How Quitting Music Made Me An Artist
This essay was originally published in 21CM, July 2018.
I graduated from Juilliard in 1992 with two pieces of professional advice. The first was, “Take care of the music, and the music will take care of you.” The second was, “If you can see yourself doing anything else, do it.” I accepted the first piece of advice as an article of faith: a noble contract. The second I dismissed as irrelevant. I had never seen myself doing anything else but music.
But six months after graduation, I quit.
It didn’t happen all at once. Right out of school, I started a trial position with a well-known string quartet. It was my dream job. One morning, while waiting to board the flight back after a concert, two of the musicians told me I wouldn’t be continuing with the group. “We don’t want to work with a woman,” they explained. To them, it seemed my gender was a natural fact that made their bias a non-issue. To me, it felt like a professional death sentence.
Up until then, I’d held up my end of the bargain with music. I’d taken care of it. I had practiced diligently and made a canny move from violin to viola. It seemed that music had held up its side of the bargain as well, rewarding me with a steady stream of prizes and placements in competitive programs. This formula had also worked for my schoolmates. We passed the gatekeepers. We got the “go” signal. We believed that progress was steady and stable.
I didn’t know then that growth is messy, and that progress rarely proceeds in a straight line. I didn’t know that nothing that happens in the first years out of school has to define your career. I didn’t know that being a woman, and ambitious, wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t see how I could have come this far only to have things fall apart. So I quit.
I moved back to Canada, back into my mother’s house. I hadn’t been able to imagine myself doing anything but music, but then I did – many things. I delivered pizzas. I worked as a security guard for the local newspaper. I went back to university and discovered I had a intellect, that I was an athlete. I learned that I loved history and science and winter hiking. I earned a Master of Science in theoretical psychology and a doctorate in ethnomusicology. I lived in India. I walked around the Annapurna Mountains in Nepal.
I learned something else: Just because I could do other things didn’t mean I couldn’t also play music. I learned to play for fun, both for myself and for others. I learned to write songs and play fiddle in a band. I learned how to make money as a working musician, giving just what was useful and needed, with grace, economy and precision. I learned how to be flexible and adaptable, and then step up to deliver a solo that would burn the house down. I learned to make my own band, and to produce records, and book tours, and get reviews and build my own career.
Merit lies at the heart of the American myth. Classical music’s myth, too.
We pretend that merit can render irrelevant the host of factors, both visible and invisible, that determine professional success: those factors that grant you access, that dispose you favorably to opportunities, that reward your sense of ambition, that cushion your falls, that guide you into professional networks, that teach you how to “play the game,” that make you aware that there is such a thing as a “game” in the first place.
My mother grew up on a farm on the Canadian prairies. She was not just poor, but what she calls “five O’s poor – po-o-o-o-or!” She put me in violin lessons not because she wanted me to become a professional musician, but because she wanted me to have access to music’s work. To be literate in beauty, a familiar of grace. Music paved my way into the middle class.
When I got to Juilliard, I thought I had arrived. One of my classmates came to school in his father’s Learjet. Another brought shopping bags from Chanel. Some lived in gleaming apartments in the new high-rises around Lincoln Center. Others, like me, lived in the 63rd Street YMCA. But we all belonged. Our talent was vetted by jury. We could only fail through lack of discipline.
We didn’t talk about money. Nobody wanted to be seen as a charity case or as having bought their way in. We talked about who “could play” and who “couldn’t.” We talked in hushed tones about people who had quit, who had chosen to do “something else.” It was like dying, or leaving a religion.
It was 30 years ago this month that I moved to New York. My gigs paid $75 to $200. A room in a shared Manhattan apartment cost $400 a month. I could pay my tuition through gigs and a work-study job.
Music couldn’t fail me. Only I could fail music.
Midway through my degree, my teacher asked me to leave her studio. I was interested in playing jazz, and she saw this as a threat to my classical technique. For my senior recital, I played Bach, Stravinsky and Rebecca Clarke, as well as two jazz standards and three short pieces I’d composed. Recently, I found the yellow carbon copy of my teacher’s comment sheet from my jury. In her spidery hand, she wrote, “She could have been a world-class musician, but lacked the necessary discipline.”
She wrote me an epitaph. I was 21 years old, and I believed her.
And yet, years later, I started again. I remade myself as an improvising musician, got reviewed in DownBeat and JazzTimes, made critics’ lists. I won faculty positions at major conservatories, appeared on dozens of recordings, led bands on stages around the world.
I am not against “discipline,” which my early music education taught me to revere. It’s one way to build a world in which we wish to live. I am not against excellence. Technical mastery gives us a fighting chance at expressing our truth. The problems come when we confuse the pursuit of excellence with the promise of a narrow kind of success.
Much of what I now teach about art-making comes from my experiences between the ages of 22 and 30, when things fell apart. How to make the sound that only you can make. How to be a virtuoso of silence. How to play with respect for the people around you, especially your audience. How to play what pays while holding onto your sense of self.
And much of what I teach in entrepreneurship classes puts my work as a scholar into practical form. What is a “professional musician?” How can we advocate for art while dismantling its investment in privilege? How do we create resilient lives in precarious times? How do we use music to question, comprehend and respond to the forces that shape our lives?
Another question: How do we continue to practice music even as we struggle with it? I still struggle – despite my teachers’ implication that once I achieved mastery, that struggle would be over – I would never question myself or my career. But as my hero, “Mister” Fred Rogers – another music school graduate – said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle.” And that is how I love music. I’m struggling and stopping and starting all the time.