A Milestone – My Coming Out as an Amateur Chamber Musician
I spent my youth and twenties immersed in classical music.
So much so that when I was 30, I could not guess that the name taped to my back at a party was Elton John, despite the obvious clues given to me by others at the party. As a youth, I practiced violin and piano several hours a day, played in two youth orchestras and in my public school orchestra, rehearsed and attended coaching sessions with chamber music groups, and sight-read chamber music whenever I had a chance. I started busking on street corners with a string quartet when I was 14.
I learned to love the intimacy and nuance of chamber music from my teacher and mentor Anne Crowden in Berkeley, California. She had such a passion for educating children in the joy of music, especially the middle school age group. Much later, she established a primary school for grades 4 through 8, The Crowden School, which incorporates performing arts into the core curriculum. This school thrives today, led with great vision and accomplishment by one of my fellow classmates from middle school, Doris Fukawa.
I went to The Eastman School of Music for my undergraduate studies, then moved to New York City for graduate school. I performed recitals, chamber music concerts, and free-lanced in several of the city’s orchestras. I attended numerous summer programs with a focus on chamber music. I married the cellist of a well-known string quartet and circulated amongst the top musicians in New York.
My goal in my early 20’s was to join a professional string quartet.
I began to have a stark realization in my mid-twenties, as I saw how my husband’s quartet struggled to make a decent living. By the time management fees and travel expenses were deducted, there wasn’t much left to divide among four musicians. Recordings didn’t produce a significant profit either. I decided I needed to get a “day job” to help make ends meet.
A cellist friend of mine programmed computers to supplement his income – he encouraged me to follow his path. I took a class in a couple of programming languages and found it easy and fun. In those days, IBM recruited music students as trainees – the logical thinking skills that musicians use to decipher and interpret music compositions is similar to programming skills.
So began a 25-year career in technology and organizational leadership.
After a few years of working full-time at my “day job,” I felt unable to keep to the high standard of professional musicianship required to play in the various ensembles in which I was a member. I put my violin in its case, closed the latch and didn’t open it for 12 years. I could not bear the thought of playing my violin at less than the highest standard.
I have played my violin in the privacy of my home, on and off for the past several years. My practice has been sporadic, perhaps a few times every 2-3 months, sometimes lapsing 6 months. In 2007, I left my executive position in the corporate world to enter into a doctoral program in Human and Organizational Development. I wrote a concept paper for my dissertation which focused on women leaders’ spiritual practices.
Then something miraculous occurred. I attended a spiritual retreat in 2009, sponsored by the Management, Spirituality, and Religion special interest group at the annual Academy of Management conference. At the retreat, in a beautiful urban park in Chicago, I participated in a mini-Native American vision quest. I sat on a bench by a small lake and opened my heart. Suddenly I became aware of the sound of dozens of birds, singing joyfully off to my right. I followed their exhuberant noise until I found a beautiful bronze fountain sculpture with multiple levels. Many species of birds hopped from level to level, splashing happily in the the clear water. I was the only human present. I sat on a bench for quite a while until my inner wisdom provided a message. It said, “listen to their singing, listen to the music.” It was at that moment it became clear to me that I must change my dissertation topic to chamber music and the art of collaboration.
I conducted my research at the Cleveland Institute of Music, in collaboration with the Cavani String Quartet, and completed my dissertation in 2012. Though I felt like I had returned home to my world of music after so long, I still could not bring myself to pick up the violin and play in a string quartet with other people. I even joined the Amateur Chamber Music Players (ACMP), now called The Chamber Music Network. However, I did not reach out to anyone in the network. Until…
A violinist in The Chamber Music Network reached out to me 6 weeks ago, and it changed my life.
I received an email enquiring whether I might be interested to join a string quartet that needed a 2nd violinist. Their violist was on a bird-watching trip in Bhutan and would return in December. It was the kick in the butt I needed to start practicing again. I committed to regular practice and made my ‘official’ debut as an amateur chamber musician last week. Though my fingers didn’t play all of the 16th notes on the page, I was able to keep up and get back on track when I got lost. Not bad for the first time in over 25 years! AND, it was a joy!
I experienced an incongruence in my life until this moment. How can I research and write about chamber music and not be playing it, at least for pure enjoyment? Now this part of me is in integrity. I retrieved a long lost part of my soul and integrated it back into my life.
(The author, dressed in gypsy garb, playing string quartets in the studio of Gabor Rejto at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, CA circa 1975)