Author Archives: reddenme

Apple Pies and Cotton Candy Skies

I couldn’t bring myself to practice this week…I just couldn’t do it. Every part of my physical and metaphysical body feels tired and I could barely muster up the energy to plod my way to my few in-person (but socially distanced) rehearsals. Picture this: feet dragging, the tips of my shoes dipping to taste the asphalt courtyard of the music campus as I “zombie” my way from building to building. I feel like I am moving through quicksand with a hundred-pound chained wrapped tight across my chest (Q: is it COVID or anxiety?). I would write another metaphor, but alas, I just don’t have the energy.

Tomorrow (10.02) marks eight years since my mom passed. I always write something in memoriam on this anniversary. Sometimes it’s a short acknowledgement, sometimes a thoughtful anecdote or sacred memory, or sometimes it is a long-winded lament on loss and grief and overcoming, such as this might be.

I am writing this from my office at school: a cave-like sort of cubicle enclosed by wooden sound panelling and totally devoid of any hint of existence of an outside world, ie. no windows. I have a not-near-full-enough bookshelf and a desk which faces the door (I don’t like having my back to open spaces). I have a fridge which currently only shelters frozen veggie “chicken” nuggets and a bottle of Twisted Ranch, a microwave presumably from 1975 and perfect for a quick lunch of spongy ramen noodles – to which I am currently treating myself, not out of hunger, but of sheer procrastination of any actual productivity.

I rolled out of bed Monday morning a curmudgeon. I intentionally slept through my first class, unable to bear even the thought of opening my eyes for the day when my alarm sounded at 7:45. I stumbled half-lucid to the bathroom at around 10:15, cranked the shower faucet, and sat down on the toilet while I waited for the water to come to temperature.

This is my routine lately. I force myself out of bed at some time before noon – due purely to my commitment to my responsibilities, rather than of actual desire to participate in the world. I may eat something, I may not, but I will definitely consume some sort of caffeinated beverage (usually coffee, but I have been known to take what I can get, depending on how participatory I intend to be on any given day). I will then either make my way to my office, or slog around the apartment in search of a comfortable-enough place to Zoom.

I always try to enjoy fall. Historically, it’s my favorite season with its drying, rubescent leaves, crisping air, pumpkin-spicing beverages, sweaters, soups, hoodies, boots, scarves. I just love the coziness of it all – or at least, I love the idea of the coziness. For the better part of a decade, though, this slowing and introspection and funneling of the calendar year toward its culmination has initiated the twanging of memories that no longer sear with white-hot pain, but rather assert their presence with their dull and perpetual throb, like the slow and rhythmic strumming of a dampened ‘C’ string of a cello. [Insert slam-poetry reference, followed by finger snaps]

Autumn is a hard time for me. It reminds me of the many nights I would totally forgo sleep to ensure my mom would stay in her bed, which was a hospital bed situated in the corner of the living room of the small three-bedroom apartment where we lived. She was always a strong woman, too strong for her own good, in some (most) cases, but particularly near the end of her life. Her spirit remained steadfast in spite of her rapid physical decline. In her mind, she was as physically strong as she had always been – a U.S. Marine, a nurse, a single-mother, wrangler of four willful and opinionated children, manual transmission driver…the list goes on. And she was stubborn. She would lay quietly in her bed, passing the hours by watching through half-closed eyes some prosaic (and yet cathartic) reality-TV show on TLC. Once everyone had gone to sleep, she would sneak out of her bed in an attempt to exercise what little independence thought she had left.

Well, truthfully one attempt was all it took for me. I slept on the couch near her bed in the living room so that I could keep as watchful an eye as I could on her. One night, the only night, I allowed myself to be overcome by sleep and woke to her cries from the floor. She had tried to get up on her own to use the bathroom, completely oblivious to her limitations, and fell face-first onto the floor – which, although technically carpeted, was really just concrete.

That was the last night I slept – over a period of time that never made itself quite clear to me. Was it days or weeks? A month? I would stay awake and as the sun began to peak its face on the horizon, I would step outside to breathe in the crisp, autumn air. I loved fall.

I vividly remember those last days with my mom, sitting and sleeping literally right by her side, watching her chest rise and fall, holding my own breath each time she seemed to hold hers. They play on loop on the interior of my eyelids like a projector on the screen of a movie theater. I hear her soft, scratchy voice calling to me, sometimes. “My angel,” she would say. I feel the weight of grief bearing down on me at the most random moments, but particularly when the sun retreats and sets the sky aglow with soft, cotton-candy-like hues. We would always call each other when the sunset was particularly stunning. We would call each other when we would see the first red-breasted robin of spring. We would call each other when we were feeling silly, or down, or irritated, or just to talk about our days.

Our relationship was unique, and as I get older I look back with as much fondness as curious speculation on how we came to know each other in the manner we did. There were times – great stretches of time – when we were all each other had to navigate our crazy life. There were times in our relationship where I, at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old, cradled her in my arms as she emptied the depths of her soul onto the bathroom floor in great heaves of despair. There were so many moments when she wanted to take her own life, and I was there to hold her hand and keep her here.

I had always kept her here, and these cooling nights remind me of the first and only period of my life when I knew I could not.

When it comes to saving a person, there is no amount of love great enough to keep a person grounded on this Earth when the Earth has become a prison, when it is their time to go.

This lesson began for me on the fourth of July. So many times I had seen my mother in her skirted bathing suit, looking outrageous in her wedge flip flops and buggy sunglasses, smelling of chlorine and coconut-scented sunscreen. This summer, however, something about her, many things about her, made her appear less-than herself. Maybe it was the weight she had lost. Maybe it was the lightness of her skin from the many foregone opportunities for sunshine. Maybe it was the two now-visible fentanyl patches on her shoulder blades that provided just enough respite from the pain of her parasitic cancer to spend a day with her family at the pool, just one last time.

We ate hot dogs and hamburgers, Lay’s ‘sour cream and onion’ potato chips, and a several-gallon barrel of cheese balls from Costco. My siblings and I took for granted our healthy stomachs as we ate to our heart’s content. My mom, on the other hand, managed a few bites of a cheeseburger before once again emptying the contents of hers privately in the bathroom.

There is nothing glamorous about cancer. There isn’t a single color of ribbon that could make the horror of watching someone you love waste away in front of you worth it. It still amazes me how quickly things changed, declined, devolved, degenerated. Just a month later, we were ghost hunting around the apartment. Lucidity became fleeting. “There are people in my house,” she said. “There are people here.” The five of us – my mother and my siblings – were the only people in the house. She took me by the arm and hobbled from room to room with her cane where I was ordered to check under the bed, in the closets, behind the curtains to root out the intruders. Two weeks prior, we celebrated her forty-third birthday. We ate green cupcakes and smeared the icing on our lips to wear as lipstick.

The celebration was a surprise, she thought we were taking her to King’s Dominion…but actually we just reserved a shelter at the local park for a cookout. Sorry mom… But all of her friends from work came, and our small but whole family was there. We had buckets of fried chicken and a smorgasbord of non-negotiable southern sides: biscuits, mashed potatoes, crockpot ham & green beans, mac and cheese…there might have even been an ambrosia salad somewhere. We were a family who loved to eat.

It seems she declined in phases. There was one particular phase (which I now recognize as the “rally”) when she appeared healthy, normal. She had undergone a blood transfusion which had made her right as rain. So right, in fact, that I took a gig opportunity back in Richmond to keep my rent in good standing. Before I left, we sat together and talked. I forbade her from dying while I was gone. It was mostly a morbid joke, but a sentiment I felt very strongly about, nonetheless. In times such as those, you had to find thinks to laugh at, and a morbid sense of humor is something I pride her for gifting me with. She took my hand into hers, and through glassy eyes, swollen with unreleased tears, she said to me, “I want you there, holding my hand.” I promised I would be, kissed her goodbye, and left to play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was a nice change of pace for a few days, and my bills got paid. I don’t regret it.

Yeah, this time of year is tough. There is so much dissonance in my brain. I try to diffuse my memories of grief and helplessness by remembering the many times we smiled and laughed, and by reminding myself constantly how much we loved each other, which can for-sure be a double-edged sword.

The last of our days together was the most difficult of all, as one might expect. We had been discussing (me, refusing) moving her to the hospice facility…against her will. She had made it clear she wanted to die at home surrounded by family and friends. Not alone in some cold hospital room. Although at this point, her ability to express her will was long gone.

I hadn’t slept in, days, maybe weeks. I was a mad person, refusing to leave her side, refusing to let anyone take her. I became the mother hen to fiercely protect her brood – pecking and squawking at anyone who came too near. It took my grandmother and a team of hospice nurses to impress on me the importance of my own health. I needed to sleep, and I needed to resume being the child, not the caregiver, the protector, the fixer, the savior. What I needed was to sleep and to spend our last few moments together just being her child. It took hours of convincing, but I relented under the condition that I could ride with her in the transport vehicle.

When the hospice team arrived, it was time to tell mom she was going for a ride. I pressed my hand into her shoulder and at my touch she heaved open her leaded eyes. Her mouth, caked with dried spittle, moved to form words, though no sound escaped. She knew. “We’re going for a ride, mom,” I admitted. She knew. She started to raise her arms, as if preparing to hoist herself out of bed, but they collapsed under their own weight. She tried again, and then again, to no avail. The team moved in and, in no time at all, transferred her swiftly onto the gurney and we began to wheel her out to the vehicle.

I held her hand while we rode. The paramedic inside took her vitals. Her blood oxygen levels indicated that hypoxemia was setting in, and the end was inching nearer. Nobody spoke during the ride. We sat in bumpy silence as we made our journey to the hospice in-patient facility. Once we arrived, we got mom settled into a cozy room lit amber by small lamps placed thoughtfully throughout the space. The staff was warm and kind. The timbre of each voice sounded as if they, too, knew we would not be there long. Butterfly art covered the walls.

Fall reminds me of all of these things, and these are just some of them. Some of my memories are much more sheltered, more gruesome. There are memories of infection, of vomit, of feces and adult diapers and soiled sheets. There are the pleas and cries that still haunt me from when we had reached the fulcrum of her freedom, the point at which her weakness became too great, and the trip to the bathroom too dangerous a feat. “Please, Marcus, I have to use the bathroom.” “It will be okay mom, you’re wearing a diaper. I will clean you up, please don’t worry.” “Please, Marcus…please…”

I shudder to recall these moments…

She died the later that night, after we had moved her to Hospice. As the hours passed by, we each took turns sitting with her, talking to her, telling her how much we loved her, how grateful we were for her, and that it was okay to let go. It’s such a strange thing, giving someone permission to die. For me, it was a plea. Close your eyes just one last time and free yourself from this worldly misery. You don’t deserve to hurt anymore, and I can no longer bare to watch – though I would give anything now to hold her hand for eternity.

A nurse came by and checked her pulse, blood pressure, and examined the tips of her fingers and toes, which were relinquishing their fleshy color for cooler hues, purple and blue. It was time to say our final goodbyes. So one by one, we did so. My grandmother went first, then each of my siblings, then her friends, and finally, I entered the room, shutting the door behind me, pulling up a chair beside her. “I’m here,” I told her, taking her hand in mine. I felt her breathing slow, I saw her eyes lose their life, I watched her skin lose its color, and I knew. I shouted for my family. It was happening. They rushed into the room and I held her hand, like I had so many times promised I would. Waves of grief heaved themselves from my body. I began to shake, feeling the whole building sway as if the very earth had cracked open beneath our feet. The room spun around me and I lost all reference to time, space. For a moment, it seemed the very balance of the universe had been disrupted. The quake of sorrow. And then it was gone.

The room had erupted in wails. Friends, a mother, children bellowed anguished screams in unison into an empty, hollow vacuum. I remember feeling a cool compress laid on the back of my neck. I remember clutching tightly the lifeless hand of my mother, conflicted by feelings of relief for the end of her unimaginable suffering and wanting her back, to open her eyes, to reveal that this was all a horrible nightmare, to hold me while I cried, to tell me not to be sad, that this too would pass, that the best was yet to come.

But she did not.

Eventually, sense of time returned and sobs began to soften to sniffles. Occupants left to allow the room to breathe. I, as promised, was the last to let her go of her hand.

We had known this day would come for a while, two-and-a-half years, almost exactly. Her diagnosis was terminal from the start, but no amount of preparation would dampen the blow. This was a tragedy, and that was that.

She chose to stop chemotherapy in April of that year, about six-months prior to her death. At that point, we began making the necessary arrangements: contacting the funeral home, paying deposits, choosing a casket. It was surreal. I can’t imagine what it must have been like preparing for your own death. She was never a very high-maintenance woman. She asked for little and demanded even less. She was clear about a few things though: the songs that were to be played, the performance I would give (Solo saxophone and Piano, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, arranged and performed by myself and my dear friend, Peter), and the most important “Fable of the Fork.”

In short, this was a story about a man nearing his death. When the priest came to meet with him to discuss the necessary arrangements, the man said he required but one thing: to be buried with a fork in his hand. Looking puzzled, the pastor asked the man, “Why on earth would you want to be buried with a fork in your hand?” The man replied, “Because, Father, you should always save your fork for dessert. For the best is yet to come.”

So, we did just that. We laid my mother to rest in the princess gown she had picked out, with a fork in her right hand.

I try to think of sweaters and pumpkins this time of year; of butterflies and dessert and our favorite apple pie. I try to think of our evening walks, when she was still strong; of the times before cancer, between episodes of mental illness, of sledding and snowball fighting, of sandcastle building, of pork chop frying, of school band concerts and football games and marching competitions and college touring and rock hunting and Doo-Dah-Day’ing and Apple-Blossom’ing. But no matter how hard I try, the first fallen leaves of autumn will always signal a time of profound reflection in me. These deep scars are part of me now. They are carved into the landscape of who I am and the rivers of my soul rush swiftly through them.

So as the air cools and the evenings darken, I will be watching the horizon with bitter fondness for the blooming of the cotton candy sky.

In loving memory of Sheri Redden, 07.13.1969 – 10.02.2012

Thoughts On How To Be A Good Trans Ally

Much to our chagrin, it isn’t enough to just tell somebody you love them, that you accept them, that you honor their gender identity, their pronouns, and their gender expression. It isn’t enough to transcend centuries of social conditioning to be reaction-less in the presence of anything that challenges the status-quo.

These things are all beautiful, wonderful things that demonstrate a willingness and commitment to diversity and inclusion. They are beautiful and wonderful, and yet they are not enough.

Being an ally is more than using a person’s chosen name. It is more than including your own pronouns at the end of an email signature or in the bio section of your social media.

Being an ally is the abandonment of ego and the willing acceptance of the personal responsibility to not only know when you are wrong, but to know when to anticipate being wrong. It is more than apologizing when you slip, it is committing to doing better each time you do.

It is not passive placation and acknowledgement. It is not waiting for your trans friend to correct you.

It is effort. It is action. It is proaction.

If you misgender a person in front of others, correct yourself in front of others. Don’t apologize in private. Set an example. Lead by example.

We understand. If anyone understands more than anyone else, it is we who were taught to be anyone other than who we are; who were taught we were anyone other than who we are. It’s new, we get it. We SO get it.

But I, we, would much rather hear you stumble to the correct pronouns than hear a profuse private apology…or worse, no apology at all.

It is uncomfortable, I know. Uncomfortable is scary, I know.

Forgetting and reverting to a lifetime of conditioning is more than expected. I so know.

But correct yourself. Correct others. Do it in writing – especially in writing, when you have extra time to think and consider and revise and edit. And show me, us, that you see us and that you dare to be the light so that others may see us, too.


New Year, New Me

It´s that time of year again where everyone is forced to reflect upon the twelve months newly behind them as they prepare to take on a new twelve month cycle. This has always really baffled me, the idea of a ¨new year, new me.¨ I don’t understand exactly what makes January 1st any different than February 1st, or March 23rd, or why the twelve months that lay between January 1st and December 31st are any more unique than those that lay between April 2nd and April 1st. In terms of micro focus, the year is a good framework for setting and achieving goals, but I think it can be equally limiting. It’s almost like giving ourselves permission to absolve ourselves of our faults and failures of the previous year, as if they are something to be ashamed of and forgotten, rather than learned from, in favor of the turning of a new leaf. I personally love the challenges I faced in 2019 – and they were numerous – because sitting here typing to you is the proof that I overcame them.

I had some really tough moments in 2019. I faced the my personal darkest, deepest, and longest bout of depression to-date and I found myself beginning to think there would be no end. I also had some really cool moments. I performed with The Who (yes, *The* actual *Who*), Weird Al Yankovic, I got to live a lifelong dream of performing Harry Potter Live in Concert (The Deathly Hallows Part 1), my quartet (Skylark) recorded an album (STAY TUNED), my niche jazz/Caribbean trio Julia’s Child found some really cool community support. Toward the end of the year, my husband began to stand on his own two feet as a full stylist at the salon where he had been apprenticing for over a year, I applied for an Associate Instructor position at the Jacobs School of Music and got it, so now I get to go back and finish my doctorate while teaching and mentoring other horn students. This year really bounced me around, and while I had many triumphs, I had an equal amount of failures.

When I entered 2019, I made a vow to myself to reframe my perspective on failure. Failure – to me, now – is not the antithesis of triumph. It is an integral part of the process of success, and that is a hard pill to swallow when you have been made to believe (by society, family, etc.) that failure and being unsuccessful are inextricably linked in that to fail means to hinder success entirely. Failure, to me now, is a call for introspection. And I say introspection and not examination intentionally. To examine is to seek imperfection, to introspect is to seek to know oneself more intimately. The key to understanding failure isn’t examining what went wrong, it is to become familiarized with the walls and blockades that prevent us from expressing our potential to its full capacity.

I failed a lot in 2019, and in the soul searching that followed those failures I learned a lot about myself. I learned that my anxiety prevented me from taking more second steps than firsts, that initiating an action was easier for me than sustaining one. I got myself into some pretty tight financial situations, and for nine months I struggled to pull my own financial weight in my marriage. I learned the significance of faking a smile. Because sooner or later, that fake smile becomes routine, and that smiling routine inspires smiling by others, and that collective smiling inspires real joy.* I took a lot of auditions that did not result in a job offer. That is a process many of my musician friends are quite familiar with, and it’s really tough to wake up the following day and put the horn back on your face. But I also learned that as long as I am connected with my purpose, overcoming those hurdles can sometimes be fun and doesn’t have to feel so defeating. I learned to find joy in the process of becoming better, and I am finding that striving for a career as a professional musician is as much a mental feat as it is one of technical proficiency.

I am really looking forward to my next arbitrarily chosen twelve-month cycle, which can, in reality, be chosen on any day of the year, I just happen to be jumping on the bandwagon in this case. 2020 is going to be my year, because I intend to take ownership of every moment of it.

In October, just before Halloween, I had what you might describe as a religious experience, un-ironically as it happened to occur while playing a gig for a church service. I don’t really consider myself religious. I don’t ascribe to any religious dogma or label myself as Christian, or Buddhist, or Atheist, or Pagan (anymore). I do, however, consider myself a spiritual being, and this physical vessel that I have been gifted is merely the lens through which I get to experience the universe.

If you read my last blog (which I highly recommend you do if you haven’t, if for no other reason than to know me better), you’ll remember that I was having a pretty tough time with the dress code, as a person who identifies as non-binary. “Men wear suits, women wear all black,” is the phrase that really turned 2019 around for me, and for that I will always be grateful. Because the following day, after the rehearsal that inspired the blog post, I sat through a sermon that was entirely about accepting your flaws and embracing them as divinity.

I used to be very spiritually active, before my mother died in October, 2012. I was heavily involved in the local pagan community: I meditated regularly, dabbled in spellwork, and participated in monthly moon rituals. I studied literature about chakras and energy work, and praised Paganism: An Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions as one of my most life-changing reads (still do, even if you aren’t interested in earth-centered religions, it is really great resource for understanding earth-centered perspectives), and after her death, I felt immediately and inexplicably cut-off from all religious and spiritual experience. I began to live completely in this world, the one that revolves around careers and bills and capitalism. Even my horn playing changed, for better or worse. I was practicing less musically, with less inspiration, and I was focused solely on the technical aspects of my musical journey. All of this, in conjunction with my grief, further isolated me from the person I truly believed I had lost. I would spend the next seven years trying to find that person again. I tried everything I used to do to reconnect. I tried to meditate, I tried to ground myself in nature, I burned incense, I used crystals, and even my training as a Reiki Master seemed to have no discernible impact on my ability to “find myself again.” Over the years I had come to feel hopelessly lost (remember that depression I mentioned earlier?). But that all changed during a Presbyterian service, for which I was part of an orchestra playing parts of the Brahms Requiem, among other hymns and such.

I had walked into the gig completely overwhelmed with anxiety. I had chosen to wear neither a suit nor all black, and in the middle of the service, the conductor motioned for me to join her on the podium. She hugged me, and I don’t think I will ever be able to fully express my gratitude for that hug. I can only describe what followed as the most validating sermon I have ever sat through (and I have sat through a lot of sermons). I’ll spare you the details but my takeaway from the experience was there is nothing wrong with me. I am as spiritually engaged as I have ever been, and the only thing standing between me and my feelings of wholeness was my belief that I was no longer whole. Grief will do that, of course, especially when not dealt with in a healthy manner. It will instill a deep sense of emptiness, sometimes so subtly that it goes unnoticed at first, but it grows quietly over the years, and I think mine grew right up until the moment I was prepared to acknowledge and confront it.

That gig changed my life. I not only feel, once again, that I know myself, but I feel like I’ve known myself all along. I don’t feel like I was ever lost, I was just healing. And that is my triumph of 2019. I post a lot about my objective successes regarding my Horn career. I post less about my objective failures and even less about my personal ones. In every blog post I share, there is always some element of vulnerability. I usually say something like, “…sharing is so important…” or “…vulnerability is the key to unity…” or something else cliche and corny, and I do say these things because I believe them, of course, but really I think it is my subconscious trying to instill this message in me.

I am going to turn 30 this year, and to be honest, I’m dreading it. I am dreading it because I will not be, at 30, where I have always been led to believe I should. I won’t own a home, I won’t be working full-time in my field, I won’t have children (not that I particularly want them). Instead, I’ll be barely making a livable wage, still living the starving artist life, still living in a studio apartment, and still looking at all of the greener grass on the other side of what seems to be many, many other fences. But I am going to really try to change that. Because, I have so much to cherish and I have so much value to share. I guess what I am trying to say is that in spite of my own misgivings about what 2020 might have in store, I can’t wait to get started, and I can’t wait to share what I learn along the way. So here’s to 2020, except it won’t be a new year or a new me. It is just another year in the continuation of my story, and I really look forward to sharing it with you all.

*It is important that I note here that I do conflate fake smiling with feigned emotion. It is totally okay to feel however it is you feel, whenever you feel it. But making small efforts to inspire joy in yourself and others can result in big changes in mood and overall outlook.

Dark Suits for Men, All Black for Women

“Dark suits for men, all black for women.” Anybody who is a musician and has performed in a formal setting is no stranger to this phrase.  It – or some variation thereof – can be commonly found neatly tucked in the attire instructions attached to a performance confirmation email, or heard aloud as addressed to the orchestra (or whatever) at a dress rehearsal, prior to a performance. For most people, responding is a non-issue. They will go home, recall the instructions maybe once, rarely twice, and then promptly put it out of mind until such circumstances merit its withdrawal.

On performance day, most people will simply pull on their trousers, fasten their affiliated tie or cumberbund or other formal black accessory. Or, perhaps they will shimmy into a pair of black tights, or dress, or dip their feet into a pair of inconspicuous black heels (closed-toe, of course). Most people don’t have to give these instructions much thought beyond “what version of these appropriate guideline-conforming garments do I want to wear tonight?” If it is a tuxedo, will I go with a vest or a cumberbund? Is it a dark suit? Will I choose black or blue? Or perhaps a charcoal grey? How about this black dress? Or these new slacks? A skirt maybe, with this flowy blouse? The variety is endless, honestly, when you consider the options wholly.

Most people don’t have difficulty discerning what is and is not appropriate for them. Men wear suits of some kind, and women wear all black. But, for people like me? This situation is a nightmare.

People like me don’t know whether to wear a suit or all black, because people like me do not feel like a man, or like a woman.

If this is your first time reading my blog, let me introduce myself. Hi, my name is Marcus, and I play the French Horn…..I am also non-binary and my pronouns are They/Them.

If this is your first time seeing the term “non-binary” and you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about it, let me introduce you to…the world. Hi, welcome to it.

Non-binary is a term used to describe individuals who do not identify their gender within the gender binary (i.e., not male or female). Gender identity and gender expression are topics that have become much more prevalent in conversations today, and those conversations are happening all over the world. They’re happening in HR meetings, in board rooms, in corporate marketing offices, in restrooms (about restrooms), restaurants, in hallways, in taxi cabs, ubers, lyfts, during commutes, on the phone, over brunch. The question of gender is everywhere in 2019. Everywhere, it seems, but the [proverbial] (metaphorical) concert hall.

But I’m not here to deconstruct gender, not today anyway. And I’m not here to lecture on cultural evolution or the social constructs to which I am sure we are ALL awakening. No, I will leave that for the sociologists and anthropologists. I am here to talk about why it is so damn hard for me to choose what to wear, and why this seemingly (to most) insignificant instruction plagues me with crippling anxiety at every gig.

“Dark suits for men, all black for women.” There it is again, in case you’ve already forgotten what I’m talking about. Much like gender equality, attention spans are also in short supply these days, amiright? *ba-dum, tss*


People like me experience a lot of difficulty functioning in public. Because, while throwing caution to the wind and “blocking out the haters” is so in vogue, the very essence of gender identity and expression is so entangled with external validation that it is systematically impossible to prevent yourself from caring about what others think. Because if others don’t see you the way you feel you, then are you even you

In my head, I’m just me. Just a genderless soul flitting around among thoughts and observations, maybe thinking about what movie I want to watch with my dinner and my husband, or if maybe I want to finally tackle that cleaning task I’ve been putting off for an amount of time that is no one’s business but my own. Or, “ooh the leaves are changing, they’re so pretty!” or “Look! Mums! MUMS THE WORD!” or “Wow I really hate this traffic.” It’s all pretty routine in there, me being me. When I’m in there, I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Inside my head, I am naked and fearless and pure.

But out there, under bright stage lights, or the sun, or the fluorescent tubular bulbs of retail, with (what feels like) literally all eyes on me, how can I even begin to convey who I am by what I wear on my body? No matter what I wear, or what I do, an assumption will be made about me, and about my gender, and my only desire in life is to provoke so little interest from others that I can be the same me outside that I am within.

Putting on a suit feels like a lie when the instruction is that suits are for men. Putting on all black feels like a lie when the instructions are that all black is for women. Say you are on a sports team, and you’ve been practicing with the team every day for years. But on game-days, the opposing team’s coach walks up to you and hands you one of their team jerseys. They’re short a player for this game, actually they’re short a player every game, and every time, you are the one singled out to wear the foreign jersey, to play against your own team. You follow your training, you trust that you know what you’re doing – based on thousands of hours of hard work – and you play your best. The coach thanks you and you return to your own team, bowing your head in shame, even though you played well, even though you might have made the winning sportsgoal, even though your team doesn’t care, they’re just happy you’re back, and they’re excited to get back to practice tomorrow. You might feel proud of your performance, you might feel angry at your mistakes, but regardless, the entire time you were doing whatever it was you were doing, you didn’t feel like you. You couldn’t connect with the task at hand, you were relying on rote memorization. You prepared well, and what happened happened. But what happened wasn’t you. It was some strange, hollow imposter of you. So you go home, you formulate a plan to practice harder, to try and simplify the essence of your entire being into a concise series of exercises, so that no matter the circumstances, you will always deliver your greatest, and truest product. Except that product never shines quite the way you do, no matter how much you polish it. It never will, as long as it isn’t you delivering. It never will, as long as you are wearing the wrong jersey.

That was a very long analogy and I realize how impossibly reductive it is to simplify the complexity of gender expression to a single article of clothing. Maybe, instead, I could have imagined a player wearing the opposing team’s jersey, but yet still playing for their own team, commenting on what it is like to be perceived to be part of something you are clearly not participating in. But in either scenario, true authenticity is not achieved, and that is my point.

This is not a piece about peak performance and I have already established that this is not a piece about gender deconstruction. Rather, this is a piece about my anxiety when I am perceived to be a man and therefore should wear a suit, or when I am (rarely) perceived to be a woman and therefore should wear all black.

I accept that I am perceived to identify as male 99% of the time. I wear the clothes I already own, and those clothes are *almost* entirely purchased from the men’s clothing section at Target. They are what fit my body, they feel comfortable, they look fine one me, and I am not generally one keen on drawing attention. And I know, above all and in my heart of hearts that what matters, who matters, is the “me” inside my head.

I haven’t written about this – until now – out of fear for my work as a freelancer. When my Gmail app dings with a notification, I pray for a recording session, because it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing when you are playing into a microphone. Nobody listening will ever see you. That’s not to say I wear whatever I want, but I am at least comfortable wearing whatever it is I happen to already own. My fellow freelancing colleagues know me…most of them do, anyway, and I don’t have anything to prove to them, aside from my playing. Sure, I might make someone uncomfortable with my sparkly nail polish, or my favorite clicky-clacky boot/shoes, but if my playing is good enough (and I really try for “great”), nothing is said. But when I get those emails where a public performance is involved, I mostly just conform with my assumption of others’ perception of me. I just wear the damn suit, because classical music culture is only as progressive as its patrons, and let’s be honest…there is some serious work to be done on that front.

In conclusion…I don’t have a solution. I don’t have a solution for being gendered. It isn’t even really about the suit. Or the all-black. It’s the gender association with either that haunts me. Because there is no way to exist in between. Not yet, anyway. And not in a way that doesn’t call unnecessary attention. 2019 is so quick to judge and to label. If I were to wear a dress, people could call me ma’am. Christ, I wore a red cardigan to work last December and a man accosted me at the counter with accusingly gendered language.  So how do I claim my unique identity while simultaneously blending in? How do I create space for my authenticity within a space that demands conformity? Maybe instead of a suit jacket, I’ll wear a dark cardigan and see where that gets me. Maybe I’ll get fired from the gig. Maybe I won’t ever be rehired. Or, best-case-scenario, maybe my nonconformity will go unnoticed. But in the meantime, I will continue practicing, I will continue trying to imbue my playing with the essence that is me so that one day me is the only thing that will be heard or seen. 

…Or maybe I’ll just wear the suit. 

Better Timing in 2019

img_4229I did a lot of soul searching in 2018. That’s cliche to say, I know, but it’s true. A lot of people these days are always soul searching, I am one of them, and I think that’s great. We should never stop soul searching, because that is the joy of life, isn’t it? Finding truth and beauty in ourselves, and sharing that with the world; it’s why we’re here, for the experience. And as it goes: the more you search, the more you find. I found a lot of fear in myself, this past year. I’m afraid of a lot of things, it turns out. The biggest fear that I discovered had a lot to do with time.

Y’all…I have major FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). This manifests in small ways: going out of my way to insert myself into a conversation, or be part of an inside joke, or watch a movie that everyone is talking about, or read a book that got rave reviews for no other reason than to have an opinion about it. Every time I encounter an instance where I feel I am missing out, I am instantly transported back to sixth-grade me: having joined cross country because my friends (it was just one friend and I may or may not have had a crush on him) were doing it, hopelessly lagging behind the tens of actual aspiring athletes, gasping for air, unable to catch my breath, trying to hide my retching behind the bleachers for fear of embarrassment, pleading with the coach to let me stay on the team. “I’m fine,” I said, when clearly I was not fine. I had never run a day in my life. Well, not actually ran. (Obviously I had run around the playground…away from the girls because they had “cooties”…and toward the boys, because…well, it was good cardio I guess.) But I pretended I had, so I would fit in. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I am this way. Your run-of-the-mill therapist would probably say something about insecurity and the need to fit in, there would probably be a “you need to learn to love yourself” thrown in there somewhere, but I don’t think that quite addresses the source of the issue. Sure, insecurity and not-loving-yourself are issues, but I think – at least for me – they are a symptom of something else. So, yeah, I’ve always had pretty bad FOMO, and, like most characteristics that develop into unhealthy behavioral patterns that begin to really expose themselves in early adulthood, I suspect it stems from my childhood.

I learned very early that time is precious, that earth-shattering loss waits silently around every corner, biding its time for the right moment to jump you and beat you and steal everything your money and your Pokémon cards. I learned that housing is inherently unstable. We moved a lot…and when I say “moved,” I mean we were constantly being evicted, and it was earth shattering every single time. During my last two years of high school, we moved eleven times – the final time of which, my mother was so incapacitated by her depression that she neglected to find us a place to move to. So, the police showed up, we hadn’t packed a thing, and told us we had two hours. And that was that. My siblings stayed with my grandmother, and my mom and I stayed with one of her coworkers – who really took charge of the situation and secured us a place to live out of her own pocket. I think it was only about a week, maybe two, but boy, you don’t really know you’re homeless when you’re homeless, as long as you have a couch to sleep on.

I was also constantly afraid of losing my mother to her depression. Out of respect for her, I will leave out the details, but there were several occasions where I was the one thing standing between life and death for her. That was a lot of pressure for a teenager. I struggled with my own demons, too. But they paled in comparison to the responsibility of keeping our family together.

My mom lost her dad when she was just a kid, seven-years-old I think. I never got the chance to get to know her the way I now know I would have liked, but I can only imagine the loss she suffered between then, and when she lost her best friend, Lorie, in her mid-twenties – the earliest memory I have of her own loss. I think I was five or so? Lorie was murdered in her own back yard by a drunk ex-boyfriend. I remember the night of the funeral. It was awful. I have never heard a human sob the way my mom did that night. I will always remember that, the actual sound of heartbreak.

Loss was ingrained in my mom. And thus, it was ingrained in me as well. We didn’t have a lot of money, but what we did have, we spent immediately out of fear that it wouldn’t be there in the morning. Treat yourself now, for tomorrow is never guaranteed. You never know when your last day on earth will be, so you may as well: eat that pizza, buy that car, splurge at Best Buy on god-knows-what, buy that new TV, or those clothes from Old Navy, or “whatever” at Wal-Mart. Do it now, because if you don’t, you’ll be old and gray and wish you had. That’s how we lived.

I didn’t inherit nearly the level of financial irresponsibility that my mother unintentionally imposed on me. Although I do have tendencies toward it, I can’t remember the last time I overdrew my bank account, so that’s a good indicator I’m moving in the right direction. What I did inherit, though, is an obsession with time. Or a fear of time…at least a fear of wasting it. And society doesn’t help either. “Live your best life” “YOLO” “Live every day like it’s your last” “Treat yo’self” etc. The mantra is everywhere. Time is finite. Every choice you make is a choice to utilize time in some way, and you will never get that time back. I’m sweating just thinking about it. Literally every choice. The route you take to work, how long you spend in line at Starbucks, how long will it take you to write a paper, or use the bathroom, choosing the quickest checkout lane, take a shower, make breakfast. I think about all of these things, how long they will take, and how to accomplish them in the shortest amount of time. So that I have time leftover to do…well, other things, I guess.

In my day-to-day life, I call it a fixation with efficiency. But, a professional might call it OCD. I don’t know, I’ve never talked about it with a professional. Let’s add that one to the list…I wonder how long that appointment will take? Anyway, this obsession with time has permeated my entire existence, totally unbeknownst to me until recently. And choosing a career in music poses unique challenges in the face of this fear. Before I even knew what I was getting myself into, I knew (or thought I knew) what I was getting myself into. I took a vow from the start to never be one of those musicians who spends their whole life practicing. I refused to waste unnecessary, precious time in the practice room. Of course I practiced, I just made sure to be extremely efficient (quick) about it. In undergrad, I would only practice if absolutely necessary. AKA, if I were particularly sucky at a particular thing. I practiced only to accomplish specific tasks, and I made sure to be as efficient as possible. Short bursts of hyper-focused practicing is how I have lived much of my musical life, because there is not a single moment to waste if I was going to live my life. I believed that even though overall improvement wasn’t my immediate goal, I would inevitably improve overall by piecewise-functioning my playing. (I don’t even know if that math reference works here, I just really like the word “piecewise.”)

It worked…ish. Or at least it appeared to work. I made it through my bachelor’s degree, got into grad school, got into music festivals, made it through grad school, won a job…everything you’re supposed to do, in relatively the expected order. It looks like everything is totally working for me, as weird and unconventional as it is. Except, it isn’t working for me, because I am still afraid to practice. I have a hard time acknowledging the success I have had, because I feel so guilty about all of the work I didn’t put in. My circumstances now do not allow me the time I had when I was in school; time I so ironically took for granted. Looking back, I can’t help but feel like I wasted so much time…even when I was so adamant about not wasting any time. How did I fill all of those hours? Days? Weeks? Months? You get the point… Well, I hung out with my friends, watched a lot of Netflix, ate a lot of ice cream, spent a lot of time regretting that ice cream (thanks, lactose intolerance). At the time, I really felt like I was “living my best live.” While that may very well have been true, I sure wasn’t building my best life. I was getting by, afraid to take risks because, what if they didn’t pan out? Think, if I had filled all of that time with practice instead of whatever-the-hell it was that I was doing, and the fruits of my pain-staking labor had failed to grow, what would I have missed out on? I justified a decade of near-complete inaction in the name of life-living, in the name of yolo’ing, #treatyoself’ing. I was so busy being “in the moment” that I neglected to build a life to live in, at least a life that I never really wanted to believe I wanted. The truth is, practicing gives me so much joy. It always has. Now, looking back, those hours surely wouldn’t been wasted. They would have been spent doing what I love doing most. But I convinced myself that doing for the sake of doing is worthless. You shouldn’t practice for the sake of practicing, because there is a whole LIFE going on around you that you’re missing out on! Wow, what bullshit. My deepest darkest fear is wasting time, missed opportunity, unrealized potential. Really they are all the same thing. And yet here I sit mourning the loss of a potential I never believed I had, because of time.

And I totally still do this. I don’t write music like I want to. I struggle to finish projects. I struggle to make time to practice, blaming a busy work schedule, or the fact that I live in a studio apartment with my husband and two cats – which are certainly hindering factors, but not at all insurmountable. I don’t wake up early to practice, because “she needs her beauty sleep, henny.” I don’t stay up late to practice (see previous). I don’t take my horn with me to work, or practice in my car, or compose during my lunch break. I don’t do these things, because I’m afraid of missing out on what I could be doing instead. But the reality is, I likely wouldn’t be doing anything productive, or meaningful. I wouldn’t be engaging in any particularly enriching activities during those few extra hours. I could be working and enriching myself, enriching my life.

Now, I don’t blame my mother for this, by any means. She did the best she could with the best tools she had. I knew that then, and I know it still. She loved us, no question. But her love for us shaped us as much as her own fears did. Sometimes we live a life of fear without even realizing it. Sometimes we live our entire lives fearing the fear. In my case, I feared wasting time so much that I ended up wasting time trying to make sure I wasn’t wasting any time. Thanks, Obama. I mean fear. But, since I am so in-the-moment 9,000% of the time, I don’t regret any of the memories I made when I was wasting my time. I made some amazing friends. I laughed SO much. I ate a TON of cheese fries (and ice cream, both regrettably).

So, my advice to 2019 Marcus is to work your fucking ass off. Do it, because you know you love the work. Put yourself out there, and don’t waste time being afraid of wasting time. Take time for yourself, too. But also know that sometimes taking time for yourself means making time to do the work you love. There is so much world out there waiting for you, and I bet there will still be cheese fries (and ice cream).

I play the Horn but I am not a Horn player

I have spent a good portion of the last several months (to well over a year) trying to reacquaint myself with my identity as a human being. I lost it somewhere in pursuit of a thriving music career, and replaced it with this weird, neurotic avatar that only thinks about excerpts and metronome markings. I’ve written about this before, so I’m mostly writing about it again as a reminder to myself to follow my own damn advice…and maybe in part to remind you, the reader, too, just in case.

I used to have fun, you know. I used to go out and laugh with friends and swim and sweat and take walks in the woods. I used to enjoy my life as much as my career, but now I don’t seem to enjoy either very much. I am bitter and obsessed, and completely overwhelmed with feelings of total inadequacy. Objectively, i love my life very much, but honestly, I am too crippled by depression to make much out of it these days. Enter: constant and pervasive self-doubt and insecurity, multiply it by a nearly always-empty bank account, and lastly subtract time and energy, and you have my normal, day-to-day state of operation.

Am I sounding bitter yet?

I write out these feelings because I know they are or have been universal truths to many, many people, from many walks of life, at some point in life. I don’t write these feelings because I expect anyone’s pity, or sympathy, or advice. I write them because I know I am not alone, feeling this way. And, I know that sharing is an incredibly valuable part of the human experience. I write them to connect and identify, and to validate. I write them because I value vulnerability. Because, nobody talks about these things. We are in an age now where mental health is at the forefront of conversation, and yet nobody is actually talking about their mental health. There is still a stigma, and there will always be a stigma for as long as we continue to fake-smile our way through life. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to be freakin’ honest. We look around and everyone else appears to be so happy-go-lucky, so we must obviously be crazy, or inadequate, or alone, right? WRONG. I know y’all are going through shit. We are ALL going through shit, so why don’t we just all come together and talk about our shit? Strength in numbers! I know I am not alone in my crippling insecurity. I know I am not the only human alive plagued with self-doubt — in all aspects of my life, and I have decided that it is important that I share my feelings. I write this because I am tired of masquerading like I have any idea what I am doing, like I have any idea how to succeed, and I write for clarity and understanding of the very thoughts running through my own head. You can’t fully manifest a solution to any problem until you have an at least somewhat coherent idea of the problem itself.

My problem is: I am insecure. And scared. And lost. And uninspired. And in exploring these feelings, I have discovered that I c-o-n-s-t-a-n-t-l-y compare myself to other people, that I judge the validity of my success based on the success of others. And, I don’t know how to stop. Literally no idea. Darwin hit the nail on the head when he coined “survival of the fittest.” It’s a basic, primal instinct to need to feel stronger than, better than other beings. And only more natural that when we do not feel we meet this expectations, that we are overcome with mortal doom. But it is 2018 now, and humans have come a long way since our homo erectus ancestors. Why do we feel so horribly about such mundane things? About the French Horn, no less. It sounds SO ridiculous in those terms, but yet here I am, whining about how completely inadequate I feel in my career.

That being said, it is okay to whine sometimes, because it is 2018 and feelings are valid.

I have such a strong vision of the career that I want, too. It is so clear to me that I can almost taste it. I have been following the only path I know, and it is a completely logical path consisting of a combination of networking, practicing, auditioning, and then, ideally, winning. Rinse and repeat. I do all of those things. Except win. Even in moments of my own decided “peak performance” it is never good enough. And then it’s back to the drawing board. Refining. Perfecting. Refining. Perfecting. And then you put yourself out there again and hope for the best, but the result for me is always the same. A non-win. A dud. A failure. *cue audible whine*

What am I doing wrong? I am playing at the highest level of my life. Every day, I can do things that on the previous day I could not. I am constantly improving. But, it seems like the level of proficiency in the world around me is evolving at a rate that I frankly cannot compete with. It feels like swimming against the undertow, desperately trying to keep from being swept out to sea. And while I am confident in my abilities as a swimmer, I am getting. So. Tired.

And maybe you’re feeling tired, too. Which is why I’m writing this, because you are not alone.

This process inevitably leaves me feeling one of two ways: the rare optimist in me feels like I’m just missing something (swim sideways, perhaps?). The best solution is almost ALWAYS the simplest, after all. But the louder, more persistent voice is continuously whispering in my ear, “You are not good enough.” Now, objectively, I am not entitled. I do not believe that I am inherently deserving of any job or opportunity. Ain’t nobody owe me shit. I know that. I just want to feel like the work that I am doing means something. “It’s the journey and not the destination,” they say. Well fu*k the journey, I’m ready for some damn results can I get a Amen?

But in all seriousness, I think I am on the cusp of a personal breakthrough, I really do, and I feel very deeply that it begins with learning not to compare myself to anyone else. Doing so puts me in a constant state of ‘low’ and when I am ‘low,’ I am unproductive. Unproductive and uninspired and cynical. Comparing yourself to others is only human nature, though. It’s that “survival of the fittest” instinct, it’s how we evaluate how we “measure up” in the world. And while it is important to remain aware of the competition, awareness is not the same as judgement, which we almost immediately resort to, instead. You can set personal goals based on the awareness/observations of your surrounding competition. Totally. Very healthy. But judging yourself against that competition is honestly unproductive, and frankly, it is a cop-out. Plain judgement doesn’t leave any room for analysis or exploration, and all I have been doing is judging myself.

The fact is, we all struggle with all kinds of different things. We each possess different strengths and weaknesses. Truthfully, audition success comes easier to some people. But, for those of us to whom it does not come easy, it does not mean we will never succeed. It just means maybe we have to work a little differently, if not a little harder and a little smarter.

I don’t have the answers. I am an amateur in this realm. I look up to those who have consistent success with awe and inspiration, but also with a great deal of self-doubt and insecurity.

This isn’t really about “winning an audition,” though. I know that. It is about unlocking the power to believe in yourself. It is about learning to be present, to be mindful and appreciative of the circumstances that led to the successes and opportunities I have had. It is also okay to whine sometimes. It’s okay to stomp your feet and pound your fists on the ground in frustration. Feeling frustrated is valid. It’s part of being human. But you can’t, I can’t dwell on these frustrations and at the same time expect anything to change for me.

So my first step is tackling my biggest issue: confidence. Learning it, gaining it, believing it. But not as a horn player, as a human being. Because, truth be told, I am not a “horn player.” I am a person who plays the horn. As much as music is an integral part of me, it is not all that I am. This rhetoric may not work for you, but I expect that it will prove to be essential to my mental health.

My next step? To understand that the one-size-fits-all career for classical musicians maybe isn’t so one-size-fits-all anymore. Traditionally there are two main avenues: teach, or play in an orchestra. And even then, there is that old, tired adage that “those who can, do. And, those who can’t, teach.” Which is frankly moronic.

Ultimately, I don’t want an orchestral career. I don’t want to make a livable salary playing the horn. What I want is to feel good about myself. What I want is to make meaningful art. What I want is to allow myself to accept all that I am, flaws and all, and share that with the world. To share my humanism with the world, through music. But I will never be able to do that as long as I am comparing myself to other people, or as long as I base my own worth and validity on the success of other people, or as long as I keep dwelling on my feelings of frustration and desperation. I am frustrated because I am passionate. I am desperate because I am hungry.

In writing this, I already feel a little better, a little more valid, and a little less distanced from my goals, and it is time for me to take real action.

Stay tuned, take care of yourself, and fight like hell for your dreams.

Love and Basler

Patrick Smith‘s new CD, Reflections, Horn Music of Paul Basler, is an inspired journey through the range of human experience and emotion. Smith’s artistic finesse, velvety sound, and careful attention to detail, paired with the vast expressive landscapes inherent within the works themselves, evokes a purity that can only be summed up in one word: honesty. This CD expresses countless lived, perceived, and visceral experiences — derived from both the performer and composer — and presents a rare and unique gift to the world of music. 


Patrick Smith, 2018

Smith’s motivation for his immersion in Basler’s (b. 1963, Milwaukee –  ) compositions, as opposed to those of more classic or traditional composers for the horn, was threefold. First, he wanted to bring awareness to Basler’s compositions—to serve as a proverbial emotional guide to students and professionals for the composer’s embedded musical intentions. Second, Smith wanted to exemplify the hierarchy of expression within each piece—to emphasize the freedom with which Basler demands that his works be performed, as opposed to merely a strict/rigid marriage of rhythm and technique. Last, and perhaps most importantly, Smith wanted to convey a personal connection—often having walked into lessons with Basler to discover newly composed works awaiting him for immediate exploration, the composer seated at the piano ready to “give it a go.”  

Basler’s compositional style is a prime example of “musician-first music”—devoid of arrogance, and yet demanding an inherent virtuosity that is totally subservient to the music. Often times, artists favor works by other, perhaps more “traditional” composers, in an effort to showcase flashy technique and dynamic volume. Basler’s music, however, demands a performer’s personal introspection, a delving into the most vulnerable parts of the self, in order to effectively deliver the essence of the music to the listener. His famously rich harmonies— his lush chords, and vivid use of color spectrum have the power to ensnare anyone’s senses. For Smith, this was all-the-more truthful, given his personal experiences learning and collaborating directly with the music’s source. 

The CD begins with Serenade, composed for Smith in 1997. At that time, the piece featured a new sound: a previously unexploredrealm of lightness and freshness. Delicate piano arpeggiations set the scene, providing a rich foundation for the light, jaunty, and yet majestic, horn melody. The work glides through a range of emotional colors, intermittent agitation and wild excitement, all the whilemaintaining the opening’s calm and joyous motif. The middle section offers a ballad-like atmosphere with its singable melody, speckled with distant yearning and uncertainty, that effortlessly floats atop an rich tonal palette that evokes curiosity and wonder. The opening theme returns to conclude this overarching binary musical form that does not lack in complexity and remains steeped in the essence of a lived life.

The influence of Basler’s own life experience exerts itself throughout his oeuvre. We trace one such example in the lingering, profound influence of his time well spent as a Fulbright Scholar (1993-4) teaching at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. His quintet for horns (heard elsewhere), Harambee (meaning “all put together” in Kiswahili, and the Kenyan motto since 1963) features two horn soloists that are accompanied by three horns, or a three-part horn choir. It was composed for Charles Snead (University of Alabama), and sent ripples throughout the horn community with its innovative sound and use of Kenyan rhythms and folk-like melodies. For us, here, in Majaliwa (a message of “fate” or “God willing, we will meet again” in Swahili) the listener experiences that same Kenyan influence of mixed-meter and pentatonic themes. 

Basler’s Reflections (2006) emerges from a particularly tumultuous period in his life. Again in this work, we see the immense influence of an honest, lived life, of a life experienced, as the work is the sequel to, both, his Canciones, for Horn and Piano, and to Lacrymosa, for two horns and piano. Its five movement format mimics the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first movement represents a calm before the storm; the initial quiet contemplation that follows any emotional trauma. The second is an eruption, a realization, a blur of anger and sadness under a blanket of fear. The third, numbness—a void of emotion. The fourth is a sarcastic, feigning of contentment—the proverbial, sarcastic response of “No, I’m fine. Really.”—a sort of inner tantrum trying to silence pain with false niceties and forced happiness. The fifth, and final movement, represents true and honest acceptance. Perhaps not quite happy, but a genuine hopefulness and willingness to move forward in life. 

This final movement of Reflections, “Epilogue,” portrays one musical representation of the shared human experience present in Basler’s compositions. Here, it is depicted by a series of emotional pleas heard in the piano and joined with a common theme (~2’30”). Basler originally conceived this combine(d?) musical gesture for a choral work entitled Amor Que Une Con El Amor Grandisimo (Love That Unites With Great Love), an homage to his former and longtime partner. Smith unequivocally meets the challenge of musically representing such emotional complexities throughout the entirety of the CD, but “Epilogue” is the stand-out example. Perhaps the verybeauty of music is that: what one melody evokes in one person can in fact evoke something entirely different in someone else. But the magic is how it connects us to each other. We are but the sum of our experiences, as human beings, and allowing ourselves to connect is perhaps the most human experience of all.  

Of course, Reflections (the CD), isn’t all so emotionally fraught; it features joy and frivolity as well, culminating with The Bill and Brice Polka (composed for renowned French hornists William Purvis and Brice Andrus). As suggested in the name, the piece is, frankly, a fun time—a comedic duet indicative of Basler’s robust and immensely energetic personality. 

Basler’s music is amazingly accessible to players of a wide range of age and ability. Of course there are technical demands, e.g. “The Drunken Sailor” from Three Folk Songs. Some might dismiss this as out of the reach of a young player, but that would be a misconception of Basler’s universal musical intent. His music demands much more from an emotional perspective than right notes.Right notes are important, absolutely – they are important to Basler. Technique is important, too. Both are tools necessary to truly effectively convey all of the emotional intentions imbued within all music. That said, technique isn’t everything. The essence of Basler’s music is that there exists an element of performance that takes precedence over technique. A player can whip up and down the horn with fierce agility and precision. But, if they aren’t connecting to the music, let alone the audience, what purpose does that, or the performance for that matter, serve? What are all of those countless hours of scales and articulations, arpeggios, trills, and leaps worth if they are used to showboat and intimidate?

So many performers miss this precedent and fall short of conveying the universal musical intent imbued within the music of Paul Basler. Why does this happen? Perhaps it is societal: a cultural, lack of willingness or ability to truly be vulnerable. Musicians, so frequently,shield themselves from critics, growing a thick skin, divorcing themselves from their “playing selves,” to separate the “you” that performed from the “you” that is a person. With this constant, incessant tooth-and-nail scrambling to stand out while maintaining emotional fortitude, could it be possible that musicians have grown desensitized? That constant efforts of self-preservation have isolated them from the emotional vulnerability necessary to convey and relay basic human experiences through music and sound? But isn’t the very point of music to be connected? 

Musicians, especially young musicians in an increasingly saturated and competitive market, spend an exorbitant amount of timeshutting themselves away from the worldpulling out the etude books only to fulfill their daily, mindless regurgitation of endless permutations of the same scale patterns and articulation studies. Diversity, flexibility, virtuosity is all a goal, but it is not the goal. How many different ways must one be able to execute staccato before it can be musical? How high is high enough – how low is low enough? How loud, how soft? Musicians: constantly treating themselves like human apps – each grappling hand-over-fist to download the next software update, the new package that will provide their personal operating systems with more data, more flexibility, more efficiency to deepen the toolbox of proficiency. With each new acquired skill, surely that will make them the next “best.” 

But what of the human element?

The purpose of even having all of these tools is to use them, to apply them to the plunging depths of human experience. Basler’s music demands this, it requires this of all who perform his music. 

This music is a gift to us all. It teaches us to allow that “something-greater-than-ourselves” to guide us through not only performance, but also life. His music reminds us that there are arguably more important, more beautiful things, to musicianship than the speed of a trill or a double-tongue. It illustrates that if we don’t make something of life, then life will make something of it for us. The wheel doesn’t stop turning once that Short Call high-C is nailed, or after hammering through Shostakovich “low-tutti.” Technique must serve the music. Showmanship, while arguably impressive, does nothing to better the world we all live in.

Basler’s deep, emotional motifs are the axis around which he balances his music—possibility vs. constraint, joy and adventure vs. thegnarled, twisting paths of life. To expressly and physically write such dichotomies directly into the score of music is antithetical to the very empathy the music is designed to summon. Inarguably, Smith is a master technician. Above all, however, he is an extraordinary empath. His innate abilities are laid clear for all to witness on this CD. Smith is, without a doubt, connected, heart and soul, to the message of the music. His relationship with the composer, to the music, and most importantly the sum of all of his life experiences allow him to emote in such a captivating way—with pure unadulterated honesty.

Etude books can not teach empathy—love, or fear, or joy. Experiences cannot be downloaded, they can’t even be practiced—they must be lived. 

Reflections: The Music of Paul Basler is now available for download and streaming in iTunes and Spotify. 

Through The Tulips: A Childhood Felon

Hi friends! I have been so ungodly busy, I haven’t had time to write – though there are certainly some lengthy posts that have been brewing (festering) for some time. Looking forward to having a lighter schedule this summer to finally be able to put some thoughts down!

In the meantime, here is a story I wrote while stranded at JFK Airport in NYC (in 2013) during a winter fog storm (wtf right?). A few days ago at work, I was reminiscing with some coworkers about a first-day-on-the-job experience where I inadvertently sucked a hamster up with a vacuum cleaner – not an exaggeration, it literally happened – and I remembered this larger-than-life tale of my life of crime as a young child. I’m too busy to read through and edit it, so I’m resurrecting it and presenting it in its original form, again. ☺️ Stay happy and healthy, everyone!

Through The Tulips (2013)

Once upon a time, when I was seven years old, I was arrested. Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What in the world could a seven year old boy possibly do to be arrested?” Well, I’ll tell you. It requires sufficient knowledge of the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk, a garden of tulips, and a wildly exaggerated imagination. Add an ex-marine for a mother and a masculinity complex and, ladies and gentlemen, you have yourself a seven year old convict. Where should I begin? Through my younger years, I was bounced around from baby-sitter to baby-sitter like a Mexican jumping bean on hot-plated steroids. I learned the art of instability at a very young age; the universe apparently sought to prepare me for the things to come. After meeting my would-be step-father, Tom, my mother placed me under the care of Tom’s sister-in-law, Stay-At-Home-Mother Donna. Donna had two boys, my would-be step-cousins, Joey and Tyler. The pair made for some interesting stories on their own, but I’ll just stick to the topic at hand. Knowing what you know about me as a child: under-grown, feminine, and weak, I can tell you that I found Joey and Tyler to be inspiring in a ‘craving-pseudo-masculine-attention’ sort of way. They were athletic, mean, care-free little boys, like the bullies you find depicted in excellent Saturday morning cartoons of the 90’s. I looked up to them and their ability to rough and tough their way through dicey situations regarding off-limits playground equipment and feces-free sandboxes. They were feared by all, the baddest kids on the block. They could protect me if I had them on my side and so their approval was of the utmost importance to me; I would have done anything to earn their respect.

This particular, we’ll call it a Friday, afternoon in the heat of, for all intents and purposes, July, playing outside was something we weren’t allowed to NOT do. Sometimes I think Donna locked the door behind us to ensure we wouldn’t intrude on her day-long bingeing of ‘Soaps and Cigarettes.’ We were outdoors kids anyway, so the lock-out never seemed to phase us much. Although, when you spend every day after school and every weekday during the summer at a particular 100×100 outdoor location, you eventually begin to run out of things to climb and animals to capture. Entertainment begins to require improvisation and acute imagination, and, coupled with an inferiority complex, lots of obeying without question.

It was breezy and hot, the green blades of spring grass turned to needles of brown crisp from the summer heat. There was not a single cloud in the sky to yield shelter from the sun’s sweltering rays, and at noon, the temperature climbed still. Having exhausted all interest in our usual ventures to the park or to the neighbor’s backyard kiddy-pool, we laid on our backs under a large walnut tree that occupied the side yard by the house. We laid there staring through the branches at the birds flying overhead, gazing introspectively at our imaginary clouds. The smells from that day are clear in my memory. The sweetness of sun-roasted tree-bark joined with the pungency of dead squirrel and rusty swing set made for a particularly aromatic meditation under that tree. We traded thoughts and ideas among the three of us, all while entranced by the hiss and sway of the leaves and branches in the gentle summer breeze. “Fishin’ for craw-dads,” Tyler suggested. “Cartwheels and back-handsprings,” I added (looking back, my sexuality should have been no surprise). Neither of us seemed thrilled at the other’s idea. We turned our heads to Joey for his input only to find him deep in thought. He just laid there, eyes wide open, fixated on the understory which hovered above us. Several minutes of silence passed before his lips parted at the utterance of the five words that would change my life forever, “How about we play giants?” Tyler and I froze in contemplation. Giants? I thought. What a TERRIFIC idea! I had always wanted to feel like a giant, tall and towering, powerful, menacing. What better identity to assume than one where I could feel accepted and respected as a fellow giant? Surely, we would all be giants and play in one big, happy giant friendship. We could play giant games, and giant sports (like giant cheerleading), and eat giant Ramen and climb giant trees. Yes, playing giants sounded like an EXCELLENT idea, and I could not wait to get started! I jumped to my feet in excitement. “How do we play?”

I listened intently to Joey’s instructions. Close by, there was a small garden plot near the walnut tree under which we were situated. When the breeze blew just right, the sweet smells of tulips and daffodils flooded the nose, a welcome interruption to dead squirrel and rusty swing set. I had always considered this garden plot to be off-limits, a sort of sacred area, hallowed ground, if you will. But, Joey’s instructions were clear, and in order to earn his respect, I had to obey. “It’ll be fun!” He said. “Yeah! Go on, try it!” Tyler smirked. I stepped cautiously onto the soft soil of the plot, bees and butterflies buzzed and flittered around my head. “I’m not so sure about this, guys.” I whined. I knew better. I knew better in my heart and in my soul and in everything I had ever been taught. I continued in my hesitation while attempting to deflect their continuing scoffs and jests. “What’s the matter? Are ya scared?” Joey joked. ‘No! No I’m not scared!’ I thought back. ‘I can do anything! I’m a giant! I’ll show them!’ I huffed, and I puffed, and I mustered all of my strength and wherewithal in preparation. I took my stance, bent at the knees, and launched myself forward into the air. I soared with the eagles as I flew up, up, high into the imaginary clouds, high past the walnut tree and up toward the blazing sun. For a moment I was free, free from the grips of conformity, free from the ideals of society and pretenses of superimposed masculinity. But only for a moment.

In my mind, what seemed like miles of height, was at best only a foot or two. My blissful flight was short lived as my heels slammed forcefully into the soil, destroying dozens of gorgeous blossoms. I reared my head back and roared with all of my might. I was a GIANT, after all. I grabbed with both fists at the stems of tulips and sunflowers, I ripped and stomped and roared, totally consumed in my giant fury. I pounded at the dirt with my feet; I was alive. I was manly. But most importantly, I was sure to be accepted. Joey and Tyler rolled with laughter in their innocence on the sidelines. I was certain they were impressed with me, proud even. I was finally respected! I was having so much fun, I called over to them to join, assuring that they would have the time of their lives. They didn’t budge; they continued rolling in their laughter. “C’mon guys!” I motioned. Still, they remained on the side, untouched by the soil. Just then, I caught a moment of clarity. A moment of regretful, guilty, shameful clarity. They didn’t want to play giants. They didn’t want any part in the game with me. They just wanted to see me make a fool of myself. They knew all along what was going on, and that the garden was indeed off limits. I had just destroyed a beautiful garden and ruined hours of some stranger’s hard work and dedication. And what’s worse, I did it blindly at the thought that I would have these coveted accomplices in my fantasy of inclusion. We had to get out of there, I had to get out of there. I had to get as far away from that garden as I could, so that nobody would suspect me! The park, yes the park. Without taking another moment, I bolted for the park. I ran as fast as my tiny midget legs could cary me, never looking back to see if the others had followed. I stopped at the end of the street to catch my breath. Surely nobody could have known it was me. There wasn’t a soul in sight; I mean, who in their right mind would venture into this heat at their own accord anyway? I was certain I was safe. The deafening pounding of my heart in my head began to subside. My head began to clear. My adrenaline levels returned to normal. I began to walk, proud of my escape. Why run when there is no one to chase you? I began to laugh. So there I was, in the middle of the street, laughing aloud at the events which had just occurred. I was laughing at my actions, laughing at their cause, and laughing at my laughing. I was alone and laughing by myself. What a great feeling it is to laugh at yourself. My bliss was shattered as I heard my name echo through the town. “MARCUS!” Donna shouted. I was done. It was over. My life was to come to an end very soon. Do I run? Do I hide? Do I surrender? I knew the train schedule, I could easily run home and pack a bandana full of beanie-babies and tie it to a stick in time to hop the caboose to the next circus town. I could be an acrobat. I was very flexible and, after all, I had been practicing my moves. But what about food? Right. I could grab some cheese dogs out of the refrigerator. Those Oscar Meyer Miracles would surely hold me over for a few weeks while I get on my feet – how do they get the cheese in there anyway? – I could write to my mom, tell her I was safe. Although she would be sad to learn I had given up on my dream of becoming a Spice Girl/Pokemon Master, I am certain she would find solace in my new ambition of circusry. Just as I was about to bolt for it, I felt a hand on my shoulder. That was it, I had missed my chance. I began to cry tears of defeat and despair. I hadn’t even told my mommy goodbye, or how much I love her. How would she know? Surely I would die wherever they were taking me. I turned around to face my fate, expecting to meet the gaze of Loki himself. I flinched and retracted in preparation for the first and final blow I was to be dealt. Goodbye cruel world!

Several seconds had passed, and nothing happened. I peaked upward through one eye to see a figure which appeared as a shadow against the sunlight. As my eyes focused, golden hair appeared, loosely hung in a messy bun. The familiarity of stale cigarette smoke and pachouli ensnared my senses. “Marcus, it’s lunch time. Why are you so far away?” Donna led me by the hand back to the house. She didn’t know. I had actually escaped! I began to cry with relief. It didn’t matter what Donna thought of me. They all thought I was just some pansy fruit boy, anyway. And regardless, these were not, in fact, tears of weakness and fruititude; these were tears of joy, of success! I skipped alongside her, our fingers still enlaced, ready to meet the world with a renewed sense of confidence. I could do ANYTHING.

The rest of the day passed without any mention of the earlier events. It was almost as if it was just a moment forgotten in time, where all guilt and embarrassment could just fade away like sidewalk chalk in the rain. However, the scene haunted me still, through the window. There it stood; a desolate wasteland once bursting with color and life lay just beyond the walnut tree, which continued to stand so elegantly in place, almost as a reminder of the courage and strength I had lacked in that moment in time. I shook it from my mind. If I just pretended nothing happened, it would all just go away.

My mother came to pick me up that evening after her shift in the O.R. We traded stories of our days; she shared a particularly gruesome account of a motorcycle accident victim, and I blatantly avoided mentioning the day’s grandest event, making only small talk of snack time and The Price is Right. ‘She can never know,’ I thought to myself. It would devastate her. We continued much of the car ride home in silence. The last rays of the day’s sunlight danced playfully off of the plastic zipper-windows of her new Jeep Wrangler. I was hypnotized by their synchronicity. She didn’t know. Thank God it was Friday.

I awoke the next morning feeling refreshed and renewed; I was excited for the day’s events of sunning by the pool at my common-law-grandfather’s parents’ pool. I gleefully ate breakfast and brushed my teeth, all in a hurry to throw on my swimming suit and rush down to the car, when there was a knock at the door. ‘Just one of the neighbors,’ I thought, as I carried on with my carryings-on as my mother opened the door. The stranger spoke with a deep voice, one I hadn’t recognized before. I peered out of my bedroom to slyly investigate. There stood a large man, dressed in black, sporting (what appeared at first glance to be) a shiny gold broach. The man appeared tired and overworked. His face featured a thick strawberry mustache which hung loosely across a swollen upper lip. His cheeks were bright and rosy, yet his eyes were dark and sunken underneath thick specs. Upon further inspection, I noticed a belt, on which hung what appeared to be holsters for some ‘L’ shaped equipment. On his right side hung a thick rod with what appeared to be a handle in the middle, a sort of lop-sided ‘T’. His boots were laced tight and his hat had a rim just wide enough to shield the face from offensive sunlight. He held a clipboard under his arm as he reached with large hands for the glass of water my mother had brought him. His eyes moved from my mother, around the living room, to the hallway, and eventually on me peaking around the corner of my room. He started forward. I quickly pulled my head inside the door, “Who is this man? What does he want?” I peaked around again, he was closer. My heart rate began to quicken; my mouth began to dehydrate. “Was he here for me?” I thought. I took another look, this time the officer was close enough for me to see that his broach was, in fact, not a broach. It was, instead, some sort of medallion, inscribed with lettering. Middletown Police Depar…POLICE?! How could I have been so foolish to mistake this man’s drab fashion for his conscious choice? This was not a man who had forgotten to flip on the switch while dressing this morning. This was a man in UNIFORM. This was a police officer who was most certainly here to punish me for my deed! I bolted under my bed, surely he wouldn’t ever think to look for me there. I watched him from the catacombs of my lair, from the darkest place I had known, under my bed. It was dusty there. The carpet didn’t seem to do much to control the dust, but it did have a way of holding onto once-forgotten socks and pairs of Toy Story undergarments. The carpet was frayed in the corner, probably from where my hamster, Frisky, escaped the previous week. I thought I could hear gnawing under my bed at night. I just assumed it was the boogie-man out to get my soul. It didn’t occur to me that the gnawing stopped once Frisky was located…there’s seven year old logic for you.

Apparently lost in my observations, I had forgotten why I was there in the first place. Suddenly a large, fat hand came at my face. I screamed. He clenched, grabbing hold of my should and hoisting me up and out from under my bed. I was caught. I was his prisoner. He held my hands behind my back as I kicked and screamed. I felt the iciness of cold metal on my wrists. Heard them click. I knew it was over. I was captive. I fell to my knees in hysterics, sobbing uncontrollably, pleading for my release. “Mommy please help me! I’m so sorry Mommy!” My mother turned away, her face red and tear-stricken. I knew she didn’t like what was happening. So why wouldn’t she stop it? Why on earth would she let this man take me? The officer led me out of the apartment and down the stairs of the building, across the breezeway and opened the back seat of his car. My life was over. I was a criminal. I should have run for it when I had the chance; the circus would have been a much better fit for me than maximum security prison. I would have to toughen up, start smoking and lifting weights. You know, like you see in the movies and cartoons. I imagined how I would look in black and white. Horizontal stripes don’t favor anyone’s body type, but with my thin frame, I was sure I could make it work somehow. The cumbersome iron anklet would be an issue though; I’m allergic to all metals not gold and silver. I wondered if they would craft a silver one for me. It would be much more eye catching than boring iron. So there I was, silent, in the back of a police car, defeated. As the car pulled away I saw my mother in the window, her face worried and stained with tears, knowing she’d never see me again. We would be in touch. I would send her a license plate or two, just so she would know I was okay. The officer began to lecture me, telling me that what I did was called “Vandalism” and that it was punishable by fine and jail time. Overwhelmed by shame and guilt, I fell into a trance as I leaned against the window, watching life pass by.

The scenery remained familiar. I noticed we were pulling around near Donna’s house, where lay the gravesite of hopes, dreams, and the homes to thousands of beautiful bees and butterflies. I couldn’t bear to look, it was too much for my heart to handle. Instead of parking where expected, we pulled into the driveway of a house that sat across from the battleground. The officer exited the driver’s side and came around to open my door. As he helped me out, an older woman came out onto the porch and stood with her hands on her hips. She looked very upset. The officer led me to stand directly in front of the woman as he freed me from my chains. She didn’t even need to speak, I knew exactly who she was and why we were there. I hung my head in shame. She crouched town to my level, and took my face in her hand so that I would look her in the face. Her eyes welled up with tears as she asked, “Why did you do that to my garden?” I immediately burst into uncontrollable sobs and threw myself in her arms, almost knocking her off balance. I pleaded and apologized in a pathetic sputter of snot, drool, and tears. In seemingly broken English, through my sobs, I recounted how my would-be-step-cousins convinced me to play giants, and how they made me do it against my better judgement, and how I would never ever ever do anything like that again. “Please don’t send me to prison!” I begged. “I promise I’ll come over every day and help you plant a new garden, one that’s bigger and more beautiful than the one I destroyed!” I buried my head in my hands, unable to cope with the flood of emotional baggage I was experiencing. The lady pulled my hands from my face and tilted my chin upward with her finger. She looked me in the eye and said “I forgive you. Please promise to never do that again!” I promised, and she kissed my forehead. She and the officer shared a smile, and he led me back to the car, this time he did not cuff my wrists. As we rode back home, I reflected on those events, and I vowed to myself to never give into peer pressure of any kind again, or to commit vandalism, or to lie or join the circus. So many lessons were learned in those two days, many of which no child would learn until much later in life. As we pulled into the parking lot of my apartment building, I caught my mother’s eyes as she sat outside on the steps, waiting for our return. The officer let me out of the car and I ran up to her and jumped into her arms. “My baby!” She exclaimed, “I am so glad you are safe! Promise Mommy that you will never do that again!” She was tearful, but clearly relieved that I was okay. She and the officer shared a look, the reason for which I wouldn’t learn until I was much older, and he departed. My mother was a crafty woman. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I found out she had planned the whole thing. Apparently the owner of the garden knocked on Donna’s door angrily in search for answers. When she questioned her sons, Joey and Tyler, they of course did not hesitate to throw me under the bus. “It was all his idea!” they lied. So, later that evening, after I had gone to bed, my mother received an angry phone call from Donna. My mother decided to take the matter into her own hands. She called the police and had them “scare” me into learning my lesson. And I must say, it sure as hell worked.

The Venom of Validation

I have been doing a lot of soul searching recently; a lot of weighing, evaluating, balancing, and defining. I have been thinking about my career as a musician, as always, but the tone of my thoughts is shifting and that’s what I am going to talk about in this post.

First, I feel like I need to reiterate that the only authority with which I speak is from the vantage of my own experiences. I share because I think it is incredibly important that we constantly hear from each other, that we are vulnerable with each other. There is no such thing as over-sharing when it comes to navigating the depths of our passions and fears that come with nurturing the diverse careers ahead of us.

So, six months ago I decided I was going to be a working horn player. With my husband’s blessing, I crossed my fingers, quit my job and jumped onto the local speeding freelance train. What ensued was a wild ride and a series of gigs that were sure to be the springboard to launch me into my full-time professional horn career. I prided myself in my ability to make my “living” only on freelance work. I felt that it really spoke for my proficiency as a horn player, and largely validated my accomplishments, efforts, and dollars-spent throughout my studies and career thus far. When I wasn’t working, I was practicing. And when I wasn’t practicing…….I was sitting alone in my apartment eagerly waiting that next email, call, or text, waiting for opportunity to plop itself in my lap. I was on high-alert 24/7, because when that call did eventually come, I would be ready. Calls came. Some really great calls came. A lot of recording, some musical theater. I was really doing it – succeeding at being a professional horn player. And although not an audition-winning candidate, I was carving my way.

It was a great high. I was working, and it was validating.

Then the day came when avocado prices spiked and I couldn’t afford to spend $10 on my favorite Mexican fruit. No biggie, I can do without avocado. Despite my inherent duty to fulfill ALL of the millennial stereotypes, I am an adult and have self control on most days. So I would wait some more; for more gigs or for avocado prices to drop – whichever came first.

Month-to-month, work was inconsistent. There would be individual weeks with multiple gigs, followed by consecutive weeks of complete silence. Eventually I reached a point where it was only safe for me to pay my bills – only my bills. I relied on my husband for the rest – groceries, toiletries, house-goods, etc. even my gas. Sitting alone in my apartment waiting for calls became just sitting alone in my apartment trying not to be overtaken by the crippling self-doubt that accompanied such quiet times. Did I do something wrong? Did I not play well enough? Do they not like me? So, I amped up the practicing. More scales. More long tones. More arpeggios. More articulation drills. I was obviously ill-prepared. I was in much worse shape than I thought. The steady – albeit weak – flow slowed to a trickle and I was beginning to crack. I was broke, unlikeable, and obsessed. A person can only exist for so long in such a state and for me it was six-ish months.

Then, the wave crested and crashed and it all began to fall apart. My husband and I lost both of our cars simultaneously to the issues that plagued them. So not only was I broke, unlikeable, and obsessed, but I was also car-less – WE were car-less. And now desperate. My hay-day was over, and I had failed. After a silent six weeks and nary a single dollar made, I decided to bite the bullet and get a “real” job.

Much to my surprise, finding a job was easier than it had ever been for me in the past, with the help of some good connections, and I was hired for a full-time, hourly position.

Happy to have consistent bill money, I couldn’t help but wonder (Carrie Bradshaw anyone?), “Was this the end of my career as a horn player?”

I felt like I had given up. I felt broken, and I felt like I would never be able to practice enough to ever win an audition. I found myself immediately regretting all of the wasted energy and effort I’d spend on anything else. I’d missed my chance. It was gone, and I was done.

Then, after a couple of weeks of training, an opportunity came. A big one. The principal horn of a ballet orchestra was looking for a sub to play the first cycle – a month-long endeavor – and I had been recommended. All I had to do was record a few videos of my playing with my iPhone and submit my resume to seal the deal. I did, excitedly, and confidently. I really believed in those videos.

And then the days passed. The days turned into a week, then two, then three…

And then…


My mind went into full-attack mode: I am horrible player. I am stupid for thinking I am good enough. I will never be good enough. I should be ashamed. I am ashamed.

I watched those videos over and over again, analyzing every attack, slur, rhythm, phrase, every note for imperfection. Sure, I found them alright. But which ones cost me this opportunity? Which ones were the reason for my failure? Was it all of them? Maybe it was my sound. Maybe it was my interpretation. Or maybe it was my hair. Maybe I wasn’t wearing the right outfit. Why did I make such a bad impression?

I stayed in this place for weeks, squeezing myself of every ounce of hope I checked my phone obsessively every few minutes if I could, every half hour at least. And although I truly enjoyed my new job, I found myself blinded by the shattering of my would-be horn career.

The pressure was insurmountable. How can I expect to ever succeed in music if I am spending 40 hours every week doing something that keeps me from the horn? I figure, I can either work full-time and pay my bills, or I can practice full-time so that I can be “good enough” to win a job – to pay my bills by playing the horn.

It was a cyclical battery of negative thoughts, snowballing and spiraling out of control. The musician inside me was gasping for air, clamoring to escape being crushed beneath the weight of such vitriolic self-loathing. I had hit bottom.

The bottom is a great place to be, though. Being at the bottom allowed me to confront myself and the series of events that led me to this place. Being at the bottom is where I made some very profound discoveries about why I play music on the horn. I asked myself some simple questions, and the answers – the true answers – shocked and revived me.

Why is “winning a job” so important?

All any of us wants in life is to feel validated, to feel like our efforts and resources have been spent wisely. We all want to be recognized for a job-well-done, and winning a position with an orchestra is one of the most visible ways to receive this validation. Winning a job assumes the following to be true:

  • You are good enough.
  • You are competitive.
  • You are strong.
  • You have what it takes.
  • You are “the best” (at that audition)
  • You are better than everyone who lost.

This list is not comprehensive, but it consists of the things I feel, and felt, when I imagine winning an audition. Feeling validated feels good. It feels like a breath of fresh air. But looking at this list, particularly at the last bullet-point, I do not feel good it. I don’t feel good about needing to feel better than anybody. That is completely incongruent with who I am as a human being, and inconsistent with the moral code I live by. So why do I crave feeling this way?


(*Pause – if you haven’t read any of Eckhart Tolle’s works, I highly recommend you drop what you are doing and rush to your nearest bookstore…right now. It doesn’t matter what you read, it will change your life, but my personal favorite is A New Earth. Click here to learn more about Ego as defined by Eckhart Tolle.*)

So, why do I need to be validated by anyone? Why can’t I validate myself?

Horn Bach

Do I love playing music? Yes.

Do I love the horn? Yes.

Am I ever going to stop, whether I “win or lose?” No.

So why put myself through this?


What is the point of it all?

What is my purpose?

My purpose in life, at its core, is to help others to heal. In the same way my music teachers, the composers, and recordings I listened to helped me, I want to help others. Adolescence was a dark place for me and band was my escape. Contributing to a purpose greater than what I was dealing with at home helped me move forward. I gave everything I had to music. I aspired every day to be better – in music and in my personal growth – and that motivation fueled me; it propelled me from one day into the next, and I never stopped, it is the reason I am here today. I want to help heal people. I want to learn others’ stories, I want to hold their hands and I want to help lead them into a brighter path. Healing others is my purpose.

And then it dawned on me. Music is not my “Why.” Music is my “How.”

Music is my method. The horn is just a facet of that method. But neither are mutually exclusive to my purpose. I can help people find peace and healing in their lives with or without an instrument in my hands. In fact, in many ways it might even be easier to do so without an instrument in my hands, and certainly easier to do face-to-face, rather than sitting in the back of an orchestra.

This realization initiated in me a weightlessness I have never known, and led me – one into another – to a series of (what I consider to be profound) affirmations:

  • I play music on the horn, because I love it and I choose to.
  • The joy I get from practicing is constant and profound and does not depend on how frequently or infrequently I am able to do so.
  • Celebrate all of your successes and do not allow them to be diminished by the scope of your dreams.
  • Success is not objective. You get to decide what your success is, and no teacher or committee can take that away from you.
  • The key in surviving this crazy mess we call life, is to walk every day in the path of your purpose. Navigating life is like a crossing a high-wire: slow and steady would ensure safety, but fear is what motivates us to cross as quickly – and carelessly – as possible.
  • Goals are not fixed points in time, they are malleable, abstract manifestations of the potential we recognize within ourselves. As we change and grow as people, so too will our goals. Seek to realize your own potential, and you will find that the target is much more difficult to miss.
  • There are no rules. Since success is subjective, the “timeline” for success does not exist. There is no such thing as “too late” and pace does not matter. What matters is that we are moving ever-forward in the direction of our goals mindfully and with careful intention.
  • Stay away from toxic arrogance. Those who operate in a state of constant self-inflation are really people who have lost their way trying to convince themselves that the wrong path was the right one.
  • Competition is a primitive instinct embedded deep within each of us that tells us in order to survive, we must win. Nobody is going to die if we do not win. The greatest risk we run is dying having lived an unfulfilled life in which we force ourselves to the finish line too quickly, out of fear.
  • Quality of life is not measured in wins or losses. It is not the method we choose, but the goals* we pursue and the love with which we pursue them that define us. (*remember what I said about goals)
  • Lead your life with love and joy. You are the only person who can validate your own worth.

We take ourselves so seriously too often, and to our own detriment. This reflection has released me from the prison of my tuner, my metronome, my obsessive over-analysis, and I can now focus on honing my craft without the stress of any undue sense of urgency.

I can allow myself the time that I deserve, while enjoying the process of bettering myself as a player; without any of the pressure that comes from feeling too slow. Life is not a race. We all reach the same end and I would have rather live and loved playing, than not have loved playing at all.

Yes, there is an objective reality to it all. As professionals, there are standards to be met. But personally, I have never seen the sacred doctrine which outlines the speed at which we must rise to meet those standards. We all grow at our own rates. That is a hard thing to reconcile while watching your peers win jobs at 20-23-25 years old, I know. But winning a job is not the only way. That was their path, and our paths, whatever they may be, are just as valid.

The truth is, we can’t wait for opportunity to come knocking at the door. We must never stop pursuing what we love, in the way we love pursuing it, for as long as we love it. Like I said, there are no rules. Play for your purpose. Carve your own path.

Just because our time has yet to come, doesn’t mean our time won’t be just as great, if not greater. The good news is, we are the ones who get to define for ourselves whether that time has come, or not.

Loosening the Reins: Letting go is not giving up

This morning, at 1:50am, after laying awake for hours and alone with my thoughts, I made the decision to let something go.

I am but one of thousands of aspiring-to-be-great horn players in this country; one of even more in the world, and things are starting to feel desperate. The struggling balance between finding enough work to survive, being able to afford to take auditions, and having sufficient practice time seems to never teeter in favor of the particular situation at hand. If I am working enough to survive, and I can afford to take an audition, practice time seems to be in scarce abundance. If I have ample time to practice, chances are I am not working enough to survive, and therefore cannot afford to take an audition anyway. All of this surmounted by the crushing pressure of being the single winning candidate, out of that pool of literal thousands of aspiring-to-be-great horn players; it takes its toll.

Frankly? I’m over it.

I am tired of feeling like I have to sacrifice my entire waking life to my slave-driving masters, Metronome and Tuner, in order to maybe (but statistically improbably) win the next audition. I am tired of being at the mercy of my imperfections. Yes, we all know that we are all only human, but am I imperfect in the appropriate way? What degree of imperfection is acceptable, and will it wind up costing me the audition (and effectively hundreds of hard-earned dollars)?

In the wee hours of this morning (when I guess I technically should have been practicing?), I came across a quote that I shared on social media exactly one year ago, and honestly, it reminded me of something very important: the purpose of music making.

“Never practice more than three or four hours a day. No one can concentrate longer than that, and you must spend the rest of your time learning about life and love and art and all of the wonderful things in this world. If a young person sits in the practice room all day, what can [they] possibly have to express in [their] music?”  Arthur Rubstein 

Now, before I go any further – a little disclaimer: I am going through something right now. I have spent a good portion of the past few month20663872_10154967955242705_1183452232168153899_n.jpgs wondering how on earth I am going to get through this while simultaneously focusing on preparing to win my next audition. The long-short of it: It Ain’t. Going. To happen.

And that’s totally fine.

Why is it fine?

Because, life is bigger than any job. What better representation could there be than witnessing first-hand the awe-inspiring solar eclipse of August 21, 2017?

(much wow. very sun.)

Eight years ago, when I decided I was going to be a horn player, I had no idea what lay ahead of me. I was certain I would walk straight from graduation with my diploma in one hand, horn in the other, and right onto the stage at Carnegie Hall…more or less.


Don’t get me wrong, I am a hard worker. But, I am also fiercely passionate about life; perhaps detrimentally so, in the grand scheme of a flourishing orchestral career. And, it just so happens that my idea of a passionate life does not largely revolve around drilling excerpts, scales, and etudes.

I love the movies. I love being in nature. I love studying the wonders of metaphysics, practicing reiki, and meditating (napping). I love to draw and paint: things I do much too infrequently. I love to cook…and eat… I love building friendships. I love listening. I love helping. I love doing all of these things, without my horn, and there are so many more things to do.

Recently, I have been feeling like I am creeping up on some proverbial expiration date; that, as I near the big 3-0, the statistic improbability of ever “making it big” grows exponentially with each passing day. Soul. Crushing.

But this is just a feeling, not a reality.

When I feel overwhelmed by all of the work I have yet to accomplish, I have to remind myself that there is so. much. more. to life. Life is not about right notes. It isn’t about perfect rhythm. Life has no historically appropriate interpretation that also conveniently differs in opinion among each of the jurors. Life is not a Mahler obligato or a Mozart concerto. Life, in all of its glory and fallible complexity, is what inspired all of those things.

My point in all of this is: having high standards for yourself is essential for success on any path of life, but it’s okay to stop and smell the roses, to read that book, to enjoy another cup of coffee. And it is even okay to linger for a while, for however long you like.

No pursuit is worth compromising quality of life. There is a difference between sacrifice and self-destruction. We are all just human. We grow and thrive at different rates, and as long as we allow ourselves to bask in the sunlight, we will all bloom.

So, I am letting go of the destructive thoughts that consume me and hinder my ability to enjoy the music I am making. My voice through the horn is a reflection of all of the beauty I have allowed myself to experience in life.

I may never be Principal Horn of the Chicago Symphony, but damn it I am going to enjoy trying.