tone, pitch, and rhythm; and occasionally I even felt like I was making music. This struggle was preferable to my hours of work on taxes each year, and until we switched from sole proprietorships to an "S corporation" I didn't see how cello-playing was helping me with this most tedious of chores.
Questions littered my desk like wrong notes at a junior high band concert, so I assembled my list and began working through it. I read about inventory and saw that I had no idea how to complete the "Cost of Goods Sold" section of Form 1120S, although in past years I'd filled in the identical information for our sole proprietorships.
My current problem was how to account for the transfer of property from an individual to a corporation. I was fighting that familiar sense of failing to decipher a foreign language when I realized, This isn't so hard. I expect to feel stymied and I know what to do about it.
I called the IRS and spent more time than ever on hold or just explaining my questions. This was only the beginning, because our S corporation required so many new forms and procedures. During the next few weeks I endured all the usual annoyances of dealing with the government, but either I'd adjusted to these rigors or had become more adept at articulating my confusion.
The right agents, when I reached them, were helpful and polite. Better yet, I could count on their answers. By the end of this process I'd completed all the necessary forms and when I signed our returns, I felt a sense of power and control.
It was like the first time I played a musical phrase exactly as I wanted it. The satisfaction of that moment counterbalanced all the years of work and frustration that had led up to it.
The most important thing I've learned from playing cello is how to use my mind. Focus is required because you need precision. If musicians play out of tune or fail to mesh their rhythms, nobody wants to listen.
Yet a preoccupation with accuracy leads in the wrong direction. If I guess at the center of the target, my aim is better, so I've learned to loosen my reflexes and let instinct complete the job.
We can't fill out our tax returns by intuition, but our subconscious is always at work. It's like practicing. While tussling with pitch, rhythm, tone quality, and a multitude of other tasks, your mind can still be free. Then answers pop out in front of you, so real and workable that you can almost see them with your eyes. In just such a flash during my early work on our S corporation returns I realized that it was easier to spend hours on the phone than to paralyze my brain in the muddy prose of an alien culture.
If I can slog through hundreds of etudes, some of which are as stultifying as any IRS publication, maybe you too can tolerate the long push through your taxes. Finding the will and patience to complete any government form has built my confidence as much as the toughest performance. And since I no longer pay an accountant, the jingle of cash in my pocket is the sweetest tune of all.
Rebecca Hein is the former principal cellist of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra. She is the author of A Case of Brilliance, and editor of Don't Remember This, a bimonthly journal on teaching and creativity. Write her via her Website .