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Bach to Balam Back to Belong

“And now for something completely different!” as soon as the words left my mouth the room was punctuated by the explosive sound of glass breaking on the tile floor. The crowd roared with laughter and one of the kitchen workers scurried to clean up the mess this tipsy ex pat had made with his wine glass. What was “different” was the sacred geometry of Bach, which felt like a medicine of order in this party atmosphere of old hippies in the jungle in the Yucatan. I had been drawn to this Bach medicine as a child in a big family with hippie parents who were always searching and seemed intrigued and enamored with everything exotic and “other. Seeking a belonging to some single tradition, to some ancestral lineage, as well as a physical discipline, classical music held a space for me when my alternative community sought to transform and improve on convention. Also, my Dad is mostly German heritage (later I found out from 23 and me also Polish), and Bach felt right in line with the hard work ethic and a lutheran grandmother.

My maternal grandmother had ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, but lived in Mexico for 30 years. We visited her a couple times and my childhood home was decorated with Mexican art. The last time I was in Mexico was in 1997, over 20 years ago, when I was uncertain if I would follow the path of a musician.  So this tour felt like coming home, as there I was in Valladolid, Mexico surrounded by welcoming faces at the Casa Hamaca with the skill to fill the space with patterns and rippling sequences that I had befriended and mastered for decades. The joy in listening was palpable and augmented the joy in my playing. Then, in my emerald silk dress I did something in the company of 80 plus strangers that I had never done before: I allowed myself to take a massive risk and not only improvise at a formal concert, but do so inside a style of music I barely had any experience with and in collaboration with musicians I had met only 15 minutes before the concert. In black face paint, naked from the waist up and carrying drums and flutes, four Mayan musicians (a band called Box Balam pronounced Bosh Balam, meaning Black Jaguar) took the stage alone for several songs, then I joined them, improvising with their melodies and rhythms. The result was one of the most powerful experiences in my many years on stage, not because the music was polished or stunning, but that we in co-existing, had bucked the trend of hundreds of years of colonialism. HCJC6804 Video excerpt click here

On a personal level I had transcended the duality of western thought that had instilled in me the belief that I had to choose classical or folk; convention or innovation; modernity or history; hippies or tradition; me or them. Something shifted in me and something profound healed in the audience. We all felt it. Some woman yelled from the audience in the question and answer that followed the performance “you have quite a powerful voice, lady”. Indeed, this was exactly where I belonged-Bach and Mayan music.

A few days earlier I had played for a crowd of some of the wealthiest and most powerful folks in Merida and the Yucatan. One hundred and twenty seats had sold out and so we added a second night, which was filled with the warmth of artists and friends of the hostess. It was also a magical evening as Jose and I wove together melodies from Brazilian choros, Argentinian Tangos as well as Bach. I was a bit intimidated the first night, not expecting such a prestigious crowd, but still played well and it was well received. By the second night I was filled with pure joy. These composers straddled traditions and struggled to find their belonging, but in making their voice heard, they created a space for seemingly contradictory traditions and cultures to coexist.

Even in a culturally diverse community such as Mexico, I have been told, the classical music culture has remained mostly entrenched in a narrow range of music, rarely venturing into the 20th century or away from Europe. The immense popularity of our event was due in large part to a hunger for something that embraced and expressed something beyond this narrowness. We also realized that our incredible hostess Leila was very special and at the center of the Yucatan community with her beautiful space she held for art and performance called La Cupula. Inviting her friends meant inviting everybody. She had us stay in one of her vast guest suites, decorated with folk art, and we marveled at the pools and sculptures of jaguars in her gorgeous interior garden.

QJQO0290 Video excerpt click here
Between concerts my husband, mom and I climbed the almost completely empty ancient Mayan site of Xkambo (from around 400 AD) and I played to the birds and trees from the amazing view at the top. We ate coconut crusted shrimp, papaya and mangos; collected shells on the beach; waited in line for freshly made tortillas; got lost in tiny towns dodging dogs and speed bumps; and even managed to get stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the ocean. Despite jellyfish and speed bumps, the western part of the Yucatan felt safe and the people were welcoming and warm.

After returning home, skirting the edge of a massive snow storm, I floated on a certain cloud of euphoria for a couple days and then I collapsed with fever, chills, intense back pain, digestive distress. Breathing into my physical distress I began to sob. I realized that while all this belonging, embrace and joy was welcome, it was also a bit frightening and unfamiliar. Here began to emerge an historic pain from decades of struggling to find my place in the world. A long history of not belonging: not belonging, I felt, in the conservatory among lineage classical musicians from the city, folks who had never improvised in their lives or gathered newts from a stream; not belonging in jazz music or celtic music where fiddlers knew thousands of tunes; not belonging in normal society because of my unconventional upbringing; not belonging as a woman in a male dominated field; not belonging to my innate and profound connection to nature as my life took me into cities; not belonging in my nature based spirituality in a rational or christian society.

But somehow, among the chocolate and jaguar sculptures and Bach and mayan music it really sunk in. No, I didn’t ever belong to any of those things or places, I belonged to ALL OF THEM, and also, I belonged to myself. And here I am, with all of these many paths that have led me to exactly this moment, beneath the blood mood eclipse, finding my way home to this truth. I woke up from an illusion of isolation and found myself with skill and joy on stage surrounded by hundreds of listeners playing music that I have always been meant to play. The listeners, composers and my cello woke me up and I woke them up. We are all indigenous to this earth. We all belong.

Remind me of this when I forget again.

Balam means Jaguar in the Mayan language. The Jaguar is one of the symbols of the “Rainbow Lady’ goddess Ix Chel in the Mayan pantheon. The clothing and art in Mexico sing of this goddess of weaving and colors. The rainbow has all colors and is a marvel to behold, filled with light and illumination, but also with rain, the humility of heaven’s tears. Beneath the sunshine and the rain, in the warm soil of this beautiful earth seeds can burst open and new life can emerge.

A warm thank you to all the wonderful listeners and fascinating people I met, too many to name, but mostly thank you to: Jose and Ingrid Lezcano; Pearl and George Ashley; Leila Voyt; Yannik Piel; Joann and Jim Burns; Tey Mariana Stiteler; Denis Larsen; Ivan Cabaldon; Ronald and Dee Poland; Diana Castillo; and to my husband Wesley Fleming and mom Linda Hartka-Reiss.

Duxbury Concert

The houses were almost uniformly covered in light grey shingles, large with beautiful beach views. I saw a town filled with tremendous history, and privilege mixed with a working class making their money in service positions to those who wanted it all. I wondered where I belonged in this story. Was I just another amusement? Good enough for those who can have anyone play for them? Then I thought of my parents, one raised rich, one poor, each with their struggles, and each with their gifts and important set of values that make up my worldview; complicated, like this town. A struggle to integrate.

It was a cloudy and windy day, a cold April rain was falling. I got out of the car briefly to stare out at the water. I was half an hour early and wasn’t ready to be Rebecca Hartka, the cellist. I wanted to savor a few moments of anonymity by the harbor. The water was churning a grey green. It occurred to me that the residents of this town were divided by many things, mainly by how much money they possessed. But fisherman and lawyer might share an equal if different reverence for the power of the ocean. I returned to the warmth of the car to eat the turkey sandwich I’d packed for lunch and noticed that a forty something man had parked beside me in a large, fancy pick-up. He looked well to do, with warm brown eyes that were moist with tears. He had a look of profound sadness, as if someone had just told him his wife was leaving him. The layer of thin glass between us must have given him the illusion of privacy, either this or he was beyond caring, as his eyes filled with tears. Here he was, like me, seeking solace at the edge of this vastness of grayish green blue water.

I felt a profound kinship with him and all the other residents of Duxbury at that moment, drawn as I have always been to the water’s edge, willing to risk, or maybe even finding comfort in this power so much greater than my being. Centering myself inside of compassion for rich and poor, and the force of the ocean, I pulled out of the marina and headed toward my concert venue. When I arrived at the museum I was met with a thoughtful and caring community who take their role very seriously as supporters of the arts, and an informed and enthusiastic audience. Barbara and I had a wonderful time being swept up in the ocean of music. We celebrated at a little seafood joint with fish and chips and mixed drinks. Ahhh New England!

Trial by Fire and Water

This late September I took my morning walk with the dogs down the road and marveled at the sparkling patches of frost not yet melted by the rising sun. Five days ago 90 degree heat and high humidity were bearing down on me during a concert performance which happened at 4 pm; the hottest hours of one of the hottest days in more than a month. A week before that I stepped on stage in my new job at Keene, with short notice, and performed before the provost and other important folks in the college. Both concerts went well. Both concerts were extra challenging for different reasons, and I transcended the challenges with nearly opposite approaches. Ferocious determination and stepping into my power for the one, and surrender, acceptance and letting go of ego for the other.

At the end of summer when the dam was released at the Zoar Gap in the northeastern slopes of the Berkshires, I put on a wetsuit and plunged down the white water in a raft with my brother, his girlfriend, a childhood friend and two young men I’d never met. We arrived at a class three rapid, called Dragon Tooth. The last time we had done this run I had been thrown out of the raft. I was bounced out of the boat into the waves of the rapid, then caught in the current, luckily remembering to go feet first, so as not to hit the rocks with my head, until my brother in law pulled me out by my life jacket. At the time I was exhilarated and laughed it off. But this August I felt fear. Maybe I should skip it?

The guide encouraged me to be courageous. Courage not being the lack of fear, but the choice to do something anyway. As we faced the pounding river waves and the white water hit my face, our guide yelled to keep paddling forward hard. Something primal was released at that moment and I let out a low and tremendous roar, a dragons roar,  and cut through the water with furious strokes. I looked that river in the face and said under no uncertain terms would I be defeated, that I had a right to be and that I was a strong warrior. The river brought forward my power to meet it and we navigated through the rapid with perfection. The others in the boat were inspired by my roar and affectionately called me dragon lady for the rest of the day.

Later on the stage as I stared down at a highly technical musical piece, containing several class three and four rapids, that river came up to greet me. The memory of my encounter with dragon tooth brought forth my ferocious primal power and I navigated through the performance nearly flawlessly. Aside from a few folks who approached me afterward, the audience seemed to be fairly neutral in response. However, I knew it was a success and was thrilled.

One week later, in the 90 degree heat I felt utterly defeated. My sense of control or power was undermined by the unpredictability of shifts from a sticky fingerboard, and beads of sweat dripping off my body,causing me to slip off. My cello was sweating, and the piano was going increasingly out of tune from the humidity. While playing I focused on being present to the music fully, but it took great effort. I drank electrolytes and wiped my hands and cello between each movement.

Most of the hundred people in the audience were lost in the music, but my several adult students suffered with me, they felt my pain. To survive the concert I had to accept the unpredictable, and be humbled by the limitations of my physical existence, and give myself 100% to the music, even if the offering was flawed by missed notes and technical struggles brought on by circumstances. This hurt my pride and I suffered from this as much as the physical oppression of the heat and the mental malaise and trouble focusing that it caused. When we finished the audience lept to their feet. After an encore we were brought back for a second encore. I didn’t understand. Was it pity? Did 100 people pity me all spontaneously at once? Surely it wasn’t such a great performance. The hosts and recording engineer seemed to reflect my reality, mentioning what a good and forgiving audience they have.

I suffered for days afterwards wondering if I’d humiliated myself, until I broke down and listened to the recording, figuring I’d just look my epic failure squarely in the face and get it over with. It’s true, I heard the bloopers, which seemed much larger in the moment, and an ever more out of tune piano, which helped explain the feeling of confusion. But most of all what I heard was a beautifully performed recital, with virtuosic, passionate and transcendent playing from both of us. I was shocked. Really shocked. I know my experience on stage isn’t always a clear picture of reality, but this disparity was the biggest I’d ever experienced. Listening to the recording  I heard thousands of hours of practice, the power of our duo connection and great music by amazing composers. I didn’t hear the sweat or suffering. A brilliant reminder that, even when feeling defeated, if we keep giving and offering music, our devotion and passion will help us transcend our pain. Such a clear reminder that music is much greater than me and my little worries.

Colors Couleurs Colores Cores

I have been knee deep into the Colors recording project and watching the hours of work and bills grow. I am anything but inspired. I am trying to remember the beauty of music, the profound sense of impact our Colors recording will have on the lives of others, possibly well past our own lives. I don’t expect it all to be a joyous walk in the park, but months before and after the final note was performed in the recording studio, I have devoted probably hundreds of hours to all the details of non musical stuff: editing, mixing, mechanical rights, fund raising, publicity, pre-orders, booking CD release venues, design, program notes and printing, not to mention practicing and recording. And it’s getting to me.

I can barely remember the magic of being immersed in the colors of Debussy, the sounds of Paris during the twilight of the Belle Epoque. I have been behind my computer making release timelines, recording schedules, marking scores for edits, editing cd booklet down to every last accent and period, creating a website, emails and emails and emails and meeting with the designer, the artist, the engineer.

It could always be worse. Way worse!

I am only just recalling the vibrancy of the Havana Streets, the thrill of being on stage, the wide-eyed look of reverence from students, the pure joy of the cello vibrating against my rib cage.  I try to remember that, if anything, this is an investment in my overall career as well as my musical partnerships; an investment that could make a difference long term in unforeseen ways. And it will. Truthfully, in terms of booking gigs, a video and good photos would have been money better spent if my business self were in charge. But then, that’s not the same as sharing this beautiful music with listeners. In the end, music, not money, will always be my master.

In my morass of frustration I press play. The music takes me back. I am swept up in the beauty of the sound. Tears are in my eyes. The final mix is DONE!! Mastering and a few more edits to the booklet and its off to print. FINALLY!!

I try to like this “extra” stuff of recording projects, I really do, and since SONY Records has yet to knock on my door, it’s either be an entrepreneur or do nothing. The creative force inside of me is undeniable, and the pain of denying this force is worse than the tedium of running my own record label. Making music, and releasing my music is a mandate in my life not just to have a meaningful, passionate existence but somewhat a matter of mental survival.

Knowing all this, I still found myself getting more and more impatient this summer as my cello Lorenzo sat in his case unplayed for almost a month.

I have never worked so hard on a project or been more central in all aspects of the production. As the producer I was the creative vision behind everything from the design to the musical selections. Truly, no CD has been as much my own personal statement as this one. On the other hand, Colors really is a collage of efforts from some of the finest professionals I have ever known, and is an expression of their brilliance. One of my engineers, Robin Moore records for The World, runs her own record label and was amazing at creating the perfect mic set up for my sessions with Barbara. She was also an absolutely generous, patient and steady force in the mixing of the CD-truly an angel. Antonio Oliart, also at WGBH, is a terrific engineer but also helped in the recording session to get the best out of Jose and my performance. The artist for the cover, Gayle Kabaker has had her work twice on the cover of the New Yorker. She travelled with us to Cuba, sketched the whole week and created the most amazing art for the CD cover in collaboration with designer Alexis Neubert. Jose Lezcano was nominated twice for a Grammy, and wrote an amazing Sonata that is included in the CD. His extra pair of ears were invaluable in the mixing. In addition to being a long time collaborator of the highest order, and one of the kindest human beings you will ever meet, Barbara played with such technical precision in our recording session that the editing process was a breeze. My student Mike Fein, a professional photographer, captured our recording session with some of these terrific photos you see here. And another student Vince Canzonieri assisted in keeping track of our takes and any missed notes during recording. Zeke Hecker looked through my program notes with a skilled eye for punctuation and grammar and how to simplify the text. Connie Clarke gave me amazing assistance in navigating the challenge of being both a musical colleague and producer for the CD. Norma Johnson is assisting me with publicity and mailing the CD to national publications. Numerous sponsors and other supporters of the project, too many to mention, while not covering the full cost of the CD, made a huge difference in my overall level of investment, allowing the project to be done without cutting any corners.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my husband Wesley Fleming, who has been in the trenches with me and bearing my complaints and seeing the expenses rise that will impact him as well. He did website work for the project and more than anything, is doing his best to navigate this tricky business of being life partners, business partners and friends. He has stood by me through both success and failure.

I am looking forward to the joy and meaning this music will bring to others. And a little joy for me too!


DANCING & MOJITOS We were a surprisingly boisterous community brought together by classical music, celebrating with mojitos and dancing. I was surrounded by family: blood family, family by marriage, chosen friends family, colleague family and near strangers turned instant friends family. I could barely contain my urge to dance as the five man Cuban band feet from our table pulsed with polyrhythms and melodies. The vibrant, urgency of the Cuban resilience distilled, like sugar cane into rum, a perfected balance of African, Spanish and European elements electrified every cell in my body. This music was at once ancient and incredibly contemporary in our global society. On most street corners, cafes and almost everywhere music was a daily soundtrack. But this group was especially good.

Earlier in the evening Jose and I performed in the cultural center next to the Cathedral, an ancient monastery repurposed, with a garden courtyard, arches and vast white hallways. We played a program as eclectic as Habana with music by Brazilian composers Gnatali and Bandolim, Lezcano’s own sonata infused with tango and Cuban dance rhythms, Spanish songs by Da Falla, Bach, Villa Lobos and others. What was a unique and possibly exotic set of pieces in the states felt perfectly resonant in Cuba with the mixed culture all around. I had moments of insecurity when I recalled the powerful, rhythmic playing of the cellists at the festival from a rehearsal I had attended the day before. These cellists had been raised with these Afro-Cuban rhythms baked into their everyday life. As a white American, I also wondered what was the line between embracing this music and appropriating something that wasn’t mine. Beneath my fears, however, I know this music was exactly where I belonged and that various threads from my life had been pulled together into a beautiful integration at the concert: the trips as a child to Mexico to visit my grandparents; the African dance in diaspora classes at Oberlin; the Spanish pieces my mom played on guitar while I grew in her belly and through my early years; practicing Bach as a teenager, my sanctuary from the noise of a loud family.

In the restaurant, as if she read my mind, Mayte, Alejandro’s wife, offered her husband as a dance partner as proof that I was welcome in their world. We two cellists hit the floor with the one-two-three syncopated step of Cuban dance. There wasn’t much room between the singer and a long table in the small upper floor of a two story restaurant, but we tore up what floor there was and they reassured me that I was a really quick study. Next I pulled Carina up, the adorably sweet Afro Cuban caretaker of our air bnb, and we did some extra hip shaking to whoops and applause from our table.

Carina was dressed to the nines. After sitting and listening to me practice back at the house for most of an hour, the day after my arrival, she had proudly attended Jose and my concert that night fully decked out with her boyfriend Jasmany, and listened rapt with attention and throwing me reassuring glances from the audience. Five days later when I pressed my cd into her hands, we kissed goodbye on each cheek, tears in our eyes. “I will listen every day”, she said. “It is so peaceful”, said her boyfriend, “it is my first concert”.


Our Casa Particular with a large fenced garden courtyard, tile and canopy covered bench, arbor, tables and a trickling fountain, provided an oasis of air conditioning and warm showers after the tragic comedy of the daily confoundingly beautiful and painful paradoxical experience of the Havana streets.



To say that Havana is gritty is a laughable understatement, yet the profound and colorful vibrancy of humanity also dances and sings on every corner. Having my mom and husband around me, as well as friend and terrific artist Gayle Kabaker, her husband Peter and brother David offered a cultural buffer that was wonderfully soothing amidst wild Havana and helped me take it in within a community setting. I was also pleasantly surprised when my student Charlotte and her partner and partners mom sailed into Cuba to meet up with us! We traveled in our entourage with folks helping with logistics and organization. We shared stories around breakfast from our previous days adventures, and shared a wonderful mutually supportive atmosphere.

Walking down 15th street through our neighborhood, called the Vedado, took an act of courage and care, as we dodged headless chicken carcasses; human sized holes on the sidewalk; garbage; begging, emaciated dogs; wild cats fighting in every alley (these same cats made the most wretched yowling sounds at night and we had to keep our barred windows closed to avoid unintended visitors).
There was a seemingly endless parade of antique cars of every shape and color (pink and turquoise and yellow) belching exhaust with a small taxi sign on their dash boards; horse carriages; a couple wheeling an old couch on a dolly, or a singer machine my grandma might have used; someone selling something starchy and fried. Colorful houses lined the street some pristine and abundant, the next dilapidated with piles of rubble and garbage with architecture here Soviet inspired, next Spanish, with fragrant blossoms in the yard, dog poop at the next. Children laughed and played baseball with a tennis ball, a man, pawning broken guitars, large mural of Castro and Che and other colorful propaganda messages and images covered cement walls, smells of cigars lingered in the damp air and the heart beat of drums pulsed tirelessly. In one of the old Havana squares with a massive, Spanish colonial cathedral towering over cobbled streets, archways and expansive courtyards we sipped our overpriced, bitter
cortaditos, probably made with canned milk, while a man power washed from a balcony in a narrow street while school children squealed in glee trying to get him to spray them from the sky.





Days were filled with desperate attempts to cmmunicate. No cell service for Americans meant plans and back up plans and places to me that reminded me of a bygone era before texting. Internet was a magical and mysterious possibility that required a card, and a hot spot and still somehow didn’t work. Cuban, guttural Spanish spoken at a break neck pace with half the consonants missing often defeated the possibility of my weak skills getting me very far. I learned to use hand signals and very simple sentences.

With Cuban people I noticed an incredible capacity for warmth and community, with an undercurrent of hopelessness and maybe deeper still, a bubbling feeling of desperation. Most folks showed a resilience and perseverance and this sometimes burst into rage. For example, our experience with a cab driver one of the first nights in Havana. We set our rate at $8 CUCs, roughly $10 to go 10 minute across town. The old black car was a gas chamber of fumes, the windows cracked, the door handle fell off in my hand and the two men in the front seemed sketchy at best. When we arrived and gave the $8 CUCs the man said we owed him $10 CUCs. When we disagreed he flew into a rage with all sorts of threats in a thick dialect that I am grateful I didn’t understand. We gave him the remaining two CUCs and rather than feel swindled I felt such sorrow for him. This was the rage of a man who had spent his entire life fighting to survive. For sure, an entire cash and trade economy has developed in Cuba to avoid the government stealing their meager income. We saw people waiting in lines for rationed potatoes, and menus at restaurants constantly changing to adapt to shortages of various food items, and with tourism picking up, some of the best food is diverted to them rather than the Cuban people. I saw first hand example of what colleagues who grew up in soviet occupied Poland or Ukraine had related to me: stories of waiting in line for hours for rare food items or goods.
Another cab driver chain smoked and deftly avoided pot holes while sipping out of a paper bag. I tried to forget that we had neither seat belts or air bags as we hurled down the highway. His blood shot eyes and slumped back told of a rough life. We had agreed on a set price and he drove to the south side of the island. He sat in the shade and watched as everyone played in the gemstone blue waves of the Caribbean. He was afraid of sharks. Later, around a shared meal of plantains, rice, and beans, fruit and fresh fish that we offered to pay half of, he seemed to soften. When we gave him his cash and said goodbye, he kissed me on both cheeks and urged me to return. His tenderness was sincere, and quite unexpected.

A tremendous line up of talent was presented at the concert of students. I could barely believe the skill and musical passion and yet the instruments were some of the poorest quality and worst cared for I have ever seen. I felt sadness and at the same time such joy to see these students over come these odds and play so beautifully. I was grateful for the privilege to be in a position to offer small support. In the over air conditioned university building right near the main square of Old Havana students from all over Cuba showcased their talent, and I, with my offline google translator app and help from Jose, cobbled together a speech in Spanish. The audience of cellists and family of cellists beamed with gratitude and appreciation as I stumbled through my pronunciation and shared these thoughts: “This cello is a token of gratitude for being welcomed here and a symbol that music knows no borders and we are all human. Cuban musicians have a gift to offer the world of music and I am honored to be able to assist in my small way, thank you to the many sponsors who made this possible”.

Three days later I coached the most talented students from the group. At first it was six but they kept coming and pretty soon I had been going for almost three hours and had worked with ten students ranging ages 15-21. It was pure joy! The thirst for outside input and knowledge was palpable and after an electrifying, humorous, fun and intense set of sessions, photos and kisses and celebration followed. Maestra Hartka had hopefully made a positive impact.







The style of cello playing in Cuba reflected the machismo and the tender loyalty of the Cuban spirit. It was gritty, passionate, rhythmically intense, romantic, virtuosic, but could improve on delicacy, nuance, musical pacing and shades of darker colors. I worked with the students to build intensity over a longer line, to explore softer dynamics and not always rush the tempo. With my fellow musicians theirs wasn’t just a poverty financially but one of isolation and frustration with lack of opportunity to be exposed to other musicians, or the global musical conversation.

As someone educated and performing with colleagues in such rich centers as Boston and NY I was aware of a certain privilege and power that I had to carry with care. I had to walk the fine line between acknowledging their talent, but pushing them to grow, supporting them with gifts, but not to the point of being humiliating. I had to consider what conditions I might have attached to my gifts to fellow musicians or what expectations I might set up with these, and work to mitigate any negative effects. I never felt resentment or hatred from any of my a Cuban friends, but instead, a wonderful sense of gratitude and welcoming. Perhaps they sense the possibility of a future as more active members of a global community, and are eager to discover how to get there. My hope is that in the process they hang on to the beautiful spirit of their culture.

I have no idea how my music fell on their ears or what it said about me. Elegance and fluidity were words I heard. Maybe I sounded like royalty. Maybe I sounded washed out, pastel, compared to their vivid playing. While I was technically in the position of maestra, I know that their voices and sounds will impact my playing for years to come.
As I continue to integrate my adventure, my own rainbow of sounds will expand to include the vibrant pinks, reds and fuchsias, the rhythmic intensity of Habana. I have a sense that this is only the beginning of my Cuban adventure. I never brought up politics, but it did find its way into our conversations. Alejandro related to me how he saw American friends weeping after our election. “The people”, he said, “are not the same as their government”.



THANKS I would like to thank so many people, I hope I don’t forget anyone. Jose Lezcano for opening the door to this beautiful world through his music and musical partnership; Alejandro Martinez and wife Mayte for organizing the festival; my husband Wes for his incredible moral and logistical support on the trip; my mom for helping me process my experience, for being a witness to the beauty and tragedy and speaking better Spanish than I when it was crucial; Gayle, Peter and David for enriching the experience with visual reflection and stories; all the amazing student musicians who shared their playing with me; Jasmany, Carina and Iris for the beautiful air bnb experience; the many sponsors who financially supported this adventure with donations large and small; the institute for the musical arts; UNEAC (the Cuban National Union of Writers, Artists, & Composers; Achello; Boston cello Society and Robert Mayes; Johnson String Instrument; anyone else I have neglected to mention

Artwork: Gayle Kabaker
Photos: Wesley Fleming and Peter Kitchell









Sacnite: White Flowers in the Zócalo

Sacnite: White Flowers in the Zócalo

Even in the vast expanse of the central square, (the Zócalo) of Mexico city, the Metropolitan Cathedral was massive and imposing. I stepped out of the cool sanctuary into a square filled with the complexity that is Mexico; tourists, groups of children in muddied traditional costumes selling tiny packets of Chiclets, colorful booths with piñatas, smells of fresh tortillas. The square was packed, but all the life around me, the colors and vibrancy felt empty and I couldn’t find my place in it, in the world.

At 20 I had temporarily dropped out of Oberlin College/Conservatory. My cello teacher was angry when I announced that maybe I should be a farmer, and that I was leaving school to find out. After discovering how terrible I was at farming, I wandered through the ruins and pubs of Ireland, weeded gardens in rural NY and hitchhiked and backpacked through the Lacandon Jungle during the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico. That is how I found myself in the center of La Cuidad De Mexico. That is also how, from the deepest part of me, I yearned for belonging and the knowledge of self.

My plea was answered swiftly and definitively. Standing 30-40 feet from me was a woman shaman, in her 50s, tall, regal and beautiful. She had been blessing people in the square as they approached her, with a pungent incense. The day was drawing to a close and she picked up a large shell and sounded out a haunting call to the four directions. As she began ceremoniously wrapping up her feathers and other sacred objects, including a vase with three stalks of white flowers a disheveled man, groaning and drooling, began to approach her. A wide swath in the crowd opened up around his chaotic movements. He stumbled and groaned and the woman shaman bent towards him and placed one stalk of the flowers into his hands. After a brief pause, the man returned to his angry and crazed moaning, and slapped the flowers against the stones, until they were shredded. The crowd began to part again, as the shaman walked through the people, stopping to stand in front of me. She placed her hands together with mine, looked me in the eyes and spoke Mayan words. She placed the second stalk of white flowers in my hands. I reflected at that moment my capability, every human beings capability, to be either shaman or madman, and the fine line that can separate these two. I was moved by her poise and compassion in this act of honor to these two lost souls.

I stood frozen and wide-eyed for several moments, transfixed and blessed. The woman quietly returned and wrapped the third stalk in a cloth and left the square. I looked at the flowers in my hand. They had a pure citrus like sweetness.

When I finally moved from my spot and rejoined my friends, I carried the flowers with the greatest care and love, as if they were a candle in the wind that might be extinguished with the slightest breeze. I felt profoundly moved yet also a deep sense of responsibility. I realized at that moment that I needed to stop running from myself, I needed to stop slapping my gift against the stones. I thought about music, about cello and the hard work of practicing. I thought about all the people who had told me with awe, how I had moved them with my playing. How gifted I was. I never believed this. I never felt I really was anybody special. But also, I was overwhelmed by the work required to be a cellist of any skill, the daily practice and devotion. Rejecting my gift felt easier than this work. In that square, I began to recognize that the gift was not my choice. Beauty had found me. It would keep finding me. What I did with it, THIS was my choice.

Six months later I returned to Oberlin and majored in music. I practiced and practiced and got into a masters and then a doctoral program in Boston. I became a professor and I became a performer. I became a cellist. Today, I do my best to care and honor my gift every day of my life, and to pass it on to others. It’s not always easy, but on that one day in the square of Mexico City, one white stalk of flowers, a madman and a shaman showed me the way.

Chasing Rainbows

As I am reflecting on another year coming to an end, and looking ahead to 2016, I’ve been thinking about one of my beloved cello teachers Leslie Parnas and how he used to warn me about chasing rainbows. He never said this within a context, so I didn’t completely know what he meant and I was too shy to ask him. Like any unanswered question from a mentor, this phrase has circled around in my head over the years. Did he think my dreams of being a professional musician were unrealistic? Or were these the regrets of an old man facing his death and coming to peace with his own choices? It seems to me, as a soloist with an international career, he must have chased enough of his own rainbows. In those rare moments when he spoke about his life, he always asked me if I’d heard of such and such a musician. His colleagues, it seems, were better than any pot of gold to him. His words return to me as I wonder: What does it mean to dream big, without losing ones footing with reality? It’s worse, I think, to not dream at all, for fear of failure. What really matters most in ones career? The people we connect with? The quality of the gigs? The music we play? The recognition we receive? Being compensated enough to pay our bills? The ability to keep growing?

Leslie Parnas had large, thick hands and rarely played in lessons. He challenged me to make choices about the way I played each note. The precision and detail of his listening was intimidating, but his words were wise and calming; there’s a certain peace in getting right down to the honest truth. I could feel the depth of his caring in each musical passage he untangled with me. He really left a lot of room for creative freedom with his students and challenged me to find my own voice. It was with him that I first learned and performed the Debussy Sonata. After my recital he came back stage and told me that I played it in a way he had never heard before. I could tell he meant this as a very high compliment. At the time I wished for some other compliment-that I had great skill, or my bowing was excellent. But he was right, I was a gifted performer, who needed to improve her practicing and technique.

Two weeks ago I did a video shoot with the same Debussy sonata at the WGBH Fraser Studio in Boston. A beautiful space and a great team with Antonio Oliart as engineer, Christopher DeSanty on video and my virtuosic polish pianist, Barbara Lysakowski. As we listened back in the control rooms, I approached it with that crystal clear honesty Parnas had taught me. The performance wasn’t perfect. But still, it was beautiful. Very Beautiful. It has come a long way since that first performance. Last week, practicing Bach 5th suite, I had the realization that I am currently the best cellist that I have ever been, both expressively and technically. I practice with much more patience and clarity than in my college years. I have more passion to share from life experience. And I know I haven’t peaked yet. How did this happen?

Video shoot

Among my successes, I also spent the last few years making numerous mistakes. I took the wrong kind of gigs, putting myself in positions that weren’t good for me. I overbooked, I underbooked. I worked with too many colleagues, or too few, or ones with clashing personalities and mismatched goals. I performed in underpaying concerts with too much driving. I aimed too high, I aimed too low. I chased a lot of rainbows that led me nowhere career wise, or even had me falling on my face a few times. And then this year I just said “enough!”. I spent several months musically alone. Three months without performing, without colleagues or audiences. Just me and my cello in the woods. I focused on practicing for the pure sake of being present with music. And I took a careful look at what I really wanted with my career. I began planning forward with this vision.

As a result, 2016 promises to be a year of deeply fulfilling and challenging performances, with incredible colleagues and nice venues. I created my schedule with care. And as more opportunities arise to fill 2016, I know I’ve finally learned the discernment needed to make good choices. But I don’t fear the bad choices either. Maybe they didn’t lead me to Carnegie Hall, yet, but they did bring me to where I stand today- the best cellist yet, with a clear vision for my future, and good gigs coming my way.

So my dear Parnas, while I do intend to move forward in a more thoughtful manner, I can’t promise that I won’t be tempted occassionally into chasing rainbows.  I can, however, promise that I will do my best to fill my practice room and concert halls with a myriad of colors and golden sounds I’ve gathered from the chase. Armed with that crystal clear listening you taught me, and my own courage to keep growing, I know at least these are rainbows I can call my own.

2016 concerts

(extra)Ordinary Concerts, Apple pie and Solitude

apple_pieThe fall colors seem extra brilliant this year. But I don’t think they are. This ordinary annual occurrence is extraordinary to me every year. I walked today down our little dirt road bathed in the slanted warm autumn light glowing through the bright hued canopy of leaves. The awesome beauty embraced me from head to toe. I felt joyous, like a cinnamon scented apple pie out of the oven, exuding sweetness and heat. I also felt a profound sense of solitude. In these woods, I was alone all day with my cello, my metronome, my tea, my potato leek soup, my dreams, my long dirt road, my house that smells of chimney soot when it rains, the dead leaves in the yard, the life everywhere pulling back into its roots. Then suddenly, next week, without much warning, I will be on stage, sparkling under the lights, surrounded by humanity, colleagues on stage, sounds of our hearts pouring out, people coughing, sighing, listening, not listening. There is a certain solitude in performance too. It takes courage to break the silence of the hall with imperfect passion, to be vulnerable and exposed. Surrendering to the exhilaration, the swirl of activity means surrendering to solitude while at the same time belonging 100% to humanity. This terrifies me regularly. This ordinary experience that I have had for over 15 years is still extraordinary. But with the fear also arises the potential for joy. Apple pies only get juicy when they bake in a hot oven. Here we go!



image  I wandered out to pick the final raspberries of the summer on a gorgeous fall day. Zeke sent me behind his house to blow off some steam. The editing had been getting intense. The sweetness of the berries consumed my attention. They were plump and almost past ripe, dark red, but just right, at least on that day. I intended to fill the Tupperware in my hand to share with Zeke and Alys, but instead I became intoxicated by their flavor and ended up with only a token handful to share. In a way I regretted this token. I wanted every last berry in this patch for myself. Not because I was being selfish but because I wanted to feel completely uninhibited in the pleasure of the moment. It’s only with great self control that I saved any. The idea of compromise and the brilliant blue of the sky brought me back to the task at hand, as the air filled with the sharp clarity of autumn brought on by the cool of evening descending.

After seven hours we still had more editing to do. We had reached a moment in our decision over a particular section in Rachmaninoff where the age old question of passion or precision emerged, a choice between a performance with sweep and character, or a slower more careful one with every note speaking exactly. This argument offered me the opportunity to discover my core values, but it also stirred up an ocean of passion. Since we were at an impasse we decided to revisit the question after a dinner break.

Mostly the editing had been going well in terms of team work, but the decisions were not always easy. Since so much is possible these days with technology, it’s hard to know when to draw the line. We can splice in single notes or reconstruct whole passages measure by measure. Since it’s easy to lose the character of the initial performance in the process of editing away things you don’t want, we had spent most of the day hunting for the takes that were mostly good and using them as whole as possible. But as we grew tired, one or the other of us started wonderIng about this slightly swooped note, a scratchy tone, a missed piano bass note, ensemble mishaps and the edits began to increase.

It’s humbling to listen to 15 hours several times over of a your playing and natural to start to get bugged by little imperfections. While it’s true we don’t want to distract our listeners with bloopers, how do we know when we are listening with the microscopic ears of editing that inevitably magnify everything, and when a note is truly out of tune enough to justify possibly breaking up the flow of the passage? Could I have the strength to hear my imperfections set in stone, repeated, reproduced and immortalized?

My mom told me when I was a child that when artists in Islamic countries weave rugs they intentionally leave an error so as not too offend Allah. I always loved this idea. When I was younger it gave me permission to be imperfect. As my values have shifted over the years I hear another message in this story- a reminder that when we offer our art in devotion to something larger than ourselves, whatever God we may serve, we walk away from the conversation all together of perfectionism. As a musician I do always strive for excellence, but It is only when fear of vulnerability or embarrassment or pride, narcissism and a lack of humility take charge that a need for perfection trumps my music making. When this happens the joy disappears and I am in a hungry relentless search for positive self reflection. It’s a dead end.

imageAs I stood in the raspberry patch that day, I became aware that I had shifted to a new place of comfort and the resulting courage to embrace my strengths and weaknesses. To step forward owning both my light and shadow. And in my heart I promised that I could indeed bear to hear my imperfections set in stone, repeated, reproduced and immortalized if the result would bring joy to people.

I returned inside with my meager harvest of raspberries. Nobody seemed to want them anyway, so I devoured the rest. We took a long dinner break, then returned to our listening. We found the best compromise possible, and several hours later, at last, we finished with our edits. I carried the marked score to my car like precious cargo to be mailed in the morning to our recording engineer. Alys followed me as we wound in the dark down the long Vermont dirt road.

Recording Light and Shadow

image image imageI woke up on a brisk September morning one day before my recording date to the cry of a Raven. The voice was so clear in my dream that I believed the bird was just over my head. Half asleep, I asked my husband why there was a Raven in the room. I took the morning very slowly and nurtured every part of my being, body, mind and heart which included very light practicing, a trip to the farmers market and for fun, Wes and I wandered down to Mikes Corn Maze. To my amazement, the theme of the maze, the games and quizzes, were all centered around the minds of animals, specifically Ravens and Crows. As I looked at the aerial photo of the giant corn Raven, I knew it would be an interesting few days. Ravens are known to many native tribes as the ‘keeper of secrets’. Their black color is linked to darkness, where unconscious fear resides. Their medicine is of transformation, offering us the strength to illuminate those dark areas of ourselves, release our fears, thus allowing the authentic self to sparkle. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate omen for our Light and Shadow cd.

On Sunday, the first day of recording, I dreamt that I was surrounded by about a dozen bears. In the room with the bears was a very wise friend of mine. She was unafraid and so I too became comfortable with a room full of bears. I got up early and headed over to the beautiful Mechanics Hall, breathing and allowing the intense energy of anticipation to wash over me, staying calm and centered in the face of this bear of a project. This graceful calm followed me all day and we moved with relative ease through a large portion of the Poulenc Sonata, exceeding our goal for the first day. I was elated.

imageBut that night I barely slept. I was way over stimulated, and the music was circling around and around in my head. I deliriously awoke for the second day only to discover my arms were tight and tired and nothing felt predictable, and the adrenaline had worn off. No amount of coffee seemed to make a difference. I spent several hours missing shifts, playing insecurely and feeling the pressure of the wasted precious and expensive minutes bearing down on me. I was forced to look directly at my fear. Every note felt difficult, and the more I tried to “get it right”, the more tight my hands became and the worse it sounded. I twisted and turned to try to find the way out of my maze of insecurity. At last I suggested that we play the third movement of the Rachmaninoff Sonata. In that moment, I moved out of my head and into my heart. I thought of someone I love very dearly, who has gone through a very painful few years, and decided to internally offer this as a gift to him. All of that frustration and energy transformed into pure passion, compassion and I became swept up in emotion, the tears streaming down my face. The rest of the day flowed much better.

imageI nursed my arm with heat, ice, arnica and massage, insisted on sleep with sleepy time tea, and awoke the final recording day with energy and calm again. I found myself enjoying the gorgeous Rachmaninoff melodies, the glorious sound in the hall, and the kind hearted folks who were on the team with me. Joseph, our recording engineer, with his array of buttons. Our quiet page turner Diane. Our humble and patient engineer Zeke and of course, the poised Alys.


As the final hours drew near, we scrambled a bit to get everything we wanted, including wish list items. As the end of hour fifteen drew near, Alys suggested another take of the second movement of the Poulenc, as a benediction. As the opening chords sounded, time collapsed, and I felt the completion of cycle, from that moment on the plane when I first heard the Poulenc, after a painful family event, to this moment on this beautiful stage pouring my heart into the music, supported and held. I felt myself embrace that moment of pain in my life, my family, as memories of this family tragedy played like pictures in my mind, and poured into my hands. My heart opened wide and I began to sob with profound gratitude, relief, sadness, joy for this beautiful gift of music and life.

A tremendous outpouring of gratitude to all of you who have supported this project.