Being an Artist in Challenging Times

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by Nora Krohn

As I write this, I am recovering from a difficult week. November is a busy time for musicians, and after more than a year of paying intense attention to the swings of political drama in the American presidential election, I was eager to set aside the fear and disgust that the campaign had surfaced and put the daily distraction behind me. Furthermore, I was more than ready to elect the nation’s first woman president, a gesture of visibility and empowerment for women and girls worldwide and a sign of national progress toward gender parity.

I had a busy few days scheduled for the end of the week and knew I needed to prepare, but I was too nervous and excited on Monday, the day before the election, to focus deeply on the music. I put in the time, but my mind was elsewhere. On Election Day itself I waltzed out of the house in my pink coat on the way to the polls, cheered by the sight of New Yorkers of all stripes out to cast their votes. After lunch with a family friend at a Paraguayan restaurant, I went home and settled in to wait for the results to come in, refreshing various tabs in my internet browser every few minutes to check for news. Exit polls looked good: I anticipated an early evening Clinton win, plenty of time to sleep and awake energized and ready to dive into a five-day rush of rehearsals, concerts, and teaching.

So it was a rude awakening when the anxiety and revulsion I’d been keeping at bay for over a year went from a trickle to a torrent in a matter of minutes. Around 3 a.m., when the results were beyond all doubt, I tried to go to sleep, feeling sick to my stomach and too numb to do much besides tap out a quick “I love you” message to my family. When dawn broke and I hadn’t slept a wink I texted my pianist cancelling our rehearsal for that day. He quickly agreed: we both needed the day off to rest and recover. I wandered around the house like a ghost, read the news out of habit, and scrolled through Facebook. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be anger, confusion, finger-pointing, and despair. Picking up the viola was the furthest thing from my mind, and in the harsh light of this new reality, all of my creative endeavors seemed trivial and hollow. What did my writing or my concerts matter if millions of people, including myself and my colleagues, could lose the only health insurance we could afford? What if my students’ relatives were deported and their families were broken up? What if my LGBTQ friends’ marriages were annulled? What if my colleagues or neighbors were harassed for being Muslim, or black, or Latino? And what did it mean for me as a woman that my fellow Americans chose to elect a man who bragged about grabbing women by their genitals?

While my mind raced, my body waded through an agonizing stupor. Anything I could say or do, through my music or otherwise, seemed hopelessly insufficient. And yet I knew that people would be coming to my concerts that weekend in deep need of community and beauty, and it was my job to deliver it.

So when I arrived at a rehearsal for a chamber music concert on Friday, three days after the election, I was feeling down, but eager to connect with the other musicians about how to ground our efforts in a sincere wish to uplift our audience. They greeted me with smiles and customary cheer, but when I brought up the election, I saw their faces fall, and I knew they were just as dejected as I was. “Should we say something before we play?” I asked. They looked confused and skeptical. “Like what?” My confidence in my own heart was shaken. “Uh, I don’t know, maybe we just dedicate this concert to peace and understanding for all people? I mean, isn’t that what art is for, isn’t that why humans invented it?” I could tell they weren’t convinced, and an awkward silence ensued. “OK, let’s play,” one of them sighed. I left the rehearsal feeling even more confused about what role music had in all of this, and how to meet the demands of being onstage when all I wanted to do was hide under a blanket.

The Courage to Give

When the day of the concert arrived, Sunday, I was exhausted from an intense day of teaching and an orchestra concert the previous evening. I still wasn’t sleeping well, and there was a constant squeeze of fear and sadness in my stomach, chest, and throat that made it hard to relax. In between scrambling to make up for the practice time I’d lost to despair earlier in the week, I’d been reaching out to support family, friends, and colleagues through email, on the phone, and on Facebook, taking political action, and engaging in difficult discussions with people who vehemently disagreed with my point of view. I still didn’t know if any of it made a difference or, God forbid, was making things worse.

As I prepared to step out onto the stage, I was feeling frail. I didn’t know the piece nearly as well as I was accustomed to for a chamber music concert, and I was feeling like a phony. One hundred people had gathered here to hear music that would lift their spirits, and it was my job to offer them joy, yet I was in need of a serious pick-me-up myself. It all seemed so banal and insignificant: the community hall with the little stage, the linoleum floors and fluorescent lights. Locals shuffling in with their walkers, dressed in their Sunday best. Even the viola just seemed like a piece of wood and metal, the sheet music a flimsy sheaf of paper. But when I sat down to play something changed: I knew I had been offered this space to perform because I had a job to do, and the audience sitting out there waiting for us to begin didn’t need to see yet another despondent person wallowing in her own powerlessness. I took a deep breath in and breathed out slowly before catching the pianist’s eye and launching into the playful opening gesture. Something familiar began to flow through my body, and I greeted it with grateful recognition: courage.

After the performance, many people came up to us to tell us how much they enjoyed the music. It felt good to see so many people smiling, and I was glad that my concerns about my preparation hadn’t derailed me. Maybe my colleagues were right, and our performance hadn’t changed the world much, if at all, but I felt we could be proud of our efforts. As my husband drifted into conversation with one of the concertgoers, I stood alone among the others milling about and enjoying refreshments. The door to the hall was open to the warm, sunny afternoon awaiting us outside. As I self-consciously clutched a plastic cup of apple juice, I noticed two older women standing a few feet away, with a small boy at their feet. It sounded like they were speaking Spanish, but I couldn’t hear well through the din of other conversations. One of the women was poring over the program while the little boy clung to the leg of her pants, and the other met my eyes with a smile.

“Oh, that was wonderful!” she said, in an unplaceable accent. The other woman looked up from the program, “Oh yes, we really enjoyed it! And he did, too.” They both looked down at the little boy, who couldn’t seem to decide whether to continue burying his face in the fabric, finish the cookie clasped in his right hand, or join the conversation. I couldn’t believe such a small child had been able to sit through over an hour of classical music so patiently and quietly. “He loves music, he’s crazy about it. We bought him a ukelele and he’s trying to learn from watching YouTube videos. He’s three and a half.” At that, the boy cautiously looked up at me. “Did you like the concert? Would you like to do that, too someday?” He nodded and his face broke into a smile. “He really wants to play the piano, but I guess that would be complicated,” one of the women confided. “How much do lessons cost?” We continued our conversation, and I promised to try to help them find the resources to fan the flames of the boy’s eagerness. They thanked me, and as we were parting they nudged the boy, “Do you have anything you want to say to her?” He dropped his hand to his side solemnly, turned his face up toward me, and his eyes locked with mine. He cleared his throat and said, in a quiet clear voice, “That was very beautiful. Thank you.” I looked up at the women, “Just take him to as many concerts as you can.” We shared one last smile and said goodbye.

Facing Exhaustion and Doubt

When I got home and changed back into my pajamas, I was again pulled into the maelstrom of emotions and political discussion on Facebook. People on every side of every issue seemed to have a different explanation for the mess we’re in, a different path forward, a different constellation of guilt and blame. Everything was couched in an urgency that made me panic. I felt all of the pain behind people’s words in my body, even as I reprimanded myself for assuming I understood even a fraction of the fear and alienation of people who are far more marginalized than I am. And yet, those marginalized people, who had been personally shunned and disrespected, harassed and ignored, and far worse, had found a reason to keep on living. They had found joy in the face of broad, systemic, institutional indifference and hostility. They clearly understood something I was forgetting in this moment.

The day after the concert, my one day off before another round of orchestra rehearsals, I took one look at the music I needed to practice, all of those sixteenth notes, and sat down with a sigh. I found myself consumed with worry about the appropriateness of my actions. Was I doing enough? Was I doing the right things? Was I speaking up enough? Was I talking too much, not leaving enough space for others? Should I have said that thing to that friend? Did I hurt that colleague’s feelings? Was I just being another clueless, privileged white liberal? Was I making everything worse by getting mired in misery and clinging to anger and resistance? Would I be able to handle it if one of my friends called me out for an unwittingly insensitive remark or action?

It all felt so intense, and yet so familiar. And then I understood why: my attitude toward this challenging and complex situation was the same attitude with which I had approached music for the better part of two decades. I wanted so badly to get it right, because it meant so much to me, and I was terrified of making a mistake. I had already challenged this fear that very week by engaging more openly and honestly with people even when I thought there was a chance it would blow up in my face. But now I had to find the wherewithal, as a person of privilege, to shoulder personal responsibility for my role in perpetuating injustice. And I saw that my work transforming my relationship to music had a lot to teach me.

Tapping Into the Reservoir of Goodness

If I have learned only one thing from the past several years of artistically-motivated self-inquiry, it is this: I am good, because I am made of goodness, and so are you. Practicing is a chance to refine the way I bring that goodness out into the world, not a referendum on whether or not I’m good. In that sense, imperfections are not confirmations of deficiency, they are the teacher that helps us cultivate our service to the world. In contrast, when we do not see this goodness and are confronted with one of our mistakes, the resulting reaction is usually one of three things: despair, denial, or defensiveness. So, believing we are inherently good and whole just as we are is not a free pass to put anything less than our best work out into the world, including the work of just and loving action; it is the ground for that beauty, justice, and love to flower, even in the most challenging situations.

When I took out my viola to start practicing the music for this week’s orchestra concert, my eyes drifted toward the Czeslaw Milosz poem I’d tucked into my case just before leaving the house last Sunday. I’d slipped the slender piece of blue paper behind my bow almost without reading it, with the vague hope that seeing it right before I walked onstage would help me remember what was important. Now I felt drawn to it, and in all of a moment I knew why:

Love means to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills.

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

 

Then he wants to use himself and things


So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.


It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Milosz had it right: we don’t have to understand, we have to trust ourselves. We don’t have to be perfect to perform, and we don’t have to be perfect to try to stand up for what is right. Mistakes are just a chance to clear up some of the cloudiness masking the stainless beauty and love that we are made of, and that our audiences and fellow humans long to feel connected to.

To be clear, we must keep our wits about us and be ready to act intelligently in justice and love, and that includes challenging discussion. But the healing of the world will not arise from people taking well-researched potshots from the defended fortresses of their ideology, just as an audience needing solace and hope is not served by the artist who walks onstage armored against the innate human vulnerability. It requires us to look inside and see what we, all of us, are made of. We can afford to be both humble and courageous when we know the source of our strength. In the words of Chögyam Trungpa, “You can do it, sweetheart.”

P.S. In challenging times, it’s especially important for musicians to find a sense of community and hopefulness. If you’re seeking more of that in your life, I highly recommend API’s summer program (I’m a 4-year alumna and assistant faculty member!) or the API Online Video Groups. Let’s lift each other up through music!

Q & A of the Month

I just switched teachers because my previous teacher was harshly critical, and I couldn’t relax enough to play well. But the new teacher, who gives me a lot of encouragement, often leaves me wanting more guidance. Do you have any ideas for how I can best work with this teacher?

Excellent question. It’s hard for a teacher to strike a perfect balance between too much criticism and not enough. Nevertheless, a good teacher will be sensitive to that issue and can apologize if they’re sometimes a little harsh or impatient, as well as look for real solutions to technical and musical problems during the lesson.

Part of your responsibility as a student is to become increasingly aware of exactly what is frustrating or confusing to you in studying a piece of music, and to tell your teacher about your experience with practicing it. It’s perfectly fine to speak up and tell your teacher that you’d like a particular kind of guidance or feedback, and to ask lots of questions about the music, technical issues, and how to practice effectively.

Each student is different, and ideally, a teacher learns from those differences. Try to approach each lesson as a creative endeavor between you and your teacher. Ask if you can experiment with different musical and technical ideas, and make it as much of a dialogue as you can, so that the teacher’s curiosity is piqued as much as your own.

If your teacher says you’re playing a piece just fine but you don’t think so, tell him or her what you think and why. Describe your experience, physically, mentally, and emotionally, in playing the piece, and ask for whatever ideas your teacher might have in response to your experience. I love it when students do that – it guides me toward giving them the help they need.

Some teachers try so hard to not discourage a student that they underestimate a student’s ability to absorb valuable feedback – they are afraid to set the bar too high for the student. This may be because they don’t quite know how to help the student raise the level of their playing. If you think that your teacher doesn’t know enough to help you play the way you want to, consider looking again for a different teacher. Or consult with someone new, or with musician friends.

The most important thing is to always trust yourself – trust how you feel, and communicate it as well as you can. It’s OK to raise the bar for your teacher too – to tell him or her that you heard about a particular approach and that you wonder what they think about it.

The best teachers know that if they really listen to their students – to what they think, feel, and want – they will have success in helping them grow into the musicians they’re meant to be. So don’t give away your power to a teacher or anyone else who doesn’t understand and appreciate your needs and feelings enough. Instead, empower yourself to look for people and experiences that will truly meet your need and desire to fulfill your talent as far as you can take it.

Submit a question for possible inclusion in next month’s issue of Fearless Performing.