Recently, I played recreational sand volleyball for the first time. It was a lot of fun, but several times during the game, I caught myself being overly self-critical (“Hold your arm lower when you start the serve”; “Why did you hit it like that?”, etc.). It’s no secret that playing an instrument at a high level requires a lot of careful, critical self-examination, but the trick is knowing when to turn it off – something, I, like many musicians, struggle with.
During this past U.S. Open, tennis greats Naomi Osaka and Venus Williams have shared their struggles with mental health, with a candor rare in the sports world. Their stories reminded me so much of the music world – like tennis players, musicians spend countless, solitary, hours honing our craft, and are taught early on to pursue perfection. As top-ranked men’s player Novak Djokovic puts it: “We are a particular sport that only has one winner.” Anyone who’s ever taken an orchestral audition knows exactly what he’s talking about. One person is ecstatic, and everyone else goes home disappointed. One noteworthy difference: Djokovic made $1.25 million dollars for losing Sunday’s final, whereas everyone at an orchestra audition (including the winner), loses money paying all their own travel expenses. (The insane economics of the music world are a subject for another time – still, just sayin’.)
I may have taken as many as 25 auditions myself, and won only a handful, none of which were “big ones” (the kind that give you a full-time job in a prestigious orchestra). For a long time, that felt like failure, but what I always noticed was how much better my playing got through the preparation. In my teaching (and my practicing, most days), I focus on the simple joy of making music, and the satisfaction that comes with improvement.
Both the sports and music worlds are full of stories of the perils of perfectionism, and there’s no better example than Jascha Heifetz, the gold standard for violinists since the early 20th century. Heifetz refined his craft with unrelenting determination, thanks in large part to his mother, who was never satisfied with his playing, and told him so repeatedly as a child. Heifetz was raised to be (and became) the world’s greatest violinist, but by all reports was a cold, difficult, human being. Given his upbringing, that’s not a surprise, but what a shame – how much joy did he miss out on in his life, even having achieved as much as he did?
After her recent loss at the U.S. Open, Naomi Osaka said: “I feel like for me recently, when I win I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal.” She’s right about that. Many thanks to her and Williams (as well as gymnast Simone Biles) – in speaking publicly about their struggles, they’ve done their fellow athletes (and the rest of us perfectionists) a great service.
Most orchestra concerts begin with a series of individual entrances- the executive director gives a curtain speech thanking donors, followed by the concertmaster, who tunes the orchestra, and finally, the conductor, who comes in, gets the orchestra up (which is unhelpful – we’ve just gotten settled), and bows (for no good reason – they haven’t done anything yet). This can take several minutes, and often drains much of the energy from the room.
What about starting the evening this way instead?
So, we need fire and a cool mascot, maybe some ice – no problem. I can hear the naysayers now – “What about cost?” Remember, each of these items are potential sponsorship opportunities! (“Tonight’s fire is brought to you by Blue Rhino Propane!”) And any safety concerns are easily taken care of, by inviting your county’s fire chief and insurance administrators onto your board and getting their approval as an in-kind donation.
My other big takeaway from the evening – concert halls desperately need a penalty box. In hockey, penalties create the most exciting part of the game – the power play. Maybe the violins could play a movement minus one member if they get called for excessive screechiness when playing on the high E string (which happens all the time, according to ProMusica’s David Danzmayr a conductor who prefers to remain anonymous). Or that one patron who insists on unwrapping their cough drop at the quietest moment in the slow movement – you know who you are. Give them two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct and seat them directly in front of the trombones – that’ll teach them.
Now the big question is, of course, who decides? Conductors, please put your hands down – you have enough power already. What about members of the orchestra, or maybe a board member? Personally, I’d vote for either the third chair cello (always the wisest person in an ensemble) or even better, an unpaid intern – finally a chance for them to get some payback! Here’s where we need some groupthink – please post your suggestions for concert hall penalties, and who should hand them out, in the comments!
This coming Saturday, I will say Kaddish for my father, to mark the seventh anniversary of his passing. As readers of this blog know, he and I often played and talked about music together, and a set of concerts I just played reminded me how much I miss that.
ProMusica Chamber Orchestra played Beethoven’s FourthSymphony this past weekend. This has always been my favorite of Beethoven’s symphonies – lighter, shorter, and more upbeat than its odd-numbered neighbors, the mighty “Eroica” and the famous Fifth. It is a workout to play – the last movement in particular goes like the wind (especially with David Danzmayr conducting!). However, it’s the slow movement that’s always been my favorite, and there’s one moment in particular that touches me more deeply than any in music. It took me until this weekend to realize why I love this passage so much – it is the most human, vulnerable music I know. In turn, the principal bassoon, principal clarinet and horns are all asked to play very high and softly, while the cellos, basses, and timpani softly echo the movement’s main rhythm, a “heartbeat” figure, miles beneath them in the bass. Have a listen:
For these few moments, Beethoven takes us right to the edge of the abyss, but doesn’t linger too long – the flute solo which follows is the most beautiful, loving part of the piece. And that’s Beethoven in a nutshell, going from the depths to the heights in no time. These are the sorts of passages that I remember talking about with Dad – I hope he still gets to enjoy them as much as I do.
Bravos to my ProMusica colleagues – bassoonist Rachael Young, hornists Stephanie Blaha and Bruce Henniss, and especially clarinetist Ilya Shterenberg – your playing was absolutely wonderful. And a special thank you to my stand partner Joel Becktell, who had to listen to me talk about this passage every time we got to it in rehearsal – sorry, man!
I have been meaning to share this post for a couple of weeks now, but given all that has happened, especially in Pittsburgh, and what is coming next Tuesday (need I say this – VOTE!!!!!!), it feels like it’s really time. At a moment when our voices are simultaneously growing louder and less persuasive, here are two uniquely American musical selections, one that depicts our current national “conversation”, as well as one which offers a more hopeful alternative.
Recently, ProMusica performed Charles Ives’ masterpiece, “Three Places in New England,” and while we were working, I realized that it is the most perfectly American piece of music I know, and a wonderful representation of what is happening right now.
The first movement, haunting beyond words, depicts a Civil War memorial in Boston to slain black Union soldiers, and the last movement beautifully depicts the Housatonic river (at least for a while – as so often happens with Ives, all hell breaks loose towards the end). However, the middle movement of the piece is what I want to highlight here – “Putnam’s Camp”, a glorious mishmash of marches, folk tunes and general mayhem.
The movement begins with a marching band that doesn’t seem to know how to march – the rhythm is thrown off almost immediately, and things spiral downward from there, with various sections of the orchestra either ignoring or clashing with the main tune all the way through. You can listen to the entire piece here, but I want to draw your attention to the very end, when the national anthem manages to interrupt itself (starting on two successive beats), and then, for the last chord, everyone seems to shout at once. I think that sums up the state of things these days perfectly.
As a contrast, let’s listen to a piece I used to play for a living, John Philip Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” march. In the middle section, there’s a long buildup, that begins with the drums, and adds, one at a time, tubas, trumpets, clarinets, and finally, gloriously, the trombones. Each group has their own line, and they wind up playing all at the same time. Unlike in the Ives, all these voices at once sound beautiful, fit together perfectly, and complement each other. I think that’s a far more optimistic way of looking at America’s national conversation – everyone gets to talk, everyone is heard clearly, and we’re the better for it.
Here are two versions, the first by my former colleagues in the Marine Band, and the second by just one of those colleagues, bassist Eric Sabo, who seemingly had nothing better to do, and learned all the parts himself. I do miss sitting in front of him in orchestra – as you can see, he’s a guy who knows how to have a good time.
Ives had a keen sense of the complexities and contradictions of American life, and expressed them better than any other composer I know of. Sousa, for his part, seems to be expressing the hope and idealism that has guided our country through worse times than this. Though I, and I suspect many of you, feel a lot like the Ives right now, I’d like to think (to quote my mom) that we can get back to living in the America that it sounds like Sousa was hoping for.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, Aboriginal Australian artist and activist
I first heard this quote from Vijay Gupta, while attending the League of American Orchestras conference last month. A violinist in the LA Philharmonic, Gupta runs Street Symphony, an organization that plays music in Skid Row and the LA County Jail, among other “unconventional” venues. Gupta is an inspiring speaker (you can watch his videos here), and he coined an expression I’ve taken to heart – “radical mutuality.”
Gupta spoke movingly about what he getsfrom playing in places like jail, and emphasized that it was just as important as what he and his colleagues “give” to the audience. Many musicians perform for folks deemed “underserved” or “less fortunate”, and that’s very good, of course – we get to share what we love with more people than those lucky enough to find their way to the concert hall. As performers, we always are giving of ourselves to the listeners, and that opportunity is one of the main reasons we play music in the first place. However, Gupta reminds us that the audience has much to give, too – something that we as performers can sometimes miss, or leave unacknowledged, in the “traditional” ways we present music.
Gupta’s “radical mutuality” is tied up with his emphasis on transforming concert halls from places of “presentation” to places of “convening”. He mentioned one simple change which makes this very easy to do – get the audience’s reaction to a piece of music before sharing ours! Many performers (myself included) often make a point of sharing some insights about a piece right before or after playing it – what about getting the audience’s reaction first? He described some amazing perspectives he’d heard from inmates after performing a Bach Sarabande for them – they were far deeper and personal than the ones we often give in pre-concert lectures and program notes.
This alone would be enough reason for performers to re-assess the way they interact with audiences, but as Gupta reminded us, there’s a much more important one, too.
I was reminded of this last week, when I played at the Cincinnati VA Hospital. I have written here before about my experiences in their outpatient mental health unit, and now I play regularly in the inpatient unit as well. I sit in a hallway, next to the TV lounge and facing the nurses’ station, and get regular smiles and thank-yous from the staff and patients as they (mostly) pass by.
This time, though, it turned into a real conversation – several patients sat with me for nearly two hours, and each piece prompted them to share thoughts about what they heard, facts about themselves, their past connection to music, or questions about the cello and what it’s like to play it. I was struck by how open and vulnerable they made themselves after hearing the music, and I was more open, too. I left feeling as if I had been given as much (or more) than I gave.
At the convention, Gupta talked openly about his difficult childhood and that for him, performing on Skid Row is as much for him as for the listeners. He recalled riding home from a performance with his fellow musicians and his wife, who is a chaplain – after hearing the musicians criticize themselves and worry about the impression of their performance, she said “You all are the ones who need a therapist!”
When I talk with people after playing for (or with) them, we are more open and vulnerable than usual – our shared experience makes it easier for us to connect at a deeper level. I find this especially true with the patients at the VA – though many of them suffer from PTSD or other debilitating conditions, and sometimes even need hospitalization for them, they are healed, at least temporarily, by the experience of not just hearing someone play, but talking with them, too. In a TED talk, Gupta talks about the transformation he saw in Nathaniel Ayers (the Juilliard-trained bassist who suffers from schizophrenia, and whose story was told in the book and movie “The Soloist”) when they played music together, and says simply: “Music is medicine.”
I do not claim to have the the depth of challenges that either Gupta, Ayers, or anyone I met last week at the VA face. However, we all have our “issues”, and I know one of the ways I deal with mine is through sharing music, and I felt far more healed by my experience at the VA last week than I have in a long time. To borrow from Lilla Watson, my liberation is bound up with the folks I met at the VA, and I’m grateful to them (and Mr. Gupta) for reminding me of that.