I tell my students that much like gasoline is a byproduct of the oil refining process, frustration is a symptom of learning. It means that changes are happening, that you’re bumping up against things that hold you back. You can even take the metaphor further by suggesting that frustration can be a useful fuel for progress, if you have some means by which to combust the stuff.

By that token, it would be fair to say that I have been schooled by the year 2012, though I have not yet found adequate means by which to burn off the excess frustration heaved upon me by this education. Sometimes writing these things down (especially when you know someone is going to read them) helps lend a sense of perspective, so I’ll indulge myself with the following:

What I’ve learned in 2012

1. I downplay how much I miss playing on a more substantial level, how grief-stricken and disappointed I am to have needed to sell my cello. 

In that transaction, I feel like I sold my majority shares of stock in the belief that I am worthwhile as a cellist. There is some stock left yet, and I have the long-ingrained habit of putting one foot in front of the other and carrying on without hysteria, but this needs to be tended to in 2013. It is a cloud that formed when I went back for my master’s, and it hasn’t stopped raining since. My hope, since I’m already neck-deep in metaphor, is that this winter, the rain will turn to snow and quiet things down in that wonderful lonely way that only snow can, and that maybe I can find a way to be happy where I am or go crunching off in a direction that feels right to me. It’s important to say hard things like this out loud to actually start dealing with it, instead of running some kind of bizarre PR campaign where I have to make others feel better about this bereavement.

There is no not surviving this, but it takes work to come out of it better, and that outcome is not guaranteed.


2. Teaching is still new.

Every few months I hear another instructor’s take or make some new connection and it explodes my enthusiasm for teaching yet another iteration. I think the only benefit of having several forced breaks from the instrument (twice for injury, once for surgery recovery to repair said injury) and get rusty as all get-out is that each has been an opportunity to critically reconsider even the most basic aspects of technique and approach. Although I think I have the form in good working order, there is a freshness, an openness to being aware of it.

I still miss classroom teaching, and the constant investigation and review it entails. Never have I felt like such a musician than after teaching a group of 19 year old non-majors about the drama large of intervallic leaps and the sinister implications of a half step.


3. Hockey is beautiful.

The clattering sound of stick hitting puck has a satisfying, tactile quality. As with anything that is terribly difficult and usually commenced at a very young age, there is a certain grace and lightness to the way it’s done. I love this video because it’s the much loved/hated Sidney Crosby fooling around with the great Mario Lemieux’s son when he figured nobody was looking. The stick looks weightless in his hands, and if you’ve ever tried to skate and stickhandle you appreciate the offhanded and yet Gift From God ability this guy has. As an aside, the other part of hockey’s beauty are the people who play it. The lockout has made me dig deep on NHL Network, which is filling airtime with biographies and documentaries. I don’t think I’ve watched an entire one with a dry eye.


4. These things are bad:

wet iPhones

dropped iPhones

power outages


traffic cameras


unrealistic expectations of others

unrealistic expectations of myself

the stink eye


5. These things are good: 

cars with buttwarmers


thick walls


Crème de la Mer

restorative yoga classes

road trips

gas lamps

Dr. Who


6.  I really value my friends. 

I was listening to an interview with the late John O’Donohue where he quipped something to the effect that we’ve become postgraduates in the art of acquaintance and paupers in the art of friendship.

Guilty as charged. I don’t even really know some of my friends any more, and some of the people I see the most frequently do not leave me feeling nourished when we part. My phone (the one that doesn’t like water or concrete) is full of names, yet when things are truly dire there are perhaps four people who I would trust not to turn my misfortune into some manipulative or self-serving narrative.

Surprise New Year’s Resolution: I will clean out my address book!

And for my skinny little list of friends who know they deserve better but hang around anyway, this song, sung in the very old Irish style is for you, with much love. Skip to the 30 second mark.



 7. I am still very, very lucky. 

It is possible to have a difficult year and still feel fortunate. I am just now beginning to realize that it’s not all good or bad, but more like a recipe with lots of ingredients. I found great support on Twitter and was able to apprentice at Potter Violins and learn to rehair bows. These materials and skills are on the back burner for the time being, but are never far from my mind’s eye. I nurse a dream of a sun-filled space where I can teach, write and work on bows. There will be a couch with loud fabric and bookshelves up to the ceiling, maybe one of those wheelie ladders to reach the top, where I will keep the orchestral scores.

My run of luck extends into the people I meet by happenstance, including an Army doctor who graduated from Curtis and shares my verve for PTSD research, and the curious number of veterans I end up sitting next to at lunch counters who want to strike up conversations and talk shop.

Strings has asked me to write for another year, with the additional assignment of assembling a guide to cello technique. I am flattered beyond measure that they trust me with this task, and I am relishing each chapter.



Happy 2013. Here’s hoping we can take with us the essence of what 2012 has taught but proceed forward with none of its weight. Have some T.S. Eliot to lighten your load, this excerpt from Little Gidding.

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,

And next year’s words await another voice.

. . .

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

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5 Responses

  1. You had me until you mentioned that pr*ck Crosby. 🙂

    I get the “bizarre PR campaign to make others feel better” thing, too. I often think that’s a big part of why I consider hard times better survived alone. It’s difficult enough to go through something trying without also having to calculate how one needs to perform one’s emotions in a manner that communicates them accurately to an audience. Maybe that says something negative about us both, but reaching middle age means I no longer apologize for my personal quirks or consider them indicative of something about myself in need of repair. If this is what we are, then this is what we are and the world can damned well cope with us. 🙂

    Have a good 2013. 🙂

  2. I don’t see any mention of the help you’ve given to those who read your blog. Any assessment of the previous year should include the fact that you help a lot of people. You’ve helped me. I’m appreciative. Thanks.

  3. Em,

    It broke my heart to hear you had to sell your cello. I am so sorry that happened. You are gifted in so many ways and I hope those gifts bring you great fun this year. I fondly remember listening to you and my sister play in the orchestra together. You were talented beyond your years and I imagine even more so now. Hopefully, this year will be a better one.

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