The Fairtrade, Humanely raised, Sustainable, Locally Grown Cellist…hopefully

This writing is interrupting my morning practice session. It was a particularly good session; I was savoring each note of the scales and slides in the Piazzolla Grand Tango and finally discovering exactly how I wanted to execute the glissando slides into the second note of a leap. But flashes of inspiration kept zipping through me like lightening, and I have had the insight from a young age to listen to these calls and to trust them. What emerges often isn’t exactly a perfect poem or piece of prose, but the very authentic voice of my experience, an act of self reflection that synthesizes and makes meaning out of the chaos of my life. I make no assumption that my self narrative has any necessary value to others. I post this in case you are curious. If I were a professional writer, I might edit and polish all of this, but, like my cooking, my writing offers an opportunity for my soul to breath in a moment of improvised, unedited creativity. With no one paying for these words or morsels, I can be unfettered and unburdened by responsibility. So, you can stop reading now if you like, and dinner is not obligatory! It makes no difference to me. This is that joyous for me!

I have time now to pick the daisies of my mind, to admire the day lilies in my yard and savor the abundance of what each moment brings. I love this. I really, really love this!This is the artist in me. The imaginative, colorful, free spirit that has always been there admiring and reflecting on the world with unabashed delight. This is the part of me that tosses together a dish without measuring, Italian style, with dashes and handfuls of this and that, and somehow the flavors are always just right; bold, spicy and full. Or you might find me simmering bones for hours, tasting and adjusting a Vietnamese Pho stew until it has just the right complex combination of dark and bright flavors, anise, cinnamon, lime and chili.

And yes, this is the part that savors each note in the sensuous and rhythmically driving sounds of a Tango and could do so for hours upon hours given the luxury. Or that might also wander off into some colorful soul garden and not necessarily come back for a long time. I can be that weird. Which makes grateful that as a musician I am only part artist. I am also equal parts athlete and diplomat. The physical and technical aspect of playing the cello requires repetition, patience and clarity of ideas while the fact that people pay for my playing brings an element of care and intention to my work. And then the fun part is that I get to be with people in my creative moments, I get to search for something universally human in my work. My creativity becomes a bridge, my music a conversation and this is most profound and meaningful at the end of the day.

BUT…the interesting thing I learned this year is that without the artist the diplomat and the athlete become completely pointless. The curse of success. As I have become more engaged in the professional world with an abundance of concerts, I have discovered that the artist is probably the least supported of these three characters in my field, but the most missed when she isn’t there. In a grand effort towards financial viability I performed close to 50 concerts this year. The athletic part of my musicianship thrived and developed. The diplomat too enjoyed the many connections with audiences and colleagues, the publicity and the growth of reputation. But the artist, she suffered. She really suffered! As I stumbled gaunt and exhausted through my final concerts in June I felt depleted in a way I had never experienced before. The curse of success.

I carved out three whole weeks without concerts. I didn’t really know what I needed. But I stumbled my way back to myself by cooking, planting lots of flowers and restorative yoga. Something in me wanted to slow down. Slow way way down. I’d lie in a yoga pose for 10 minutes and it didn’t feel like enough.

When I moved to our little house in the hills of Western MA my urban oriented colleagues wondered how I would make a living as a cellist. I didn’t care. I knew that the artist in me would not survive without the twitter of birds at dusk, the wild blueberry bushes or the delicate sound of falling snowflakes. As I write this I am watching bumble bees collecting pollen off of the purple colored phlox in my garden. The flowers are swaying in the breeze. No, I didn’t practice that shift 10 more times, but I will have time to tomorrow. Now I am collecting colors, moods sensations, experiences so that when I play that super delicate moment in the Ravel, it will be as gentle as that bee on the flower. My diplomat keeps the artist from wandering off, but the athlete and the diplomat both take orders from the artist. It works best this way. Then they work on translation; making the artistic delivery most comfortable and beautiful. When the sensitive artist, who needs lots of time and space to be heard, gets lost in the dizzy of concerts, the music becomes a bunch of black dots on the page, the concert an exercise.

I find it takes courage to center myself around a self and a home that most people speed by. And some people miss what I bring. More and more I am becoming okay with this. To contribute something truly meaningful an artist needs to go just beyond where others feel comfortable going themselves, and sometimes this means risking rejection, or being feared. Slowing down, way down.

Being a musician sometimes means risking not being financially rewarded properly for ones work, not playing enough concerts to pay the bills. Or playing so many that you lose touch with your soul. Its tough, really really tough. But its also incredibly juicy.

Ultimately this exploration seems timely to me. As I examine this balance of overextending vs becoming lost in a self obsessed lost in self obsessed musing, it strikes me as a pertinent modern narrative; a core question we face as a culture. How do we embrace all of the ambition and hustle of modernization, profit, efficiency without losing touch with that deepest voice of nature, or self without becoming dehumanized? We can’t and shouldn’t go back so some kind of innocent tribal living. Forward needs to be forward. It seems we are beginning to explore the creation of healthy companies, sustainable, fair trade, locally grown, organic etc.

I want to be part of this solution simply by finding this balance in my own life, by being my own sustainable, local fair trade musician. Standing here right at this intersection, it’s a great vantage point. Luckily, I have the financial where with all, and had the insight to follow this inner artists voice when I did lose connection. And I am blessed also with recognition and success. Its a luxury to be able to explore this intersection between self and society. As such, I am determined that when I figure this out, I will be a bridge for others; reminding my fellow citizens of vast inner worlds with also a growing engagement with the outer world, that sometimes it is time to slow down and be in beautiful stillness, and sometimes we need to wake up from our creative day dreams and join the world in a conversation.

Speaking of which, its time for me to head back to practicing! The world is calling.


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”.


From Bach to Shostakovich

As I write this I have a large ice pack on my right shoulder. It has been complaining a bit after a quick transition within one week from playing Bach and friends with a delicate, historically informed sound with few accents to pages of the cello equivalent of screaming at the top of my lungs with accents, loud chords and other such means by which Shostakovich asks his trio to depict violence, war and oppression. I resumed some of my forgotten back strengthening exercises in preparation for the physical endurance needed for this program. I am enjoying the challenge, and finding a way to pull the sound from my core, from my whole body.

It was only two weeks ago that I was working extremely hard to transcend the limits of my 20th set up cello, an instrument designed to cut across large concert halls, compete with a nine foot grand piano or an orchestra. Bach just sounded so aggressive with my steel strings, Belgian bridge and modern bow. It took much awareness to overcome my usual cellistic patterns of speech and to instead pull the sound and light up on off beats, to play with a delicacy and nuance that reflects an age when things were different. It would have come more naturally with a baroque bow and cello, but I am not so fortunate to own these at present. But the end result was very satisfying and through this process I began to explore the ways in which I might be set up by the modern world to be aggressive, accented and commanding in my presence and wondered what it would it be like to be gentle, graceful and warm. I considered a softer approach to the world at large, and resolved to release various grudges I had been carrying and lighten up.

My concert demands had me then jump almost 250 years forward to the 2nd world war as expressed by a small, oppressed Russian man with spectacles. In rehearsals with Trio Lumiere we are finding ourselves looking into the eyes of deep human suffering, violence, aggression, and the atrocities of war. Depicting this violence is cathartic on some level, as we give voice to the unbridled rage in parts of the last movement, sadistic joviality in the 2nd movement and utter hopelessness in the 3rd movement. All at once I am in the position of needing to discover as much physical and emotional intensity I can muster. I know how to do this. I know how to give everything that I have got and even push the limits of my instrument to capacity, even if it takes some adjusting for my small frame to adjust physically. Just as I surrendered to the delicacy of Bach I am surrendering to the horror of Shostakovich.

But somehow with the horror comes the best of humanity. Bach asked me to be gentle, eloquent and kind. Shostakovich tells me to transcend my fear, speak the truth but not to be alone in my suffering. In a strange way Shostakovich also calls forth tenderness, a communal grieving. He asks for compassion. As I imagine and express the suffering of other humans my heart opens. The trio violinist Klaudia grew up in Poland and the realities of this trio are still deeply embedded in her cultural memory. She describes the beginning of the first movement like people huddled in a dark cell with the light barely finding its way through the bars. Our Russian coach described the opening as depicting the early morning when the KGB were known to remove people from their houses, never to be heard from again. The early morning was also the time when Poland was attacked and the 2nd World War began. I see it as the barely human voice of trauma of any kind, when we feel powerless and too frozen and numb to cry with all the unspoken agony of what we have known. Our pianist says little but her notes express what she feels. All of us have our story of anguish, and so often we think ours is the most significant and painful story or deepest suffering.  But in exploring this suffering together, we discover we are not alone. This is not a lone cello voice here, but a trio of equals wailing together, holding each-other in the darkness as the bombs fall.

My mind moves to the small and frightened man who wrote such powerful music and I am in awe of one who had the courage and tenacity to speak such an unspeakable truth about human pain and all the while under the watchful eye of Stalin and the fear of arrest and banishment to Siberia.

Year in review

I can’t believe that it has been so long since my last substantial post. But out of the dead stillness of the winter solstice and the holiday festivities, I have emerged with excitement and optimism for the new year ahead.

I don’t have anything profound or crafty to put together for this blog post but I wanted to let you know how the past year’s journey has shaped my current musical goals for 2012.

Last year was my first year back after Montana, and as such was a year of meeting new musicians. It seemed that each month brought new venues, new programs and new colleagues to work with, and I was busy with over 20 concerts, in some cases preparing a different recital from one week to the next. I am someone who enjoys a plan and structure. But this was not possible last year. I literally booked barely a month in advance and had to learn to live with the complete unpredictability of my life. At one point I believe I counted that I had worked with six different pianists in a four-month span. It is dizzinging to imagine how I adapted to such different musicians and repertoire so quickly. And the stress of financial uncertainty was a struggle at times. But I made it through the first year of my new direction as “mainly a performer”, and I am beginning to see signs that, as they say, “the first year is the worst”!

From this wild year I am proud to say that I learned a great deal about efficiency in practicing and learned to perform with few rehearsals and still do my best. I learned a huge amount about business and have a shiny and organized business plan to show for my self-education in this area. I learned about persistence and flexibility, about booking and publicity. I discovered where my limits were in terms of how quickly to turn over repertoire. But I also learned that I really crave more stability and consistency. So I have determined that 2012 will be a year of greater order and clarity.

I am pleased to say that I am beginning to move in the direction of booking further in advance, with eight dates already set for 2012. This is excellent since my goal is to play 30 concerts this year, between solo and chamber music. But, more important than the number of gigs or how far out I book is that many of musical “dates” with colleagues have led to deeper musical partnerships of various kinds. Performing with people with whom I have good chemistry in concert and in rehearsal gives me the possibility to grow musically and to feel connected to others. So I have settled into a duo with only a few pianists. Also, after four years of almost exclusively doing solo work, culminating in my CD folkfire, I began to feel a deep longing to have a committed Piano Trio again.

In the spring of 2011 I met an amazing pianist, Pei-yeh Tsai just finishing her Doctorate at BU, and she introduced me in October to the beautiful playing of Klaudia Szlachta, also finishing up her DMA at BU. When we three finally found a time to read trios together it was love at first sound. I am extremely excited about this new venture, which we are calling Trio Lumiere (which means light in French), and look forward to our debut concert together in February.

Of course I am sure this year will be filled with surprises, but it is nice to know that not EVERYTHING will be new for me.

Winter Stillness

Today I walked through the marrow deep, cold stillness of December. The pale light of the winter solstice and the dry crunch of frozen dirt hold more austerity than the cheerful glitter of January’s white snow-filled festivity. Even the bark of the dog sounds hollow echoing between the naked trees. But somehow I welcome the dry bitterness of the air. It awakens life in me, like a good gin and tonic or the smell of the boughs of balsam that I gathered for the mantel. The air is icy hot. By contrast my body feels vibrant and noisy. But then also the stillness creeps in so profoundly that I have no desire to disturb the silence or thaw out from the moment. Of late, against this backdrop, my cello sounds brassy and unkempt. It is hard to find notes worthy of winter’s wholesome silence. But necessity requires it.

Yet, sometimes I feel that the music could almost play without me if I waited patiently and stopped chasing my scales. Even if just one note came, effortlessly, it would capture the essence of dark December. This note would rest in a quiet place, like a seed in the frozen dirt. It would wait there for a very long time, hopeful and filled with possibility.

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.

An apocalyptic cacophony of neurotic cellists

I walked down the windy downtown streets enjoying the beautiful sunshine of spring. As I passed strangers they marveled at my red cello case on my back, and I took small pleasure in the attention. Entering through the backstage door I was greeted with a smile, my name was checked off a list, and I was then directed to a group practice room. The room, whose periphery was covered with mirrors, held about six cellists facing the mirrors their backs to the center of the room. I was greeted by a cacophony of sound and a few nervous glances. With a mixture of smug rebellion, friendliness, curiosity and insecurity, I scouted out a spot in the room to warm-up. I wanted to look around me, but felt it would be rude. Instead I sized up someone beside me playing through Debussy La Mer while I unhurriedly unpacked my cello. Not bad. I worked up to a brave peak and a quick smile at an Asian woman in the corner. Then I noticed an obsessed looking middle-aged man anxiously repeating the same phrase over and over. He was hunched over and tense. The sound of his cello reminded me of someone screaming with a stuffed nose.

On my right a friendly young male said hello, and said he thought he knew me. I laughed. Maybe it was the hat he said. He liked my hat. I liked his La Mer. He had a sweet, clear tone, and beautiful phrasing. “Sounds good” I said. I pulled out my pile of excerpts, than decided instead to practice Louange a l’eternite de Jesus from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. It felt appropriate in the midst of this apocalyptic cacophony of unemployed cellists.

Another cellist arrived. This one was really strange. He looked European with fancy shoes and hair cut long, with rimmed spectacles. He found a spot in the middle of the room and in slothe-like fashion slowly, and painstakingly carefully began settling in, removing each article of his craft. After five minutes he was to be found standing above his cello, his legs straddling either side of the lower bout, staring down at it, stone still. I think he was having a transcendent moment. Or maybe he just overdosed on beta blockers. At intervals I peered over to see if he had made any progress, and he seemed to alternate between poses staring down at a score, and poses straddling his cello. What a neurotic bunch, I thought, looking at myself in the mirror. I dug around for a piece of paper and started taking notes. This was too good to forget.

I finally started playing through my pile of excerpts slowly. More cellists dribbled in: a forty something woman with her own chair and stand, complaining all the while about the conditions. Then came an extremely small man with large mouse-like ears. Maybe he is really good, I thought. You never know. In a rush of compassion, I felt an overwhelming sense of connection to each quirky cellist in the room, struggling to master their instruments, and get work. I wanted to know their stories, their trials and tell each of them that they mattered, even if they weren’t picked today.

As it turned out they didn’t pick any of us. They heard us in two bunches of about ten. No one advanced in my group. I might have been a bit sloppy in my spiccato, but it mostly went well, considering the time I had to prepare. I even had a moment of appreciation of my sound in the Brahms excerpt. After my two minutes playing behind a screen to the faceless judges, I was utterly unconcerned. I have never been passionate about excerpts, or trying to discover how others want me to sound. I love conquering technical challenges, but only so I can express more poignantly the depth of a work. I knew I was a mismatch, but something had compelled me to take the audition. Maybe I needed to be sure.

With the exhilaration of rebellious joy several of us convened a raucous conversation in the back room. We exchanged numbers and stories. As I walked out of that hallowed hall of mirrors and judges into the sunshine, I felt light and free. I had people to play for, recordings to make and stories to tell.

Everything will be OK

The sky soars above with the piercing blueness of spring. Lying on my back I rediscover the sun’s warmth that feels so new though I have felt it many times before. With the gentle singing of chimes in the breeze behind me I am reminded for a moment that I am a cellist. With a flash of insight I know: everything will be OK. Not because of success, accolades, riches or fame, but because of the beautiful intensity of the thousand tree buds ready to burst forth into life, resilient, persistent and driven by an ecstasy for sunshine and rain.  There is smooth stillness to their shiny pods, a reserved, unfaltering confidence in their right to be. Yet it takes little effort to imagine their leafy lushness covering the branches. And soon I remember only that I am alive basking in the sunshine. And everything will be OK.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

The 95F heat bears down on me. I am perched on the edge of a half broken dusty stool, moving my fingers over my cello, waiting for my stage cue, which may or may not come. I am trying not to get dirt on my beautiful ruffled skirt and sequined top while squeezed in the cluttered hallway. I can barely move my bow without hitting a piece of broken furniture. An hour earlier the orchestra crashed through my concerto in our only brief 15-minute rehearsal. The third movement is cut and I only hope that the oboe player remembers his accidentals in his solo. I rub my fingers on my forehead for lubrication, to combat the humidity that causes my fingers to stick to my cello, not so good for fast passages. When I get on stage, nothing matters. The music consumes me and my soul expands. I fought hard for this experience. I spent hundreds of hours practicing and fundraising for this moment. Not in a million years would I choose anything else. It was magic.

Despite the magic, there have been painful moments were I have really doubted the feasibility of a performing career. Recognition and nice venues, good reviews, standing ovations-these are nice things, they feel good. Having money for small luxuries is wonderful. But without these things I am quickly cured of tying my sense of worth or value in how the world responds whether positively or negatively to my music. Yes, becoming too attached to the positive stuff is also dangerous, because ultimately it sets up expectations and traps for the future that can be limiting. In the bad times when I put myself out there constantly, deal with rejection or criticism, practice hour after hour and then sometimes not even be able to pay my bills, allowing this to reflect on my worth as a musician is very treacherous. I would have quit by now if took these things too much to heart. Instead, I buy a silken sparkly top at the thrift store for my next concert to cheer me up.

It helps me also to realize that I have a set of particularly challenging external circumstances: I have to deal with a general population that thinks classical music is boring and stuffy, and I find myself needing to win over new recruits to the genre constantly (which I do manage). Without the status of a major competition award or some super famous teacher or parent musician, it will take time for me to convince the high brow classical music listeners that I am top pedigree enough to be worth their money, despite a Doctorate in Music, years of performing experience and chops to prove it. And I may never convince them. But when I can’t make external progress I focus on further refining my craft. I find joy in constantly improving my musicianship and I have come to love practicing as a form of meditation and stilling the mind. Finally, I remind myself that it is the small things in life, the people you love, the integrity of your work, the day to day that matters.

My husband says I am one of the most proud people he knows.  It is true, I will admit that there have been times in this wild ride toward my dreams that I have had a Cinderella fantasy of being discovered as the princess cellist that I am, and be whisked away to perform in luxurious venues, receiving honorable treatment and large pay. So much of my sense of self in the past has been tied into my success as a musician and academic, and all of my present challenges are hard on the ego. At the same time, I am learning to connect to a deeper sense of self, beyond the roller coaster ride of the ego. And now, most of the time, I recognize that my worth and ability to be loved has nothing whatsoever to do with anything career related.

Yesterday my audience was a group of slumped over and half conscious elderly. My pianist had an upright, and I played the first piece on the program on a table with books, until a stand was located. A week before I played in front of a shelf of groceries beside a groaning freezer. But I didn’t care. I was in heaven. Both performances were pure magic. Wonderful. I was lost in the beauty of it all. And the audience was moved; they felt it too.

I find a depth of gratitude in recognizing that the gift of this adversity is that it is a catalyst that reveals the true nature of my music. The untouchable part of my soul shines brighter with each performance, as I become more practiced at letting go of the results. Finding the freedom and strength to shine and to connect to my audience under any circumstance, is deeply meaningful. In fact, this is the only thing that truly matters.

I don’t know if I will ever make it to Carnegie Hall. But I imagine if I do, I will have the fortitude by then to care less about the results than being alive and free in the experience; to shine on like a crazy diamond, exquisitely beautiful and virtually indestructible.