One of the main things I feel I missed out on since the pandemic began in 2020 is connection. As a musician, I feel like this is a main staple of what we do – connect with people.
My parents played as a duo together when I was young. Actually they started years before I was born, performing under the name Duo Cellissimo. They had a full program of duos and arrangements for two cellos that they would play, sometimes with lots of commentary for school groups, or with a bit less for adult audiences. Once I was born, they told me, I was often in the back of whatever concert hall or room they were in, in a chair with someone keeping an eye on me, usually fast asleep by the end of the performance and thankfully for them, rarely a loud baby during concerts.
Looking back, I can imagine now the attraction of not only a cello duo, which is a bit of an unusual ensemble (this was before the days of 2Cellos) but also a husband-wife team who had met through the cello and now, on stage, performed together. There was surely a double connection – the marital one, and also the musical one. When two people play together, they connect with each other. People in the audience who haven't ever played music with another person would see the marital connection perhaps, the smiles between husband and wife on stage and the movements coordinated with each other like dance partners. Those in the audience who have played with other musicians before would notice the musical conversation they were having, the tempo shifting ever so slightly with a perfectly coordinated rubato, the changes of dynamic, the special looks at exciting or difficult parts.
This connection between musicians, I find, is difficult to explain. It is somewhat intimate, but not necessarily romantic. For me, it ends up being like having a very deep heart-to-heart with someone. Sometimes it is a conversation with someone you know well, and other times it is with someone new. Depending on how open both parties are, you can scratch the surface and remain more or less in a casual conversation, where only the basics of musical communication are used: a little eye contact, some movement to indicate tempo changes or dynamic changes, that sort of thing. Or it can become a deep conversation, where the two musicians start exchanging ideas, one suggesting a way to play, the other nearly instantly accepting and trying it out, then suggesting an idea of their own, and back and forth like that for the rest of the performance. These deeper conversations, with lots of exchanges, also start to show some of that person to you, through the musical choices – what are their favorite parts? How do they feel them? How open are they to new ideas? Are they bold? Stubborn? Curious? Cautious? Making these split-second musical decisions shows me who the person is. A good musical collaboration can often result in a great friendship. A bad one tends not to.
To connect like this requires a certain openness. Without accepting what your partner has to say, without at least trying out some of their ideas, you never learn anything about them. When I play with a new musician, I feel a bit shy, like being on a first date. First the small talk, questions about work and school and hobbies, and if that goes well and we like the same sorts of things, then to emotions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs. I can't play well with overbearing partners, who don't value my input at all – I get nervous and uncomfortable and start to play badly. I also get bored with partners who want me to take all of the decisions. When things click, both of us get what we want out of a performance and I love it when there are moments of serendipity, when my musical partner and I come up with the same ideas at the same time, even if it is a mistake we made simultaneously. For me, that means we were on the same wavelength, feeling the same flow, playing truly together. And that can happen with musicians I hardly know just as much as it can happen with musicians I know super well – it is always just a mix of the two personalities and our mutual level of openness.
When I started learning the cello, probably like just about everyone who starts out learning an instrument, the first years were primarily focused on learning to deal with myself and this foreign instrument. I focused on relaxing my two thumbs, improving my intonation, improving my tone, reading sheet music successfully, and making all of that hopefully happen all at once.
My father was my first teacher and I remember that we almost always played together, right from the very first lesson. To be honest though, I can't remember really what that was like, what he sounded like for example, because I was way too focused on slogging through my own scale or piece. I know that he was always making up interesting accompaniments to even the most boring beginner exercises, partly because I remember them confusing me sometimes (he would get very motivated and create very exciting accompaniments) and partly because as I got older and overheard him teaching other students, I realized he does this with all of his students.
One of the things my dad has always been really good at is making conversation with pretty much anybody. He has a knack for making people feel comfortable, which I think is mostly based on the fact that he remains really open to listen to what people have to say. He loves learning new things, so he tends to be genuinely interested in learning about someone, and he also gives them plenty of feedback to show he's not just listening, he is also understanding and processing what they are saying. This is exactly what we do when we play music together – listen, learn, suggest... repeat.
I couldn't connect with anybody when I first started playing the cello, though. I didn't have enough brain power and body coordination to make the cello work properly, let alone try to understand what someone else was communicating. One of the moments that really stuck with me where I had that feeling was when I joined the youth orchestra. My dad was the conductor of the junior group, and eventually I played well enough to get in. I remember sitting down, 6th chair, just a short distance from my dad standing on the podium. He started talking, and I realized I understood absolutely nothing, despite knowing him my entire life and taking cello lessons with him. It was really as if he suddenly spoke in a language I didn’t understand. His conducting was also mystifying to me. We started rehearsing, and I just attempted to listen to what the other cellists were playing and play the same. I had no idea what was going on. My stand partner was unfortunately just as clueless. I had learned most of that music before the first rehearsal, since we had to play it during the auditions to be accepted into the group and seated into our chairs, but I could only do one or the other – play the cello, or try to understand what was going on.
I don't think it took all that long for me to sort it all out. Within a couple of years, my cello skills growing all the time, I was in the senior orchestra with all of the older kids, sitting up front with a girl who was significantly more advanced than I was and who really showed me the ropes of being an efficient orchestra musician. She wasn't so much older than I was, but she had been playing the cello much longer and had been a part of the orchestra for longer as well. With her I really started to learn to listen for the other parts and connect with the other musicians. We had inside jokes at specific measures in the pieces, where we would both try hard not to laugh while playing. I started to be able to count the measures, check in with the violas, listen for the horns, and come in at the right time on the right note, all the while listening too for what my colleagues were playing behind me and what my stand partner was playing next to me (especially since she was usually right). Watching her lead our group, moving and swaying with the music to try and inspire everyone sitting behind us to play in time, hopefully in tune, and at the right dynamic, I learned the basics of how to communicate musically. The movements of the conductor became a conversation as well, where I started to understand what they were trying to show us, as well as what we did that influenced them.
Throughout my musical studies, from elementary, middle and high school to my Bachelor's program and Master's degree, connection has been a huge element of music-making. All of my professors tried to explain it to us, show it to us, help us find it for ourselves. Chamber music classes with string trios, quartets, and other small groups were always focused on listening to our fellow musicians, breathing in and out with them, moving with them, glancing at them for cues and trying to “feel” them even with our eyes closed, just listening to the way they play. At first, with other string players, but then increasingly with other instruments as well. Our professors pointed out the differences and also the similarities between our instruments, explaining some of the unique challenges each instrument posed, and how they could work together to enhance each other if both parties listened and understood each other.
The more informal side of this happened mostly at summer camps and with my sister and her friends. As we became more proficient, we could grab piles of chamber music, get together with some drinks and food, and play. We would read trios, quartets, quintets, sextets all in one night with a rotating pool of musicians, sometimes sharing instruments or doubling parts so everyone could participate. Those informal evenings brought the spontaneity of listening into play. One person inevitably knew and loved the piece we were playing, so we could follow their lead. Or we could follow someone else's lead, who had never played it before and made a mistake or even a brilliant, accidental, new interpretation. In the moments with everyone enjoying their favorite parts we all egged each other on to greater heights of emotion.
One of the best things about these sessions was that there were often moments of serendipity: moments where suddenly we were all playing perfectly in sync, as if we were in a formal concert hall, and we were so together in that moment that the music existed almost on its own, apart from us. I cherished those moments and still yearn for them every time I play.
When I moved to Berlin, I lost a lot of my connection to the classical music scene. There was a classical get-together I tried to visit, but it was badly organized and often had musicians who didn't make me feel welcome. I discovered I wasn't any good at taking auditions for orchestras, so I didn't have a job where I was in contact with lots of classical musicians either. But I discovered singer-songwriters at the same time, and there I found the same serendipitous moments I had loved through improvisation.
Improvisation is a strange thing. On the one hand, literally anyone can improvise somehow. Everyone has something to say musically, whether it is using an instrument or their voice or their body, and even the cadence of our voices when we speak is a constant improvisation. Improvising with others is the true challenge, I believe, because it involves connection. Listen, learn, suggest... repeat.
I learned improvisation by improvising, but I only made real progress when I was listening and learning from others. The more I tried to incorporate bits of guitar in my playing, bits of singing, bits of piano, the better I got. The less I tried to impose my classical cello background on others, the more I learned to use it creatively, spontaneously, and openly. I learned to support and enhance what I heard singer-songwriters singing or playing, help them sound even better through my contributions. And they in turn learned from me as well.
During the first couple of years I was in Berlin, I improvised as much as I could with as many people as I could. I went to open mic nights around the city and offered to play with singer-songwriters I'd never met, never heard, on the spot on stage. It was an incredible way to learn to connect with people quickly. If I stayed open, accepting each person the way they were and the music the way they made it, I could play beautifully with them. If I started getting judgmental and “imposing” my thoughts onto them, the connection didn't happen and the results were bland and boring. Just like in the chamber music sessions, there were points in the night or singer-songwriters I met where everything came perfectly together: the singer would sing a line of text that I almost knew was coming and perfectly reflected with my cello. They would hear me start a line and slow down just enough to give me the space, or add an impromptu instrumental part or extra chord, not missing a single beat even though we had never practiced it before. We were connected and for me that connection felt almost reverent, as if we were simply serving the music. In those moments the music was inevitable, ideal. The audience would later tell us those moments were their favorite of the whole night. I knew why – it wasn't so much because we made good music together, but because we also truly connected in those moments, and that connection is something we seek as human beings. There is so much good music in the world: coming from the classical world we know this well, as most of what we play has endured hundreds of years of human ears and judgment and came out on top. But what truly makes a performance memorable is a moment of connection, or even better, many of them.
This past year, starting in March of 2020 and continuing on till now, the opportunities to connect with other musicians have dwindled. I have done recording projects virtually that were the next best thing, where connection seemed to happen somewhere between my microphone, computer, and room, and someone else's. After all, one can connect just by listening, right?
As the months pass by, and the live performances and rehearsals are still prohibited or limited, I realize more and more that the videos and recordings and Zoom calls are just not the same. What is it about a room of musicians together, making music, that allows them to connect? I think it is more than listening with ears, or seeing with eyes. I think it is a connection of souls or hearts or whatever you prefer to call the energies that float between us. They are millions of tiny signals we send to each other that allow us to move as one, think as one, play as one, that no video or microphone can pick up, and no internet connection can transmit. The joy I have felt when meeting with colleagues again after long pandemic-related “breaks”, where we finally just sit down in the same room together and play, is incredible. We smile, we communicate, we play, we put each other through our paces and challenge each other to new heights, and in those moments I feel truly, tangibly alive. And the moments of connection suddenly happen, the way they couldn’t over Zoom or with remote recording projects.
As we start to be able to meet with each other again, I believe we will start to experience these moments of connection whether it is through music or just through spending time with one another. Let us all be like musicians for a while then: Listen, learn, suggest... repeat.