In the tribal society of musicians, lineage is everything


A mentor of mine recently helped me to navigate some nasty academic politics by explaining to me that musicians are very tribal. It took some thought to understand what he said, but then it dawned on me. People build fierce loyalties and band together in the face of an extreme threat to their survival. Unlike early hominids who ganged up on large game, the enemies we face are those of intimidation, jealousy, even slander from people who sense our presence as a threat to their place of superiority, or a threat to their survival. In a field that brings success only to those whose skill is given a seal of approval by someone who has been deemed an expert, we can become neurotically focused on what others think, and belonging to a tribe that will bring us honor, but more importantly protection.

I don’t think that it is a stretch to guess that the deep seated fear in most musicians is that of public humiliation and excommunication from the tribe. Much effort is spent in determining who has the right to make these distinctions, and gaining their approval. We ask ourselves “when am I a member of this tribe safely? when will I ever be free of the threat of someone calling me out as incompetent, or a fake?”If fear is the underlying motivation for mastery and practicing, the answer to these questions must be never. And there is the rub. We are a tribe that values excellence and so these checks on each other serve a positive purpose of maintaining a legacy of high skill that we have been given the task of carrying forward to the next generation. Excruciating initiation rites, such as auditions and doctoral exams, select for persistence and strength of character.

I recently decided I was done with this. I decided that it was between myself and the composer, and that after 26 years of lessons, a doctorate, a position at a University, and an inner artistic conviction that was tired of being ignored, it was time to be my own boss. I trusted myself to have enough integrity that fear no longer needed to be my motivator, and that I was strong enough to stand behind what I did 100% and take responsibility for my faults. The results were amazing. I felt liberated and impassioned. My music flowed out of me in a more powerful way than ever before. People were moved to tears. Nothing mattered to me except communicating with my audience with the most intention, articulateness and passion that I was capable of. I performed my first solo concerto with an orchestra, and felt as if I had found my way home.

Now the stakes are higher. I am planning to release my first CD, to put myself out there more, but I am not sure what will happen with the fear of the rest of the tribe and their leaders. Will my playing be overlooked because I am not the sole chosen protege of some great cellistic tribal legacy? For sure my lineage is great-leading back to amazing pedagogues and players like Aldo Perisot, Neikrug, Feuermann, Klengal, Magg and Casals. But I messed up on the whole master/apprentice deal. First if all because I am a woman. Secondly because I moved through teachers after a few years, and gathered a bouquet of techniques, rather than belonging solidly to one lineage that I could build a firm allegiance to. Not to mention the lack of a major concerto competition win. I don’t hold a position in a major symphony, my parents weren’t famous musicians, and I am not particularly young for a performing artist. So who the hell is this girl anyway, and why should we listen to her? I just don’t look like most of the cellists out there who are making it. A creative entrepreneur-yes. But where is my tribe?

Recently one of my most talented student won the concerto competition at the University. I watched how her reputation among her peers changed over night, and suddenly she was a somebody.
She was the same strong player that she was before, but now there was PROOF, because the judges said so. Suddenly there was a possibility that wasn’t there before of people recognizing her unique talent. Do I need some seal of approval by a critic or famous cellist, or are my credentials and skills enough?

If I do need that seal of approval, how do I get it when it isn’t what I really care about? The truth is that there is no going back for me. All that truly matters to me now is that I believe in what I am doing and that people enjoy hearing me play-and honoring the composer’s intentions, of course.

I feel like that tribal member that wanders off into the forest alone to listen to the sounds of the birds. I used to belong to a tribe, but beauty and conversation with the universe rather than power took me away.

It didn’t used to be this way. I used to do everything right, I used to do everything my teachers said, I used to internalize all the judgment that came my way, (easy when you carry allot of shame), and never listened to my own deep artistic convictions. But this way ran out of steam. I got to the end, I had massive amounts of technique, I got a Doctorate of Musical Arts, was one of the top in my class, I got a university job. And then…..meaningless, empty, who am I? I was really lost.

I landed in another village. The wilds of Montana. I never truly belonged here, but the people are loving and kind, and treat everyone very equally, regardless of talent. It has been, for the most part, a safe haven for me to find my voice. I quickly earned respect and community support.

But I can’t stop thinking about that first tribe, the one I sought to please. Not to please them anymore, but to belong. To find that middle ground. I am wondering, where is that village I walked away from, and can I find my way back? Should I find my way back?

If I walked back there singing, would they welcome me? Or see me as a musician gone feral, and keep their distance? I know that I am the same either way, and my soul is at last healthy and alive, but tribal membership is important for physical survival, and the Montana tribe is not my true family, though certain friends will be mine for life.

Perhaps the more important question I should be asking myself is WHO is my tribe? Maybe they are a network of people not belonging to one legacy or geographic location, and I will recognize them when they close their eyes, listen to my music, smile, and then welcome me into their village. This is not the simple and concrete membership that quells a musician’s fears. But I will take this risk with the freedom that comes with it.

The forest is beautifully luminous and still. And I will never give it up again.

7 thoughts on “In the tribal society of musicians, lineage is everything

  1. Jon Silpayamanant

    “If I do need that seal of approval, how do I get it when it isn’t what I really care about? The truth is that there is no going back for me. All that truly matters to me now is that I believe in what I am doing and that people enjoy hearing me play-and honoring the composer’s intentions, of course.”

    I think you hit right on it with this, Rebecca! And this:

    “Or see me as a musician gone feral, and keep their distance?”

    That really made me chuckle as I recall after I had “gone off deep end” as it were–exploring very experimental music, performance art, and world music. I remember the quizzical looks I would get when trying to relate some of my performing experiences and some of the (possibly unintentional and reflexive) pejorative remarks about those experiences.

    I also recall an experience a couple of years ago when one of my old cello teachers finally had the opportunity to hear me perform with one of my world music groups after nearly a decade of having heard me after I had wandered off into the woods. He seemed delighted and it felt really good to have even that little bit of affirmation.

    Most of the cellists I encounter at my performances now still aren’t sure what to make of me since I rarely do any Classical performances (though lately I’ve slowly worked my way back into that field at least via the education route of coaching cello sectionals and giving private lessons and the occasional conducting) but much of my current skill set makes so little sense to classically trained musicians anymore.

    In general, though, most of the comments and remarks I get a on a positive side even if I don’t quite fit into their musical world view.

    I suspect that once you release your CD, you’ll get a chance to see how much you can make it back in the “tribe” even if you may feel a little geographically isolated. Good luck!

  2. Rebecca Post author

    Jon. Thanks for your comments, and support. It will be interesting to see what this year brings. Luckily, I will not be geographically isolated after May, as I am stepping down from my Professor post in Montana to return to my home turf of rural New England! I hope to build up a freelance teaching and performing career there that affords me a little more freedom than an academic job. I so much respect what you are doing. I have explored world music enough to know how challenging and equally skilled the music is. It is truly innovative and creative, and I hope to hear you live some day.
    For my part, I will probably always be identifiable as classical musician, but will push the edges and explore the boundaries of the field with improvisation and folk music.

  3. Jon Silpayamanant

    Oh wow, Rebecca

    That’s a big (and very brave) step and I wish you all the luck with the move and re-building your career back on your home turf!

    Nothing wrong with being identified as a classical musician (hell, that’s still the default identity of me for most people) but I think musicians getting their start in today’s world do have the benefit of having more exposure to a world of music. So in a way, we’re not as isolated musically as past classical musicians might have been.

    And again, thank you for the kind words. I’m sure that once I really ‘get my act together’ I’ll likely be out in your neck of the woods for a performance. Hope to get a chance to hear you as well–I really love the idea of the programming you have for your CD and would love to hear one of the live performances of it!

  4. Erica Sipes

    It is so good to read your story. I think, perhaps, we were separated from the same tribe and dealing with many of the same issues. I went to Eastman and got those lovely slips of paper that mean oh-so-much and then chose the marriage route which was fine but somehow sent me down a path which led me a farther away from music than I had anticipated. My husband, also a musician, ended up with Doctorate in music and the teaching/performing job at a university and I ended up with a toddler and a freelance career. I am just now reacquainting myself with my “true” musical self that has been sitting on the backburners and am trying to figure out who, as a musician, I really want to be…which tribe I want to be a part of, as you might say. I love your blog post…it puts it all so well and I agree with what you have to say about how so much of the music world seems to have their priorities and values misplaced…I’m not so sure I want to be a part of that. Right now, we live in a small college town in southwest Virginia…previously we were in Moscow, Idaho…and I have come to realize that I actually get a lot of joy out of sharing music with folks in the community, sometimes more than I do than with playing with “professionals” who take themselves way too seriously.

    Anyway, just wanted to introduce myself…it is good to meet you…I wish you all the best on your CD and on your soul searching. Feel free to contact me if you feel like chatting or comparing notes.

    Erica Sipes

  5. Rebecca


    So great to hear your thoughts and to know that I am not the only one struggling with these questions. It sounds like you are contributing tremendously to the local community, and to your family, and this is of great value. Keep in touch.

  6. Rebecca Post author

    Hi Erica,

    So great to hear that I am not the only one struggling with these questions. I wish you the best in finding your tribe. I think that your experiences as a mother, and having the freedom to explore your musicianship separate from a career are an incredible asset. I hope that you find a way to continue contributing your music in a way that feels appropriate to you, and having the courage to recognize the value in what you do. And DO keep in touch and tell me how things are going,



  7. Pingback: Why I don't listen to music anymore… – Mae Mai

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *