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A Tribute to Herbert Burtis

When I was applying for college during my senior year in high school, I received a notification about a new foundation just launched to help high school musicians in their pursuit of a career in classical music, called the Ferris-Burtis Music Foundation. I applied and was invited for an audition at the home of Herbert Burtis and his then still partner of 55 years, John Ferris. I played for 20 minutes in Herb and John’s Living room before a large audition committee they had put together. By the time I arrived back home, I received a call saying I was the first recipient of a grant from the Ferris-Burtis Foundation.

This past week, Herbert Burtis passed away at the age of 90. Herb was a wonderful pianist, teacher, activist, and a very good friend of mine. Although primarily a keyboardist, through his many years of accompanying vocalists, he became a well known vocal coach, teaching singers who would flock to him from all over the world, including the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson with whom he worked for 20 years.

Throughout the next four years of my undergraduate studies, the Ferris-Burtis Foundation helped to pay my tuition. At the end of each academic year, I would show up to Herb and John’s home for a “check in” solo recital–their living room packed to the brim with friends and family. Herb and John were nothing but encouraging, kind, and supportive. I recall these yearly recitals for them so fondly. I would see the same faces year after year, almost like a family. These check in recitals inspired me to continually improve and come back with even more to say next year artistically

Unknown to me, John and Herb were at the same time actively fighting in court and engaging in advocacy to advance the cause of gay marriage. They finally got married in 2006 in Massachusetts after knowing each other for 55 years. Following John’s death in 2008, Herb joined a legal effort to challenge his inability to receive survivor benefits because the federal government did not recognize his marriage to John. Here is a wonderful piece about this on NPR’s Morning Edition.

In the years after John’s passing, as my concert career started picking up, Herb became ever more committed to helping me in my pursuits. His foundation supported a number of important album projects and created performance opportunities for me over the years. Equally of value, Herb made introductions on my behalf to friends and contacts of his whom he thought I should get to know. He also had a blog and frequently posted his own glowing reviews of my latest concerts, even as I kept telling him he was clearly biased.

Unbeknownst to the average listener, there are a whole host of patrons, supporters, and friends of artists who make our careers possible. These people are dedicated and generous, in a way that moves beyond the financial. They show up at rehearsals, are the first to open newsletters, and offer up faith in our next projects.

Beyond helping artists personally, people like Herb have a vision of a bright future for art in our society. They are investing in tomorrow’s artists and tomorrow’s audiences, eager for both to prosper. During this past year, when the arts sector got crushed by the pandemic, arts supporters have been selflessly dedicated to helping make our professions (and careers) possible again. Herb’s generosity over the years was beyond anything I can properly convey in words. Underlying his support was incredible modesty and a simple desire to be as helpful as possible to artists like me in this incredibly challenging field.

A number of years ago, I played a small concert for the residents at a retirement center near my home. The weather was awful, there was a fairly significant snow storm in the area – the kind of night where you don’t want to stray too far from your couch, television, and a glass of wine. Herb heard about this little concert through the grapevine and showed up, snowstorm be damned, driving nearly 40 minutes on the back rural roads of the Berkshires to hear me. I recall telling Herb I couldn’t believe he showed up and imploring him to drive back very carefully. Later that night, I wanted to make sure Herb had made it back home safely. Before sending him an email to check in, it occurred to me to first check his blog. Sure enough, he was home, there was already a new post up; I got a glowing review for my performance that evening.


Lessons From a Visit to Auschwitz

Several years back, I was invited by international March of the Living to perform at their annual Holocaust memorial ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau. MOTL is an incredible educational program that brings thousands of students from around the world to Poland, to explore and see first-hand the remnants of the Nazi Holocaust. The program culminates in a “march of the living” of 20,000 people from around the world, all marching through the well-known gate and onto the field at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

The day of the Yom Hashoah ceremony I arrived early for a rehearsal and soundcheck. With some time to spare, I walked out onto the still-empty field by myself. The first thing that struck me was the enormity of the place. It’s hard to see the end or the beginning. You can walk and walk and still feel like you aren’t getting anywhere.

I headed towards a forest on the perpendicular side of the now infamous rail tracks which were used to bring in victims and prisoners. I walked for 5 minutes, then 5 more, and then 5 more. It did not feel like I was getting any closer to the trees. I turned around, aware of the time, and as I headed back towards my colleagues, I was overcome with emotion. I was standing exactly where thousands of people walked, every day, in fear. But unlike me, they could not turn around and go back. They had to keep going, many not knowing that they were taking their last steps.

What struck me more than this vast overbearing space was the silence. This silence at Auschwitz II-Birkenau is like no other I’ve ever experienced. It is deafening. It crushes the soul, the ears, the mind. It’s enough to make one lose hope, which I know by design was the entire point of a place dedicated to hatred and death.

Like so many people in the world this week, I sat in horror watching the violent mob attack on our US Capitol and Congress. As I scrolled through posts online I saw that certain individuals photographed in the building were well-known Holocasut deniers, one even wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” hoody, and one a shirt with “6MWE” printed on it (six million wasn’t enough). There were flags flown modeled after German Nazi war flags among other national symbols of hate–I shudder to think of the noose and Confederate flags bandied about that day.

It’s no secret that hate and anti-Semitism, the very reasons my family left Belarus in 1989, have been experiencing exponential growth across the world over the past years. But to see this sentiment so openly exhibited in the halls of this venerated building in our nation’s capital, is, for lack of a better word, unbearable.

There must be something awful in someone’s life, a reason, which drives them to so openly put on such a vile garment, to wave such destructive symbols. Perhaps simply ignorance? But this is no less devastating in and of itself. How does someone get to this point? One would hope that if these individuals visited these camps and saw first hand the consequences of unchecked hatred, if they experienced this crushing silence and space solely designed to extinguish hope, they would change their mind. One would hope

I am just a musician. I’m not a political leader, influencer, or pundit. There are many bright minds currently trying to make sense of the events of this past week. However, I do know one thing: We must wake up and call this out. We need to shine a bright light upon hate, as that is the only way to impede it’s growth. If we don’t collectively speak up right now, the silence will be as soul-crushing and deafening as it is to stand at Auschwitz itself. And unlike my little 15 minute walk, turning back will be impossible.


The Incongruity of Creativity and Marketplace

Everywhere you look these days, one publication or another has a ’30 under 30′ or a ‘ 20 under 20’  list of top regional entrepreneurs, artists, chefs, doctors, etc. In our ever-quickening race to maximize marketing potential and fast growth, I wouldn’t be surprised to soon see a ‘5 under 5’ in preschool block building and coloring.

I know it’s all just a catchy headline meant to highlight the accomplishments of some genuinely talented and astounding individuals. I also know that as a society we’ve always been amazed by wunderkinds, crazy talent, and get-rich-quickly, or get-a-ton-of-attention-quickly schemes (looking at you Leopold, father of Wolfgang A. Mozart). No one seems to have the time to wait around for an entrepreneur to build a better company, or an artist to paint a better picture.

Here’s the thing though: great creativity, by its very nature, is fueled alone by time, patience, and experience. Sure, there are insanely amazing 15-year old musicians and actors. But is that how we define creativity, or is that simply prodigious anomaly combined with the buds of creativity?

While practicing the other day, I solved a phrasing issue in the Bartok Solo Sonata that for the life of me I had not understood for years. In fact, this year alone, I’ve been discovering new approaches and ideas all over the place (See Begin Again and Repeat).

It struck me: true creativity can’t be rushed, it is equal parts time, curiosity, and dedication. It will take however long it takes, and your efforts to speed things along will likely be as productive as banging your head against a cement wall. What do Samuel L. Jackson, Julia Child, and Charles Darwin all have in common? (I’ll save you the google search effort. Their careers only really got going around the age of 50.)

And yet today, just like we have for centuries, we jump at the latest, newest, fastest, shiniest career in the latest edition of 30 under 30. Put another way, we have all these delicious cakes in front of us, and yet we usually discard the whole thing before we ever get to the filling. We just pay for the icing. This is all good and understandable, but maybe we might gain inspiration from the 50 and 60 year olds finally getting their Ph.D.? Maybe Time should be publishing an ’80 under 80′ list? Maybe we need to invest in and encourage slow growth, not just what satisfies the needs of the marketplace?

As tough a year as this has been, on this front, the pandemic may have been an opportunity in disguise. We went into collective hibernation. In some industries the walls of the ‘marketplace’ no longer exist and need to be rebuilt. So, let’s go slow, be open, and pay attention. And, I have one additional suggestion: the next time you see a 30 under 30 list, appreciate the incredible and deserved accomplishments on that list, and then, find someone in the same industry who’s in the August of their careers. You might find that they’re actually just getting started.

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 the arts. Once, the administration eliminated her orchestra program entirely, and only after a prolonged parental outburst of community protest, was it re-established.

Over the years, as I flipped through national music magazines and glanced at 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. Math, science, etc. were considered to be far more important than any arts program. In case of a budget crunch: save the algebra cut the clarinet.

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 4-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? One of the reasons was that band programs in the schools were huge. Nearly every kid played in the band regardless of socio-economic background. Arts were something a community took pride in.

Such tours are increasingly becoming a thing of the past. As schools cut back on arts funding to make way for more immediate priorities, community orchestras, theaters, and museums 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. But what purpose do the arts serve besides entertainment? They are a direct pathway to greater empathy and understanding.

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.