Begin Again (And Repeat)

My friends know that I go through a nearly constant re-thinking and re-examining of the way I play the violin and approach music. I’ve always believed “beginning again” is an integral component in what makes art engaging and relevant. Like bad fish, there’s nothing less inspiring than stale music-making. My musical “heroes” all happen to have one thing in common: every time you hear them, they sound completely different.

When the pandemic gripped the world in March, and after an initial round of shock, I decided to try something different in my playing. I tore off my violin shoulder rest, a modern contraption that attaches to the back of the violin and helps to create a comfortable grip between the shoulder, violin, and head, and started to play. It was awkward at first. Using a shoulder rest was the way I had played for more than 25 years. By college, I always secretly felt that the shoulder rest wasn’t quite working for my body, but I did not want to take the time to begin again – the days/weeks of reworking everything – so I took the “plow straight through” approach, which for better or worse, I made work for me until March 2020.

I could write for hours about shoulder rest vs. no rest, one of the biggest and most contentious behind-the-scenes debates in the violin world. However, I can say with confidence, that after the initial round of awkwardness wore off, as the days turned to weeks, it turned out playing ‘au naturel’ is absolutely the right fit for my body. New mobility and an approach to sound that I so desperately sought for years, unfolded before my eyes with ease. As March turned to summer, I slowly rebuilt my playing from top to bottom and reveled in my newfound playing freedom.

Then, this past September, I had to have somewhat unexpected surgery which prevented me from playing the violin for four weeks. (Note to reader: I am fine and thankfully fully back to normal.) I had never taken more than two weeks off from the violin, let alone a whole month. Quite honestly, I sat out this mandatory absence dreading what I would return to find. Playing the violin is a very athletic action, and as with any sport, even a day away has an impact on the muscles. One always feels “raw” in the first days back to kinetic action after a period of rest. Think about going for a run for the first time in weeks or months…

However, surprise, surprise, it turned out that this absence was perhaps one of the best things that could have happened; a complete reset to my playing and approach to violin. Starting with 15 minutes of playing, and then 20 and 30, and etc. along with proper physical therapy, I jumped into the basics. I took out my scale books, Kreutzer, and Dont Etudes. (Violinists will know to refer to them as the “Don’t play these etudes” – subtle, I know.) This period of playing has been a revelation; there is a magic to going back to the basics, to beginning again from the beginning with years of knowledge and experience under one’s belt. As the weeks have passed, I’ve worked back up to a full day of playing, and just as with the removal of the shoulder rest, I have been overjoyed to find I have awesome new violin capabilities.

There’s so much I don’t know in this world (an understatement), but I can unequivocally say, seek out opportunities to begin again. These are far and few between but so worth it. Sometimes, such as with a once-in-a-generation pandemic or unexpected surgery, you are forced into beginning again. But more importantly, sometimes, you need to be courageous enough to press that reset button yourself.

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The (Good) Writing on the Wall

This time last year, I was temporarily living in Lisbon, Portugal where I based myself for two months of exploration, learning, work, and performing. The day my flight landed in Lisbon, I quickly dropped off my luggage and ignored the temptatious combination of jet-lag and a comfortable bed and set off on a bleary-eyed walk through the streets of Lisbon. A mere 10 minutes into my stroll I encountered this *literal* writing on the wall:

Have a mission, plan ahead, question everything, assume nothing, roll up your sleeves, study the past, take risks, dream higher, welcome change, have an amazing haircut, laugh, be curious, pay attention to details. make mistakes, think sideways, do things with passion, don’t forget to play, take it to the edge, breathe. Creativity takes courage.

This little compilation of inspiration took on new meaning for me this year at the onset of the pandemic. When we entered the first collective lockdown in mid-March, all these words seemed hollow. As concert after concert got cancelled, and long-planned opportunities disappeared in a flash, it was a challenge to not wallow in an endless cycle of disappointment and fear.

However, day by day, all of this advice started to make more sense. Even the haircut part. It’s as if this mysterious Portuguese wall of wisdom was meant exactly for our moment.

Over these past months I’ve been in awe of my incredible colleagues and our collective artist community, one of several fields hit hardest by the prohibition of in-person, social activities. Like many other creative professionals, artists have been forced to “question everything,” “assume nothing,” and live the often stressful, physical embodiment of “creativity takes courage.”

A quick visit online and it’s hard not to be blown away by the sheer magnitude of contributions from countless performers and organizations, from compelling DIY home iPhone concerts, to the army of performers performing bedside concerts for sick COVID patients, to high quality made-for-home concerts by major organizations such as the LA Phil and Cleveland Symphony.

Having said all this, there is still a long way to go, especially as we face yet more months of unpredictability and possible regional lockdowns. There is no replacement for live, in-person performance. The plethora of digital offerings can only take us so far, and many digital analysts could probably tell you better than I that average retention for streaming content is measured in seconds, not minutes.

Artists are more important than ever and the work we all do now has an impact, even if it’s just for one person, somewhere and somehow. As we continue being courageous in our creativity, my only hope is that congress and our other elected officials recognize this important work and help to properly fund the arts during this crisis, along with restaurants and other overlooked yet vitally important industries directly reliant on the safe gathering of people. For more on the urgent need for art, especially in the face of a health and safety emergency, read The Empathy Crisis.

So, while there is not yet a magical solution to make everything better, let this Portuguese wall be a guide for you just as it has been for me; Roll up your sleeves, take risks, and dream higher. Creativity takes courage.

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The Empathy Crisis

As a kid, I remember my mom, a music teacher in the public schools where I grew up, coming home year after year complaining about the latest round of budget cuts to her arts program. Once, the administration eliminated the program entirely, but after a parental outburst of community protest, it was re-established a few weeks later.

Over the years, as I flipped through national music magazines and glanced through local newspapers, the same story would keep coming up: budget cuts to local arts, both in the schools and in the community. Frankly, the redundancy of the stories got boring. Arts get cut because they are second to other subjects, period. We get it.

I remember talking with my former manager about how back in the 70s and 80s, artists could “do really well” on regional tours. They would fly to say Ohio, rent a car, and do a 5-week tour, going from orchestra to orchestra to recital series to recital series, 50 miles at a time. Every single community, no matter the size, had a decent orchestra they were proud to call their own. Why? Band programs in schools were huge. Every kid played in the band regardless of socio-economic background. Arts were something a community could take pride in.

Now, regional tours are a rare thing. As schools cut back on arts funding to make way for other priorities, community orchestras started folding one after the other. People stopped going to concerts, they stopped appreciating and supporting their local arts scene, and I would argue very slowly, they lost their sense of community; their empathy “muscle” lay down on the couch and started watching TV.

The STEM vs. STEAM argument is not new, but what is the answer? What happens to arts education in a post-COVID future when budgets are stretched so thin communities can barely afford to pay their firefighters? Seemingly, it’s goodbye art, music, and creativity.

I worry we are on the verge of a catastrophic empathy problem. From personal experience, it’s so difficult to feel much by way of emotion after hours of doom-scrolling on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The plethora of technological solutions which are a blessing in allowing us to navigate the COVID and post-COVID era with ease are also sticking a knife into what is left of our empathy muscle.

The simple truth is that empathy is (nearly) as fundamental as H2O. Albeit, by its very nature, it’s harder to immediately categorize the adverse effects of lack of empathy as compared to, say, a lack of safe drinking water. But it is empathy which allows us to successfully navigate the human condition. It allows us to see different viewpoints and appreciate them. Empathy is what allows you to connect with someone ten feet away in the same way that it does with a person 10 thousand miles away. It’s what helps you succeed when you shut down the computer and walk out the door.

Some school districts around the country are starting to incorporate teaching empathy into their curriculum recognizing the glaring lack of it. But can empathy be taught effectively? Do people even want an empathy curriculum? I don’t know the answer to this. However, I am very certain that an arts education is one of the most efficient pathways to “learning” empathy. Perhaps instead of an elaborate curriculum written by a doctoral candidate with an expertise in early childhood education, we need to simplify and bring back the school band. Art shouldn’t be an elective; when you go to chemistry, you should also go to art class.

I know our leaders have bigger fish to fry at the moment, but I would say, throw the ‘arts sardine’ on the fryer as well. From the local school board on up to the floor of congress, we need to get aggressive about the arts–really–there’s an alarm blaring and we aren’t paying attention.