This post is the third in a multi-part series on time management for music professionals.
How do you want people to remember you after you die?
I hope my family and friends will talk about the music I made, the lessons I taught, the words I wrote, and the way I made them feel.
Sometimes, when day-to-day stresses distract me from my purpose, I remind myself that no one is going to stand up at my funeral and proclaim “Her house was perfectly clean, and she was perfectly thin.”
And yet, we high-achieving women of a certain age (think grown-up Hermione Grainger) put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be perfect. It’s not enough to be at the top of our professions, we also have to be perfect mothers, run marathons, and live in houses that look like something out of Better Homes and Gardens. It’s a lot of pressure.
To put things in perspective, we have a finite amount of time on this planet. I hope to spend as much of mine as possible doing the things that matter most to me. Time with family, playing and teaching cello, writing, travel. I want to spend less time on the things that are necessary, but less meaningful to me, such as housework and exercise.
Therefore, I figured out a way to spend the great majority of time doing just that. When I used to get sucked into quotidian things that I didn’t enjoy, like housework, I got angry and resentful. Then I figured out The 15-Minute Rule.
It’s simple. You spend no more than 15 minutes doing boring tasks, and then you get to spend way longer making music and being with your loved ones.
To do this, conditions must be prepared. This part isn’t necessarily easy, but it sets your work and household up in such a way that makes day-to-day life flow easily and enjoyably.
The once-a-year course preparation binge. I write all my syllabuses, quizzes, lesson plans, and handouts during the summer months. This takes a few weeks of intense work, but then during the semester, my class prep consists of hitting the “print” button, which actually takes considerably less than 15 minutes. This gives me hours and hours more time for practice and creativity during the semester.
Let your technology do your worrying for you. The Google Keep and Google Calendar apps are great at notifying you about deadlines. I set multiple reminders for everything, so deadlines never take me by surprise. Because my ADHD brain is useless with schedules, I let airline apps on my phone send me reminders about check-ins and itineraries. I’m not exaggerating when I say that smartphones have literally saved my career.
Suitcase packed, ready to go. I’m always ready for work travel, because I keep a case pre-packed with everything from shampoo to spare strings. The only things I have to pack the night before a trip are clothes and scores. 15 minutes and DONE.
A place for everything, everything in its place. At all times. Sounds impossible? Just do everything Marie Kondo says, and all will be well. I decluttered and organized my house using the KonMari method several years ago, and cleaning is quick easy now because my house is tidy and clutter-free. (I know this sounds insufferably smug. Please don’t smack me.)
Once your conditions are in place, creativity and family can take precedence. Everything else can be accomplished using the “little and often” methods I described in Part 1 of this series. I have a rule with myself that I’m not allowed to spend long stretches of time doing things I hate. My top three? Housework, meal preparation, and exercise.
Order and cleanliness are, unfortunately, necessary working conditions for my aforementioned ADHD brain. I need my space to be tidy, otherwise I can’t concentrate enough to be creative. I also detest housework, and for a while I muddled through in, well, a muddle. Then I discovered Marie Kondo, and figured out that if you KonMari the heck out of your house and make sure you take care of your dishes and clutter every day (little and often, little and often), you can fit any other housework into 15 minutes or less. Hooray!
Basically, if you’ve prepared conditions, you only need to do one household task per day. So on Monday, you might dust the furniture. Tuesday, vacuum the floors. Wednesday, scrub the bathroom. Now, the exceptionally houseproud among you might argue that doing a task properly needs a lot more than 15 minutes. I counter with the “something is better than nothing” rule of housework. I do my 15 minutes and call it clean enough.
For this to work, every member of the household has to participate. Children do create unbelievable messes, but once they’re big enough to pick up after themselves, they can do so. I convinced my seven-year-old daughter, who loves chaos as much as I love order, that the KonMari method was delightful and that folding laundry the Kondo way was like doing origami for your clothes. Now she not only folds hers, she folds mine. Her room is tidy. She’s a little angel, I tell you what.
I appreciate fine cooking, but I don’t want to do it myself. I solve this problem by eating at restaurants a lot. At home, we eat very simply. I call it the SSS Diet — Soup, Salad, Sandwiches. Pick two, and you have a balanced meal that you can make in 15 minutes or less. If you’re worried about nutrition, the MyFitnessPal app can help you adjust so you get whatever you’re missing. It is absolutely fine to feed your family frozen vegetables and soups that come from cartons. They will not get scurvy. I’m a professor and I say so.
Many people enjoy exercise. I do not. Vanity and a right-on-cue midlife crisis have intervened, however, so I schedule 30 minutes a day for exercising. Things I have learned: it doesn’t matter what kind of exercise you do for your 30 minutes. Yoga, weight-bearing exercise, running, walking, they’re all good. My doctor assures me that as long as you do your 30 minutes, setting a timer if you’re as exercise-resistant as I am, all will be well. I do my exercise when I’m mentally tired, so it doesn’t take away from my creative time. In fact, it energizes me towards another burst of creative time.
What do you do to make best use of your time? Let me know!
Do you ever find yourself getting sucked into a necessary but boring task that takes all the time you wanted to spend doing something that means a lot to you? Did 56 new emails appear in the last five minutes, threatening to eat up your precious creative time? Does your music practice get pushed into last priority by all the other things you have to do? Are you angry and resentful about it?
So was I. Until I came up with the Optimal Brain Time method for making the best use of my time to get my work and my family obligations and my leisure activities done, all without sending me into a state of hysterical exhaustion, hooray!
The Nature of the Beast
So much of what we do as professional musicians is inevitably time-consuming. Most of our teaching is one on one, plus our performing careers demand many hours of practice, rehearsal, and travel. Is it any wonder so many of us are in denial about our human needs for rest, socializing, and leisure?
The answer is to schedule everything that can possibly be
scheduled, including leisure and rest, according to your own personal Optimal Brain
What’s Optimal Brain
We all have certain times of day when we’re most focused and energetic. Some aspects of our day-to-day schedules aren’t flexible – school pick-up and drop-off, lectures, meetings – but everything else can be. You need to seize your hours of Optimal Brain Time and use them for the creative activities that mean the most to you.
For example, I’m a morning person, and the activities that mean the most to me are cello practice and writing. So I do everything I can to use my Optimal Brain Time on them, and I push anything that doesn’t require Optimal Brain Time – such as washing and blow-drying my hair – to a time of day that requires no brain. I call that time…No Brain Time.
Don’t Waste Optimal Brain Time
Optimal Brain Time is precious and finite. Mine goes from
about 6am until midday, during which time I have to do a few things I can’t
shift. If you use this time on email and vacuuming, you’re going to be
frustrated and resentful.
The lucky thing is that we’re awake for a total of 16-17 hours each day, so there’s plenty of time for our less creative tasks. For most of us, the majority of our waking hours are Medium Brain Time. That’s when you aren’t at peak energy, but alert enough to teach, rehearse, read academic journals and books, attend meetings, and get administrative tasks such as email done. For me, that’s my afternoons. I schedule office hours in the afternoon because students seldom attend them, buying me some extra time for admin and class prep.
“Brain Fry” Time
The mental energy I expend at work tires my brain out, leaving me drained and in need of some mental down time. My body isn’t as tired as my mind, however, so I can easily perform repetitive tasks that don’t need much brain power. For me, that’s exercise, housework, meal prep, and other things that I know I have to do, but which don’t mean as much to me. I can also spend No Brain Time on activities that I love, but don’t need to be “on” for, such as reading for pleasure, watching TV, and just hanging out with my family and my dogs.
No Brain Time tends to calm me down and recharge me for a
second shift. On the evenings when I’m not playing or attending a concert, I’ll
go back to the office once my daughter is in bed so that I can rehearse and/or
do some more work at my desk to prepare for the next day. Then I truly am
tired, so I head home, ready to wind down. I spend some time with my husband,
and go to sleep.
The Brain Time method works remarkably well, but you do have
to hold yourself to some strict-ish rules.
Prepare everything in advance, and I mean everything. I’ll write more about this in a separate post, but it comes down to this: prep for classes and rehearsals, pick out clothes for tomorrow, organize your space, and stock your refrigerator. Most of this can be done during No Brain Time.
Optimal Brain Time is sacred time. Put a Do Not Disturb sign on your office door, or if you’re at home, let your family know that you aren’t available to do things for them then. You will be fully present during your scheduled family time, but Optimal Brain Time is for creativity.
Schedule one time-slot per day for writing emails, using Medium Brain Time. Be ruthless about this. Once and only once a day, or it’ll eat your life. But during this time, be fully present and respond to all the messages. Inbox Zero is an achievable daily goal.
Spend no more than 15 minutes a day on housework, and use No Brain Time. In a future post, I’ll write about the organization strategies that make this possible, but to summarize, dishes plus decluttering plus one other task is all you need.
Additionally, spend no more than 15 minutes a day on meal preparation, and don’t make things that create huge messes you then have to clean up. I’ll share my strategies for this in the next post.
If you have a partner, there needs to be equitable distribution of domestic chores between you. Children, unless they’re truly too tiny, can pitch in too. You can even convince children that housework is fun (more on that later too).
Here’s a list of my Brain Time tasks. Green for Optimal, yellow for Medium, pink for No Brain.
Here’s how I arranged my day according to my Brain Time. I’ve added blue for the tasks that couldn’t be flexibly scheduled.
Reflection: How I Think I Did
On the whole, I’m pleased with this. I’d have loved to have more time for practice and writing, since they mean so much to me. Also, I didn’t update my social media that day. But I was really pleased that I managed to get all my emails done during my office hours, because if I hadn’t, I’d have had to do them after my rehearsal in the evening. I was also glad that I managed to spend a full 90 minutes of unplugged quality time with my family. We spent it most of it reading aloud and playing games. No screens, no distractions, yay! I’m also glad I exercised, since I’m good at finding any excuse not to….
I’d love to learn more about other people’s strategies for getting the best out of their Optimal Brain Time. What works best for you?
This post is the first in a multi-part series on time management for music professionals.
Becoming a music professor was my goal from the first magical minute I stepped on campus as an undergraduate more then 20 years ago. What could be more blissful, I thought, than living the life of the mind and making great music while you’re at it? I imagined myself delivering passionate lectures, fixing bow-holds, writing essays, and travelling all over the world for recitals and festivals.
What I pictured myself doing, in other words, was the fun part of being a music professor.
And it is fun. It’s the part that looks effortless, like a duck gliding serenely across a lake. The part that people don’t see is the duck’s webbed feet swimming away furiously beneath the water’s surface. In that murky metaphorical lake water are a crazy schedule of early starts and late nights, constant travel necessitating constant makeup lessons, a neverending stream of administrative tasks, and a to-do list the length of a novella.
This gig is fun, but it’s not for sissies. Burnout, stress, and anxiety are epidemic. And then there’s email. Ah, email.
And yet, I love it all and I want to do it well while still allowing time for a happy life with my family, my pets, and my hobbies. After a lot of trial and error, I’ve gotten pretty good at this, and I decided to share my ideas in a new series of blog posts on time management strategies that work for me. I hope they’ll work for you too.
I present to you my Priority To-Do List. I make one every day. I order my tasks in this easy-to-use chart, deciding what I’m going to do first so that I don’t get bogged down in non-urgent projects at the expense of imminent deadlines.
It’s easy. Columns go in order of urgency. Urgent is for things that can’t be put off any longer. Important tasks still need to be done today, but after the deadlines are met. Upcoming is for things that will be urgent in a few weeks, but only need a little planning now so that they don’t take me by surprise later. Lastly, Daily Maintenance is for things that aren’t strictly urgent, but need a little time each day.
Next, I order the chart in terms of the things that are most important to me in my workday. For me, teaching and research (performing and writing) are always closest to my heart. Next are the administrative tasks essential to a well-run studio. Last, because I sometimes struggle with being a grown-up, are the things that will stop my home looking like an episode of Hoarders and my car from grinding to a halt in the middle of the street.
Here’s a real-life Priority To-Do List for a day in my work week this past May.
How it went:
The things in the Urgent column all got done that day, hooray!
For the Important column, I ended up running out of time before I could consult the NASM handbook…and to be honest, that’s the sort of thing I tend to procrastinate over. But I did end up reading it at home that night, bribing myself that if I did it, I could drink hot chocolate while I read. (Emergency strategy for getting things done when you don’t want to do them: combine them with rewards.)
Upcoming: I did very little of each task, but a little was all that was needed. I was grateful for my rough program drafts a few weeks later when they got moved up to Urgent.
Daily Maintenance: while it’s tempting to skip some of these, the “little and often” philosophy tends to be all you need so you don’t have to do some giant all-day email binge later.
Want to try my Priority To-Do List? Click on the link below to download a free PDF template.
Hands up if you have a love-hate relationship with practice.
Sometimes opening a new score feels as blissful as opening your Christmas stocking. Other times you invent all kinds of busy-work to do so that you don’t have to get your instrument out of its case. (Hello procrastibaking, my old friend.)
If you’re a professional musician, practice has to get done. It just does, there’s no way around it. Music is a high-maintenance occupation requiring constant attention and growth. If you don’t practise, you lose your chops. If you lose your chops, you lose your gigs.
How do we square this with the fact that life is busy? The older we get, the less our time belongs to us, especially if we have kids. The more successful we get, the more gigs and travel we have, and the less time for maintaining fundamentals and preparing new scores for rehearsals and concerts.
That’s where the practice bank comes into it. If you take care of the pennies in the practice room, the pounds take care of themselves in concert, even if you’ve spent the last 15 hours on planes and you couldn’t practise in your hotel room because it’s the middle of the night. Investing in the practice bank saves your hide when life gets busy and your practice time shrinks.
Every note of practice you put into the practice bank is an investment that you get to cash in later.
Actual footage of me playing the cello, aged about 11, with my pet budgie sitting on my bow.
I practised a lot when I was a kid. I’m a morning person, and I summoned up the motivation to wake up at five o’clock every morning to practise two hours before school. When I got home at four in the afternoon, I got in another two before homework and dinner.
I’m not sure my practice was very effective, because I didn’t yet understand how to use my body and my cello efficiently. But it wasn’t a waste of time, because I did learn a vast amount of repertoire, and I listened widely and hungrily to recordings of all the great cellists playing all the great repertoire. I read and read and read. I studied scores. All of this knowledge went in the bank. It meant that my academic work at university was really easy, freeing up more time for practice.
Later, when I studied with Natalia Pavlutskaya, I learned to play the cello in a more physically logical way. She had to tear away years of my inefficient habits. It was frustrating to feel like a total beginner after I’d spent my entire adolescence getting patted on the back and told how talented I was, but this humbling experience went in the bank too.
One lesson she scolded me for not practising enough hours. I muttered some excuse about being busy. Natasha retorted “Busy? Your life is like a holiday!”
This rankled a bit, but I was always anxious to please Natasha, so I did go away and make a log of how I spent my time over the course of a week. Compared to Natasha, who taught unbelievably long hours on top of her family responsibilities, my day really wasn’t that busy.
That led to two realizations.
The student years were going to be the last time in my life that I had enough time to practise. It didn’t seem like that, given that I was juggling a full class schedule and a part-time job, but everyone said it only got harder after you graduated.
I admittedly hadn’t been using my time efficiently. I was wasting my most energetic hours on tasks that, while they had some challenges for my newly-adult self, didn’t require a lot of brain power: laundry, grocery shopping, and the like.
So I made a detailed schedule of my week, prioritizing the hours of the day when my mind was most active (for me, the morning) for practice. Reading assigned texts, studying scores, and writing essays could be accomplished in the afternoons. Weekends were for my part-time job, but I could sneak in an hour of practice before I left to catch my bus. Everything else could wait until the evening, when I was tired, but awake enough to accomplish domestic tasks.
I’m so grateful to my 18-year-old self now for prioritizing the practice bank. Because later in my career, a lot of things conspired to take my practice time away from me.
Time-sucking aspects of adulthood (a by no means complete list):
Teaching. I love teaching, but it involves a lot of one-on-one hours. Plus, it’s our bread and butter. Luckily, I find that teaching students how to practise energizes me to improve the efficiency of what I’m doing in the practice room myself — and in that way, teaching and performing are two sides of the same coin.
Gigs. The more performing engagements you have, the less practice time you have, because you have to prepare a lot of scores and you’re up against tight deadlines. Hopefully your previous deposits in the practice bank help out with this one. And you learn something from every gig if you go into it with a learning-growing mindset.
Family. If you have kids, you inevitably have less time to yourself. But this can change your mind about practising — it stops being a chore and becomes something you crave. You’ll never be more grateful for the hours you previously put in the practice bank than when you have a small, needy creature who is entirely dependent on you. And yet, it can make you a great deal more mindful about how you prioritize practice in what little time you have to schedule.
Burnout has reached near-epidemic proportions among academics, and this must be particularly true of music faculty, who have to spend so much one-on-one time teaching in addition to administrative and research responsibilities. But I love what I do and I’m always looking for ways to manage my scheduling and prioritize what matters the most to me professionally. I’ve found the work of Laura Vanderkam incredibly helpful in this respect. For example, the professorial schedule affords me some flexibility, so I keep “sacred hours” in my weekday mornings for practice, the time of day when I have the most focus. I don’t even open my emails until this is accomplished, and I only answer urgent ones during my morning work time. I schedule students all afternoon, when I still have energy, and am energized from having put some practice in the bank. I’m usually a bit brain-fried in the evenings, so I set that time aside for time-sucking but less sacred tasks, such as replying to non-urgent emails, administrative tasks, working out, and housework.
In summary, a successful system of practice banking comes down to two things.
Practising mindfully, always considering what you’re teaching yourself at any given moment. As I wrote repeatedly in Cello Practice, Cello Performance, you should “never play with anything less than your best sound.” (That includes intonation and vibrato.) Efficient practice goes right into the savings account.
Reserving “sacred time” for practice, time that can’t get sucked into email and admin. It’s really hard to do this when you have a lot of commitments and obligations, but if you manage the rest of your time well, it becomes easier to ask your family and/or students to leave you alone for a couple of hours.
What “investments” do you make with your practice and your time?
I saw a great quote the other day: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
I don’t think any of us is single-handedly capable of bringing about world peace, or an end to climate change — we’d need the systematic and institutional support of a huge number of unanimous people for that to happen — but we can all do something within our own particular skill set to improve one or two things, can’t we?
As well as teaching cello, string methods, chamber music, and string pedagogy at the University of Idaho, I also teach a class in musicianship. We call it Aural Skills III and IV, and break it down into the mutually interdependent categories of ear training and sight singing, but I like to think of it as a class in musicianship. Or, more specifically, a class in the DIY of what makes music work so that we can figure out how to be better at it.
Everyone loves to hate their aural skills professor — carping, nit-picking tyrants that we are — but I enjoy teaching the subject even if I lose all the popularity contests around here, because it’s a chance for me to help students with a few things that I struggled mightily with and that took me years to figure out on my own.
I was very lucky to have teachers in all my music subjects who were brilliant musicians and pedagogues, but I did have a rough time when it came to a couple of things, specifically sightreading — especially when it came to rhythm and counting and so on.
That’s where I’ve had to learn to be the kind of teacher that I needed when I was an undergraduate.
Back in the day, one thing I really had a hard time with was the concept of polyrhythms such as “two against three,” “three against four,” and so on. Sometimes we got given an orchestra piece with lots of this hard counting and it felt like being thrown in the deep end with an imperfect understanding of how to swim. It was a game to which I hadn’t been let in on the rules. I felt completely adrift — and one day I almost burst into tears when a conductor told me I was doing two against three wrong — i.e. I was swinging them long-long-short instead of three equal notes. This happened because I was subdividing, wrongly, in four instead of the three that would have permitted me to understand how to get the triplet even.
You’d think that as a 17-year-old who could play a lot of advanced cello repertoire, I might have figured this relatively simple rhythm out on my own, but to my embarrassment, it hadn’t occurred to me to look for the thing that two and three have in common — that is, six. One and a two and a… vs. one-and-two-and-three-and…
These rhythmic concepts are taught a lot more systematically to pre-college woodwind, brass, and percussion players than they are to string players, perhaps because so much wind ensemble and concert band music is more modern and therefore more rhythmically complicated than the string orchestra music that’s typically used in pre-college settings. So I decided that maybe we string teacher types just need to be a bit stricter about really making sure our students understand how to figure out unfamiliar rhythmic concepts independently.
So these days when I teach rhythm, I break it down in what I hope is a readily understandable way — because I’m being the person I wish I’d had back then in the university orchestra rehearsal room when I didn’t understand two against three.
And, because I’m a tyrannical cello teacher as well, I combine the concepts with scales. Because two birds, one stone, right?
Click on the links to read my posts on learning rhythm through scales:
When I was a teenager, I studied with a teacher whose idea of fun was giving me a minimum of three etudes a week, which she expected me to learn and memorize. Sebastian Lee, J. J. F. Dotzauer, Friedrich Gruetzmacher, Louis Feuillard, Bernhard Cossman, Joseph Merk, Adrien Servais… we did them all. Every teacher I had after that was similarly obsessed with etudes.
I groused and moaned plenty about this, but ultimately I was glad that thanks to their insistence, I’d managed to learn all of the Duport 21 Etudes, the Popper High School of Cello Playing, Piatti’s 12 Caprices under the supervision of a teacher.
And what a gift they are. Now that I’m the teacher responsible for tormenting students with etudes, I’m so, so grateful for the preparation these wonderful pieces gave me. The best etudes don’t just put you through your paces in every possible way you might be expected to execute a certain technique, they also teach you something about harmonies, structures, and patterns.
For example, the way Feuillard teaches thumb position arpeggios makes perfect harmonic sense at the same time as it trains your thumb and hand shaping in the upper register. Dear Monsieur Feuillard, thank you!
Feuillard understood the rules of harmonic progression as well as how to improve your thumb technique.
Alfredo Piatti, for his part, knew how to teach us to be in tune in the slightly problematic key of B-flat major while increasing our virtuosity so that we could play all the great cello concertos. Thank you, Signor Piatti!
This is how you learn just intonation the fun way. Piatti #3, you’re the best.
David Popper understood exactly what his students were going to need for their auditions and composed his High School in such a way that if you master all the techniques in it, you can play all the great orchestral literature of the time, as well as the solo literature. I love #19 so much — the “Lohengrin” etude that he wrote to help cellists with a certain problematic section in the Wagner opera.
Popper 19, the gig-getter of the time
Even Dotzauer, who gets a little less praise showered on him by history than the others, is such a great teacher. I didn’t realize until relatively recently that he’d made an edition of the Bach suites — one of the earliest 19th-century editions — and that it’s much more careful, restrained, and faithful to the available sources than the great majority of editions from that era. And his etudes are great too — he just knows all the things we’re going to screw up, and discreetly writes an etude to get us through. I sometimes look at his compositions and almost feel as if I know him personally. I know this sounds sentimental or even fanciful, but when I play his etudes I’m sure he was a person of thoughtfulness, care, and precision.
Dotzauer #26, compulsory for anyone about to learn the Elgar concerto…..
So I’m not even sorry that I’m one of those teachers that’s addicted to the etude-book. Just think — if we master the Duport etudes, we master every skill we need for playing Beethoven’s cello, chamber, and orchestral music. Piatti and Popper help us master the entire virtuoso classical and romantic literature — whether for solo cello, chamber music, or orchestral parts. Dotzauer and Feuillard take care of everything we might be getting wrong. They’re all wonderful. Play some etudes today!
A student recently apologized to me for “disappointing” me when he wasn’t able to perform in a recital that I’d asked him to be part of. I felt puzzled for a minute: I have many feelings about students, but disappointment is rarely one of them. So I told him that my approval of him wasn’t conditional upon his performing in the recital.
Then I started thinking about the teacher-student relationship and how approval-based the whole business seems sometimes. So much of my motivation to practise during my student days came from my fear of the teacher’s disappointment or disapproval. I suppose what happens when you don’t have a teacher any more is that you transfer the guilt complex to yourself, so that if you don’t practise, you’re the one who’s disappointed now.
But why should the teacher/student relationship be about striving for approval? The thing about students is that they’re here to learn music, but they’re also here to learn about themselves, what they like, what they want out of life, who they want to be. Some of them will practise a lot and have successful careers in music, and some of them won’t. My approval is irrelevant to this because what they do in the practice room or the concert hall isn’t for me. It’s for them.
The thought of another person’s disapproval hangs over so many of our heads. I recently reconnected with one of my graduates, a person I’ve always admired as a great player and an even better human. He told me something I’d suspected but never really known for sure, which was that his family had disapproved of his coming to college in the first place, and especially of the fact that he was going to study a music, which they didn’t think was a suitable career.
This didn’t deter him, and I admire him even more for this determination, because this is a hard profession even with the support — emotional or financial or both — of your family.
What happened next makes me feel terribly sad. This graduate came from a community that has traditionally viewed higher education with suspicion, and he found that when he returned home after graduation, he and his family had become incomprehensible strangers. It was as if his education had driven a wedge between them.
As scholars, I think we’re called upon to try to understand the values and belief systems of people significantly unlike ourselves, even if we can’t agree with them. What bugs me, though, is that I would have thought anyone would be proud to have a son like my former student. Who wouldn’t want their child to be as intelligent, considerate, kind, well-read, articulate, gentle, and sensitive to the feelings of others as he is? College didn’t make him this way, by the way — he was all of those things before he got here. So what was it about his insistence on getting a degree that was so destructive to their relationship? Surely it couldn’t just be the classes and juries and recitals that he had to pass to get a music degree. I’m going to assume that the dangerous bit was the critical thought processes he learned along the way that led him to question the values he’d been taught. The subversive thing about higher education is that you’re encouraged to ask yourself hard questions, and shape your own values accordingly.
Surely it’s no accident that the teacher-student relationship is so often rather like the parent-child relationship. Since I’m a teacher and a parent, I tried to think of anything my daughter might do that would turn her into a stranger to me, but I couldn’t think of anything. I would still love her unconditionally even if she joined a terrorist cult — though I hope very much that she would never do that, of course!
That said, it’s OK for her to disagree with me. She doesn’t have to have the same religion and politics as her father and me to win our approval, because she already has it. By the same token, my students don’t have to aim for the same career trajectories as me to win my approval. I’m hugely proud of the achievements of my graduates who have made it as professional musicians, because I know how hard it is, but I’m also proud of the ones who are now in other fields. We can’t control our students’ lives any more than we can control the lives of our children, but we can control our own responses to their choices.
Some days, when I’m feeling pessimistic, I question every career choice I’ve made. Then I go into a doom spiral where I question the morality of spending so much time encouraging young people to make similar choices. But the thing I keep coming back to, the thing that makes it all worthwhile, is what a privilege it is to make music. Is it difficult, frustrating, annoying, exceptionally badly paid, and overcrowded? Yes. Pointless? No.
When our world seems to be going crazy, I can’t help feeling lucky that I’m in a profession that brings people together. I very seldom express my views on religion and politics, mostly because I hate the arguments the subjects can provoke, especially when no one involved is going to change their mind.
In this way, I’m often glad that I don’t teach a subject such as political science where these debates are part of learning. Of course, it’s important to have these arguments, and in a free society we can and should discuss all manner of political views. But when just opening the New York Times sends me into a fit of anxiety, I start to feel relieved that my job doesn’t involve being a political pundit.
But even if I decide that I’m not going to read the news for a day or two, many people that I interact with in daily life regularly and openly express views whose lack of compassion upsets me deeply. Really, some of it is worse than a lack of compassion because it’s also a lack of the kind of imagination that might lead to compassion, and as a professor the concept of imagination is one of the things I try to encourage. Sometimes I want to shout from the top of the roof, “None of us has any idea what is going on in the lives of others! Can we please at least acknowledge our shared humanity and stop this relentless judging of others?”
If you continue down this path, you can become very unhappy indeed.
Or you can rejoice in the existence of orchestras and choirs, ensembles where your personal beliefs matter less than the things we share, such as the goals of making good music together in a manner that is (hopefully) in tune, in time, and expressive of a shared vision of what a good interpretation will sound like.
I realize that being able to feel this way reveals my safety in a world that doesn’t afford such safety to people who don’t have my privileges. I don’t and can’t feel complacent about any of it. In many ways I feel powerless to make the lives of others better. But there is this one thing that I can do to bring something of beauty and love into the world, and I’m so lucky that it’s my paid profession to do so.
How many people are lucky enough to do something that brings people together instead of tearing them apart? How lucky am I to have the privilege of playing the music of Beethoven and Bach, whose beauty and nobility reduces me to speechless tears every time? What could be a more beautiful way to spend our days than working on shared goals where we’re all in this together, creating something in the face of so much destruction we can do nothing about?
We’re all on the same journey. No one makes it out of here alive. Music reminds us daily to look for the things we all have in common. That’s what has made this all worth it.
I made a New Year’s Resolution today. 2019 is going to be the year that I explore, learn, perform, teach, and promote music by women composers.
I’ve always known women could be composers, because my late great-aunt, Dorothy Freed, was one of New Zealand’s first. “The grandmother of us all,” she often said proudly.
This being the case, I find it hard to explain why I haven’t actually played a lot of music by women before. My weak excuse is that I…didn’t think of it.
Once, aged about 18 and filled with newfound enthusiasm for feminism, I asked Dorothy if she had ever faced sexist discrimination in the music profession. “No,” she said immediately, “it was hard to get your music heard, whoever you were.”
“Would you describe yourself as a feminist?” I persisted.
“You know, a women’s libber,” I said.
“Heavens, no! Bunch of silly women,” came the dismissive reply. Then she was silent for a minute. “There was this one time, though,” she said thoughtfully. “I applied for a postgraduate scholarship to study in Italy, and the head of music [at Victoria University of Wellington] said ‘Dorothy has a husband and children. If she wants to go to Italy, let him pay for it.’ Never mind that we were on the brink of divorce.”
Dorothy never let anything stop her, and she went to study in Europe anyway — with Elisabeth Lutyens and Peter Racine Fricker, among others — but had to self-finance her studies by working as a secretary and librarian. While her male contemporaries got comfortable incomes from university teaching positions (for which they were often hired on a handshake) and had helpmeet spouses at home to take care of their laundry and their dinner, Dorothy enjoyed none of these privileges. Nothing stopped her from composing, but her output is much smaller than it might have been had she had the support that male composers of her generation took for granted.
I have long wanted to honour Dorothy’s memory, and have started to do so with the publication of a major research project in the New Zealand literary journal Ka Mate Ka Ora. But I wanted to do more. Hence my Year of Women Composers.
Some recent events were all the inspiration I needed. Throughout 2017 and 2018, I followed the progress of the Composer Diversity Database, which sought to increase the visibility and accessibility of groups that have historically been underrepresented in the field. Around the same time, a cellist friend compiled a widely-circulated Google spreadsheet of cello pieces by women composers. I no longer had any excuse for not performing more music by women.
I’ve only partly explained why I’m doing this. Let me put it this way: whenever you get into a discussion with People Who Are Wrong On The Internet on the subject of women composers, someone always butts in to say “Why should we care if the composer is a woman? Why not choose repertoire that’s just good music?” This person, by the way, always considers themself an objective, impartial arbiter of what music is good and what isn’t, and — surprise! — their default idea of who’s a good composer usually looks like a man. A white man.
This is deeply, deeply irritating to me. These people (let’s call them PWAWOTI) have seldom stopped to consider the obstacles women in music have been up against. If they weren’t barred from conservatories and universities, they were talked down to, patronized, infantilized, forbidden from the concert stage, assumed to be non-serious. Their oppressors and dismissers weren’t always anti-feminist ogres: even the so-called feminist Camille Paglia notoriously wrote in Sexual Personae (1990): “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.”
After finishing Anna Beer’s Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, I read biographies of Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel that explained a lot about why there hadn’t been a female Mozart. Consider this letter to Hensel from her father, Abraham Mendelssohn — who had, by this stage, uncomplainingly paid massive amounts of money for the education of his brilliant children:
“Music will perhaps become [Felix Mendelssohn’s] profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing.”
Musical training is expensive to acquire, but Hensel’s high social status might, paradoxically, be the reason she wasn’t supposed to become professional. Such a thing would reflect poorly on a wealthy family — the idea of a woman having to earn money might make it look like they couldn’t support her.
Clara Schumann, who came from a lower social class than Fanny Hensel, was trained by her father Friedrich Wieck (the original helicopter parent/tiger father…or is that Leopold Mozart?), to become professional from an early age. She had no choice about whether to earn money from music. She had to, since she had a sick husband and seven children to support. Even so, her money had to come from her gifts as a pianist, and she barely had time to compose a thing after early middle age.
To my shame, I really hadn’t heard much of Clara Schumann’s music until 2018, when my pianist colleague Yoon-Wha Roh suggested that we learn the Piano Trio in G Minor Op. 17 to commemorate her bicentenary in 2019.
Well, I fell in love. What an incredible piece — a darkly passionate first movement, a Mendelssohnian (Felix or Fanny!) scherzo, an utterly gorgeous slow movement that tears my heart in two every time, and a finale that I can only describe as wildly exciting. I suddenly remembered that the musicology professor who supervised my doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas had often opined that Clara Schumann was a better composer than her husband, but for some reason I never believed it until now. This amazing trio reminded me instantly of Robert Schumann’s three trios — but I didn’t realize until reading Judith Chernaik’s recent biography of Schumann a couple of weeks ago that Clara’s trio actually predates them. What an influence she must have been on him!
OK, that was it — no more excuses, it was time to seek out the music of women composers, learn it, perform it, assign it to my students, programme it everywhere.
To start with, I thought of the “template” I’d usually use for a cello-piano or solo cello recital: begin with something splashy that I know I can play well so I can work my nerves off on it; follow it with a substantial piece by a living or at least relatively modern composer; intermission; then a second half that features a romantic warhorse that will ensure the audience won’t go home at intermission.
Then I figured out how I could substitute compositions by women for all the ones by men that comprise the cellistic canon. Here’s what I came up with. It’s incomplete, but it’s a start:
Instead of Barber’s cello sonata, play Rebecca Clarke’s own transcription for cello of her viola sonata.
Instead of a Beethoven sonata, play Louise Farrenc’s sonata.
Instead of one of Beethoven’s two sets of variations on themes by Mozart, play Helene Liebmann’s sonata, whose last movement is a set of variations on La ci darem.
Instead of Brahms’ E minor sonata, play Ethel Smyth’s A minor sonata.
Instead of a Britten cello suite, play Elizabeth Maconchy’s Variations on a Theme from Vaughan Williams’ Job or Imogen Holst’s The Fall of the Leaf.
Instead of Fauré’s Sicilenne, play Maria Theresia von Paradis’ Sicilienne. (There’s some doubt about its authorship, but play it anyway, because it’s a gorgeous piece.)
Instead of Franck’s sonata, play Mélanie Bonis’ sonata.
Instead of Ligeti’s solo sonata, play Sofia Gubaidulina’s Ten Preludes.
Instead of Felix Mendelssohn’s D major sonata, play Luise Le Beau’s D major sonata.
Instead of Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, play Fanny Hensel’s Fantasie and Capriccio.
Instead of Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong, play Rebecca Clarke’s Passacaglia.
I realize I’ve only included one living composer here, and that’s kind of deliberate because in many ways it’s easier to access the music of someone whose music is in print and who may be contactable. I’m always looking for fantastic new pieces by living women, and am currently practising some works by Augusta Read Thomas, Graciane Finzi, and my colleague Ruby Fulton for upcoming performances.
For the forgotten women composers of the past, however, it’s actually quite hard to get hold of their scores, since they’re often long out of print. I tried unsuccessfully to buy Imogen Holst’s The Fall of the Leaf and ended up having to perform it from an interlibrary loan score. Thanks to IMSLP, some women composers of longer ago, including some I’d never heard of such as Bonis and Liebmann, have become available to us. But the old editions can be hard to read, and even modern printings — such as Hildegard Press’s “edition” (really a reprint from the original nineteenth-century plates) of the Farrenc sonata — aren’t much better. Will someone make some more accessible scholarly performing editions of these forgotten treasures before they’re lost forever as footnotes in the history of composition?
I’m no editor, so this task shouldn’t fall to me, but I can and will perform their wonderful music, and hope to record much of it. Stay tuned for more. Happy New Year, everyone.