Thoughts and Prayers

On Sunday, June 12, a lone gunman entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and slaughtered 49 people, injuring 53 others.  This marks the most fatal mass shooting by a single assailant in U.S. history (though even deadlier massacres against civilians have haunted this nation’s past).

The club was hosting “Latin Night” and spotlighting trans performers, so the shooting explicitly targeted not only the already-marginalized LGBT community [1], but also a marginalized ethnic community.  Though the media has been frenziedly touting “radical Islam” as the shooter’s motive, there is no denying that the primary force that drove this tragedy — this invasion of a safe space for a community already disproportionately vulnerable to violence, homelessness, and suicide — was, above all, homophobia.

I’m heteroromantic, white, and cisgender, so I won’t use this platform to co-opt the LGBT and Latinx communities’ grief.  That’s not what this post is about.  Instead, I’m here to talk about classical music.

Remember the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last October?  Probably not, because it’s been overshadowed by the 200+ acts of mass gun violence that have taken place in the U.S. since then (Orlando included).  Regardless — back in October, Hartford-based classical music critic Steve Metcalf published an article entitled “Imagine Classical Music and Gun Control: It Isn’t Hard to Do,” which he later adapted as a radio piece following December’s attack in San Bernardino.

In the article, Metcalf talks about the trope of “thoughts and prayers,” words that are often expressed sincerely yet empty of intent or ability to take action:

I was struck this time by how many people, including President Barack Obama, made the point that they were so very weary of conveying their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims’ families and friends.  The phrase is sincerely offered, of course, but increasingly seems inadequate to the task, particularly when we’re called upon to use it so often.

Metcalf then points to the classical music world’s equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” paradigm — the famous quote by Leonard Bernstein, noted pacifist and champion of civil rights, penned following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963:

This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

The Bernstein quote has been widely circulated on my social media feeds ever since Sunday.  The Orlando Philharmonic even posted it on their Facebook page.  And I’m no less guilty, having shared it on Tumblr last night.  As Metcalf writes, “It has become the classical music world’s automatic, default response.”

Continue reading

Between Thanksgivings

I’ll start with a quote, because all great blog posts begin with a quote.

This particular quote comes to us from Karl Paulnack, Director of the Boston Conservatory‘s Music Division, in his 2004 welcome address to the school’s incoming freshmen:

If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life.  Well, my friends, someday at eight PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary.  Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

End quote.  Keep it in mind.  I’ll get back to it in a bit.


Forty-six days separate Canadian and American Thanksgivings, which sounds like a long time, but in reality, those forty-six days seemed to pass as though each were chasing the next at gunpoint.

Canadian Thanksgiving falls on a Monday — in the motherland, this coincides with an observance known as Columbus Day, which serves little purpose other than shutting down the post office — making for a three-day weekend that pales in comparison to American Thanksgiving’s five.  I celebrated in a triptych of dinners: vegan tacos, duets, and oboe reeds with a lovely friend on Saturday; a potluck and Cards Against Humanity (Canadian expansion, naturally) with quintet members on Sunday; and cashew-cauliflower soup, pumpkin pie, and Friends (“The One with Joey’s Interview”) with my fantastic roommate on Monday.

During Sunday’s festivities, I learned about the following, slightly traumatizing PSA that aired throughout western Canada in the early Nineties, which I am sharing here because viewing it is — truly — a life experience that everyone ought to have:

Thanksgiving is a time for many things: food, friends, gratitude — and, apparently, Clinton-era, public health-related puppetry — which is why Day 33 of my inter-Thanksgiving countdown was such a horrifying antithesis to the spirit of the season.

Day 33 was November 13.   Continue reading

First Responders: Thoughts on Boston, Music in Society, and a History Lesson

Woo!  I’m back!  I still have a recital and some exams to contend with, but I’ve missed writing these posts, and so much has happened in the music world over the past couple of weeks that just needs to be written about.

In the wake of the tragedy in Boston, I would like to share with you a message from the Director of the Music Division at the Boston Conservatory:

From Director of the Music Division, Karl Paulnack

In case you are confused by the fact that my Facebook account is presently set in Italian, this was posted on Thursday, April 18, three days after the bombing.  Though I was locked safely in a practice room 600 miles away when it happened, the event left me shaken.  My friend at the New England Conservatory saw the blast from her window.  My friend here, so far away, has a friend whose dad ran in the marathon that day.  My friend at MIT had said hello to the slain officer the day before the shootout.  I know that mass acts of violence occur on a daily basis all over the world, and this fact is sad and terrible, but few of us think about it because it does not affect us directly.  It is so rare that one of those acts touches people you know.  It creates a whole new perspective.  A perspective where the world is scary and gray, and where you know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone else who might have died today.

Karl Paulnack‘s message really got me thinking.  In a world that is scary and gray, a world where you are only a few degrees separated from tragedy every single day, music is necessary.  I mean, I listened to the Boston Symphony play Tchaik 5 over and over again for hours every day after the bombing, up until about three days ago.  Just to mull things over, restore my faith in humanity.  Music has the power to absorb horror, to dull pain.  This is why the idea of the musician as a first responder is so intriguing.

In 2009, Paulnack wrote an incredibly well-articulated essay (read it here), in which he explores the role of the musician in society.  He even cites the Quadrivium as a measure of music’s societal importance (which I totally wrote about here).  Paulnack points out that the reopening of Broadway after 9/11 was just as significant as the reopening of the stock exchange, and that we play music at weddings and funerals not to entertain but “to meaningfully experience these events…to grasp complex things.”  He writes, “A musician is more of a paramedic than an entertainer.  I’m not interested in entertaining you; I’m interested in keeping you alive.  Fully alive.  We’re a lot like cardiac surgeons; we hold people’s hearts in our hands every day.  We just use different instruments.”  Continue reading