When I was doing my masters degree at Juilliard, I took a jazz survey class and I remember there was this girl in class who was REALLY into it. When the teacher would play tracks of old time swing bands and Louis and Ella, she would sit in her corner, bobbing and weaving her body to the music, with her eyes closed. It was super embarrassing at the time and the rest of us would sit stock still in our seats, trying not to notice her. Now, I admire her courage.
That same girl is now a jazz violinist, travelling the world playing, married and the mother of an adorable little girl.
I was never into jazz in particular but I did long for the freedom that I saw was possible in other musical genres. Improvisation used to be an integral part of a classical musician’s education but somewhere along the way, it fell by the wayside. Part of this is because classical composers used to always be composers and performers. Now, composers compose and performers perform – the two are distinct roles, though there are increasingly more musicians that are able to do both.
Improvise? Who Me?
A couple of summers ago, I decided to finally take the bull by the horns and see if I could learn to improvise, maybe learn a fiddle tune or two. After doing some internet research, I stumbled upon Mike Block – a cellist who, like me went to Juilliard, but has since re-created his identity from an exclusively classical cellist to a multi-genre-bending cello virtuoso.
I screwed up my courage and emailed Mike, telling him who I was and that I was interested in learning to improvise but that I was very scared to try. Within minutes, Mike emailed me back with his phone number, asking me to call him so we could talk. I shared with him my apprehensions and fears of looking foolish. I was relieved to find that Mike, coming from the same background as me, could empathize and had, in fact, walked the path himself.
An hour later, I’d signed up to Mike Block String Camp.
Since then, I’ve attended Mike’s camps the past two summers. It’s been exhilarating and terrifying and I’m still very much a beginner. But I learned SO MUCH and those experiences have lead me to others.
Old dogs can’t learn new tricks, right? Or can they?
It’s a very uncomfortable feeling to try new things as an adult. You feel so vulnerable and exposed and it’s not really fun. But the upside is that, if you are willing to leave your comfort zone, you learn new skills and gain knowledge beyond your immediate area of expertise. And if you’re lucky, you also meet cool (and kind) people who help you along the way.
In a later post, I’ll share with you my thoughts on the differences and similarities between the classical and fiddling world.
But for now, I encourage you to do something that scares you, maybe something you’ve thought about doing for a long time. And just begin anywhere. Taking the first step is often the hardest part.