When my love affair with music began, I was by no means in an exclusive relationship with it. I was a competitive figure skater, captain of my high school’s math team, and a member of the rightfully popular cheese club. I wasn’t big on practicing. I partied at Northwestern on weekends, and it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I dropped my fantasy of going to a huge university and being sorority sister Molly. But as I began to have success with Mr. Xylophone, and we became more and more serious (my parents approved of his charm), I slowly began to let go of everything else to make room for our upcoming marriage, err, my entrance to Juilliard.
And so began my eight-hour practice days, overlapping rehearsals from morning till night, and more Porgy and Bess than you will ever know. I am a true conservatory student, sacrificing the glory of a student union and ultimate Frisbee on the quad for a Juilliard education. And I love it! But it does have its lack of, well, the necessary other things, like aspects of education not found in textbooks that a majority of students our age experience at universities. Of course I’ve created my own social outlets, but none are as big as the one I hope to generate this summer—by working at a summer camp. Good old arts and crafts, campfires, sports, and mess halls … summer camp. I’ll admit it was an excruciatingly difficult decision to turn down the cheese/swimming/cabaret parties, concerts with Lorin Maazel, and hanging out with a zonkey at the Castleton Festival in Virginia. But at this point in my life, experiences away from my instrument are as valuable to my musicianship as hours in a rehearsal.
At my ripe old age of 20, I can already feel it—the effects of locking myself in a practice room for hours a day, the difficulty of carrying on a conversation about anything besides percussion, the tendency to want to talk someone’s ear off once I get a five minute break, and general awkwardness with non-musicians. It’s alarming and really, I’m only half kidding. Alarming because these people I’m awkward with, these non-musicians, are the people I want to connect with when I’m performing. And how am I supposed to do that if I sense this big barrier that people put up all too often between “us,” the musicians, and “them,” the non-musicians?
So when I came across the opportunity to be the outdoor cooking teacher at the sleepaway camp where I went every summer (until Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp and Boston University Tanglewood Institute took over), I grabbed it. Not because I was sick of the soft snare drum or because I wanted to make some money (though that is a bonus), but for the personal growth that I will be able to apply to my goals as an artist. I know, it might sound cheesy, but hear me out—I’m going to be surrounded by little kids and athletic instructors and will need to somehow relate to them enough to be able to teach them how to cook! It’s like when my teacher forced me to learn Afro-Cuban timbale solos in order to improve my time and feel in my daily practice, only I imagine what I am about to undertake will help me on a much more emotional and artistic level (it also should involve less tears, but that’s another story). I predict that if I can learn to teach Chicago suburban middle school kids how to do something that even I barely know how to do, then playing Muhly for an audience of Bach lovers will be a piece of cake.
What I mean to say is, nine weeks in a practice room might give me what it takes to play a note-perfect orchestra audition, but it certainly will not give me what it takes to ooze emotion during a schmaltzy marimba chorale. How can you really make love to your instrument if you’ve never actually taken the time to be in love? How will you be able to connect with audience members if you isolate yourself so much that you can’t relate to them on a personal level?
It’s not really “common sense,” I know, to get better by not playing. But technical skill can only take an artist so far. And who knows? Maybe I’m just trying to find excuses to eat s’mores all summer. But when I get back from camp, I hope to have a fresh approach to my art, a better connection with my audience, and killer water-skiing skills.