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.