I’ve been avoiding getting back to music for so long now, mostly because of fear. Because when you put in the kind of time and energy and really sell your soul to a thing like music, and then it’s spoiled by bad associations, it can be really painful to try to make it part of your life again. Sometimes it’s not worth it. I briefly considered giving up music entirely, but realized that I just can’t. Not because of the investment or the guilt, but because music is the friendly beast that will not leave me alone. So it became a waiting game, testing the waters to see how difficult it was to dip my toes back in. I found excuses not to play, and for three years my music has been primarily out of guilt, half-heartedness.
But recently I found out about a summer workshop in Finland, close to Helsinki. From the description, identical to the workshops I used to go to in the states. Summer hasn’t meant music workshops for nearly four years now, but in college it was the best part of the summer, traveling and spending a few weeks in the company of likeminded musicians, being stretched to the limit physically and mentally and musically and it somehow always being worth it. And I miss that. So I jumped in, signed up for the workshop, found a practice space that requires a lot of planning, a little traveling outside my daily routine, and a lot of efficiency to practice for just one hour at a time.
To be honest, I expected a lot of pain. The pain of feeling inadequate, because I had left music behind to do science, because the last thing I heard anyone say about my playing was that I didn’t have the music in me. I expected the pain of rustyness, forgetting how to make reeds, forgetting fingerings or how to read unusual clefs and transpositions or 18th century ornament notation. And the physical pain of a slack embouchure and clumsy fingers, lazy lungs and a sluggish tongue. I expected to have to push through intense frustration with myself by brute force of will, enduring a long period of failure before feeling worthy of the music.
Because I have rarely felt worthy of the music. In high school music was my thing, but so was science, and I took a backseat to the “career musicians” who would go on to be music teachers and professional players. I tried to relegate it to a hobby in college, but the friendly beast tackled me down the steps of Haydn Hall and held me hostage for four years. I discovered early music entirely by accident, at a faculty concert I was stage managing as a side job for extra money. The friendly beast took over my brain and made me get in contact with the oboe teacher, basically showing up cold and saying “I want to play this.”
At the time I was in another musical crisis, having issues with my regular oboe teacher, finding myself hating lessons and getting anxious and sick over music. I felt like I wasn’t ever good enough, in large part because I wasn’t a “real” musician–part of the conservatory. There was definitely a social/political divide between the students of the music department in the university and those in the (affiliated, non-accredited) conservatory. They didn’t consider us real musicians because many of us had double majors in science and engineering, or music education, and we tended to see them as not committed to getting an education because they would show a surprising amount of ignorance in courses we had together, like music theory and music history (especially history… do I have some stories….). We all had friends that bridged the gap, but it was a pretty hostile environment at times.
When I found early music it was a breath of fresh air. Early music people tend to be a bit… hippie-er than other musicians. They were focused on health and holistic wellness, integrating art forms through knowledge of history and culture, combining the science of acoustics and organology and the techniques of research. I learned five new instruments, how to transpose, how to tune a harpsichord by ear. I started studying yoga from an oboe teacher, got recipes and had weekend reedmaking parties with another. We studied the intersections of fine art, architecture, music and physics, and how the music matched the dance steps. I loved it. It was like releasing my inner music nerd at last, being given permission to be in the music in a way that didn’t have to be locked alone in a practice room for 5 hours a day. I loved studying and I loved practicing. When I lived on campus in the summer to work as a research assistant I would spend the mornings in the lab and the afternoons and evenings in the rehearsal room with the windows thrown open, playing anything and everything.
But life happened, and music and I drifted apart. I got co-dependent, and gave away my agency. I hung around too much with people who saw me as a second-class musician, and started thinking of myself that way. In reality I don’t think there is such a thing. We are all musicians. Some of us get paid money for it, and some of us get paid in smiles. Some of us only sing for the shower curtains and play for empty walls. It doesn’t matter. If you have music in you, it’s yours and you are worthy of it.
I think it’s a combination of feeling this build for the past few years, the feeling that it’s finally time. Things are falling into place, and it’s time to take a risk. And bringing my music here to a place it’s never been, it’s as if the instrument and the reeds and my lips can feel a sense of freedom that they’ve never had before.
Finally I’m playing because I want to and for no other reason.
Finally my head is clear and I hear ten years of oboe teachers in my ear, up up up down, breathe out, breathe in, energy in the bottom note and pop up, try less hard, feather out the tip, you can always take more cane off but you can’t put it back on, don’t overtie it, a backwards slip isn’t the end of the world; tell the audience a story, pay attention to tongue position, don’t let your fingernails go white, you can alter the fingerings, shade the hole, snap it, swing it, choose the right inégale ratio, play it backwards and upside down, play it simply, play it grandly, play it in another key. Sing it, imagine it, make it different every time. Listen, lead, read the figured bass. Play from the stomach, stand in tree pose, balance, breathe, close your eyes. I hear these things in my head and they make sense, they don’t come too fast or too slow, they just shift down into place. And as I’m playing I hear myself in the sound, the same personality I’ve always had when playing, but with a new sense of freedom from inhibition, a new energy.
Finally, I can feel that these things are about making music, not passing a grade or selling tickets or proving myself.
Finally, this music is mine.