Monthly Archives: June 2011

New Directions inside the “Bachs”

As I packed for the New Directions cello festival I paused over the sheet music on my stand: Chopin sonata, Barber, some Amy beach pieces. I tucked them into my suitcase, even though I knew I would not have time to practice. Just the presence of the music comforted me somehow. With the main goal of having a good time and connecting to other cellists, I wondered if I should let people in on my background and career focus as an “old directions” classical cellist. I feared that I might be seen as the enemy, the tradition embodied coming to ruin their safe zone. I imagined a bumper sticker with the word Bach slashed through with a red mark. Despite the fact that I have always dabbled a little in non classical styles and never felt 100% secure of my membership in the classical field, my choices of earning a DMA, being a cello professor, and programming all written composed western art music, give me a clear branding.

If there was any doubt in anyone’s mind as to my specialty, I am sure it became clear in the first workshop I attended when I boldly offered to take an improvised solo on a chorus with a good number of chord changes and failed to even remember to play a B flat in an F major key, lost my place, and sat frozen in confusion for the rest of my solo. That was tragic, I thought.

But later, in a mostly dark dorm lounge, at some unimaginably late hour I found myself jamming on a Led Zeppelin tune surrounded by a circle of male cellists. The two other women who had been there were wise enough to relocate to a second lounge across the way. The unbridled pulse of each players creativity vied for the spotlight, in a cellistic joust of unprecedented volume and force. Bold in my cello voice, I offered into the circle a slow and haunting rendition of the Star of the County Down, when the latest blues or rock song had played out. The room grew totally still. But after the moment of acknowledgement the group plunged into the next rock classic. After a few more attempts to offer topics of musical conversation that I had some experience in, at last I entered into the fray with reckless abandon, despite my near ignorance of improvisation, in wild electric guitar type solos that consisted of trance-like rhythmic figures, virtuosic leaps, slides and scales.

During this hour or so of manically charged, screaming at the top of my lungs cello playing, I felt a confidence, freedom and exhilaration that I had rarely before experienced on my instrument, I was completely consumed in the unbridled joy and physicality of the cello. But I do hope no one recorded me. Exhausted from the battle, I went hunting out for the other group of more tame cellists, but they were huddled around a music stand and there was no way for me to squeeze in to see the music. At last I retreated to a hallway to play a lyrical O Carolan Lament with one kind fellow cellist, who happened to be quite experienced in Celtic music it turns out. Each note had a full beauty that resonated to my core and the sound brought out, one by one, the circle of male cellists from the other room. I found myself surrounded and embraced by a curious and engaged audience wishing to hear more, join in and try my instrument. But soon another battle ensued and we had a tug of war between rock and classical. Two of us dominated with a wild rendition of the Dvorak concerto, played with the same unbridled ferocity as we had earlier played Jimi Hendrix. It felt amazing. But I looked up and everybody was gone accept one person.  A sadness swept over me.

I determined that for the rest of the weekend I needed to set aside my classical self to allow space for another voice to emerge, the New Directions voice. I found myself embraced by an unusually imaginative, good hearted and accepting tribe of cellists with an incredibly large bag of skills and techniques and an equal desire for mastery, excellence and precision as any classical musician I know. I found myself a beginner again learning how to “chop” with my bow, struggling over chord progressions, improvisation and extended pizzicato techniques. At times this was slightly humbling, but also fun.

I was wowed by cellists who had invented entirely new pizzicato techniques, who played with alternate tunings, sang and plucked their instrument like a guitar, interacted with poetry, improvised over jazz chords, played jigs and reels and read chords as fluently as any theorist. If I had gotten it right from the workshops and examples of featured performances in the evenings, the New Directions cellist is an arranger and innovator, able to pick tunes up quickly by ear, improvise, be fluent in fiddle and jazz styles, and have virtuosity over the whole instrument. For the most part I was able to embrace and celebrate this image of the masterful cellist, and even found many examples in the classical literature where I had been taken, if not to the same places, to very similar ones. There was also a great deal of mentioning of the value of being “classically trained” as a jumping off point for new and better things and most everyone present had been through the classical tradition in some form or another, but had moved on or expanded their interests. I found myself in a small minority of dabbling classically identified cellists.

As I engaged in this open musical exploration and reinvention of the image of what it means to be a cellist, I discovered what my voice was beyond notation and convention, and felt a deep sense of healing. As the normal assumptions about low and high art and genre superiority fell away, I found myself at the same cross roads that I imagine most New Directions cellists must have reached at some point in their lives. I felt a deep surge of truth about what my music is, arming me with the powerful courage to be true to this voice, regardless of the rules and ideals of the culture around me.  I allowed myself to question my long held identity as a classical cellist and to consider other paths. As I played Jazz, fiddle and summer of love music, I had an enormously good time, but I didn’t feel completely engaged. I missed Brahms.

That night at the jam session I didn’t get my cello out. I just listened and enjoyed. After a time, I withdrew to my room and took out the third movement of the Chopin cello sonata. As I played, the notes vibrated from some deep awakened corridors of my expanded musical soul, and tears flowed down my cheeks. I was home.

But something nagged at me; with my home in the classics, can I be a New Directions Cellist? I want to belong to this culture of acceptance and fun and know that I am on the cutting edge of music making and artistic conversation with the culture around me.

Aside from the obvious work involved in interpretation, my creativity finds an outlet in an innovative approach to programming, performance of newly composed music that reaches backwards and forwards at the same time. I have moved past the outdated formal concert to informal venues and explanations of the music to the audiences. I have an entrepreneurial spirit that is expressed in an inside out approach to marketing and promotion. I play for a wide spectrum of audiences from all class and racial backgrounds, and I make it a priority to connect to them in performance. I play often to packed houses, receiving standing ovations, and have several concerts booked into the future.

But I am terrible at playing over chords. I don’t like to write my own music and arranging is not usually a skill I cultivate. I doubt that I will ever have the time to develop into a jazz cellist, and it takes me a while to learn a tune by ear.  Just give me the sheet music already!!! But more importantly, I find that I need all the time that I can spare to stay on top of the repertoire demands of my performing career, and I feel completely fed and challenged by simply being a cellist in the more conventional sense of the word.

So why did I go to the festival? I have dabbled in improvisation and Celtic music for many years and it has offered me creative sanctuary from a conservatory experience that was not always the most nurturing to my musical voice. I have watched myself and my colleagues get pulled away from our musical selves in our aim for technical perfection or pleasing our teachers. Sometimes being true to the composer or the score translated to becoming mistrusting of our own creative impulses. Often the most creative individuals are brushed aside for the next technical prodigy or the obedient imitator. As a result, I now believe strongly that free form improvisation and Baroque style ornamenting need to be part of the training of any classical musician. I am also heartened by the growing Jazz and Improvisation study tracks at places like Oberlin and NEC, allowing for more choices in high-level training for young musicians.

As for me, I have always found opportunities to step outside of my classical box, to question my choices and be sure about my identity. And I seem to always find my way back in, and when I do, that box has usually expanded and become more comfortable. As well, each time I reassert that this is indeed the box where I belong.

So am I a new directions cellist? Certainly I am not so in my choices of repertoire, style, technique or skill. But, in my commitment to being joyful and free in music and offering a voice of compassion for the universal and timeless human experiences, perhaps I am not “old directions” either. The internal journey I need to take in order to stay true to this commitment requires a constant forward growth in my relationship to my music and my role as a performer. A New Direction.

I find myself reflecting on my parent’s hippie days and how their generation had started a revolution of freedom that allowed for more choices in our society. I feel a depth of gratitude for the conventions and boundaries that they questioned. They have given me the freedom to choose who I want to love, what I want to eat and what music I want to play and listen to, among many other things. Another less concrete revolution was the consciousness revolution that offered an experience of something profound through meditation, and well, yes, drugs too. Even as my passion leads me to embrace a musical tradition that many hippies rejected, my hope is to do so with a similar freedom and joy that they discovered at Woodstock with Bob Dylan and pot.