Monthly Archives: September 2012


Slow and subtle change, when it reaches a saturation point, can all at once feel sudden and unexpected, but really it is a gradual process of transformation that is ignored until ignoring becomes impossible. This is how I awakened to the need for a new bow; slowly and then suddenly and urgently all at once. For ten years I tolerated the slightly wirey sound on the A string, the lack of connection through notes, the way the bow didn’t quite grab the string, and the brightness of the sound in general because I assumed these were my own technical faults to be improved. I assumed the aggressive quality of my accents were my own musical personality tendencies. I worked extremely hard and transcended these limitations day after day and hour after hour in my desire to improve. It never crossed my mind that these limitations were anything other than my own short comings as a musician. Instead I learned how to ask the most from the bow that it could give. The truth is it was both the bow and myself that were responsible for the results I was getting. And when I first chose the bow, these qualities were attractive to me.

The first clue came when a fellow cellist played on my cello and he got that same pressed sound in the upper register that I had struggled with.  I had colleagues make subtle comments after concerts about my bow, and though many people commented on the warmth of my tone, I noticed in recordings a certain edge to the sound that bothered me.

A conductor related to me over drink how a cellist colleague of his had recently taken out a second mortgage on his house to purchase a fine old French bow costing in the tens of thousands. The conductor related to me how he was himself quite skeptical, but in listening without knowing which bow was the French one had been blown away by the difference in tone. At the time I scoffed at the notion of plunking down such a fortune for a mere piece of wood. It seemed completely narcissistic and reckless to throw so much money into a bow, all simply for a better sound. I also had the very valuable belief that it isn’t what we have, but what we do with what we have that makes the difference. Part of me wondered secretly if this man was making up for a lack of technique with a fancy bow. I prided myself in believing that the instrument didn’t matter. I could do anything with my modestly priced American bow.

In defense of my good old bow, it is very finely crafted and has been quite adequate for many years with much clarity and grit. While of course there are varying levels of quality of wood and craftsmanship in bows, and very expensive great old bows stand out, the key seems to be in picking the best bow to match both the personality of the cello and the cellist. Even the best of bows can sound crummy on certain cellos.  And some bows in the high price range are more desirable as collectible items, antique objects of beauty with gold and tortoise shell and pernambuco.

As I began to experiment with bows and consider what I was looking for, I had the opportunity to reflect on how I had developed in ten years as a  musician that had brought me to this place of needing a different bow, and how, only two years after that discussion with the conductor,  I have now found myself on the other side of the fence doing my best to explain to family and friends the value of a fine bow and why my career and my musicianship deserve such an investment. While my budget for bows is not nearly at the level of the doubly mortgaged cellist, the price for moderately fine bows is enough to raise some eyebrows.

Since our values are so wrapped up in how we spend our money, this hunt for a bow has revealed some cultural expectations for a woman at my age and place in my career. Shouldn’t my ambition be diminishing and my focus be turning towards having a family? Why can’t I simply accept my place in a more subordinate role in my field?  With some of these questions explicitly and implicitly stated, it occurred to me, with a certain sadness, that few would question the exorbitant cost associated with raising a child, if this was something I chose. I do not mean to discredit the value of parenting and the cost associated with raising children. However, I did wonder why I suddenly found myself being judged for wanting to invest in a much -less-expensive-than-a-child cello bow, a tool not only valuable for everyday use, but that can also be a good financial investment as they appreciate in value. I was puzzled.

Describing the profound and subtle changes that can happen as a musical voice transforms over time is no easy task, especially in having awareness and articulateness about this journey I am on. It is even more challenging to explain to a non musician why having the ability to grow and develop as an artist, (something a fine and well matched bow provides), above some more practical needs, deserves financial investment. As a creative artist, I find my development as a human being deeply tied to my art and as I transform, so does my music, while in turn my music transforms me. My artistry reflects but also shapes this new voice that is emerging, and this transformation is nothing less than a profound shift in my identity and my relationship to the world.

From a very young age and certainly during my Doctorate I operated from an unconscious notion that I needed to work hard to achieve my goals. While certainly this work ethic will always be a part of my being, something recently has shifted towards a place of mastery, integration, belonging and a desire to discover my deepest and most true voice and power beyond the decades of musical training, and some of the personality characteristics I have needed to take on in order to come as far as I have in my career. This change has necessarily translated into a quality of action that means moving towards my dreams in a more gentle, persistent and intelligent fashion. The hard work is still there, but there is more joy and awareness rather than brute force of will in the process of music making.

Five years ago I broke out of my Doctoral shell, and, in response to years of academic structures and discipline, needed to find my wild unfettered musical voice and to be left alone. I needed to feel free, to be bold and loud. The edginess of my bow suited me with the bright and forceful intensity of emergence.  Now my voice has aged as I have, and grown richer and more gentle, though the wildness is still there. I crave the community of ideas, flexibility and clarity of intention.

It is an incredible notion to believe that I can be myself and at home in the midst of such a tremendous tradition as classical music is, and within the brutally competitive field of music. But I believe it is not only possible but absolutely necessary for long term joy and success. As a natural leader, and as a woman, finding my place and my voice has had some interesting challenges. There have been times of loneliness and pain when I have had to fight to achieve my goals because of my gender and the consequent notions about my abilities or value. In retrospect I realize now that I took on a certain quality of aggressiveness to push through those tough places, choosing force over resignation. It has taken some conscious effort to soften this hardness of spirit. Additionally, with few female role models, how to have the courage to be successful, powerful and a leader as a woman. With mostly male teachers, though wonderful teachers I might add, I have had to teach myself more than just the practical aspects of adjusting techniques to smaller hands, but also finding my own voice.

My search for a bow is intimately tied to my search for a voice. As many bows have been moving through my life in the past three weeks, I have “blind tested’ dozens, not wishing to be persuaded by name or price. I have always ended up with a French bow. There is a quality of dark warmth, but also clarity and precision that makes these stand out. My old bow is bright, stiff and edgy. It cuts through with a fierce directness. Some bows I have tried are too flexible and I can’t articulate well. Other bows ride on top of the string and it is challenging to create a flowing and connected sound. My favorite so far is a bow from late 19th century Mirecourt region of France. It has a richness of tone that caught my attention the moment I drew the first note. I spent a week exploring the nuances and characteristics of which the bow was capable, and determined by the end of the week that this bow would be my teacher. Everything that I asked of the bow it could offer, and even sometimes I felt it magnified moments when I was careless in my expression. With this bow my cello voice became powerful, but wise, nuanced and delicate, dark complex and warm.

Is this the perfect bow? Of course not. Could I find the perfect bow?  Maybe if I had $100,000 to spend. But this Miracourt bow has much to offer and would be a big step up for me. With this or another equally fine bow I would still find limitations and have to work to transcend them. And it would take me time to adjust my playing to a very different tool. In the end, what matters most is whether or not this bow or any bow will allow my deepest and clearest voice to begin to emerge. As I approach the time to make a decision, I know one thing for sure, I will keep my old bow, as I will keep some of the fierce brightness of my earlier self. After all, they got me to where I am today.


The color of success

As I looked in the mirror at my slowly drying hair, it was distressing to discover that the image reflecting back at me was not that of the young, beautiful woman with lovely auburn locks pictured on the hair dye box, but a frazzled looking thirty-something with a mop of split ends that was beginning to take on a sickly dark maroon hue. Something had truly gone awry. My husband pointed out that at least it had not turned green like Anne in Anne of Green Gables. Under certain circumstances his tendency to focus on the worse case scenario can take on a comforting quality. What he might have missed in his concrete male mind was an unfolding identity crisis of a larger order than whether or not I wanted to be a brunette, a red head or plum head.

Persistent hard work and dogged publicity have finally begun to manifest into growing recognition and support for my music. I have had a growing number of concerts, often with better pay and lots of support from local papers. Last week I had a glowing preview of my concerts and an interview, with a feature and photo shoot, all translating into the possibility of real attendance for upcoming concerts. But instead of being excited, I was feeiling petrified and under pressure.

Three days and two hair color incarnations later as I sat across from my dear friend at an outside table at Bistro Les Gras sipping a delicious French pinot noir not far from the color of my hair, she lovingly laughed at my neurosis. She leaned forward with a twinkle in her eye, and with her usual insightful directness, she nailed it: “you’re afraid of success!”.

Her comment made me realize that I strongly identify with a hard-scrabble, hard knock life, the resilience, courage and persistence of character that have necessarily become a large part of my career personality. But at the same time I crave a better life and the kind of recognition that could bring me financial stability. Maybe I do not sport the green hair that Anne of Green Gables bought from the peddler on the street to try to hide her carrot colored locks, but I do share some of her orphan identity in my relationship my place in the music world, and her struggle to feel loveable in her authentic self. I am all too familiar with the strange hues my hair and my person can take on as I inadvertently contort myself in response to other peoples projections or expectations of me. I can relate to the sense of confusion and identity shift experienced by the other orphan, orphan Annie, as her fortune changed.

While it is humbling to discover my fear of success, in seeming contradiction to my strong diva-like ambition, it all makes sense when I redefine success by what it means to me on the core level; namely the ability and opportunity to be able to continue to grow as a musician, and to share this journey with others. From this perspective, it isn’t exactly success that I fear, but rather the external pressures and distractions that might take me away from this journey of musical connection and growth. As it turns out, protecting this authentic musical experience also fuels my drive for recognition and financial support, because, after all, getting a day job would be pretty distracting to my musical development.

The orphan story shows us that the authentic character has incredible resilience regardless of external circumstances, and reminds us that recognition or lack of recognition, money or lack of money, are equally auxiliary to who we truly are, but also equally challenging and distracting to the purpose of our true selves. We can undertake extraordinary changes in circumstances and still be ourselves, or be disconnected and neurotic no matter how much support we receive.

As I have travelled on this musical journey I have always managed to find my way back to my core, though it has not always been easy. So I find comfort in recognizing that if my music and self survived and even thrived in times where I have not had adequate support, recognition, or community, there is no reason it should not continue to do so with ample support, recognition and financial abundance. The music will be there, as it always has been, as a beautiful constant, just the way my musical voice will shine through, as I span 300 years of stylistic musical changes, from Bach to Hecker and Bach again. Behind this musical rainbow is the light of my true self, illuminating the prism of our humanity, powerful and compassionate enough to embrace orphans with green hair and purple-headed cellists with good publicity.

Three days after the third hair dying attempt, as I walked down the street with my Mom, I pointed out hair colors, still awkward with the color on my head, and looking for my right shade. I admired the red and blonde hair, yet was strangely drawn to the simple brown with gold highlights. “What color do you think I should go?” I asked her. “I like your natural brown” she said. There is nothing like the love of a mother to remind us who we truly are! Two hours later she sat beside me as a sweet Puerto Rican American stylist skillfully put layers into my newly dyed hair. The color that began to emerge was a medium brown, nothing exotic or flashy, but very close to my own natural color. As I looked in the mirror I saw a radiantly joyful and beautiful woman with rich dark hair that matched her skin tone perfectly. It looked beautiful. Something in me shifted and I felt calm and at home.

I mused at the expense, agony and time spent on colors, only to end up right where I would be, naturally. What a long and arduous journey it can be for us to simply “be ourselves”. Sometimes, as in my case, we want to be any color other than what is most natural to us. In my practice room I have many “natural” bad habits that I work to undo, and I sometimes need to set aside my own musical personality to really take on the character of a work. This physical drilling allows for the final and most important process of natural mastery, which allows me to breathe my own life into the music and blend my own voice with that of the composer. At last, as I walk out on stage, I don’t go out as a diva, as an orphan, as Jaqueline Du Pre or Yo Yo Ma, but as Rebecca and Brahms, with plain old brown hair. The color of my success is whatever my color naturally is. All of this not only takes a lot of work before the performance, but psychologically requires a tremendous amount of strength to know that I don’t have to be more than who I am. often I need to resist the urge to hide my vulnerability behind a false sense of inadequacy, glamour or defensiveness. Sitting comfortably in my own skin allows me to be most present and joyful in the music and the moment and it is in these performances that I have found my audience feel most fed by what I offer. And, technically speaking, assuming I have practiced, playing my best often happens when I am just being me, just being my ordinary self.

Though I may not ever again reach for an on sale boxed dye, I am certain that I will wander into strange contortions of self on occasion, on and off the stage in response to pressures and expectations. Certainly not everyone will love my hair color or my playing and that is OK. In the end what matters most are those dear friends, family members, colleagues, and fans, who, like my mother, can help me remember who I am by simply saying, “I like your natural brown”.