The virtues of a long, hard, sweaty concert.

Tonight, I gave my second-ever performance of the Tchaikovsky A minor piano trio with my excellent ICA colleagues, Patrick and Jocelyn.

This piece is an absolute beast, clocking in at close to fifty-five minutes. Written in memory of Tchaikovsky's recently deceased loved one, it's a tour de force of tragedy and pathos, with long relentless passages of grief that challenge your physical and emotional stamina. 

Tonight wasn't my prettiest night, in spite of all my efforts to stay present, relaxed, and hydrated. It was really hot onstage, and twenty-five minutes into the performance, my hands were grimy with sweat. The sweat at my collarbone made it difficult even to keep the violin in playing position. I was dying for a glass of water. On page 22 (of 23!), I was so mentally exhausted that I dropped a couple of passages entirely.

If I was unsure before, I'm sure now: playing an instrument is physical labor.

Yet in spite of the challenges that today's performance brought, I feel deep pride for what my colleagues and I were able to accomplish. We had just four rehearsals to bring this gigantic piece to life, and we practiced our parts amidst many other commitments. To be a good chamber musician, a true performing artist, in this fast-paced capitalist world is not easy. Without question, playing with Patrick and Jocelyn -- and being part of ICA generally -- has challenged me to take my artistry, and my courage in performance, to a new level. 

Such growth is rarely comfortable. There are times that I question whether all the work is worth it, or whether I'm the right person to do it. But at the end of a day, it's a privilege to be able to do this work. To tackle a big challenge, to learn new things about music, your instrument and yourself, and finally to present a monumental work of art to people who want to hear it. Once the process is over, you're left with some really strong arm muscles and an expanded sense of what you're capable of.

ICA is entering its tenth season, and I'm so grateful to be the violinist on the roster. It's hard to fathom the amount of hard work and love that Patrick and many others have poured into this organization. Their decade of hard work has paid off. A space has been created for music to come alive, and for a supportive community to gather around that music.

Hearty, hearty congratulations on your 10th season, ICA! And thank you for making me a part of this. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go soak in a bathtub for awhile. 

Savvier, and more exhausted, than ever before

Last night at about midnight, I crawled into my bed here in Chicago, utterly exhausted and delighted to be home again. I'd just finished a 14-hour road trip back from the Savvy Musician in Action workshop in South Carolina. Not only did Chicago Q Ensemble participate in the chamber music competition as a finalist, but we also spent five intense, VERY long days in a kind of mini-MBA program/Shark Tank for musicians. The initiative's director, David Cutler, describes the event as "extreme experiential learning," and the extreme part is definitely correct. I can't remember ever being this exhausted! 

Golden light in Indiana. We didn't win, but we DO look pretty good after 10 hours on the road. 

Golden light in Indiana. We didn't win, but we DO look pretty good after 10 hours on the road. 

In the six waking hours I've had since returning from the conference, I've been amazed at how much I'm already using what I learned at Savvy. For example: 

  • I've learned there's no shortcut for actually DOING THE WORK. Being at Savvy Musician reawakened my dream of writing, recording, and touring my own music. I've talked for months about wanting to record my next album, but I've been stuck in "pre-planning" (aka "do nothing") mode. But first thing this morning, I spent an hour organizing my song material. I gathered voice memos, finished songs, and even song fragments in order to see how much I've already written and which songs are the strongest. No one will make this album for me, and I feel much more ready to make it myself now!
  • I've learned that artistic possibilities are everywhere. This morning, I just happened to schedule a phone call with a possible community partner for Chicago Q Ensemble. During the conversation, I was able to "hear between the lines" and see the tremendously exciting potential (rather than the obstacles) of the partnership.  
  • I've learned about the power of brainstorming. In the same phone conversation, I suggested that our next step was to get together, brainstorm, and dream big about what the beginnings of our partnership could look like. I cannot wait to learn about what this community partner envisions, and generate outside-the-box ideas for how Q can help. 
  •  I've learned that my uniqueness as an artist is my greatest asset. Today, I've got a second-round interview for a church musician position in forward-thinking congregation. They've asked me to play a hymn on the piano, to "reimagine" another hymn any way I like, and to perform a piece of music that demonstrates "who I am as a musician." After Savvy, I feel more comfortable presenting myself naturally, without "faking it" or apologizing. I'm arriving at the interview knowing that my singing, violin, and uke playing may be able to win them over in spite of my very average piano playing. And if they feel that someone else is a better fit, I am completely okay with that. 
One of the best friends I made this week, the amazing  Greg Sandow.  

One of the best friends I made this week, the amazing Greg Sandow. 

I met so many tremendous people at this conference, and I know their brains are probably percolating as much as mine is! May we continue to reap these benefits, and may we pass them on to everyone in our communities! 

What I Actually Did Today

In my fortunate life as a freelance artist there are some days that I don't "work." Except for a 30-minute violin lesson taught, today was one of those days. Here is what I did instead.

1. Meditated. It was my first time actually sitting my butt down to meditate since my visit to the Brooklyn Zen Center a few weeks back. I have stumbled on an interesting truth about my meditation practice, which is that for most of my two years of practice, I have been in extreme emotional turmoil. Now that I'm not in extreme emotional turmoil anymore (thanks, universe! thanks, love! thanks, friends!), I don't exactly know how to have a meditation practice. I'm hoping that the nine-day silent New Year retreat I signed myself up for (back when I felt more confident about my practice) might help with this.

2. Wrote in my journal.

3. Went to the grocery store. I've gotten in the habit now of visiting Holzkopf's Meat Market, the little butcher shop I'm fortunate to have a mere five minutes' walk from our place, for meat purchases. (Today: three pounds of pork shoulder.) Then I visited Devon Market for the produce and spices and dry goods I needed to make my first-ever ramen soup. (The recipe is extremely fussy, so I'm adapting it some. Devon Market didn't have "white miso," but then again, who does?) By the end of these errands, I felt somewhat resentful of the time it had taken. It's a messed-up world we live in when we begrudge ourselves the time to select and prepare the food we are going to eat. Like we should be doing something more important? What's more important than food?! Over it.

4. Grieved. Grieving has been an important task for the past few days, although I didn't realize it until today. For me, grief often starts happening before I am aware of it. But there are red flags: for example, calling my girlfriend in a state of agitation about fish sauce, hanging up the phone, and crying. Eventually I cry my eyes out about the correct thing, which is the fact that my mom is gone. Important things are happening in my life, and in my heart, and she is not here. It hurts like hell.

5. Cooked, while listening to podcasts. For me, podcasts and domestic tasks go hand in hand. I enjoyed browning my pork shoulder and pouring soy sauce into my ramen broth, while listening to David Lang talk about music. His insights on audiences seem especially resonant. (I also listened to Seth Godin, but turned it off halfway through. He seems an odd candidate for an On Being interview. His constant talk about products, profit, and industries seems an odd fit for a show about spiritual life, no matter how creative he may be. Am I alone in feeling that CEO's, impoverished textile workers, and app developers are perhaps not "all artists"? Not to demean their work at all, but I think of art differently than this.)

6. Wrote this.

Later tonight: finish cooking dinner, spend the evening with Susan, and continue taking baby steps towards a NewMusicBox response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Stay tuned for that.

Being a low-income freelance musician has its perks, for sure. Sometimes the most important "work" gets done on the days I don't work. I try not to feel guilty or unproductive about this time, but rather consider that these are the slow-going days that help balance the busy times.

Feel, think, act: on grief over Ferguson

In grappling with the Ferguson grand jury decision -- and with the violent, racist and unjust system that it indicates -- my overwhelming response is grief. I have been searching inwardly and outwardly for spiritual guidance to help make sense of his heartbreaking moment. I listened to an On Being interview with Joanna Macy yesterday. Macy is an environmental activist, poet, translator, and Buddhist teacher. She was talking about the great sadness that we feel when we understand that the Earth is being destroyed. But this is the very same sadness we feel when we understand that our justice system has trampled on the humanity of an entire group of people. This was the quote that landed with me most:

“I teach people to not be afraid of [their grief]. Because that grief -- if you are afraid of it, pave it over, clamp down -- you shut down. Our difficulty in looking at what we’re doing to our world stems not from callous indifference or ignorance so much as it stems from fear of pain. That was a big learning for me as I was organizing around nuclear power, and at the time, the Three-Mile Island catastrophe and Chernobyl. It relates to everything: what’s in our food, the clear-cuts of our forest, the contamination of our rivers and oceans. So that became, actually, perhaps the most pivotal point in the landscape of my life: that dance with despair. To see how we are called to not run from the discomfort, not run from the grief or the feelings of outrage, or even fear. If we can be fearless, and be with our pain, it turns. It doesn’t stay static. It only refuses to change when we refuse to look at it. When we can take it in our hands, when we can be with it and keep breathing, it turns. It turns to reveal its other face. And its other face is our love for the world: our absolutely inseparable connectedness with all life.”

When I worked as a labor activist in college, I once sat with my fellow organizers and did a little exercise. We took three words -- act, think, feel -- and asked ourselves what order we did those things in when approaching a problem of injustice. Without a question, mine is feel, think, act. It hits me in the heart first. I'm glad to have these words from Joanna Macy, because they let me know it's a perfectly fine place to start.

Indeed, I can see how so many of the frustrating responses to Ferguson -- the racism, the ignorance, the callousness, the lack of compassion -- serve as protective responses against heartbreak. If poor black people in Missouri are not our brothers and sisters, we don't have to feel their excruciating pain. If Michael Brown "deserved" to be shot, we don't have to grapple with the senseless tragedy of his death. If we numb ourselves with the legal "facts" about grand juries, we don't have to feel the profound disappointment in a legal system that does not serve us all equally. I can see how it would be easier that way. But personally, I'm sticking with the grief and the rage, and seeing where they lead me.