Friday, December 31, 2021

What Music Can Do

2020 was the year without music. There was nothing. It began with all the normal rehearsals and plans, and then in March everything shut down for the pandemic, we returned our rental parts to the orchestra librarian, and closed our cases. I did, anyway. I was encouraged at first by the idea that I suddenly had time to practice whatever I wanted, but it turned out without anyone to play with or for, practicing was painful.

I wanted to want to play, and much to my surprise, that didn't happen. My viola stayed in the case. My mandola sat in the corner.

It's the only Christmas season I can remember since I first picked up a violin in third grade that I didn't have concerts to play.

2021 decided to make up for that.

Musicians and organizations adapted to Covid. In our orchestra there was a mask requirement and distancing, and nobody shared a stand anymore. Concerts started requiring proof of vaccination for both audience and players.

It's weird playing viola in a mask for reasons I'm still not clear about, but I find myself doing an uncomfortable shift between my progressive lenses and trying to keep both the conductor and my music in my sight line while not fogging up. I've reached a point where I prefer having my stand to myself. I've gotten clever with the copy machine to manage the solo page turns, and I like having the fingerings I use in the part (instead of the outside player's). 

The mandolin orchestra was slower to adopt a mask requirement, but once they did I went back to playing with them as well.

I also joined a newly formed group this year called the Black Diaspora Symphony Orchestra which is open to anyone who wants to promote and perform works by a more inclusive list of composers.

This meant in November and early December, my rehearsal and concert schedule became nearly overwhelming. The BDSO is an amateur group, very new and small, and meets on Sundays. The MMO is an amateur group, the oldest mandolin group in the country and a decent size, and they meet on Mondays. Festival City Symphony is a professional civic group, and they meet on Tuesdays and some Wednesdays. I had to turn down the chance to play the Messiah this season because there were too many conflicts with other groups, and I opted out of a children's concert with FCS to do a different one with the MMO. One week I met with the mandolin orchestra for either concerts or rehearsals six times in five days. That's a lot to manage while also running your own business and caring for a family. I went back to work after most evening rehearsals and wouldn't get to bed until after midnight.

I'm enjoying the holiday break. But what a difference it is to have something to take a break from. My viola staying in its case this week feels like a well earned rest, not the sad surrender to ennui it was last year at this time.

Playing music is work and fun, a challenge and a release, a responsibility and a privilege, and addresses both history and an immediate need. This season I've had the chance to reflect on all of this, along with the many things music can do.

The music this season with FCS so far has been hard. There is no way around having to put in the time to play certain passages correctly, so I spent many hours of work sorting out bowings and fingerings and trying to get them under my fingers reliably. But there is a real satisfaction to performing great music at the highest level you are able. With that orchestra, the goal is to create something as perfectly and beautifully as we can. There is always at least one work from the traditional canon, and we know what those pieces are supposed to be.

When it's going right, performing with that group is glorious and thrilling. It feels like everything my training in college was preparing me to do. When things go off the rails at that level of performance, it's disorienting, and cuts you at the core. We strive for perfection, and hope we do well enough.

The Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra goals feel different. Of course everyone does their best to play well and everyone wants to sound good--that's simply part of being a musician. But members of amateur groups are there because they love it (by definition, since "amateur" means to love what you do), and that's the prime requirement.

I'm glad when I'm paid for what I do, but there can be something called "over-justification effect" when that happens. I've had stretches where I forget to appreciate how lucky I am to make music because it simply becomes work. Especially if you are playing pieces you don't particularly care for, or in venues or with people you don't enjoy. There are times when music is just a job.

In an amateur group, that's not an issue. You can still get tied into responsibilities that aren't your favorite, but you can always choose to leave. That's different from music where you're under contract to play and perform. Amateur groups are often capable of really beautiful and exciting performances, but the pressure to do that is internally motivated alone. I've played in professional groups where the conductor was at times unkind or downright mean. The director of an amateur group can't risk such behavior, because everyone would walk. The trick is not to push people, but make them want to push themselves.

There is a lot of charm playing with the mandolin orchestra. It can be a big time commitment, but it's fun.

Whether the balance is tipped toward either work or fun, concentrating on music can be incredibly therapeutic. It takes a level of focus that rescues your mind from other thoughts. It's the closest thing I have to meditation, which may seem odd since it's an active state, but it clears away all other things.

A few years ago, I was living through an extended crisis at home that crippled me emotionally, and sometimes physically. I remember opting out of mandolin orchestra several times simply because I was exhausted and didn't think I could spare the energy or the time. But then I decided being out of the house one night was preferable to being in it, and I went to a rehearsal, and it was magic. Like when you have a migraine, and then at some point you realize it's gone and you feel normal again. I got all the way to the end of the mandolin rehearsal before it occurred to me that I hadn't thought of my problems even once the whole night. Music made things better for a little while.

Music improves anything tedious. It makes me smile when our family is on a long drive, and I see my husband tap softly on the wheel in time to whatever music is in his earbuds. It makes cleaning chores more entertaining. I've been playing a lot of Beat Saber recently, and at one point I had to play it without the music and the game was much harder and less enjoyable. Music can rescue my mood if the news gets to be too depressing. I think often about how in a film class we were taught the music in a movie means silence, and silence means something else.

How lucky we are to have music available even when there are no musicians around to play for us. People don't appreciate that enough.

The last concert I played this season was for Black Diaspora. That was a very different kind of experience than anything else I was asked to play this year. FCS is a form of expression and entertainment that is regarded in a serious manner. MMO is at its center more playful. BDSO is organized around a mission, and this first concert was in memory of children who died in the past year. It was more like a prayer than anything else. 

The level of experience for that concert was incredibly varied, from people with decades of experience to recent high school grads. It wasn't going to be a musically perfect concert, but it didn't need to be. What it needed to be was sincere and meaningful, and it accomplished that just fine. BDSO was hard to add into my schedule, but felt the most necessary.

Especially after getting teargassed with several of those same players in Kenosha last year. When I said there was no music to play in 2020, that wasn't quite true. There were no official concerts; there were opportunities to play as part of protests. I think back often about standing in front of the Kenosha courthouse on the second night of demonstrations, and how everything was peaceful until the police decided to come at everyone in riot gear. I'm still amazed how disproportionate the response was to what was happening. And I take pride in trying to stand up for what I think is important using my viola as my voice.

The somber setting in the church (where no one was supposed to applaud between numbers so as not to disrupt the contemplation of the audience) was the opposite of that chaotic experience, but connected in important ways. Music can do things nothing else can.

I don't think I will ever forget the night of our dress rehearsal, when we moved up from the basement space where we'd be rehearsing to the main worship space in the church. We were working on the balance for Aase's Death by Grieg, and I was concerned about the intonation, and coordinating certain phrases across the different parts. I was worried it wouldn't be ready. But then a woman associated with the group's mission came up to us to say that she'd lost her son to an overdose, and that our music captured her thoughts about his dying alone better than any words ever could. What we'd created had brought her to tears. It spoke to her without it being perfect. What we were offering was enough. That was incredibly powerful to be a part of.

The other musical thing I've been thinking about this holiday season is the new Beatles documentary. To say my dad was obsessed with the Beatles doesn't quite capture his level of interest. The first time I really saw him cry was when John Lennon was shot. Their music meant something profound to him, and to many.

My interest in the band doesn't run nearly so deep, but I know my dad would have watched the hell out of that documentary if he were still around. I felt I should watch it in his memory. My daughter agreed to watch it with me while she's home over college break. She really doesn't have any attachment to the Beatles, so I had to explain things as it went along. But even for someone coming in with no knowledge, it's fascinating to watch people in the midst of artistic creation.

For me, the astonishing thing was to be able to watch someone like Paul McCartney experimenting with the chords to something like "Let it Be" and for me to know what it was before he did on the screen. No one in the room at the time had any idea where that would go, no one seemed particularly interested, and there I was on my couch getting goosebumps because I knew all the words. I told Aden you could go nearly anywhere in the world, and you'll find people who can sing that song.

I watched the beginning with Aden, and then we stayed up very late the last night we were in Detroit for Christmas with my mom so she could watch to the end. I'm sure it's not for everyone, but I found it fascinating. I would have so loved to have heard my dad's commentary. Aden and I even watched the Carpool Karaoke clip on YouTube of McCartney touring around his old neighborhood and singing his songs for crowds. It was moving to see how many people in the streets were excited to see him, and wanted him to know his music had been part of their lives. As McCartney was trying to return to his car one man wanted him to know that they played one of his songs at his father's funeral. His music has been the soundtrack to many lives. That makes me tear up.

Music cuts across time greater than anything else I know. Listening to the Beatles feels like having my dad back with me for a moment. Playing Mendelssohn on stage brings the thoughts in his mind back to life for that bit of time. Performing Tin Pan Alley tunes with the mandolin orchestra I'm sure creates the same camaraderie now that it did when our group had all different members a century ago. Playing music to help people heal is as important as its ever been.

I don't know what 2022 will hold in store in terms of getting to perform, but I'm up for whatever I get to be a part of. I don't want to be without music again.

I hope whatever brings you peace and joy abounds in the new year.