Sunday, March 21, 2021

Virtue and Music

I grew up in a world where musical competence was social currency. I came up with the idea that people play the way they are, and the more they practice, the more they play the way they are. Being rather naive, and making my young way in a musical world filled with grown-up musicians who were at the very top of the profession, I believed this to be true.  I expected that the grown-up musicians who played beautifully and brilliantly must be kind, moral, and virtuous people, regardless of what kinds of things I was told about them that could cause me to believe otherwise.

I spent years practicing so that I could get better, but, like most people, I had personal limitations that I simply couldn't transcend. To add insult to injury I took the phrase, "You are only as good as your last performance" to heart. It was only through changing instruments, working carefully and methodically for the past thirty years to build a technique, and learning how to solve problems my students have encountered, that I have been able to begin too grow through what I believed were personal limitations.  I know that I have become a better violinist, violist, teacher, and composer than I was a year ago, and I am grateful that I will continue to work and grow. 

My adult experience totally debunks my childish idea that people are the way they play. My new "catch phrase" is "the more carefully and consistently you practice, the more beautifully and consistently you will play." And my goal is to learn things from every "last performance," and to do better the next time.

This kind of musical mental health is hard won, particularly when music is (and always has been) so personal to me. It is not just something I "do."  A good friend who knows me well told me that music is my "transition object," serving as the major substitute for the love that I lacked as a child. I can create it and bring it to life myself, and I can construct within in it a world where truth and virtue reign supreme. As CEO of my work, I am in a position to make decisions about everything (at least while I am practicing and writing). I find total joy in doing my work. It is my way of finding amour-propre, a word I recently learned from reading Proust. And, best of all, I don't need to seek approval for what I already know is as good as I can make it be. Good enough for me is good enough. And it is up to me to raise my own standards.

Early on I learned that giving love feels very similar to receiving love, and since making music is how I habitually experience love, sharing music is the best way of expressing it. That is why I write music for people, and that is why I share most of what I write in the IMSLP. I feel balanced when I have a writing, arranging, or performing project in the works (and I feel out of balance when I don't). A piece of music isn't complete for me unless it has been played or heard by someone else. 

I was unaware the extent to which many of those great musicians I used to believe must be kind and virtuous used their feelings of superiority to "thrust" their greatness "upon" younger musicians who wanted to find their way in the professional musical world. My (more attractive than I was) female friends at Juilliard often believed that their accomplished older seducers (and would-be seducers) believed in their musical talent and their intelligence. I somehow got the message (told to me in no uncertain terms by my teacher, Julius Baker) that in order to be successful as a musician a woman needed to be attractive. Capitalizing on the way I looked in order to be successful in music was not a game I was equipped to play. I considered myself limited then. Now I consider myself fortunate.

I think that in 2021 we have started to open the door on a kinder and more equal musical world. Perhaps this pandemic year, where musicians see one another through "windows" into their houses, and everyone is trying their best to find sanity during a year when direct musical contact with people who listen to music happens mostly through electronic devices, and rarely in real time; and direct musical contact between musicians is rare, masked, distanced, and careful. 

From our "doorstep" we see more and more revelations about the abuse of power from musicians considered virtuous by some (Levine, Gelb, for example), and we see the beginnings in the musical community of an institutional intolerance for sexism and racism. We also see that celebrating "greatness" might just be an outdated nineteenth-century idea (consider Wagner and his circle). I wonder if we are at the beginning of an era where kindness and decency will have greater currency among musicians who play, conduct, and compose, and teach because of the hundreds of excellent musicians who could easily fill the shoes of those musicians who do not conduct their personal lives that the quality of their playing  (or writing) suggests has virtue.

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