Sing to the Moon

“When the lights go out it’s a waiting game/Never gonna see a day when your world will change. Sing to the Moon and the stars will shine/Over you, heaven’s gonna turn the time.” -Laura Mvula, “Sing to the Moon” 

Last week we presented Sing to the Moon at the Boston Center for the Arts. This was part of our residency at the BCA and we enjoyed playing in the intimate, contemplative atmosphere of the black box theater. Our music was interspersed with original poetry and spoken word by members of the Patient Family Advisory Council at McLean Hospital, developed over the course of a few workshops with Palaver members and poet Frances Brent.  I was unable to attend the workshops myself, but I heard the results, which were powerful accounts of mental health struggles, resilience, and healing.  

This program featured music by three well-known composers: Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. These guys wrote some of the music I love most, full of larger-than-life storytelling and raw expressive power that inspired me to become a musician in the first place. They also all suffered from what we now understand as mental illness, which connects their work to Laura Mvula’s song “Sing to the Moon.”

“There’s a natural fear that nobody will understand, or they’ll think you’re making it up, or you’ve become a diva. I was ashamed. Embarrassed. Also, at that point, I was so ignorant of what the industry was, I thought: ‘If they find out about that they’ll drop me.'" –Laura Mvula, interview with The Guardian, March 19, 2016

So many musicians can relate to this fear. We’ve chosen an industry that demands constant critical thinking and attention to detail and long hours of isolation in the practice room. Competition, financial insecurity, and the fear of not being good enough seem to be par for the course, to say nothing of performance anxiety. Recent research suggests that 80% of professional orchestral musicians suffer from performance anxiety; according to a 2017 study, musicians are three times as likely to experience depression as the general public. 

I think a deep question that we don’t always examine is: What is “good enough?” Is it sheer practice hours, bulletproof technical accuracy, mad grant-writing skills? Is it winning that job or competition? Being able to listen to a recording of yourself without wincing? Or paying the rent on time? In my experience, “good enough” is an insatiable beast; if you feed it today, it’ll come back tomorrow, hungry again for more of you, for as long as you believe that with great art comes great suffering. 

I like to think a better question is “What makes music impactful?” I don’t believe there is one answer. But unlike the question of “good enough,” it can sometimes lead to satisfaction.    

“In my life, too, there are days, hours, weeks, aye, and months, in which everything looks black, when I am tormented by the thought that I am forsaken, that no one cares for me. Indeed, my life is of little worth to anyone. Were I to vanish from the face of the earth to-day, it would be no great loss to Russian music, and would certainly cause no one great unhappiness. In short, I live a selfish bachelor’s life. I work for myself alone, and care only for myself. This is certainly very comfortable, although dull, narrow, and lifeless.” -Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, letter to A. Davidov

The other day in my pedagogy class, someone asked how to deal with students who aren’t motivated to be there—specially in a public school, required-music-class scenario. He said something like, “Your job is to be a really good person. You have to be such an awesome human being that just your mere presence inspires the student to want to be there.” Too often, our institutional structures or financial realities encourage us to be selfish, as Tchaikovsky said. This can be as small as giving up coffee with a friend for an extra hour in the practice room, or as big as ignoring abuses of power because reporting them would jeopardize your career. Even as we suffer for our art, we can choose to be good humans. What inspires me most about Palaver is that we try. Sometimes we fail. We have to recommit to being good humans, in small ways, whenever we come together for a rehearsal or workshop or staff meeting. 

In the dark moments that we all experience, it’s worth remembering that Tchaikovsky was wrong; he did vanish from the earth, but not without making a lasting impact on Russian music. All the more reason for all of us to keep singing to the moon.

- Lysander Jaffe

Palaver Strings