Minding the gap

I was looking over my upcoming schedule today – a colleague is teaching a seminar at the SF Conservatory and wanted me to lead part of the discussion – and as I glanced over the last few months and the next few approaching ones, I realized something. I still have a gig in September that hasn’t yet been canceled. And if I end up doing it, it will have been six months since my last concert.

I know I’ve blogged about this previously, but this enormous gap was realized anew today as I stared at my schedule (something I generally try to avoid). I’ve had friends of friends tell me that I should treat this forced break like a much-needed sabbatical. I can’t tell you how much that frustrates me. The devastating financial fallout aside, for a musician to not be performing for so long – it’s like having a part of myself missing. Let me explain.

(Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)\

First, I want to dispel the notion that music-making is all about self-expression. Most of us professional musicians spend enough time preforming upbeat tunes when we’ve lost a beloved pet, or delicate melodies when we’re furious at the state of the world, or romantic works when we’re fighting with our partners, never mind the times we have to convincingly play a piece of music that we hate performing. Yes, music is expressive, but oftentimes we performers are expressing that music, not necessarily ourselves.

Rather, for me, it’s this: we as performers are accustomed to externalizing our internal energy. We draw upon our memories of joy, or love, or anger, or sorrow, and channel it through the creation of sound, the performance of music. So we are not just “expressing ourselves” in the moment; it’s more that we’re communicating our own thoughts and reactions and energies through music.

It’s this form of communication that I miss, the sense that I can get a point across, wordlessly, just through the gestures of my body that conjure the harmonies from the orchestra. To take an internal impulse – a thought, a feeling – and to find a way to translate that into the energy of a sound – it’s extraordinary. When I perform I’m literally saying to myself “Out, out, out!” (in a joyful, rather than banishing, way) – sending that spirit into the world, and feeling and watching its visceral effect on people.

And that’s not even touching upon the intense connections that I hold with musicians in front of me, the energy exchanged, the music shared.

When I stand on a podium, gather everything inside me and reveal it through motion to an orchestra, who in turn take in and reflect that energy into a packed hall – this is when I feel understood. This is when I feel known. This is when I feel most connected to humanity.

I’ve not had this for over 3 months now, and the thought of not experiencing that connection for another 3 months, probably more, is more painful than I can adequately explain.

9 thoughts on “Minding the gap

  1. Wayne Zelenak says:

    Sarah, I have always been inspired by listening to music especially film scores. One of my favorite composers is Hans Zimmer who said: “I think one of the things which always is forgotten in music class, is the first thing you have to do as a musician is, you have to learn to listen” Writing a film score is a collaborative exercise in listening to the producer and director, capturing the embodiment of the script, and listening to the musical notes and tones in your memory, to create a melody.

    Each score is different. challenging, and inspiring with hours of writing, editing, and tweaking, usually in the early hours of the morning of sleepless nights, when your thoughts are crystal-clear, fresh, and they become a spiritual endeavor. The creative energy inherent in all musicians is their remarkable ability to share their internal emotions, that flow like a raging river of vigor.

    I admire your tenacity, spirit, and resilience to stay positive in this ravaging year of disappointment and visceral pain. You are gifted with your words of wisdom and the music resonating in your heart, mind, and body. Listen to your spirit and share your profound thoughts with the world, desperately in need of healing.



  2. Ann Fenlason says:

    The first time I saw you conduct the MN Orch was in the spring of 2011: Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (Suite 2). I had studied this incredible piece when I was a grad student in flute at Indiana University, committed its various solo sections to memory in preparation for my career in music, and thankfully got to play it in concert before I received my Masters. My longed-for music career eventually took a turn toward aviation, and after years as an airline pilot, realized I was being called to ministry.

    It was at the end of my first year in seminary (with all the challenges of learning how to learn again–non-stop studying, thick reading, lots of writing) that I realized my soul needed to be fed, nourished, and recharged; hearing the MN Orchestra was the way it would happen.

    As a poor seminarian, I could barely afford to go to Orchestra Hall that night, but I’m so glad I did. That evening, as you strode confidently out to the podium, bowed to the audience, and turned to the orchestra, my anticipation was palpable; I was thrilled to be there, excited to hear–finally!–this piece I had loved for decades. My breath caught as you gave the upbeat (it seemed to take forever!), and at hearing those beautiful, burbling opening notes, tears sprang to my eyes and spilled over onto my cheeks until the orchestra finished that first big crescendo. It was exactly what I needed and I will never forget it. And I thank you for that, Maestra!


    1. chefdorch says:

      Stories like this remind me why we make music. I hope you can attend a MN Orch concert again when the world is back to something closer to normal…


      1. Ann Fenlason says:

        I’ve been a subscriber for several years now and plan on being there when the orchestra starts up again! (I’m holding tickets for the rescheduled concert with Osmo conducting Scheherazade–hoping it will happen.) I thank you for bringing those movie concerts to Orchestra Hall; hearing John Williams’ soundtrack to the Star Wars movies has been such a delight! And Coco was terrific, too! I’ve brought friends and family to them because of how unique and wonderful they are. One day again…


      2. chefdorch says:

        I’m sure you’ve heard about the changes to the 20-21 season (the press release went out on Wednesday) – there will definitely be concerts but not the programs planned due to the need for social distance onstage. A lot of difficult decisions…


      3. Ann Fenlason says:

        Yes. I only just heard yesterday about San Francisco Symphony and reasoned the MN Orch would do similarly though haven’t seen a press release yet. My heart aches for the musicians and artistic directors. Courage, Sarah.


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