Music for a Funeral

Yesterday for the first time in years, I played violin at a funeral. I hesitated when I was asked to do the gig a few days ago, by a dear colleague for a death in his family; because of the horrible travel time to pay ratio on a precious Saturday off, yes, but also… I cry when other people cry. I used to tease my mom when she would cry during a sad movie or so much as a sappy commercial about a family shopping for furniture at Ikea; but I’m realizing as I age, I am turning into a blubbery overly-empathetic mess.

And that doesn’t exactly make it easier to play sad music, contrary to what you might think. It makes it a whole hell of a lot harder; my shaky tense arm shitting all over the soft wistful beginnings and oh God why does it have to end on a high sustained harmonic…not to mention all the tears blurring my eyes making me unable to discern between sharps and flats, playing a disturbingly happy version of Schindler’s List. Nobody wants to see the musicians crying at a funeral!! Just like nobody wants to see the priest crying, unable to get through the words. We are on the Titanic, and something needs to remain stable while everything around us sinks. The musicians must go on.

So I take some deep breaths before walking into the church, and put up as much of a “wall” as I can muster to keep all my emotions inside. Ah, this must be how men feel.  

Upon entering however, I’m struck with how happy people seem! Wow, maybe I won’t need this wall after all! The guest of honor (is that morbid?!) passed in her wisest old years, a life lived to the fullest. This seems more like a celebration of life, a gathering of loved ones to reconnect and share stories, than a dark somber affair. I breathe a sigh of relief.

That is until the woman’s eldest son comes up to speak. There is something about watching a grown man, unable to get his words out while remembering his mother because he is fighting so hard not to cry. The energy in the room starts to shift. Oh God. Now they want me to play this slow beautiful ethereal piece… KEEP IT TOGETHER LAUREN!! I pull my violin, and my wall up; and get through the piece somewhat successfully. Those slight shakes in the long notes are a deliberate musical choice dammit!!

As the ceremony draws to a close, the priest walks over to the coffin and holds an incense bowl at the foot, letting smoke gracefully twirl and dance over this woman’s final resting place while a soprano sings one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Mother Fuck. I can hear it start in the front row… those very people that were all smiles and laughter when I first walked in are now hunched into themselves, Kleenex in hand, sobbing. Audibly. My wall starts to crumble. As though they’re doing “the wave” in a football stadium, the sobbing spreads to the back of the room and EVERYBODY is crying now. HOW the CRAP is this singer KEEPING HER COOL?!? I am so relieved I don’t have to play this one.

As I’m sitting here, taking it all in, my chest burning and my eyes welling up… it strikes me, what an honour this is. To be able to give these people such a beautiful release. Music has this incredible power to allow people to take their walls down and really process their emotions. If we were playing happy upbeat music, they might have stayed in that “celebratory” mode from earlier, but because we are playing slow, beautiful sad music, they feel safe to cry. They know it’s okay to be sad. That we will be up here playing until it’s all over, so they feel no pressure to do anything but reflect on their loss. They don’t need to talk to anybody; they don’t need to smile and pretend everything is okay. We are their protection when they are at their most vulnerable.

And so I build my wall one last time, but I build it big enough to surround everyone. I am strong so they don’t have to be. I take a deep breath, and make it through the last piece.

My Worst Recordings Ever, Episode 1

As a professional classical violinist, I have spent a lot of time recording myself. You need high quality demos for summer music festivals, scholarship and grant applications, university auditions, and orchestral auditions; and honestly I’d rather sit in the middle seat on a flight to China surrounded by babies. You have not seen me at my worst until you’ve witnessed me during a recording session. This coming from somebody who has screamed at innocent bystanders in an A&W for obstructing her path to a Beyond Meat burger with cheese in a post-concert hanger craze; one of the bystanders in fact, an old blind man.

Where a live classical music performance is already shrouded in the expectation of flawlessness (we’ll allow you to play 1-3 notes slightly off-pitch or rush one passage of 16th notes before mentally tossing you in the garbage); a studio recording is meant to display one at their VERY BEST. A representation of what they COULD sound like if they had the most amazing night’s sleep, got to the hall with no near-death Uber experiences, nailed every single technical obstacle exactly as they practiced it, and had a suspiciously healthy audience with no dark phlegmy hacks and crinkly cough drop wrappers saved for all the quiet moments.

Assuming you have thousands of dollars to throw around, you have unlimited chances during a recording session to re-do any passage that’s not to your liking, then you get your audio engineer to hack it all up and glue it back together making a polished musical-Frankenstein of only the best takes. If you’re not so financially blessed, you record as many full runs of the piece as possible on your own shitty equipment then pick the best one.

Cut to me on all fours in a room I’ve rented out in the Maritime Conservatory of Music, screaming and banging my fists into the carpeted cement floor after the 82nd take of Paganini’s 5th Caprice for a university demo. I don’t think more swear words were ever launched in that place, which also hosts ballet classes and children’s music programs. There are like 8000 notes in that 3 minute long mother fucker. Every time I fudged something, it was straight back to the beginning like Paperboy on the original Nintendo. Except I couldn’t throw my violin across the room like I would have with the controller.

The only alternative to this method of recording, other than quitting music, is to magically get an amazing take from a live performance. I have never had the best luck with this method, because I get NERVOUS as FUCK. No matter how much I prepare or how many performance-regulating drugs* I take, I inevitably shit the bed in at least 3 spots, rendering the recording useless. (*Musicians won’t admit it, but most of us have a bottle of beta blockers in the medicine cabinet that to an audition panel behind a screen, marks the difference between “this is a normal person” and “Jesus are they okay?! Are they being chased by a man with a knife??”)

In my “Lauren DeRoller” itunes folder, I have two sets of recordings: those made in a studio and fit for the ears of snobby music judges wearing suits so tight they can’t sit down properly (that’s how I imagine them); and those recorded live, which are not permitted to leave the safety of my computer. UNTIL TODAY. My friends. I think it is time we stop perpetuating this myth that the best musicians are those able to get from start to finish of a piece with zero mistakes. I would so much rather listen to a musician play from their heart with I dunno, 15 wrong notes, 2 memory slips and an audible curse word; than spit out Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto as though it was being played from a Midi file. Technically flawless but boring as fuck. Some of my live recordings are actually really good, save for a few spectacular donks.

The following recording takes this a little far, containing MOSTLY donk with a few “actually really good” moments; but I thought I’d start this series with the one that makes me laugh the most. Which is worth something too, God dammit. In grade 12, I put on a solo recital that showcased not only my stress-fueled violin skills, but yup… my mediocre piano abilities. I really did love playing the piano, but I would notoriously sight-read for my weekly lesson, never practicing at home. I am proud to say, it shows. (All the “dramatic pauses” you hear are me scrambling to find the notes)

P.S. If you listen to this and can’t tell what’s wrong with it, congratulations! You haven’t been jaded by the impossible standards of classical music culture and you are capable of simply… enjoying music. What a concept!

I give you, my favourite worst recording ever:

Rachmaninoff Piano Prelude in C# minor/Lauren DeRoller/2004

I’ll leave you with the “good” version.