This is a post about love. Specifically, it’s a post looking back at our February concert, “Lover’s Tears.” We presented this concert as an exploration of love in all its forms, and there was plenty of love to be found in the repertoire we played. Janacek’s “Intimate Letters,” for example, is a musical love letter that reaches dizzying heights of romantic passion. Dowland’s “Lachrimae Amantis” (“Lover’s Tears”) comes at love from a more restrained, Shakespearean place, yet is also full of dissonances and major/minor shifts that, to me, capture love’s aching uncertainty.
A cynnical part of me was skeptical of doing a love-themed concert in February. We live in a culture that celebrates and commodifies certain narratives of “romantic love” while ignoring others. What about love’s other manifestations: friendship, community, artistic passion, self-love? Our February community partners, the participants of the Life Songs project, brought a healthy dose of self-love to our Saturday show.
For Life Songs, we partnered with the Fenway Health's LGBTQ Aging Project and Ethos to co-write original songs with LGBT elders about their life journey. We split into groups and worked with three participants, using the prompt “A letter to your younger self.” rMy group's songwriting partner was warm, funny, and frank; he spoke more openly about tough topics than I often do with my closest friends. When we asked him what questions he'd had as a young man, and how he would answer them now, he recalled a time when homosexuality was considered illegal and diagnosed as a mental illness. He had wondered whether he should join the priesthood, what do to about the draft, and whether he could pursue a teaching career. Many of these questions and answers made it into the final songs, which two of our songwriters performed at the Palaver concert. One song’s refrain, “However safe or unsafe it can be, it’s crucial to be yourself,” stuck with me as an affirmation of authenticty and self-love. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to be yourself, especially onstage, and this is something we can all be inspired by, no matter who we are.
January was a busy month for Palaver. We began with a weekend retreat of back-to-back meetings, discussing everything from marketing strategies to programming decisions to the way we discuss things like “diversity.” In conjunction with Boston Medical Center, we participated in “The Lullaby Project,” helping new expectant mothers write and record original songs for their babies. Last but not least, we performed a concert called “Artists in Transit.” It took place in a hallway-turned-gallery at Boston University, in conversation with artwork by Molly Dee and John Branagan. The space felt small and even a little cozy once packed with forty people, and we were all engaged with the art in some way: blue and white figures stood in our midst as we played, and some audience members enjoyed the music from inside a train-like structure. The art investigated, in the artists’ words, “what the community in Boston is really like and how we interpret the city that’s become our home.”
The pieces we chose to play, likewise, engage powerfully with ideas of time, movement, and geography. Holst’s “St. Paul’s Suite” pits rollicking Scottish jigs against a klezmer-y intermezzo. Vaughn Williams takes us on a transformative journey with the English hymn “Dives and Lazarus” (better known as the folk tune “Star the County Down).” Bartok’s “Divertimento” flirts with baroque forms one minute and Hungarian folk gestures the next. And so on.
We had no way of knowing that “Artists in Transit” would come on the heels of an executive order banning travelers from five countries. As we played, I thought about those “in transit” affected by the ban, being detained at airports or turned away from their flights. I thought about Bartok, who wrote the “Divertimento” shortly before emigrating from his native Hungary at the onset of World War II. I was also conscious of using music to try to give the audience, as well as ourselves, a much-needed refuge from reality.
It can be tempting to think of classical music as timeless, placeless, at best “universal” and at worst dated and static. When it’s really good, music can transcend a lot of things, but this doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Bartok, who vocally opposed fascism and refused to have his pieces played in Nazi Germany, understood this. This music’s complex beauty reflects many journeys, many influences, many kinds of transit. So does Boston and so do we.
The idea of the Supra Feast first came to me last winter, on a music study trip that took me through the Balkans, Turkey, and finally the Republic of Georgia. Georgia, nestled in the Caucus mountains south of Russia, is home to rich traditions of singing, food, wine, and the "supra," or feast, that lets you enjoy all three at once. As a frequent guest of Georgian friends, I've been lucky enough to attend many supras. I'll set the scene: guests are seated at a long table covered with food, stacked three or four dishes deep. Wine flows freely from glasses, clay bowls, and drinking horns, testing the drinking stamina of hosts and guests alike. Song, dance, and poetry erupt spontaneously, with plenty of intercultural song-swapping and straight-up jamming. A tamada, or "toast-master," presides at the head of the table, leading the guests in effusive toasts to the homeland, traditions, friends, family, and one another.
Some of my fellow travelers were skeptical when I suggested bringing the supra to Palaver: "I mean, has anyone else in Palaver even been to Georgia?" To me, the supra is just the kind of musical context that we in Palaver crave: it creates a community, if only for a night, where "audiences" and "performers" sit elbow to elbow, fill up each other's wine glasses, and experience something together. It provides an opportunity for structured sharing and reflecting on what's important. The wine is pretty good, too.
I'll admit I was nervous. But the Palaver crew came through, cooking more than I thought was possible and whipping up an ambitious array of musical delights, from the earthy and uproarious to the transcendent and spiritual. With the help of guest singers Justine Calnan Cavacas and Conor Weiss, we presented traditional Georgian song, and tamada Evan Eckstrom led us in thoughtful, heartfelt toasts. Everyone who came experienced something new, whether that was chamber music, a new eggplant dish, or Georgian harmonies. And all these new things tasted better together: to quote one of my favorite Georgian songs, "Good wine is worth nothing without good music, and a young man is worth nothing if he cannot drink."
Through the RealTalk Dictionary, Palaver members try to understand words that we often use, but that can sometimes seem to lack real meaning. Today’s installment is “Empathy”.
noun: The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
My first thought is “Grrrumph.” I open my eyes, and mysteriously, I find that I’m soaping my armpits in the shower. Then I rinse, towel, and hear about acid attacks in Iran, white-helmeted Syrian first responders that dig survivors out of rubble, and a deadly airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. I feel worried, sad, and angry for a minute, then I hop on my bike, pedal to work, and forget all about it. All in all, it’s a pretty typical morning (except that I showered…which is slightly more atypical).
I imagine that this story is not unique to just me - knowing about terrible things that happen in the world, but feeling emotionally detached from them due to distance, unfamiliarity, and relative comfort.
Unless we’ve “been there” (broken arm, bad breakup, death of loved ones), it can be incredibly difficult to truly understand what others are feeling. This can be true even with our closest friends, but it’s especially true when someone is far away and in circumstances that are drastically different from our own.
And then the crux of the problem: if we don’t empathize with others - if we are not able to engage our emotions and feel with them - then we will not act on their behalf. They remain separate from ourselves and removed from our perceived sphere of influence.
So we come to a question. How can we understand and share the feelings of others when we’ve never “been there,” when we don’t know them personally, speak their language, or necessarily share their views?
Okay, now to slightly switch gears. Meet limbic resonance, the idea that moods are contagious, that we non-verbally share our emotional states with those around us. This is a phenomenon that everyone has experienced - if you’re around someone who’s in an incredible mood, you’re drawn up with them. A terrible mood, and you’re down in the dumps as well.
That’s supergreat for the people immediately around us, but what about people who are in other countries? Is it possible to harness some sort of long-distance limbic resonance that will give us a window into their emotional experiences?
Follow my thought process for a moment:
Two elements that express and communicate emotion are sound (breathing, sighing, music) and movement (posture, body language, dance). These elements can also create emotions. For instance, not only do you laugh and jump when you feel good, but you can also feel good by laughing and jumping.
Now imagine doing this together in a group - purposefully moving and making sound to create different emotions, and taking advantage of the our limbic resonance to share and amplify those emotions. That sounds like it could be pretty powerful.
So we’ve decided to give it a shot. On Saturday 5/14, open (free improvisation) and Urbanity Dance are joining forces to curate a group improvisation connecting everyone in the room, through movement and sound creation, both with each other and with people on the other side of the world.
This experiment will take extreme honesty, openness, bravery, and love, because we’ll be dealing with our own stories, insecurities, and fears. Our goal is to understand by creating, to share by feeling, and we would love for you to join us.
Why? To try and see the world not as me and you, self and other, but as we. And then to take action.
Through the RealTalk Dictionary, Palaver members try to understand words that we often use, but that can sometimes seem to lack real meaning. Today’s installment is “performance anxiety”.
Performance Anxiety - (n.)
Here’s an introductory definition of anxiety that Dr. Noa Kageyama provided in a blog post titled “What is Performance Anxiety?”:
“a negative emotional state with feelings of nervousness, worry, and apprehension associated with activation or arousal of the body.”
Dr. Kageyama goes on to outline the 3 Components of Anxiety (physical, mental and emotional), the 2 Types of Anxiety (state and trait), and eventually a 3-pronged Strategy. If we want to understand what is happening to a person with performance anxiety, this is what we need. The science is logical.
Now, here is a rough transcript of my thoughts in the first 30 seconds of my masters recital:
“Okay. Here I am. Breath in, breath out. You can do this, really - just feel the music. Here we go - remember, slow bow. Now. Beautiful. (dontmessuptheshift)(DONTTHINKTHATJUSTNAILIT!) Noooooo... I really did not want that to happen - the audience knows I suck. God I hate this. Let’s get this over with.”
I suffer, and have suffered, from performance anxiety, and I can tell you now that it is awful. By the time of my masters recital, I no longer suffered from sweaty hands and uncontrollable shaking, but the mental “negative emotional state” was still very strong. I self-diagnosed about 6 months ago, after a conversation with my friend John Beder - director of the upcoming documentary “Composed” - which focuses specifically on the performance anxiety in the classical realm. Turns out, many many classical musicians have experienced performance anxiety, and many turn to prescription drugs to cope.
After I allowed myself to identify with performance anxiety, I started to wonder - why? Why do I refuse to play for friends and family? Why do I spend so much time wondering what my colleagues think of me? Why did I hate my recital so much? How did I get here?
As I thought about my education, I realized that my whole experience of becoming a musician was focused on learning skills. Each performer masters many hundreds of skills: learning to put your fingers in the right place to play an F, playing that F (by striking, plucking, bowing or blowing), playing that F in tune so that you match the F that other people are playing, etc.
One summer I was particularly proud of practicing a scale every day, holding each note for 20 seconds to improve strength and stability in my bow arm (...still proud of that skill!). But the rest of my time was spent thinking about things I could not do (I can’t play that note in tune, I can’t make that shift, I can’t play that phrase legato, I can’t play marcato accents). I began to believe that being able to hear and understand what I was not doing well was the key to my future success. Compiling an accurate and complete list of all the skills I lacked was a mark of my intelligence, my insight, my humbleness…
This was my downfall. My “critical listening” became an obsession with my own weaknesses. My practice sessions became unproductive and painful as my list of faults grew too long to address calmly in the allotted time. I listened to music - recorded performances or live concerts, to exercise my “critical listening”, which was actually an addiction to hearing other people's mistakes. In rehearsals, I used my “critical listening” to scoff internally when others made mistakes. In my solo performances, my “critical listening” turned into silently berating myself.
I had forgotten, and I was not alone in forgetting, that we do not call music a skill! When we learn music we must assess the skills required - but our audiences don’t attend our performances to appreciate a list of skills mastered. Music was not invented as a means of judging or comparing people. We listen to the radio in our cars, we dance at parties, and we go to concerts and we experience music. Our ancestors celebrated with music, worshipped with music, and mourned with music, because music is not hindered by words, and connects directly with the human spirit.
I had forgotten, and was not reminded, that my work was Art (capital A!) - and thus I was an Artist. My belief in what I was doing, the music I was making, the art I was creating, was just as important as my technical skill. If I believed in my artistry openly and honestly, I could connect more deeply with my audience. If I was stressed, the audience was stressed - and if I felt beauty, the audience felt beauty.
My experience of anxiety in performance came from a misunderstanding of what was important. And so, I’d like to offer a new, personalized definition of Performance Anxiety -
Stress and tension resulting from a deep seated belief that Skill is more important than Artistry, and the incessant and unnecessary negative thoughts resulting from that belief that get in the way of enjoying one’s work.
Maybe this definition won’t work for everyone, but if you are a classical musician, or someone who has suffered from any kind of anxiety, I would love to hear your thoughts - please do get in touch!
I believe that this is the time, here at the beginning of 2016, to bring more attention to the balance of Skill and Spirit. This new year, I invite you to join me in practicing Joy and Creativity in your work. Soon, that practice will turn into a Joyful and Creative presence wherever you go - and who knows what that kind of energy might spark.
Bassist, Co-Artistic Director of Palaver Strings
Through the RealTalk Dictionary, Palaver members try to understand words that we often use, but that can sometimes seem to lack real meaning. Today’s installment is “collaborate”.
Palaver’s existence wouldn’t be possible without use of the verb collaborate. In every facet of our organization, members join forces to make decisions, find solutions, all in the aim to make art that we all believe in. Day in and day out, rain or shine, we as a family come together to find our truth in an art form that we wish to revitalize and sustain in our society.
Just like any family we have our ups and downs when it comes to working together on a daily basis. Sometimes we yell, sass, argue, act passive aggressively and then moments later we will be hugging, smiling and laughing together. No member of Palaver has to walk the road alone. There is always someone there or all of us there to help with the task of figuring out the program order for an upcoming concert or deciding on which tempo to take at one of the Lebhafter sections in Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht.
One of the things I love about Palaver is the fact that you can always rely on a plethora of opinions for pretty much anything music related. This group is never short of ideas. Even when one member may feel like their idea is the only way, we manage to take the time to try various ideas before coming up with a final plan. We find ways to meld our musical ideas to create the product or experience that is the true essence of Palaver.
A big part of the Palaver mission is to join forces with members of the community whether they be artists, intellects, community builders or people that simply have room in their hearts to love. It’s an amazing process when we work with others outside of our own niche to create something new. This fall it’s been wonderful working with Boston based artist, Ashley Zipp. She has opened up an entire new dimension to what our audiences experience in our shows. Her work serves as inspiration to all of the musicians of Palaver, and our musical perspectives in turn serve her.
I’m always amazed and inspired when we come together to work as a group. We can close the doors to our chaotic and stressful days to share within a common space to work jointly as a unit to create meaningful music. Everyone’s individual voice is important as we create a singular vision. It’s a joy to be part of this group as we are all working together for a common goal. I’m so glad to be part of this labor of love.
I was first introduced to Liberia through my work with the Liberian Education Fund, and through these experiences I have learned that despite economic instability and often difficult circumstance, community is what creates culture. The vendors at colorful market stalls connecting with every passerby, dusty barefoot football matches in most backyards, youngsters dancing in bars all evening, exuberant gospel-filled church services, the half hour in the school day dedicated to singing before class begins, all represent accessible and built-in cultural activities in Liberia. I don’t think culture has anything to do with wealth except for that wealth can provide the means and space to promote cultural events.
In the U.S. we have access to beautiful museums, concert halls, sports stadiums, and amazing restaurants. Almost every community has spaces that offer culture whether in large entertainment centers, town halls or gymnasiums. We are lucky in that way. Museums and concert halls are cultural landmarks that are truly inspiring, however they are not often community based or accessible. It can be isolating to go to a large museum and look at art and reflect inwardly or just to a friend. As it can be isolating to see a live show, especially of the classical genre, and watch in silence, then clap or maybe even stand up if you are excited at the finish. Not to mention that too many people cannot afford tickets to these cultural events in the first place.
Although some forms of art and music remain inaccessible, there are many forms that are open to everyone and bring people together to discuss, celebrate, and meditate. Friends often tease me for idealizing growing up in a small Midcoast town in Maine. I’ll admit I sometimes obsess over the quality of simplistic, small town living, but I think my admiration comes from the accessible culture was made by this strong community. Plays at the local theatre, community rowing, a new restaurant opening, or street music and dancing on summer nights were all special town events. What made these events so powerful, was that we created and experienced them together as a community because everyone was welcome, thereby creating traditions of our own.
One of the many goals in Palaver is to create this sense of community through music, enabling our audience to learn about each other or to discuss a value or difference . We want to allow for a person to recall a memory or have an amazing conversation because we are creating an experience that induces ideas. I can vouch for other artists or at least classical musicians that our social skills can sometimes be voided because of the extreme amount of time spent alone in the practice room or studio trying to hone in our art. But what is the point of making art if not to give it to something? Well, I hope my something is in community because I believe that community based culture is the best way to instill emotion and motivate change. Through music, I hope to learn how to create an environment where people can feel comfortable discussing something that is hard or wonderful, sitting and listening just for a shared physical experience together and getting to know each other.
Through the RealTalk Dictionary, Palaver members try to understand words that we often use, but that can sometimes seem to lack real meaning. Today’s installment is “connect”.
verb (used with object)
In Palaver, we talk a lot about connecting with people through music and art. So I’ve made a list of some of the experiences in my life when I’ve felt most connected with people, and tried to distill what about those experiences led to that deep feeling.
For me, the best thing about going to Michigan State was the ten-person house that all of my best friends and I lived in together for two years. We called it “The Manor” cause we were all so classy. And one of the best things about The Manor was the ten-person dinner that we would cook and share on Sunday nights. We could say anything without fear of being judged, and were totally honest and silly. That house was full of love.
At Michigan State, where I tickled the bass for four years, the MSU Bass crew would hit up Crunchy’s (a super awesome bar) after orchestra, get the burger special and beers, chat, and sometimes sing Karaoke. Because of the intense experiences that we were going through studying music, that group had an incredible trust. No matter what, we were in it together.
At the end of my senior year at Michigan State, I had a breakdown in front of my bass teacher and started crying. At the time, I was getting rejected from the grad schools and coming to terms with overwhelming feelings of rejection, insecurity, and fear. I had been holding all of my emotions in and trying to appear okay, but in that moment, I decided to trust my teacher and let him in.
On Palaver’s first trip to Maine, we took a midnight stroll and came to a small dock overlooking a lake. Someone started singing a folk tune they knew, and the rest of the group spontaneously joined in, harmonizing and improvising. We felt so overwhelmed by the beauty of the place that we were in, the experience we were sharing, and each person there, and we knew that words couldn’t quite capture the feeling, so we sang together.
Every Sunday night, my family does a big group video chat. This year it is especially important because each of us four kids is in a different city. It’s nice to talk about the day-to-day, but it’s really special when we’re laughing together.
So yeah, music is awesome and it’s fun to make and listen to. But if connecting with people is your goal, consider how the experience you shape creates a safe space to trust, let others in, drop judgment, work towards a common purpose, express real emotions, be honest and silly, laugh, and love.
I often think about what makes the most compelling musical performance. Is it remarkable technical facility? Is it incredible attention to the score? Is it pristine intonation and imperceptible bow changes? Or is it letting go of ego and allowing one’s self to be truly vulnerable?
The answer is obvious. A truly touching musical experience comes from letting go and giving one’s self fully to the music. However, how does one practice letting go when precision and adherence to detail are so crucial in making a performance inspiring and genuine?
When I was about 14, I picked up a book by Madeline Bruser called The Art of Practicing. She addresses how musicians can practice feeling free and spontaneous when playing their instruments, instead of boxed in by fear and anxiety. At the time this incredible knowledge was wasted on me, since my idea of practicing was making up sappy, indulgent melodies on my cello…it’s true. However, as a young musician, not yet tainted by over-critical internal dialogue, I truly loved every minute that I was behind my instrument–I was already experiencing what Bruser was writing about. When I decided to pursue music professionally, I was so excited to get to dedicate every day to the thing that gave me so much joy and inspiration. Unfortunately, my joy become my biggest source of unhappiness. That exhilarating newness that had always accompanied my time with the cello had faded into something else. I finally picked up Bruser’s book again and knew that I had become one of those musicians who couldn’t be spontaneous because I was boxed in by fear.
One of the leading roadblocks that keeps me and many of my colleagues from being expressive is our perfectionist tendencies. When practicing, we are trained to look for mistakes, and to expose and criticize the weakest parts of our playing. We become obsessed with refining and perfecting each musical passage while forgetting about the music itself. We forget that the most powerful musical experiences are not based in technical perfection.
Of course, one cannot be expressive if the music has not been studied and practiced, but how one goes about practicing makes the biggest difference. Since the majority of our practicing involves physical repetition of passages, we are aware of physical injury as a possible hazard to look out for in the profession. However, what we often ignore is the toxic self-criticism that we subject ourselves to each day without the awareness of its long-term consequences. We often feel that we should feel bad about ourselves and tearing ourselves down is for the better and will pay off when it comes time for the performance. But it’s not true. If anything, we become more mentally, physically, and emotionally stuck. In The Art of Practicing, Bruser says that physical “tension and inefficient technique stem from mental and emotional attitudes toward ourselves and our practicing”. Overcoming inefficient playing habits both technically and emotionally require patience and kindness. Be kind to yourself. Be patient.
Releasing one’s self during a performance is not easy. It is against human instinct to deliberately expose one’s vulnerability while in front of a crowd. However, that is the precise reason why it is so impactful and mesmerizing. In order to practice being vulnerable, Bruser suggests tuning into your heart. This means that, before even touching your instrument, you recall and reflect on the preciousness of life and the opportunity we have as musicians. As we connect with each composer and her or her music, we also connect with and nourish ourselves.
As a young musician, I find Bruser’s words to be incredibly insightful and practical. They are points that I try to ponder each day before practicing. Too often, the joy and excitement that ignited the passion in a young musician is extinguished by fear, toxic self-criticism and frustration. By reminding ourselves to consistently tune into our hearts, we can make sure to remain sensitive to ourselves and the beauty that is around us.
Time and time again, I come back to the idea of music bringing together people from all walks of life. I’ve always loved the fact that people, regardless of what language they speak, which neighborhood they come from, or what color their skin is, can all find a love and appreciation for the same artist, song, or genre. As a performing musician, and often audience member, I see first hand music’s ability to act as a bridge between people of various backgrounds - especially within pop, jazz, rock, folk and various other genres. Looking around concert halls, and across orchestra sections, I sometimes question how true this is for classical music.
When I started violin at age six, race wasn’t something I spent much time thinking about. As the years go on with society operating the way that it does, I’ve become increasingly aware of the color of my skin, especially when I’m doing what I love; playing the violin. Looking through the eyes of six-year-old me, opening my violin case to get ready for Suzuki violin group class, the very last thing on my mind was being the only black girl in a room full of children. I was more caught up in remembering how to hold my bow, and where to place my tiny fingers on my 1/8 size violin so that I could play twinkle- twinkle remotely in tune.
As I continued violin through my elementary school years, my mom would buy me recordings of some of the female big shot violinists, such as Hilary Hahn, Midori, Sarah Chang, and Anne Sophie- Mutter, for inspiration. I would listen to their recordings and idolize these women. They were my role models; I worshipped and adored them. But just like any other little girl who walks into a toy store and picks out the doll that looks most like them, I wanted to find the violinist that looked most like me.
While growing up I couldn’t help but notice the lack of diversity in the ensembles I would play in, or even in the audiences that we would play for. My observations made me feel different, and like “the other”. Over the years playing in various youth orchestras and conservatory/university orchestras, there would come the occasional down-time while the conductor rehearsed other sections. Although I should be sitting there actively listening, I often succumb to daydreaming. I look around the stage, packed with other musicians around my age. As I look throughout the orchestra, made up of sometimes sixty or more musicians, I make the same observation that I have again and again over the years. I ‘m either the only or one of a handful of black musicians on the stage. And the same goes for the audiences that we attract.
Especially during my teens, I had moments when I just wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to stand out every time the orchestra would stand up to bow. I didn’t always want to be the “token” black violinist in a particular youth orchestra or summer music festival. I wanted people to just see me as a violinist, not a black violinist.
As a teenager I felt like it was my responsibility to break the stereotype that classical music isn’t for minorities. During the end of high school I learned about the Sphinx organization and was greatly inspired by their mission. This organization has developed incredible strategies to give more opportunities to Black and Latino string players. After learning about Sphinx and auditioning for their renowned concerto competition, I gained a sense of pride and belief that, although I may stand out from most of my classical peers, I still belong and have an important place in classical music.
I want little girls, just like the six-year-old me, to be able to attend classical music concerts and see someone playing in the orchestra who looks like them, so that they know that this form of music is not limited to people based off of the color of their skin.
As a member of Palaver, I believe that we are truly taking steps to perpetuate the use of music of all types as a language to bring people of all backgrounds together. The performances that we have done this year, including the ones at the Haley House Soup Kitchen and Boston Medical Center, have been some of the most diverse audiences that I’ve ever seen! Palaver is being the change that I want to see in the classical music world, and that is EXCITING.
Normally the writing I like to do—outside of lots of English papers—is lists and questionnaires like: What’s your pet peeve? (when people walk really slowly in front of me and I can’t kindly get around them), What’s the best date you’ve ever been on? (Haha. You think I go on dates.) But every once in a while, I get a thought from someone or something I’ve heard that I have to chew on and write down, like this gem from the actor Tom Hiddleston:
Once* I heard Tom Hiddleston say that the reason he did Shakespeare was that it made him feel the most alive out of any scripts he ever read. And that struck me because, in an age in which half my friends are absolutely in love with classical music and the other half doesn’t think about it much, the relevance of classical music is something I think about. Why do I love it? Why do I play it? Why do I advocate for it?
My answer is the same at Tom Hiddleston’s. It makes me feel alive. When I feel like I have nothing, there is nothing more empowering than creating something. When I feel like I don’t have a voice, Tchaikovsky helps me find it. When I’m in my head, playing bass pulls me out of it.
As a kid, when I was upset or angry, I would get away from everything, pick up the bass, and play until I exhausted all my agitated energy. I remember my first music teacher saying that was a good sign, but I never got it until I was older. I never got it until I stopped playing bass for nearly a year after my sophomore year in college, and felt the source of all my creativity dry up.
However, that time, I’ll admit, was liberating. For the first time since I was 10, I wasn’t playing bass. I wasn’t having weekly lessons. I wasn’t having to practice a certain amount every day. But, at the same time, and, for the first time, I realized what it felt like not to be creative. The more that feeling sunk in, the more I felt how I needed that ability to express.
Then, one day, I had a gig for Palaver because we were coming back from our time off, re-invented and newly energized. I crawled back to the bass, and felt the awkward thing (really, his name is Pablo) in my hands after months of nothing. Now, I can’t imagine a week without Pablo and Palaver. I’ll never choose not to play the bass again. Even if I’m not the best or most professional musician, I won’t ever let it go again because it’s what makes me come alive.
And that’s the thing about creativity! You don’t have to be a professional, you just have to like it, and pick it again and again, and again and again. Never stop playing or drawing or dancing or wood carving or taking photos or acting because it’s a life source, and it’s like nothing else in this world.
Why do I love it? Why do I play in Palaver? Why do I advocate for classical music? IT MAKES ME COME ALIVE. And I love sharing that experience with others. So please, walk up to me and ask why I do what I do. Ask any of us. I bet we’d all say a very similar thing.
*Okay, it wasn’t once. I watched that interview (and him acting in Henry IV and V) a few dozen times because, come on, just look at him.
Author: Alex Goodin
This is a blog post about music, overcoming fear, and first steps.
On May 16, 2013, I graduated from Michigan State University with a bachelor’s degree in music performance. It was a gorgeous day, and after the ceremony, all of my dearest friends (my housemates) and I held a graduation party in our backyard. Beer was flowing from ‘dat keg, and incredible love and warmth was flowing from my MSU family. But while my friends laughed outside, I stood in my room with my parents and sisters, and I just cried. I didn’t feel accomplished or proud or even happy; what I did feel was this overwhelming anger, frustration, and fear. I looked forward in my life, and I felt absolutely helpless.
Now time for a disclaimer. As it turns out, MSU prepared me for the “what” beautifully. My bass teacher and friend and inspiration and shoulder to cry on if I needed it, Jack Budrow, taught me not only about bass and music, but also about life and how to be a good person. The raw energy, intensity, and artistic vision of Kevin Noe taught me to pursue art relentlessly, help others tenaciously, be a leader, and NEVER give up. I use music theory every day to arrange music and try to understand its mysteries. The “what” was there. What I was missing was the “how.”
Fast-forward two years. Last night, Palaver publicly launched our website. This is a culmination of a series of challenges that seemed, to my 2013 self, insurmountable. And to a real extent, it was true. At twenty-two years old, I didn’t have the tools to build a website, be a graphic designer, or co-run a chamber orchestra, but I did have the tools to find a book at the library or watch a YouTube video. I had the tools to take one single step forward.
Taking the first step can feel jumping off a cliff, with a roller coaster free-fall and a tremendous crash-landing failure sure to follow. But in the past two years of developing projects, I’ve realized an important distinction. You don’t have to succeed at your whole project at one time. All you need is to succeed at the next step. Once that’s done, keep your head up for the next step, and the next. That first step can be incredibly easy and simple. Read a book or blog, watch a video, send someone you know an email, send someone you don’t know an email, talk to someone who inspires you (I’m free for a coffee date), write down an idea in your idea notebook. In order to take that step, you might have to break your inertia, but once you’re moving, it’s one of the most rewarding and exciting journeys you can take. I promise :)
So step off the cliff with me. Dream big and don’t be afraid. Take control of your inertia, your art, and your life. Don’t wait for people to give you things, knowledge, and opportunity. Go out and grab it for yourself. Do it today.
If you want to talk about stuff, lemme know.