I Am a Musician

I recall mornings helping with breakfast dishes as a child, as Karl Haas’s voice would greet me over the radio station (“Hello everyone”) to the sounds of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. There’s no good way to describe the smile I felt inside. Later, still listening to the Classical station over my math pages, my heart would race just a little when I heard anything from the Baroque period, especially if it was orchestral. There were cassettes of Jean Pierre Rampal playing Telemann, of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s playing Bach’s exquisite Concerto for Oboe d’Amore. I’d sit with them for hours in the afternoons. I know every note still. My father’s college students would come over for Sunday afternoons sometimes and once they brought Handel scores and sang along to the Messiah, an assignment for their music history class. I was smitten. My strongest early memories are musical ones, and they are invariably memories of joy so strong it was bodily.

My strongest memories from my teens are musical too, but they are memories of doubt and confusion, eclipsed by a confidence I should not have possessed. I was steeping in a tradition that had grown up as a distortion of Christianity — a concept of gender roles that insisted that women were destined not even just ideally, but exclusively, for marriage and motherhood. To set those two ideals before a child — any child — is a gift; hopes and dreams of a family are deeply human and beautiful.

But the voices speaking to me in my adolescence were confining voices. One woman handed my a Xerox of a magazine article when I was fifteen. The thesis of this article was that Christians should not send their daughters to college because to do so suggests to these young women that their calling could be other than marriage and motherhood. The article was entitled “Teaching Our Daughters to Blaspheme God.”

Another authoritative voice in my adolescent world heard my first whispers of realization. I was sixteen and had just participated in my church’s adult choir concert. Everything about the experience was compelling. I adored the choir director for a dozen reasons. “I want to be a choir director someday,” I confided. And in a moment that I reflect on now as pure (though unwitting) evil, this grown-up I loved and trusted replied “Maybe you could lead a children’s choir since it would be unbiblical for a woman to be a choir director because then she would have authority over men.”

By that point in my life I had responded to the shaping voices around me with a vibrant and submissive imagination. Without a second thought I shifted my dreams. Again. I became comfortable with the idea of children’s choir and found many opportunities to grow the gifts I possessed toward that mission. I had a large roster of private piano students. I devoted myself to helping my mother care for our family. But the sparks of extreme joy from my childhood never happened in those contexts, and I nearly forgot about them until, in my late teens, I had the good fortune to study with a private instrumental teacher again, something that was only an occasional part of my childhood in a homeschooling family of seven children living on a shoestring.

It was Bach’s trio sonatas and Schubler chorales that triggered those smiles again, along with the small handful of times I was lucky enough to sing in ad hoc choral ensembles. By then, though, I knew one truth without a doubt: I would never make this kind of world class collaborative music myself, because I was a woman. I would be a wife. I would be a mom. I would be a musician here and there and now and then, but to say it was my calling would be unbiblical. To imagine that I could ever lead it, or that I could ever devote time and attention to world class opportunities, was impossible because it was incongruent with my settled understanding of my gender and what it proscribed.

Tonight I’ll be at the console of the world class organ in Auer Hall at the Jacobs School of Music, where I am a graduate student. It will not necessarily be a world class performance, but I will have a solo minute at the close of the concert, inviting the combined choirs into a performance of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. I will be that Baroque orchestra that stirred my childhood heart. I will replicate, to the best of my current abilities, the sounds I heard Jean Pierre Rampal and Alison Balsom make–the sounds that I categorized as “not available to me.”

Earlier in the program, the rendition we will offer of Abbie Betinis’s incredible “From Behind the Caravan” will absolutely be world class, involving a percussionist who was recently a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, directed by a professor only two years older than I, who has an international career in choral music. I’ve studied both conducting and composition with him this year and I am singing in his choir – singing music by Abbie Betinis, a fellow alumna of my alma mater, a composer whose voice resonates with me, whose skills I aspire to. These songs are of burning courage, and I?… I understand them.

I will be singing them with burning courage, and my heart will be racing again for sure. My husband and children will be in the audience to see me take my first bow on the world’s stage. What I know now is that my calling involves at least these three things: marriage, motherhood, and music. I am like a child again these days — the one with the smile at the kitchen sink, not the one with the settled understanding. I come home each night bone tired and invariably, no matter how demanding or even demoralizing the day’s work was, I grin and say to my husband with a sense of relief, “I just can’t believe I get to go back again tomorrow.”

My compass, to quote a poet, had been broken. Tonight it is not, and I am at the outset of a surprising journey down a road beyond home that is deeply beautiful and immensely good.




Dancing a Duet with Bojan Cicik

Dear Jacob,

I’ve got ten minutes here as I wait for the second half of our dress rehearsal in Auer Hall. I love this space. Some of my moments of deepest emotion over the last few years have begun here–times when I’ve wished I might’ve been on the stage instead of in the audience.

As I watched the viola da gamba player a moment ago I could picture your fingers. In that moment I remembered my friend Kevin practicing cello on a Saturday morning as a young college student boarding with my family when I was a kid. He was so inspiring to me. Twenty years later you’re inspiring to me, too. You sit at the piano generating fierce improvisations that are painful to listen to but pregnant with understanding. You practice every morning, working through your scale and your exercise and your songs before eagerly degenerating into the chaos of a six year old’s experiments. I realized just now that it won’t be long before my kids develop skills I don’t have–how I’ll be inspired and delighted just to get to be the one who sees your fingers on the strings, or your feet on the court, or your head bent over a drafting board, fluent like a native language.

Not being a student or even an active professional these days, the opportunity to sing Bach’s St. John Passion with the Historical Performance Institute here at the Jacobs School was not one I ever would’ve seen coming. But one day a couple months ago Dad got word that they were looking for extra voices for a performance led by the incomparable John Butt. When word like that comes, there’s only one response that makes sense to people like me and Daddy, so here we are. It’s been a season of wonder and joy for me. I feel like myself.

I feel like the self I’ve never been; the self I’ll never be. But today, unlikely as it is, I am that self. I think how glamorous I consider the lives pictured in the videos we’ve watched together of Alison Balsom working on a new album: professionals at the top of their field. I could be that. I wish I could be that. My next thought is always reluctant: I will never be quite that. For me, that ship has sailed. But then I realize that’s the view I have today from the risers in the chorus. Sure, I’m only in the chorus, but nevermind that for now.

Just now what I watched was the incredible rehearsal of the Erwäge aria. What caught my imagination was the two graduate students who were performing alongside John Butt at the harpischord, Bojan Cicic on the violin, and a tenor brought in from New York for this performance. Just the five of them.

What must this moment be for that young woman dancing a duet with Bojan Cicik looking right at her across his bow!? It must be one of the most significant moments of her life. Their music was exquisite. Immaculate. Incredible.

I can’t begin to guess whether you’ll be a musician or an engineer, a historian or a writer or an architect or a fireman. But whatever you become, I hope you have a moment like this someday, and I hope you know that, if you show up with wonder and passion, it’s a win whether you’re in the chorus, or you’re playing with Bojan Cicic, or you’re Bojan Cicic himself.

And I hope I’ll be there to see it, whatever it is.

I love you.



My Life for Yours

I worry to my priest friend occasionally that perhaps I’m letting myself off the hook too easily when it comes to the spiritual life. I can’t think now what makes this occur to me, but it’s happened more than once.

Always his answer has been the same, and when he gives it I swear behind his compassion and wisdom he’s almost laughing at me: “You are a mother. That will sanctify you. You don’t even have to try.”

I was glad to get to share this encouragement last week with a weary friend of mine who is adjusting to life with two kids, and yesterday it came back to me again. It’s comfort for a class of us who don’t get much of it.

Yesterday morning found me simultaneously studying Bach’s St. John Passion and nursing my daughter through an unrelenting stomach flu. I’d woken before dawn in a fog typical for me lately. My first thought was gladness that it was Sunday because I am particularly in need of the re-orientation of the Liturgy.

With the house still silent I took up my score and my colored pens again, tracing themes through the St. John Passion in preparation for a performance I’m involved in a week from now.

It was less than thirty minutes before I heard her begin to cry. I knew exactly what kind of cry it was. There wasn’t even room for questioning how the day would play out: My daughter was throwing up; I was not going to church.

This is motherhood, and this is what my priest friend meant.

I have another dear friend who remarked to me one day that he could never do what I do. He does precisely what he wants to do at every moment of his day, he observed. Sure, he’s a responsible adult and faithfully fulfills a whole realm of duties. But he does it in his own way, on his own time. Relatively speaking, he is autonomous. Then he comes over to my house and sees what I do around the clock. There are very few moments of my day that aren’t given to someone else. Even the sandwich I was eating yesterday got partially reallocated to the ravenous stomach of a child who’s finished throwing up.


Yesterday motherhood meant sharing the sandwich I really didn’t want to share. It meant relinquishing my intention to be strengthened by the sacrament and cleaning up puke instead. It meant exchanging the sound of Bach chorales for Princess Sophia on Netflix. It meant pausing a dozen times in the midst of writing a letter to console a two-year-old who thinks he’s a kitty, to coach a six-year-old through big feelings regarding the laws of physics, to hold the sick one again whenever she threw up.

This is motherhood, and this is what my priest friend meant.

It’s not necessarily automatic, and this is where love comes in again. The same set of relinquished intentions can rot a heart as easily as sanctify it, and I’m familiar with this, too. Love is hard and it is costly.

But the gospel story was working on me yesterday, and the themes Bach drew from it in the St. John Passion were my sanctifying filter for the day.

The chorus of the Passion serves to connect the present to the past, not only as the voice of the people in the narrative but as the voice of the congregation now. Bach inserts familiar stanzas from his own tradition’s repertoire into the flow of the story.

The first of these follows Jesus’ courageous love expressed in his demand that, since he was the one the soldiers were seeking, they ought to let his friends go free. The chorus sings “O great love! O love beyond all measure! I lived with delight and joy and you had to suffer.”

Immediately following the betrayal and arrest in the garden, after Jesus heals the soldier whose ear met Peter’s sword, the chorus sings a stanza from Martin Luther’s paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer. “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

The centerpiece of the whole work is another stanza from the incredible hymn literature of the early Lutheran tradition: “Through your prison, Son of God, must freedom come to us; your jail cell is our throne of grace: the freedom of the faithful.”

Perhaps for me the climactic moment comes once Jesus bows his head and dies. Bach weaves an aria and a chorale together. Arias are highly decorative, soloistic art songs). They are the sacred poetry that draws the audience even deeper and more personally into the narrative than the hymns sung by the chorus. The soloist sings this audacious question and then supplies the answer: “My precious Savior, let me ask (now that you have been nailed to the cross and have said yourself ‘It is finished’): Am I made free from death? Can I, through your pain and death, inherit the kingdom of heaven? Has the redemption of the whole world arrived? You cannot, from pain, say anything; yet you bow your head and say silently: Yes!'”

Finally, when the work is all but concluded, the chorus sings again: “The grave which is yours and encloses no more suffering, opens heaven for me and closes off hell.”

Laying aside for the present the whole subject of Christ’s crucifixion and redemption, Bach’s masterpiece is an exploration of “My life for yours.” If motherhood isn’t the most convenient way of being held to the practice of the image of Christ, I don’t know what is.

These were the resources I needed yesterday: submission to God’s will, self-giving love, and most of all a recognition of my participation in the way of the cross.

Fr. Raymond may be on to something…