The creativity pas-de-deux

  People who have dedicated their lives to the arts, or simply devoted themselves to making their lives a work of art, know well the feeling of reaching out towards inspiration, towards excellence. This yearning for that undefinable something has an ill-tempered neighbor, Mr. Frustration. He wears many masks: the composition that dies half-written because “I can’t make it come out on paper like it is in my head.” The comparison to another player – “I’ll never sound like her.” The fear of irrelevance – “Nobody wants to read this kind of story anyway. Why bother?” The conditional taskmaster – “If only you had worked harder, sacrificed more, then you might have made it.” And so many others. What a soul-sucking, time-wasting masquerade. Anyone who has done the cha-cha with the demon of perfectionism as often as I have knows the drill. It’s always the wrong tempo, and you always step on his toes. Get off that dance floor, friends. Now.
I recently listened to the marvelous audio book version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, a gorgeous meditation on creativity and allowing yourself to “make stuff,” even if it isn’t perfect. Even if you know it hasn’t a prayer of being perfect. Just Make The Stuff. It’s what we were born to do. And it’s fun. In her book, Gilbert challenges the belief in an indifferent or even hostile universe. If you love nature, she says, and yet believe nature doesn’t care about your existence, then how can you ever enter into a relationship with it? Why not believe that the love can flow in both directions? This is equally true for creativity. If the essence of the soul is creative, how can the universe not reflect that principle? 
I believe this is just as true for the interpretive artist as well as for the painter, composer, choreographer, chef, or novelist. An image that has come to me recently while playing my horn is that of each note loving me back as much as I love each note. It’s a different quality of music-making. We all know both performance versions when we hear them, the technically flawless presentation that leaves us cold, and the one that has love and passion. That second one reaches beyond itself, beyond the interpreter, and makes us feel those things too. Furthermore, I believe that the concertos, symphonies, songs WANT to be played beautifully. Imagine the pieces themselves blushing and going all shivery when a musician opens up to receive them! Throw them a great party, and they will want to come back and hang out and dance on the tables.
The beautiful things are out there waiting to be made, and so it is up to us to reach out for them with open arms, an open mind, an open heart. Music-making in this way is so incredibly rewarding. Indeed, it becomes its own reward. You will of course do your best to prepare with attention and discipline, and nothing can replace all the hard work. But you see, that’s not the same as being hard on yourself. You reach out for the music, for just the right voice or phrase…what if it’s reaching out towards you at the same time? That means you only have half the distance to cover.
I am reminded of that perennial quote by Joseph Campbell, “Follow your bliss.” What’s important to know is that our bliss is also skipping along half a step behind us, waiting for us to turn around and bump into it. When you approach your life’s work in this manner, you honor yourself, and you honor the source of that creativity. Now that’s one dance I don’t want to miss!

Thoughts on perfection vs. excellence and the American Horn Quartet’s final year

For months now, I keep telling myself that it’s time to jumpstart this blog again after a hiatus of over a year, as the sheer act of bringing reflections and thoughts to (virtual) paper has always been a joy. Each time, the impulse died with the internal dialogue, “Too much has happened to write down” and, my all-time favourite murderer of creativity,”If you are going to write something, it needs to be spectacular.” (Read: perfect.) Perfectionism is dangerous game the ego plays to prevent us from giving birth to any creative endeavour. As a performer, I relearn every day the delicate skill of knowing when to let go and let a performance happen. The moments we divest ourselves of the need to steer the outcome are those where magic and miracles can happen. Yes, careful and considered preparation are a requisite for this letting go – it’s a balancing act. The fulcrum is different for each person and every situation, but what remains constant is the triumph of enthusiasm over anxiety, put simply, love over fear. I like the idea of striving for excellence rather than perfection. It’s just as much work, but without the automatic “doomed to fail” label attached. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

So…now to plunge in and share with you what’s on my mind today!

The American Horn Quartet, one of the greatest joys and blessings in my life these past several years, will give its last concert next August in Los Angeles at the International Horn Symposium. Due to a schedule conflict between orchestra and tour obligations, the AHQ has just completed a US tour without me. I was quite heartbroken at first not to be able to participate in what is the last major American tour of the quartet, as well as one I had the main share of organizing. Okay, I’m still sad about it. But 1) my part has been in the more than capable hands of Karl Pituch of the Detroit Symphony orchestra, for many years our go-to sub anytime we need reinforcements in North America. And 2) the reason I remained in Europe was to rehearse with the OPL for an upcoming tour including one of my favourite things to play, the 3rd horn part of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with my extremely talented colleagues. So, back to the AHQ. A lot of people have asked why we are throwing in the towel while still at the top of our game. That’s an answer unto itself, really – we would like to leave a legacy of fantastic concerts and conscientious artistry and go out before we outstay our welcome. It’s also become more difficult for all four of us to free ourselves from other (job) obligations at the same time. The quartet has been around for 30 years; I have had the pleasure of the last six. Once we pass the torch, I’m not sure what will take its place – certainly Kerry and I will resume the Virtuoso Horn Duo, put on hold as our priority went to the quartet, and I hope the Ni Ensemble will get going again. Aside from that, the extra time not spent answering and writing hundreds of emails organizing tours will go to other projects. I honestly have no idea what I’ll be doing in 5 years, and that’s okay. But I will miss the AHQ dearly. The four of us bring out the best in one another musically – I call it the Turbo button. When the music kicks into high gear, the combination of laser-like concentration and the power of the music feels like a clear, sharp wind, leaving no room for distracting thoughts. So even though the repertoire we play can be devilishly difficult, my mind is rarely more peaceful than in the middle of a performance. I truly feel emptied out, in the best possible way, after a recital.

Earlier I was talking about perfectionism, about knowing when to put in the nitpicky work and when to surrender to the flow. In our rehearsals, we sometimes go into ridiculous, microscopic detail, even on pieces we have performed dozens of times. The alchemical transformation comes about as a result of the absolute trust we have in each other on stage. Even if clams happen (for my non-musician friends and readers, that’s what we call the occasional splats that happen to every horn player!) or if a passage doesn’t come off the way we did it in the practice room, that trust remains. Recently, in London at the International Horn Society symposium, someone’s cell phone went off in the audience just as we had started the finale, throwing us off our rhythm, and we had to start the movement over. It’s the first time that had ever happened during my tenure with the quartet. But so what! We knew that we could sink straight back into the flow of the piece because of that trust. Also, we have fun.

We have a new CD coming out called En-COR! – yes, it’s a pun, and yes, the whole CD is made up of our favourite encore pieces. Release date should be the middle of December, just in time for Christmas stockings. We used the Kickstarter program to fund the project, with well over 100 supporters. Once it’s available (Albany Records,) I will share links to find it. During the recording sessions, the microphones were close to us, so the listener has the feeling of being right there. You can hear us breathing, hear our valves clicking, feel the organic current of the music. Our Grammy-award winning producer, Gregg Squires, did a brilliant job in capturing a very “live” feel. With two and a half days to record 20 pieces, the principle of knowing when to move on becomes pretty important.

Preparing to take our final bow...

Preparing to take our final bow…

Hey, blog written! Now I just have to press “send.” How hard can it be? 🙂

Out of the Closet

 

Every September in Luxembourg, local residents find a large, orange transparent sack shoved through the mailbox (or sometimes, dumped unceremoniously on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of the front door.)  This is the time to go through closets, locate items we no longer wear and wish to donate to charity, and pack them into the bag for pickup, usually scheduled for the first day of autumn.  Whether this is coincidence or deliberate seasonal gesture, the timing is fortuitous.

In our neighborhood we also have a giant orange container for the same purpose, next to the bins for recycled glass and paper, perched outside our local Portuguese greengrocer’s shop.  On the afternoon the orange bag arrived (this year, still clinging stubbornly by one corner to the mailbox), I got excited.  My natural impulse to give things away and to clear space kicked in with a sort of frenzy, and soon I was happily laying waste to my closet and chest of drawers.  Once I started, I didn’t want to wait the two weeks until pickup of the sacks, so I ended up taking 4 bags down to the corner container.  Clothes I hadn’t worn in a really long time.  Clothes given to me that I had kept just to be nice.  Clothes I wasn’t sure why I bought in the first place.  Clothes hanging under other clothes, forgotten.  Clothes I imagined someone else would take pleasure wearing.  Clothes that didn’t quite fit my body, or my personality, but that had continued taking up space, “just in case.”   A few holdouts from the 90’s that had survived several such purges and changes of residence gave me pause, but sometimes it’s simply time to let go and move on.  (Apparently, I was fond of leopard prints in the 90’s…)

Cleaning out a closet isn’t such a big deal, really.  Making space in my head, in my heart, my spirit – that’s another thing.  What in my life have I been carrying around that I haven’t needed for years but haven’t released?  What burdens have I taken on from my family, friends, colleagues, society in general, and never examined?  What do I hold onto from the past that no longer serves me, but stays in my psyche, “just in case?” 

Releasing old baggage and destructive behavior patterns is as easy – or torturous – as we allow it to be.  My Reiki teacher, Don Alexander, often spoke of resistance, of the many ways we hold onto the familiar just because we know it and are afraid of who we are without it.  Even, and sometimes especially, the pain.  Why do we identify with our limits, physical or intellectual?  Why do we let the old tapes in our heads tell us what we cannot accomplish, why we cannot be free?  Don teaches his students a wonderful meditation about this.  After centering and finding a calm place inside, you slowly strip off, one by one, all your physical layers.  Who are you without your hair and skin?  Who are you without your muscle?  Without your eyes and ears?  Without your soft organs, your blood?  You continue this until you are down to your very bones.  The idea is to pare everything down to its most essential, its basic components. 

Who am I without my horn playing?  Who am I without my need to make people feel comfortable and happy?  Without my anxieties and desires?  Without my intellect?  Without my taste in literature, my ability to cook, my health, my marriage, family, senses, thoughts, emotions, even without my name? 

Obviously, we don’t throw everything away.  (I still have clothes in my closet!) But if we take a moment now and then to look deeply at the things we carry, to discover what is essential and what is not, and to release just a little of what burdens us, we can breathe so much more freely.  I’m still working on it, that balance between resistance and release, but the releasing part gets easier with practice.

Oh, and by the way, if you ever see me decked out in leopard prints again, send me home to do another closet purge, please.

 

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(Over)view from the rooftops of Paris

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I’ve just had the pleasure of spending a couple free days in Paris between performances with the OPL at the Opéra Comique.  Our Sunday show fell on my birthday, so Kerry and I stayed afterwards and indulged in an Ethiopian feast at one of our favorite restaurants in the Latin Quarter.  We found a very cute studio through the airbnb website (if you don’t know it, it’s a bit like Craigslist, but you are better protected from scams.)  The view out our window (7th floor, luckily with elevator, which is by no means a given here!) is lovely –  a double rainbow greeted us upon arrival, crowning the Jardin des Plantes right across the street.  Yesterday the master craftsmen at L’olifant Paris whipped my horn back into shape and gave me the opportunity to try some beautiful horns and mouthpieces.

It seems a good place and time to bring a little perspective to the goings-on of the past and future couple of months, especially because I haven’t written a blog for a good long while.  The “doing”/”being” ratio has tipped more to the “doing” side, as it often does when I don’t pay attention to seeking the inner stillness and reflection necessary to feel whole.  Mind you, I love pretty much everything I have been doing lately – playing great music with the orchestra every week, preparing and presenting concerts with the American Horn Quartet, taking Pilates lessons, going to plays and dance productions, and all the normal bits of everyday living.  A huge bonus lately has been to have so much time together with my husband, sadly lacking this time last year with all the traveling.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself walking around in a bit of a daze, not taking everything in.  Other than while playing music, when the habit of years of laser-like focus kick in, the edges seem a bit blurry to scenery, conversations, even the taste of food (for those of you who know me well, that’s a clear sign that something is amiss!)  Even this morning, I had originally planned to go to a museum but feared just drifting by the exhibits without appreciating them.  I go through this cycle often, not realizing it’s happening for a while.  This classic Far Side cartoon says it beautifully:

 

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The trick – the art – to living is in balance (being married to a Libra will teach you a thing or two about that as well!) – especially that between the inner and outer life.  The next few weeks are just as activity-laden as the previous ones, including more performances in Paris, an AHQ tour to the States, Götterdämmerung on Wagner tuba when I return, then brass quintet rehearsals and a Britten Serenade performance etc….  But I am going to do my best to find the inner stillness and perception to be fully present in the big and small moments, including the ones that don’t have a website link attached. But there just may be a double rainbow in the offering.

 

 

 

 

A change of pace

The quote “You are human beings, not human doings” has been attributed to various sources – little wonder, really, as we can all relate in times of intense activity.  Indeed, until quite recently, I’ve felt like a tetherball with Luxembourg as the pole, constantly spiraling towards and away by rail and by plane.  I think I was home for something like 15 days between May and the end of August, mostly in 36-hour chunks, emptying one suitcase and packing another.  Two of my suitcases are nearly the same size for just this purpose.  Endless gratitude to Kerry for putting up with Suitcase A on the bedroom floor while Suitcase B was on a conveyor belt in some airport.  Summer 2012 was particularly dizzy.  A combination of professional engagements and family-related visits led me to Japan (twice), Oregon, San Antonio, England and Scotland, Thailand and UAE.  There’s a beauty and freshness to travel and to the feeling of being a part of the international cultural scene as well as opportunities for growth and connection with other people and places.  I’m so grateful for all the experiences I have had and wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.

At one point after popping home for one night then rushing off to catch a train to another airport for two long-haul flights in a row to Asia, I just wanted to weep. (That came, eventually, late at night in a high-rise hotel room on the other side of the planet.)  Somewhere in the world, people were leading normal lives, cooking dinner at home for their families, doing a yoga course on Wednesday nights, leaving their instruments in lockers in the brass room of the concert hall, growing herbs on the balcony…

Then, in rapid succession, two events changed the course of the near future.  The first involved our landlord deciding to sell our flat so that we had to find another place to live.  Moving house has been physically and emotionally taxing in more ways than we could have foreseen, as well as having the extra burden of giving up our large rent-controlled place in Strassen.  We had to downsize or move further out of town, so we chose to find a smaller, albeit more expensive, apartment.  For much of the move preparation, I was commuting back and forth from a gig playing first horn on Schoenberg’s mammoth “Gurrelieder” with the Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn, playing a rehearsal, taking the next train home, packing several boxes, then catching the early train the next day for an afternoon call back in Germany….Now that all is said and done, we’re living in a gorgeous renovated 1950’s apartment in one of our favorite neighborhoods in Luxembourg City.  It’s full of light and charm, about a 10-minute walk from downtown.  What seemed painful at the time has ended up being a wonderful thing.

Around the same time this move was going on, I was offered a 75%, 2-year position playing 2nd horn in the OPL (Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, where Kerry and many of my good friends work.)  The opportunity came more or less out of the blue, just when I was longing for a more stable situation and more time at home.  Since then, the position has morphed into a Wechselhornstelle (position playing 2nd and 3rd horn.)

We took probably a dozen trips to the local recycling center, getting rid of “stuff” we didn’t have room for anymore.   Though we loved many of the items we threw into giant bins or sent off to be sold on consignment, each time we let go of another load I felt this enormous sense of relief and freedom, a release of pure energy.  Our excess possessions and attachments make it harder for us to breathe, to move, to fly.  Likewise, though I’ll be traveling less in the coming months, my new job feels liberating too (not counting three trips to the States in a row this coming spring, but that’s the subject of another blog!)

So… what will I do with all the time at home now?  Cook for my family and friends, grow herbs on the balcony, leave my horn in my locker at the Philharmonie, certainly.  Perhaps I’ll even do that Wednesday evening yoga class.

Modern-Day Traveling Minstrel

I’m heading home right now from 2 wonderful weeks as guest principal horn of the Beethoven-Orchester Bonn, performing and recording a CD of works by Gustav Mahler (Adagio from Symphony #10, the symphonic movement Blumine, and Das Klagende Lied.)  The train route between Koblenz and Trier winds alongside the beautiful Mosel River – forested hills rising from one bank, vineyards sprawling on the other.  The sun sparkling on the water’s surface is a welcome sight after our unseasonably murky May. Charming old wine villages with their tell-tale crooked timber frame houses compete for attention with castle ruins on the hilltops and tiny mountain chapels.  A few weeks ago, on my way home from another guest principal horn gig in Mulhouse (Mozart, Schoenberg, Webern, Schubert), my husband and I visited the Montagne des Singes (Monkey Mountain, hosting a colony of 200 free-roaming Barbary apes) and wound our way through the lovely countryside of Alsace.  Of course we had to stop for a delicious glass of Gewürztraminer and pot of creamy Bibelekäs.

One of the perks of this life as a traveling minstrel is the down time provided by the journey.  Though it’s a train that will have me home this afternoon, I feel a connection to the troubadours of old, slinging their harps and pipes and drums over their horses’ backs, or their own, traveling for days at a time in this same region of Europe to reach the next court, festival, or market town, singing for their supper.   One of my favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, features itinerant musicians and artisans in many of his books, focusing on their personal journeys as great events unfold around them.  Sometimes the musicians themselves are the movers and shakers, even princes of lost lands.  But more often than not they are mere mortals whose talents take them into the fray of excitement and danger.  My life’s not very dangerous, really (unless you count the possibility of throwing out my back lifting suitcases over my head onto luggage racks, and working with conductors) yet I feel the sense of adventure when the next voyage approaches.  The coming 3 months include trips to Burgundy, Bonn (again,) Antwerp, Brussels, Rotterdam, Osaka, Tokyo, Oregon, Texas, England, Scotland, Japan (again,) Bangkok, and Dubai, many of these destinations for gigs.  I’d like to meet the horse that could carry my hornpipes and me on this itinerary!