The Boat


"Do the thing you fear to do and keep on doing it... that is the quickest and surest way ever yet discovered to conquer fear." -Dale Carnegie

When I first started telling my friends that I had decided to run off to France to learn how to jazz, most would remark about how much “courage” I have.  I’ll be honest: I didn’t listen to much of anything anyone had to say to me on the subject of my decision, good or bad.  A series of events had led me here, all stepping-stones. It’s hard to think of any choice as a decision when you just let the qi flow and the universe guide you. I was going to France, and it didn’t matter to me what anyone thought of it.

But, as the date of departure approached, and after a few horrifyingly embarrassing experiences with le jazz, I started thinking. And I realized that I was really, really scared. Scared to practically start from zero in a new style, scared to do it in French, scared to leave my friends, my income, my students, my life that I had made over the past nine years in Boston. And only then did I start considering this word that kept being thrown around: courage.

During an intense conversation with my friend Adam on the final night of the Mike Block String Camp, I told him, “Everyone keeps telling me I have so much courage. Everyone keeps saying how brave I am. But I don’t feel brave. I feel scared to death.” And Adam said, “But isn’t that the very definition of courage? Feeling scared and doing it anyway?”

I had honestly never thought about this. To me, courage and fearlessness had always been the same thing. But they’re not. They are actually very different. For example:

I took myself on a little vacation to Hawaii about two months before the move. I decided to splurge and vacate my life for a while, just before turning it upside down. My first day in Hawaii, I practiced what I would call “controlled fearlessness”. I ate alone at the hotel bar. I walked to the farmer’s market and made a new friend while hitchhiking back to my hotel. I tore my feet up on the rocks while swimming in the ocean. I sat on the edge of a dormant volcano. Fearlessness, but within reason.

My second night in Hawaii, I met this guy. I was out at an overpriced patio bar when this guy approached me. I am not going to disclose his opening line here, because whenever I tell people, it sounds cheesy and like it should definitely never work on any woman, ever. But, confidence goes a very long way. I mean, I’m not going to lie. This guy looked worse for wear. He was sunburnt, had … dreadlocks (?) that looked like one giant dreadlock had been cut into several dreadlocks (perhaps with a machete), his bottom lip was split open, the skin was peeling from his nose, he looked tired. Bref, he looked rough. Maybe it was because I was on vacation, maybe because I was in paradise, maybe because the band at the bar was playing Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” and that is an amazing song. I don’t know, ok? He was fearless in his approach. His line worked, and we had a drink together.

Come to find out he was a professional boat builder and a crew member of an Australian yacht racing team. They had just finished a six-day race from Los Angeles to Honolulu that morning (hence the ragged appearance, I guess, or maybe that’s how he always looks). I don’t really know anything about boats or sailing, so I’m not sure exactly what to call his position on the team. But, he did tell me that his job is to lift things up and then put them down. I also gathered that he is routinely hoisted 100 feet in the air, gets his head split open from time to time, and generally laughs in the face of death every day.

Was he courageous? He wasn't scared. So, by Adam's definition of courage, no: He wasn't brave. He just had no fear. "Doesn't your mother worry about you?" My question was answered with a smile and a shrug.

The next day, he took me to see the boat. It was enormous. I sat on the edge of the dock as I watched him climb aboard, swinging one leg over, and then the other. Simple. Just like that, and he was on the boat. He held out his hands to help me follow suit. Standing on the edge of the dock, I looked down at the gap between the boat and myself: A 16 foot drop, or so, and at best two feet across. I took his hands, but my feet wouldn’t move. The water was rough, and the boat was drifting back and forth. Bending forward to hold onto his hands as the gap widened, I readied myself to do it just like he had, just as soon as the boat came close enough. But even when the boat drifted back towards me, even with him assuring me I wouldn’t fall in, even after having practiced my fearlessness the previous day, I couldn’t get on the effing boat.

I’m still not sure exactly what I was afraid of. Falling in would have been scary, but maybe it was the very real possibility of looking stupid while attempting to not fall in that scared me more. I was wearing a long skirt, which is not the ideal getup for yachting. Maybe I was imagining myself straddling the gap, one foot on the boat, one on the dock, with my skirt hiking up as the boat drifted further away. Not classy, not elegant, definitely not smart. I remember so many times in my life when I’ve been 99% sure that I know the right answer, but I'd hold my tongue because I fear the 1% chance that I’m wrong. I’m afraid of looking stupid. Which is ridiculous, because I’m sure that I look stupid all the time without even realizing it, just like everyone else in the world.

It took courage to move to France, to enroll in a jazz program, to abandon my life in Boston. Even my roommate told me he didn’t know if he’d have the cuilles to do what I did. But I’m still not on the boat in so many ways. Courage is not enough, because it means that fear is still present. The next step is to cast away the fear, to laugh at it, to get out of my own way. It was courage that got me to start, but it’s fearlessness that will get me through. It’s time to get on the boat.

"The person who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore." - Dale Carnegie

Emileigh Vandiver (right), cellist, and myself. On the boat in 
Wakefield, Rhode Island. August, 2015.
Photo by Nina Bishop Nunn

C'est parti!


Although I am way behind on blog posts (I still have not even posted about my incredible experience at the Silkroad Global Musician Workshop, nor Mike Block String Camp), enough people have asked me why I suddenly moved to France that I figured it is about time to post. Here are some answers to the What, Where, When, Who, Why, and How:

I have enrolled in a certificate program for jazz and improvised music.

Centre des Musiques Didier Lockwood (CMDL) in Dammarie-lès-Lys, France, about thirty miles (48km, I'd better get used to that) outside of Paris (I am living in the nearby town of Melun). 

Now! I moved to France last week. It is a two-year program, finishing in spring of 2017. Placement exams are tomorrow.

I will be studying jazz violin with the incredible Didier Lockwood, as well as the other amazing faculty at CMDL. If you have never heard of him, I recommend starting with this album (easier to swallow if you are not accustomed to progressive rock/jazz fusion).

Yes, why? Why, after eleven years of higher education in violin performance, including a doctorate, would I want to go back and do even more school? Unless you enroll in a program that specializes specifically outside of classical music (like, at Berklee, or a jazz diploma program at a school like New England Conservatory), the curriculum, pretty much everywhere, is limited to the classical tradition (especially for string players). After eleven years of that, I have discovered that I want to learn other things, and to acquire a new perspective on what I already know. I want to be able to jump into, for example, a Latin jazz ensemble with the same comfort as I do with a symphony orchestra or string quartet.

Why France? Um... Why not France? What better way to learn a new musical language than in my second language? One can only help the other, right? I studied French in middle and high school, came back to it as an upperclassman in college, and lived in Geneva for a year. It’s been ten years since I was speaking French every day, and I feel that I have lost quite a bit of a skill I always wanted to master. I am usually lost when it comes to watching French movies or listening to native speakers converse informally (do we speak English that fast?). I figure I had better get back to it while I am still arguably young, and what better way to keep my brain fresh and active? I feel like I have forgotten everything, and I am pretty sure my roommate is already tired of having to repeat himself. But, it is only the first week. I have to remind myself to be patient.

How to jazz? This is the question I will be asking myself every day for a long time. As a classical musician who demands perfection of myself, how am I going to handle the foreign and variable world of jazz? You can argue that there is no right nor wrong in classical music, only good and bad taste; but the material itself is invariable. What you are supposed to play is right there in front of you, printed legibly in your choice of many different editions. It is your responsibility to make the music come to life. You can infuse it with your own unique style, phrasing, sound, color, expression, etc. (and yes, the possibilities are endless). But still, you will either play the notes right, or you will play them wrong. Keep the variable elements, but take away the constant. That’s jazz. Sure, there is a framework of chords and yes, you are given the notes of the tune itself, but all the real substance of jazz is on you. Jazz demands a deeper level of listening than classical music. You can get away with superficial listening in classical music (although, I will argue that the best classical musicians listen with jazz ears).

So, there you have the technical question of “how”, to which I will be finding the answers over the next two years. The “how” that I am worried about is more personal.

Vulnerability has always been my least favorite feeling. I do not like it at all, and I have always tried to avoid it at any cost. During my last lesson in the U.S. with the incredibly wise and incomparably talented Zach Brock, I was a ball of nerves. He asked me what I am most scared of. I told him that my nightmare would be that I know less than everyone else at CMDL, that I go blank during the placement exams, or that I am forced to sight-sing in public (it has been years), that people will say “And she has a doctorate?”,  and that I will be embarrassed. He just shook his head and said, “But even if that happens, the worst thing that could come from that would be that you feel embarrassed.” And it made me realize that I had been looking at this whole thing all wrong.

Coming from classical music, I thought my goal should be to get so good at jazz that it is unlikely that I will embarrass myself, because I am so good at the jazz. But the truth is that the real change and growth comes not when I get past the point of embarrassing myself, but when I feel embarrassed and am not debilitated by it. I have to learn from my embarrassment. Maybe I will even get to a point where I enjoy it.

So, here I go, diving head first into what is likely to be the most humbling and humiliating experience of my life. And when I mess up, I will smile. Patience. Ok, c’est parti!


A Far Cry
Dreaming and Praying all the way to the Grammy’s

As a musician living and working in Boston for over eight years, I am embarrassed to admit that I had never attended a performance by A Far Cry until this past September. Not to make excuses, but I had filed AFC away in the “I’ll Do That Eventually” quadrant of my brain while I was completing degrees. It was the lure of Augustin Hadelich performing Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata (Zinman/Pushkarev’s arrangement for chamber orchestra) that finally drew me to Jordan Hall.  I was struck by AFC’s precision, attention to detail, sensitivity to color, and the exuberance they brought to their performance in general. What impressed me more, however, was the careful thought and consideration given to the structure of the program itself.

I like to consider myself an architect in the delicate craft of playlist assembly (formerly called “mix-taping”). Long drives, spin classes, rainy day hangs with friends, bridesmaids getting our hair done in her mom’s kitchen before our best friend’s wedding: all occasions that command the perfect playlist. It’s not just the content that matters; it’s the flow. I only believe in “shuffle” under specific circumstances. It bothers me when I put the wrong song in the wrong place in the wrong playlist; in the same way it bothers me when concert programming is curated out of convenience rather than consideration. For better or worse, most groups at least feign thoughtfulness when it comes to programming (“We’ve got a Rachmaninoff symphony, Barber concerto, one Strauss tone poem, and we want to throw in this Takemitsu piece. We’re calling this program Axis and Allies.”), but I think thoughtful programming is an important component in attracting a diverse audience base. This is where A Far Cry really nails it.

I was not at all surprised in December to learn of their 2015 Grammy nomination in the category of Best Chamber/Small Ensemble Performance for Dreams and Prayers. The album examines the relationship music has with religious mysticism and spirituality, and its ability to act as a channel between the physical and spiritual worlds. It is made up of four works, with each composer drawing from his or her own tradition of faith.

The album opens with the chant O ignis spiritus paracliti by Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth-century teacher, theologian, composer, healer, and Saint. The arrangement for a choir of violins playing the chant in unison (with immaculate intonation) sets the tone of the album’s pervading connection between the spiritual and the physical; a theme embodied by the chant’s text itself: O mightiest path which penetrates All, from the height to every Earthly abyss, you compose All, you unite All. 

The newly commissioned Vecd, composed by Mehmet Sanlikol, pursues the aforementioned “height” through the depiction of the traditional Turkish Sufi ceremony.  Vecd signifies the state of ecstasy one experiences with complete surrender to the Devine: the state to which the Melveli (whirling) dervishes aspire in the Sema ceremony.  The opening of the piece is sparse and calm, moves forward through an extensive buildup in intensity, and culminates in an accelerating ostinato to the finish. Linking the intangible mysticism of the subject matter to our earthy senses, Vecd appeals on a visual level, evoking the swirling image of the dervish in the imagination.

The album’s namesake (and main attraction) lies at its core: Osvold Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Originally composed for Klezmer clarinet and string quartet, the most famous recording has to be the 1997 album by David Krakauer and the Kronos Quartet. I first encountered the arrangement for string orchestra in 2008 when I was fortunate enough to perform with Todd Palmer as part of the InCite Festival at Town Hall in New York. Todd Palmer was incredible, but unfortunately with limited rehearsal time, the orchestra was in over their heads. But, I did fall in love with the piece, and consequently purchased (and abused) the Kronos album for close to a year (until it died). For me, the marriage of badass David Krakauer with rockstar Kronos Quartet (literally: they even cover Jimmy Hendrix) would be a tough act to follow. Although I was looking forward to hearing Krakauer play the Golijov in a different environment, I was prepared to feel underwhelmed by A Far Cry’s version…

Lesson learned: Never doubt a Crier! I recently had the pleasure of playing alongside AFC founding member Jae Young Cosmos Lee in the Cape Symphony Orchestra, and he told me that AFC and Golijov have formed a close relationship over the past several years: “Our ensemble has played a lot of Golijov, from the very beginning. We recorded Last Round on our debut album. It’s felt organic for us to become a Golijov practitioner.”

While Vecd arouses the sense of sight, the Golijov channels sound straight from the ears to the soul. It is as if the music renders you… oh, I don’t know… blind? Jae told me that he first heard the original version live, by the Cleveland Quartet with Giora Feidman, who performed the world premier in 1994. “When you’re listening to that in your teens, and you’re very impressionable, it kind of gets to you. You think: Oh my God, that’s unplayable. There’s such an improv nature to it, and of course you have to have a clarinetist who understands the language.” A Far Cry’s performance with Krakauer perfectly captures what Golijov had intended: “…blindness is as important in this work as dreaming and praying. I had always the intuition that, in order to achieve the highest possible intensity in a performance, musicians should play, metaphorically speaking, ‘blind’… Blindness, then, reminded me of how to compose music as it was in the beginning: An art that springs from and relies on our ability to sing and hear, with the power to build castles of sound in our memories.”

A castle of sound is the perfect description for AFC's interpretation of Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lycischen Tonart (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode) from his String Quartet Op. 132. Though baptized a Roman Catholic, Beethoven was not a particularly devout Christian. Even the most obstinate non-believers, however, will often appeal to a higher power when forced to grapple withe their mortality. To uphold their end of the bargain when death is postponed is far less common. This middle movement from Op. 132 is Beethoven publicly, sincerely, and humbly saying "thank you". 

I would be remiss not to make some mention of the engineering of this album. Jesse Lewis is already a three-time Grammy Award winning producer and recording engineer. He scouted the site for recording the album in Fall River, Massachusetts: presently recognized as the location of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez’s trial for three separate murder charges.  But, it is also the home of the magnificent Sacred Heart Church, which houses an acoustic that Jae tells me is like “a bathtub times a thousand”. You can hear the sound just swimming throughout in the hall, and what’s lost in intimacy is made up for in ethereal resonance.

All four works on the album are technically brilliant, and AFC’s execution is pristine, yet exciting. With the announcement of the Grammy winners fast approaching on Sunday, February 8th, AFC is in excellent company in their category. Among the other nominees are Hilary Hahn (with Cory Smythe), and Steven Isserlis (with Olli Mustonen).  Dreams and Prayers deserves its nomination (and potential win) for not only AFC’s stellar performance, but moreover for their profound dedication to the album’s poignant premise. With the standard model of orchestral performance currently on the decline, AFC is likely to sustain their audience of experienced and novice listeners alike through their deep and meaningful commitment to thematic programming.  


Stevie Wonder!

At the moment I die, when the neurons fire off a rapid slideshow of faces and places in a highlight reel known as life flashing before my eyes, I can now say with a decent sum of confidence that Stevie Wonder will be there. Last night I had the incredible opportunity to perform at TD Garden in Boston on his Songs in the Key of Life tour. A ten-piece Boston-based section of dynamite string players accompanied on four tunes: Village Ghetto Land, Pastime Paradise, Isn’t She Lovely, and Joy Inside My Tears.

We met him at a brief rehearsal just before the show, where he gave us an ‘A’ from his piano (best ‘A’ I’ve ever had) and ran through the songs with us. The backstage atmosphere was remarkably calm, and his band and crew were friendly and engaging with us behind the scenes. 

Although the show followed the order of the original album, each song was saturated with the influence of nearly thirty-eight years of popular music. Luckily for us, this meant we got to sit on stage for several songs (including Sir Duke) and just listen (and dance in our chairs). Stevie was humble, spiritual, and grateful: Still in love with the music, still in love with life. There was no flashy set, no video projection, no laser light show. There was Stevie and his musicians, on a blank stage, with their instruments. Nothing superfluous: Just him and the music. It was spectacular.

Stevie was joined by India Arie and his own daughter Aisha Morris (who is one of six backup singers). Jazz violinist extraordinaire Jason Anick is on my left.
Photo by Debbie Lane