There are times keeping quiet is more helpful than sharing.
When you have a desire to help others, it often becomes a one-way conversation. Yes, there are questions and answers, but they are usually colored by a “what can I do to help fix things?” context.
And generally, we are grateful for that. Especially when it comes to things like plumbing, car repair, our careers, or our physical health.
Just a few months ago I was well into a plan of action that required me to reach out to classical musicians and see if my 30 years of experience creating, using and developing a less traditional approach to earning good money as a performer might help them in their careers.
My willingness to help was often shunned simply because my approach does not cater to the traditional, ingrained way classical music has operated for over a hundred years. So my communications would often turn into quite the battle, even with those who responded with curiosity. A very common phrase I hear is “I thought I already was thinking outside the box!” Far from it, we usually discover.
So once that realization is made, I like to stay in touch. I like to stay connected. The pandemic of 2020 made little difference to my desire to stay connected, but obviously it put the kibosh on my ability – and, in fact, willingness – to help performers host their own profitable classical music concerts while no-one is allowed to gather in groups.
And then George Floyd was killed.
That’s what changed just about everything else in my work.
Instead of talking about Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks and the Captivating Concert™ process, conversations began to disappear and turn into shouting and shaming. My planned emails and social media posts suddenly seemed terribly out of place, so they got unscheduled and held back. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what people wanted to hear. Yet I also knew I had to stay connected for my own mental health and emotional well-being.
Could both exist in harmony? Is it possible to stay connected without having anything to say? As usual, an experiment was bubbling below the surface. One day, everyone on my email lists and all my social media platforms received the same message, a message that had consistently popped up throughout my life from my best mentors and friends: “I’m here. I’m listening.”
And then I kept quiet.
It took a while for responses to appear, and when they did, the messages began pouring in. Oh, how I wish I could have stayed up all night, every night, and responded to every single one of them on the day of receipt, but it became impossible.
People wrote essays and short stories. LONG emails. An overwhelmingly emotional outpouring filled my inbox, and I was determined to read every word and reply to every message. It took a very long time to work through them all as they continued arriving throughout the following months.
Everyone’s needs were different.
Everyone’s circumstances were different.
Everyone’s expectations of me were different.
I did reply to every message, some of which even became ongoing conversations.
And here are the three things that became apparent through this exercise of keeping quiet:
1. People don’t know who to listen to.
If classical musicians have learned anything this year, it seems to be that they don’t know who is giving them sound advice and who is relying on their imagination. Let’s take an example from outside the music world: which COVID-19 scientific results are to be believed? In all honesty, it seems to depend on which media source or political party gets your attention the most that will actually determine your perspective about scientific research and its results. Even determining what is a protest and what is a riot has become confused, with shouting and shaming from all sides.
Our hallowed halls of practice rooms where the expectations of every serious classical musician were touted suddenly became irrelevant, as not only did auditions for orchestra and opera jobs and booking agents disappear, but so did the jobs themselves (along with Academia and Arts Management). Professional positions and institutions that were once authoritative and all-knowing no longer seemed to have valid input. Nothing of the old way seems to jive anymore. To whom should we listen?
2. People don’t know who to turn to.
And yet, any quick glance online would suggest there are a myriad of experts in our field who have all the answers. Gurus in adapting technology meant for other purposes have popped up in our social media streams, giving advice on how to continue “making music” and money in every way except… actually making music, especially with others. What’s worse, trusted sources appear to have become experts overnight in tools and techniques they never mentioned before. Older generations of musicians have seen the only way of life they know disappear, and can’t help themselves, let alone younger generations. Online business gurus share every way to sell your music or teaching online (and everyone else is doing it wrong). Our former teachers know how to teach in a studio. Local Arts councils and organizations are helping visual artists because it’s easy to replicate samples of their work for online catalogs and articles. Our families are crying about their loss of freedom, their businesses and jobs, the terror they feel, the news. They still proclaim to ‘get a real job’ like you call a friend or use your 50/50 lifeline. To whom can we turn to for help?
3. People don’t know what to do next.
When you keep a bird in a cage for most of its life, what does it do when you set it free? Nobody knows, because it disappears. Rarely does it return for food or company. It has no idea which way to go, or even which way is up! A newly-freed bird has so many options instantly available, it can become paralyzed, and if it doesn’t starve, it doesn’t see the dangers on a rapid collision course either. To say the future of classical music is uncertain might just be the biggest truism of this century so far, but does that mean we should stop making plans? Do we really have to reinvent the wheel? Is it really that much of a surprise that the traditional method of sharing live music in concerts needs thinking about? Apparently, yes. But to me it’s more like watching old caged birds suddenly being set free – no-one is connecting with each other and realizing there are those who have been following alternative routes to building profitable classical music performing careers for decades. Unfortunately, there is a paralysis preventing them from partnering with the experienced practitioners.
People don’t know who to listen to, who to turn to, or what to do next.
Can you identify with that?
Maybe, if performing is still your primary passion, we need to determine what your next step should be.
I’m going to do it again: I’m going to keep quiet for a bit, and listen. To you. Let me know what you’re thinking and feeling. Who knows? Maybe there is a way forward sooner than you think!