My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"Dear airline companies..." - a letter from a concerned musician

Dear airline companies and powers-that-be at the TSA,

Speaking as a musician, I want to acknowledge that your industry plays a very important role in the lives of many who are in the music field.  Whether it's students, amateurs, or professionals, you enable us to travel to school, competitions, conferences, music camps, festivals, and to performance engagements wherever they may be around the world.  For that, I am thankful.  

© dd -
But we have a problem.  A big problem.  And it doesn't appear to be getting any better.  Instruments are regularly being damaged, destroyed, and at least in one recent occasion,  lost.  (I've included a list of stories at the end of this letter about such incidents.) There also seems to be a lot of confusion and irregularity of policy when it comes to whether or not instruments can be taken into the cabin and where they can be stored when they are permitted.  We are thankful for the bill that was recently passed in Congress that will hopefully standardize policy in regards to instruments in the cabin, but until the new policies take effect, I feel it would be beneficial for everyone involved if we could figure something out to alleviate confusion and to prevent further accidents.  An instrument that is severely damaged can usually be repaired, often with a hefty price tag, but the instrument may never be the same again.  This is not a frivolous problem.  It is one that can be crippling to a musician, costly, and heartbreaking.

I understand that you have a lot with which to concern yourself.  It must also be difficult to take the time to come up with consistent policies and to educate your employees about safe instrument handling.  So far we musicians have understandably done a lot of ranting and raving about the topic but I have another idea - let us help! I'm sure there are plenty of musicians that would be perfectly willing to come speak to all of your employees for free about the value and importance of our musical instruments to our livelihood.  We could do it as often as you need it, wherever you need it - there are lots of us to go around.  Or we could have a video put together that could be shown at training sessions.  I imagine a beautiful performance could be thrown in for good measure too,  not only to give back to your employees, but to help put a face, a personality, a story, behind the instrument cases and customers that they handle on a regular basis.  Another thought would be to come up with some standardized way to mark or flag instrument cases so that they are instantly recognizable.  For the non-musician instrument cases can appear to be nothing more than a carrier for golf clubs, skis, or even the occasional dead body.  (Just kidding on that last one.)

If you're interested in our help, please do let me know!  I'm happy to do what I can to make this happen and I imagine there are many others that would too.

Thank you for the consideration and for making it possible for us to share our music wherever you fly.

Erica Ann Sipes

It gets worse: Air Canada loses a cello
Just in: Virgin Atlantic bans violins
Flying with a cello is one traveler's nightmare
Musicians rage as airline breaks neck of precious instrument
How US security agents broke my cello bow
Musicians call for clarity when flying with instruments
Unfriendly skies for many a traveling musicians
Don't put your guitar in the hold

Note to readers of this post - If you have a story to share about an instrument issue while flying, would be willing to help with such a project, or have any other ideas, please do leave a comment on this post.  Thank you!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

A valuable lesson learned from a tree branch

© Le Do -
I am blessed with a job that requires that I drive through beautiful countryside to get there.  When I can be disciplined enough to turn off the news as I take the trip, those twenty minutes can be just what I need to get myself in a good place before work or they can give me time to reflect on the day and discharge before arriving back home.  Rolling mountains, horses, cows, wild turkeys striking poses worthy of a Thanksgiving painting...even the trains rolling in and out of town along the New River help me center myself and remember that there's more to life than what they tell us about on the news.  

My favorite time of year is right before the junction between winter and spring;  my favorite part of the drive is right before I enter Radford. On that part of the drive the first color that emerges is pink from the redbud trees that hug the highway tightly on both sides.  It creates a breathtaking passageway that never fails to take my breath away for a few precious days, before the pink, brown, and grey slowly takes on that greenish hue that seems to let off it's own luminosity.  

This past spring I was surprised by a lesson I learned thanks to one particular redbud branch.  I had noticed through the winter that there was a gigantic redbud branch that had snapped during a particularly bad wind storm and was hanging on to the rest of the tree by just a few strands of bark , with the tip resting on the side of the highway.  I didn't think much of it until that wonderful day when I went around the bend and knew that it was redbud week.  When I drove by the broken branch I was shocked to see that the branch was in full bloom, just like its more healthy siblings.  Perhaps it's silly and I look for way too much significance in everything, but this one branch, seemingly defying its destiny, moved and inspired me the rest of the week as it unabashedly flaunted the life it had stored up inside all season.  The lesson in it for me was that if we can spend our lives storing up all the energy we can - all the sweetness, all the experiences that give us life - we are capable of anything, even in the darkest times.  

What a thing to learn from a tree.  Well, I'll take it.  Gladly.  And I'm going to keep the news off and my ears and eyes open from now on.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

First rehearsal-a-phobia

© rnl -
Recently I've become aware of a phobia that seems to be quite prevalent among musicians.  It doesn't really matter if we're talking young or old, experienced or not as experienced, it crops up all the time.  As a collaborator, it is a phobia in others that I deal with on a daily basis because I regularly find myself having to prod and nudge folks I'm supposed to be working with...

"Um, so, when is that performance we're doing?  Isn't it coming up?  You know we haven't ever played it together."

The response is typically...

"Well, it's just that I'm not quite ready yet.  It's not sounding like I want it to."

To which I usually reply, with varying degrees of supportive exasperation (yes, there is such a thing)...

"When do we ever feel it's really ready?!?!?"

Trust me, I understand the phobia.  I am tempted to avoid scheduling that first rehearsal too and I typically have plenty of butterflies in my tummy when it does happen.   But afterward I almost always feel an incredible sense of relief because it gives me a realistic idea and assessment of where I am with learning the music, of how difficult or not difficult it is going to be to put it together, and it injects me with an different dose of enthusiasm for the music as a whole.  The pieces of the puzzle are all there finally - what can be better than that?

For what it's worth,  here's my prescription for curing first rehearsal-a-phobia:

  • I schedule it weeks, if not months, in advance of the performance when possible.
  • I don't have a goal of being even close to perfect.
  • I don't go into it feeling like I want to impress the other musicians.
  • I am honest when I walk into the rehearsal about which parts are still challenging for me.  (Note: I do this without beating myself up or apologizing.  I keep it as objective as possible, not only for myself but also for my colleagues.  There's never any need for all that drama.)
  • If there's a passage that doesn't go together easily after a little work I encourage us to move on without guilt or discouragement. 
  • I approach the rehearsal with a sense of play as much as possible - that is, after all, what we say we're doing when we're at our instruments.  
  • I listen to how the music sounds with all the parts together and soak in as much as possible so that when I am alone in my practice room I can let the sound of the other parts guide my practicing.
  • I walk away from the rehearsal knowing that even if there were lots of wrong notes and it didn't feel as good as it had been feeling in the practice room, the rehearsal was productive and important.  

Post first rehearsal I typically head into my next practice session looking forward to a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm for the music.  And since I am more likely to schedule the next rehearsal, and then the next since the initial wall of fear has already been broken down, I can head into the final performance knowing that the music has had plenty of time to ferment in a good way - that the musicians I'm playing with and I have had many occasions to try out different things, work our way out of interesting situations, and get comfortable with one another and the music.  

Makes that phobia seem kind of unnecessary, doesn't it?  (Can you tell I've gone through cognitive therapy?  Not for this, but plenty of other things.  That's for another blog.)

An extra note for students and young musicians that work with piano collaborators.  I may not speak for every pianist out there but for me I'd rather have that first rehearsal a safe distance away from any given performance not only for your sake but also for mine.  Yes, we have a lot of things on our plates but at the same time we know that your comfort and security will lead to our comfort and security and vice versa.  And when everyone is feeling good walking out onto that stage we have more of a chance of getting out there and just playing.  So please don't delay the inevitable.  Please don't think that we're going to be disappointed if you're not perfect because I promise you we aren't either.  We're in this together so let's ditch the phobia and make some music!