Music, Coronavirus, and Certain Death: SAY YES.

Germ-Free Improvisation on a Bundt Pan, 2020.
Last week, as cases of coronavirus in Boston escalated from 0 to 28, I attended the annual conference of the Massachusetts Music Educators Association at Seaport World Trade Center in Boston. It was a week of musical inspiration, with a hefty helping of “What if I die?”

We were playing music games, talking about band, dancing together, playing drums, watching incredible concerts. People were everywhere, and everyone was touching everything, and it felt like the germ-laden conference center was talking: The doorknob: What if you find out you’re dying? Water cooler handle: Are you doing anything significant? Milk jug at coffee bar: Has your life mattered? Elevator button: Are you helping anyone or have you helped anyone? Djembe drumhead: Have you changed lives?  

Me: Am I ok to die now?

Sadly, the last year has brought me numerous occasions to ponder these sorts of questions, as my family has crumbled around me. There have been many deaths, and for those who didn’t die, there have been debilitating, chronic illnesses that have essentially put an end to life as they have known it. It hasn’t been pretty, but I’ve thought a lot about how important it is to believe in the importance of each moment as possibly one of our last.

One good thing that’s happened is that I started going to church. Not because I believe in God, but because the people from my local church, and especially the minister, have been so incredibly kind and generous during very difficult times. While I don’t really follow the doctrine, I do follow the journey: We start out fairly clean in this life, but life experience after life experience (a few fig leaves thrown across the room in our twenties, perchance) have given us occasion to do some remarkably stupid things that make us want to hide behind our music stands and shrivel into a very small ball every time we think of them. But we can recognize that we screwed up, and we can see that there is essential goodness still in us, and we can forgive ourselves. Others will hurt us, but we can forgive them too. Then we can screw up again and again but move on, so long as we accept our humanity and believe in essential goodness. Hopefully we don’t get crucified along the way—but if we do, a few Cadbury’s eggs and a basket of jelly beans can fix everything. We can start again.

That, I believe in: the journey. Which is why this blog is titled “Jam and Bread,” a nod to the Sound of Music’s lesson on solfege: Ti, a drink with jam and bread. “Ti” is the note before Do:  It ever draws us toward musical resolution, and it is a note that never feels at rest. But it is the most apt description of life as I have observed it: We never quite get there. We never feel “done,” but all notes are beautiful, even more so if we accept their beauty. Generally I have seen no one facing death who felt like they were ready for it. They still had more to do, or to give, or to take. No one accepted death, but maybe because no one accepted life as it was to begin with.

I could end there, but there’s a little more, so forgive a longer essay this morning. One of the best parts of these music education conferences is that we spend a lot of time with musicians who have a lot to say about what they do and why they do it. After eleven years straight of attending this conference, I can say with great confidence: Musicians and music teachers never feel done. We are dedicated to giving—it is a performing art and we are teachers—and we come to conferences to talk endlessly about how we can do it better. In my life, the best musicians are typically also perpetual students. They, too, are always on the “Ti.” Praise a great musician for their playing, and many will accept your compliments with their own caveats. “Yes, but…” or “I guess so, but I’m only…” These are not so much judgements on where they are as musicians but rather a recognition and a yearning to always go deeper, reach more beauty, reach others more effectively. As in: “I play locally. I don’t tour internationally. No one really knows my name. So, yeah, I’m alright for here, but in the scheme of things I’m just alright.” (As you can imagine, I have played that tape a few times.)

Press Pause.

It was right about this moment in church yesterday that I was scribbling the notes for this essay on the back of my bulletin, that the former minister’s wife passed by me and stopped. I hardly know her and rarely talk to her, just because our paths rarely cross. She looked me in the eye, smiled, and whispered, “I play your CD all the time for my husband.” Here’s the thing. He is gravely ill. She’s playing my CD for our struggling minister because it soothes him. And maybe it helps him fight.

You tell me that doesn’t matter. If I got coronavirus today, I’d probably be ok.

Musicians, we need to embrace our “Ti.” We may never get famous, but we can change lives moment by moment. Many musicians give up when they realize they won’t be famous. Some decide to focus on teaching—you know, the whole “Those who can’t do, teach.” Well, we know that’s B.S., but it’s a motto many follow. Can I tell you how many music teachers I know who no longer perform? More than half. It blows my mind. If you love it so much to choose to teach it, how can you stop doing it?

I think it’s because music school clouds our goals, as I've written before. It teaches us to focus on perfection and yearn for fame. But when the goal of our music is performance to ever-increasing crowds, then music becomes about the performer, not about the music and not about the individual people it is supposed to be reaching. It’s about me, and not about Geoffrey and Alana. And so when the performances opportunities change and our audiences don’t grow, we feel we have failed and we totally forget about Geoffrey and Alana. What if music were rebranded as giving, not performing? What if music was a service, not a product? The focus then moves to the audience, and not to us, and then maybe we can make the eternal journey—that we always kind of think we suck—a little more bearable. And maybe we’ll stop thinking that.

Then we can change our questions, and stop defending ourselves so anxiously against certain death. We can stop washing our hands every ten seconds and take off that blasted face mask* so that we can ask some important questions:  Have moments of musicmaking done beautiful things for others? Have we changed lives with every note we make? Are we changing the world by teaching others to make music? Have we transformed lives by the music we have made and the love we have given?

We get a solid answer: Yes.

By the end of that conference, I was kind of done washing my hands. I felt ready to talk back confidently to the doorknob, the water cooler, the milk jug, the elevator button, and the djembe: Again, the answer is, Yes.

Now stop asking questions and go practice.


*One year later: I'll keep that mask on, thank you very much. And I will continue to keep a bottle of hand sanitizer at arm's reach, everywhere I go. Oh, how thinking evolves (August 29, 2020):