What Practice is For When Music Has Stopped

The last time I put gas in my car was March 2, 2020. Then we went into isolation and I only drove it once every three weeks to a supermarket ten minutes from my house. I still have a quarter of a tank.

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The last time I had my hair done was February 20, 2020. I was about to be in a friend’s wedding and wanted a sleek dark bob. Now it’s grown past my shoulders and…well…

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I did the usual things during lockdown. Like the middle-class cliché I am, I made a sourdough starter in an old pitcher. Every day, I religiously weighed and mixed and discarded and worried. I experimented with recipes, made adjustments, consulted strangers on the internet about its progress.

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(Why, I wonder, did we choose this moment, of all moments, to start caring about fermenting culture out of flour and water?)

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At first, lockdown almost seemed almost…jolly. Music educators everywhere muddled through setting up our teaching studios and classrooms using Zoom, sharing tips on getting the sound settings right, laughing at our slip-ups. We reminded each other that we were “all in this together.” We distracted ourselves from the disappointment of cancelled concerts and lost income with new toys like the A Capella app, humming “How can I keep from singing?

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The fun wore off fast.

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Zoom faculty meetings were OK. Zoom teaching was even fun; it certainly made me a better teacher. But something was missing. Jamkazam is great, but it’s no replacement at all for the engrossing intellectual joy of the chamber music rehearsal: the split-second giving and receiving of cues, the motives and themes passed around the group like a melodious game of tennis, the painstaking building of chords, the arguments about tempo and dynamics and articulation. And YouTube? It’s fun for watching cat videos, but nothing compared with the thrill of live performance, the rush of adrenaline, the knife-edge danger that anything could happen.

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(Good lord, I even miss stage fright. Now that’s going to be a fun one to pick up again when the pandemic is over.)

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This is where grief kicks in.

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I was stoic about my concerts being cancelled. I was bummed to miss John Tavener’s Wake Up…And Die, a piece I’ve wanted to perform since childhood, but I figured all the work I’d put into learning it wouldn’t be wasted. Ditto the Vaughan Williams Piano Quintet. And while those Beethoven marathons would have been fun, there would be another Beethoven year in 2027.

If that had been all, it would have been disappointing but not the end of the world.

But now our whole profession is falling apart and something that was precious and important and lovely is being trashed and taken away from us and I feel profound grief.

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Which brings me to the question that has troubled me more and more as this pandemic has dragged on: what exactly is the point of practising now that there is nothing to practise for?

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I know I’m not the only person struggling to practise right now. People with much fancier careers than mine haven’t practised in weeks because there aren’t concerts to practise for. Sure, I take my cello out most days to teach Zoom lessons, doing the most cursory of warm-ups first so my students don’t think I sound completely terrible, but real, true, mindful practice is elusive.

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I started to spend the hours I used to spend on practice wandering around the countryside on the outskirts of Moscow, Idaho. I took endless photographs of the daily progress of the wheat fields and came home home tired and sweaty to feed my sourdough starter. The growing wheat and the fermenting grain seemed to be the only reminders that life was continuing to change and evolve, even if everything else had come to a standstill.

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Summer wheat. So beautiful 💗

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I finished writing the book that I’ve been working on for a couple of years. It’s called The Well-Tempered Cello: Life with Bach’s Cello Suites. It’s semi-narrative non-fiction, semi-memoir. It’s about why cellists return again and again to the Bach suites, and how and why Bach becomes the soundtrack of our lives. I got a few bites from literary agents, but zero offers of representation.

My cello sat unplayed in its case.

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#BLM protests started all over the country, even here in Idaho. Once more, I did the middle-class thing of buying a stack of anti-racist books and reading them, taking notes, nodding along, committing to doing better.

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Then I read a poem called “If I were a racist…” by the British music educator Nate Holder, and it turned my world upside down. By pointing out things people like me had probably never questioned or even noticed about the what and how and why of teaching music, Holder made me realize that I cannot go on teaching music like this.

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I used to think that conscientiously including pieces by William Grant Still and Florence Price and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in a curriculum was enough. But it wasn’t and it isn’t and it never will be. It’s clear that all of us who teach music, whether in a university, a school, or privately, must reckon with our complicity in a racist system, acknowledge the racism of the music curriculum, and do better.

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A mentor pointed me in the direction of a new open-access music history textbook called Music on the Move by Danielle Fosler-Lussier. I sat up all night reading it in one sitting. In all my well-meaning attempts to create greater inclusivity in music teaching, it had never occurred to me to uncouple my curricula entirely from the chronological model. It never once occurred to me that one of the things keeping us from true diversity is a system that locks us into the chronological history of music notation.

This changes everything.

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Moving as I do in the overlapping circles of professional performers and university faculty, a generally progressive bunch, it came as a shock to realize that not all music educators would feel as I did. When I excitedly posted the link to Nate Holder’s poem at an internet forum for music educators, a couple of white posters instantly jumped all over it to say that Holder was the one who was racist, not them. One white music educator even openly mocked Holder’s poem by writing a parody of it in which he claimed that he “didn’t distinguish” between people of different races. (Can those old disingenuous lies “I don’t see colour” and “I treat everyone the same” and “I’m not racist, I don’t have hate in my heart” please go away now? Can we expunge them from the universe? Now, please?)

I tried to keep my temper during these exchanges, because if I’ve learned one thing from my summer reading list (if you haven’t read Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about Race?, please buy it today) it’s that if self-described allies truly wish to be allies, we need to do the hard work of educating other white people so that our understandably exhausted friends of colour don’t have to do it so much.

That unfortunately means not snarking “Your racism is showing, jackass” at people who are wrong on the internet.

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But it was, well, hard work. I found myself called a reverse racist (news flash: that’s not a thing). White fragility flared as angry music educators asserted they weren’t racists (news flash: everyone is racist, including you, me, and all our friends). I got angry emails from angry white music educators accusing me of bullying them. Some even claimed they needed “a safe space” because anti-racist discourse hurt their feelings.

It became depressingly clear that much, much more remains to be done when people who already consider themselves anti-racist refuse to listen to the lived, shared experiences of colleagues of colour.

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(If you don’t believe me that the classical music profession is racist, I beg you to read every post at the Instagram page #OrchestraIsRacist. Then tell me again how colour-blind you are.)

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This year, I wrote a whole book about returning again and again to Bach’s Cello Suites, beloved pieces that have accompanied me everywhere I’ve been.

Now I see that returning to the same things again and again is part of a much bigger problem.

(Am I going to throw Bach out with the bathwater? Of course not; I did, after all, write a whole book about him. *shameless self-promotion* it’s a really good book. Please tell all your literary agent friends. *end shameless self-promotion*)

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What brought me back to practising my cello was the desire to learn some new pieces.

I asked myself two serious questions. Do I still love cello? Do I still want to play the cello?

The answer to both questions was yes.

I bought some scores. Theme and Variations on ‘Draw the Sacred Circle Closer’ by Adolphus Hailstork. Baroque Suite for Solo Cello by Dorothy Rudd Moore. Four Pieces for Violoncello by Tania León.

I read and re-read Fosler-Lussier’s book.

I thought and planned and wrote and prepared myself to reckon with everything I thought I knew about making music and teaching music.

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It’s not enough. It’s nowhere close to an approximation of enough. You can’t just learn a bunch of cello pieces and pat yourself on the back that you’ve now done everything you ever need to to prove that you “aren’t racist” [sic]. This part is the easy part. The hard part will be getting people who look like me to give up a racist system that’s always been rigged to our advantage. And not everyone wants to acknowledge their complicity in the racist system. Some of them won’t acknowledge that the system is racist, or that a system even exists. For some, the only valid kind of music is Western classical music, while everything else is “other” or “less than.” This task will be beyond exhausting. It’ll be Sisyphean.

And yet we must do it.

It starts with practice.

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Practising an instrument isn’t like a car that you only put gas in because you’re going somewhere. It’s not like your overgrown hair, which a good stylist could sort out in an hour. It’s more like the wheat in the fields and fermenting sourdough starter. It changes and evolves and you can’t ignore it. It’s not enough and it’s never done. But it’s the only way to grow.

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Hello, #cellopractice

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