The Restorative Power of Burning Things

A week ago on the new moon, I sat in a “circle” of 9 women over Zoom, and set a bunch of shit on fire… in my living room.

(Who knew, I’m also a poet. And a witch, apparently)

I’m not entirely sure why I haven’t done this sooner, because it felt AMAZING. Damn. Why don’t they teach us these things in school?!? “Setting Things on Fire is Pretty Fun 101.” Seems like a no-brainer where absolutely nothing would go wrong.

Of course I’ve enjoyed many a fire before. I grew up right on a beach in rural redneck Nova Scotia where nightly summer bonfires were as inevitable as the attending drunks who would stumble into our yard to pee (or pass out on the tent containing me and two other kids). But this wasn’t just any standard burning of rotten wood and Bud Light cartons…

I was burning my creative demons.

I mean, technically I was burning little pieces of paper on which I had scrawled the names of all the grade A shit-turds I have encountered in my life. I don’t mean the kind of shit-turds who yell at you for saying 2 words in English on the streets of Montreal, or who walk around the upper floor of an apartment on the heels of their feet. (These are grade B or grade C shit-turds at best; or simply, “turds.”)

I’m talking about the kind of shit-turds who see the embers of something beautiful in a budding artist… and make it their mission to stamp it out. If I only knew from age 7, when I met my first creative demon, what I know now: these people are miserable, and feel a lot more comfortable when everybody around them is on the same level.

Helene, one of my mom’s delightful partners growing up, would listen to me playing concertos on a 3/4 size violin and call me a sissy, preaching that I should be playing hockey outside like a normal kid. My violin teacher for the first half of my Bachelor’s degree in music treated me like I was 8 and made me play matching repertoire, crushing my desire to practice. The conductor of my first real orchestral job pulled me into his office after my winning audition and informed me how lucky I was that he had decided to take pity on me, he could have just as easily not hired me. The man then proceeded to bully me during rehearsal breaks all year, aka when nobody was watching. Mm, so lucky.

The list of creative demons goes on, and on. Snore. We’ve all had them. It doesn’t escape me though, that most if not all of my demons bared their ugly heads during my classical music career. I wonder how much of a coincidence it is, that during this pandemic when all of my normal distractions are gone, I have realized that I don’t really love playing classical music anymore. Did I ever really like playing it? SHUT UP, BRAIN!!

Let me just humor this passing thought for a second though. I mean, of course I loved playing classical music, and still do. Sometimes. When I love playing classical music, it is because the intention is pure. I, and everyone surrounding me, want nothing more than to share something meaningful and gorgeous with each other and everyone in the audience. This happened a lot in my youth when I used to take part in summer music festivals where we were worked to the bone for free room and board, not a penny more. We must have loved what we were doing if we were doing it for free!!

Now as I progress in my musical career and call myself a professional, earning a sizable chunk of money for my services (pandemic shit-show aside), I find I am often surrounded by people who have forgotten why we got into this business in the first place. If we are being paid, that must be why we are doing it. We get bogged down in matching up all of our bowings and articulations and playing it exactly as the composer intended, in the “correct” style of that period.

We are the highly-trained musicians of an internationally renowned professional orchestra, and goddammit IT HAD BETTER SHOW!!

If my poor stand-partner (I write this but I really mean me) is unfortunate enough to play an up-bow while the rest of us play down, or they hold a half-note for a fraction of a second too long, or heaven forbid, they misread an accidental… you would think they just audibly sharted during the slow movement of a Beethoven symphony, their face will flush such a deep red.

We shouldn’t be deeply embarrassed if we play a wrong note; we should be deeply embarrassed if we play an entire concert in the pursuit of perfection, forgetting our true purpose: to connect with each other. What we lose in technical accuracy, we gain in creating a transcendent experience for the audience, and ourselves. I miss the concerts of my youth, when there wasn’t so much at stake.

I remember during one of the summers I played with the Verbier Festival Orchestra, we were performing Mahler’s 4th symphony. The one with the famous scordatura concertmaster solos in the 2nd movement. All of our concerts were filmed for Medici.tv, so we always had a bit of an extra edge to our already youthful adrenaline-fueled performances. Not even 4 bars into the sea of difficult solos, our concertmaster Roberto’s E-string (or, F#-string, in this case) snaps clear off of his violin, and he has to suddenly transpose everything over to the next available string. It’s truly every violinist’s nightmare. But Roberto is almost fired up by the challenge, and performs the rest of the piece with flair, sporting a mischievous smile- as though to let the audience in on the joke. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s exciting as hell.

After the concert, a bunch of us sit on my twin-sized bed crowded around a laptop, and re-watch the moment when Roberto’s string snaps over and over, freeze-framing on his face the exact millisecond he realizes he now needs to recalculate every single note of the solo, in front of live cameras. It is just pure, undiluted horror… and we are absolutely PISSING OUR PANTS laughing. Not at him!! But just, in utter glee because this kind of thing isn’t allowed to happen in the classical world. We feel exhilarated! We just witnessed something entirely new, something we didn’t spend hundreds of hours planning for!!

When we shared the footage with Roberto, he was understandably dismayed at first, because he is a fantastic player and he wanted the audience to experience the music exactly as practiced. This is how classical musicians are conditioned. But our laughter was contagious and soon Roberto was peeing his pants too. What Roberto gave us, and the audience that night- was something real. It was vulnerable, it was beautiful, it was hilarious. It was art.

I have had so many great experiences during my classical music career, but I’m just not sure it’s sustainable anymore. At least, not as my primary creative outlet in life. All of my creative demons along the way have certainly rocked my boat, but I think what is finally sinking it is the unbearable expectation to be perfect all the time. To have to hide a significant part of myself in my art, just because “that’s how it has always been done.” When we are only willing to present our creative work to audiences in a perfect state, we deprive them of the most special part.

On the new moon I don’t think I was just burning my creative demons. I was burning my identity as a classical musician. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I am here, on December 21st, 2020 (the winter solstice) standing on my figurative mountaintop and yelling my dreams at the top of my lungs. I need to be in a medium where I can be 100% myself. Where I feel safe sharing the whole, not just the polished exterior. Where I can make a giant mistake that becomes the story, and I make everybody piss their pants laughing.

“HEY UNIVERSE! I WANT TO BE A WRITER!!”

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.