WRITING LIFE: Writing Has Made Me a More Resilient Musician by Robert Herbst

I’m backstage, my violin in one hand, my music in the other. The proctor is there—a church lady type, or else a portly man, probably with a white goatee. Fending off small talk, I try to stay focused, but not anxious; relaxed, but with the right amount of intensity. Eventually, there is some signal and my companion tells me I’m on. My dress shoes make a racket on hardwood, or tile, or thud dully on actual red carpet. I emerge into a cavernous hall, or a church sanctuary. There is always a music stand and a long black curtain. I’m always alone.

I am lucky to be both a violinist and a writer, but while both music and writing purport to make us closer as a species, it doesn’t always feel like that. The world of orchestral auditions is a lonely one. So is the ridiculous act of committing your silly ideas to paper. Why is it that art—that great uniter of humanity—is often a solitary pursuit? So much creation happens in rooms with a single music stand, a lone easel, a pen and pad of paper. Not to mention the loneliest room of all–that echo chamber in your skull where all of this comes from.

To understand these competing tendencies of art (community and isolation), it’s important to think historically. Vijay Iyer, the composer, and jazz pianist, is one of the great contemporary thinkers on the purpose of music and art. In his brilliant lecture series, Math Science Music, he speculates that music evolved because synchronicity was useful. Tribesmen who could beat drums in unison possessed a powerful technology to warn the clan of coming invaders. I’m familiar with this technology—the knowing look when you and a quartet-mate have an entrance at the same time. The gesture from a conductor: with me, now, and with feeling. It’s one of the greatest things in the world.

Writing, or its more ancient form, storytelling, offers a different flavor of synchronicity. We huddle around the fire to hear of faraway places where things are not well. We hang on to every word, and our gasp is collective. This idea is so hard-wired that it’s become a trope in fiction: we tell stories about telling stories around the fire (see also Rick Bass’s superb “The Hermit’s Story”). As a child of the ‘90s, one of my favorite T.V. shows, “Are You Afraid of the Dark,” is a more familiar, if less literary, example.

But in pursuit of these arts, we sometimes lose that communal element. We realize there’s no one to sync up with—it’s just you against the world, bud. I face this most often when taking auditions. The blank expanse of curtain, behind which sprawls a panel of veteran musicians, exhausted, willing to give you all of five minutes to plead your case. No speaking, though. The me-myself-and-I-ness of the whole process can be heady.

Equally isolating are the moments of desertion. A friend of mine recently told me that she was giving up the ghost of orchestral auditions to move to Hawaii and become a vet-tech. What is that oh-so familiar feeling? It’s not just the attrition of a friend to a place so unimaginably tropical as to be fictional. It’s also the loss of a comrade-in-arms. One fewer ally in the despairing effort to win a full-time job.

It’s times like these that I’m most grateful for the writer side of me. The close-third-person part of my brain, cataloguing odd experiences for the sheer fun of it. The writer side is happy to be along on the audition ride for its absurdity but is ultimately uninvested. It’s delighted when a person in the group warm-up room stands too close and starts repeating everything I play, but faster and louder. He invades my personal space, pierces the solo bubbles we are each expected to inhabit. Has he lost his fucking mind? Writer-me wonders with a touch of schadenfreude.

I’m grateful for the writer side of me when I’m shepherded into a room with school desks, where two dozen violinists are seated facing the front of the classroom like it’s first period, awaiting the verdict of a long audition round. Holding onto their phones like life-preservers. Despite my thumping heart and shallow breaths, I’m still workshopping the similes.

I wouldn’t be the first to use art as a filter to make life more palatable. Monet painted his wife on her deathbed. Mahler orchestrated the three tragedies of his life (the diagnosis of his fatal illness, his forced resignation from his conducting post, the death of his eldest daughter) as blows from a giant hammer onto a wooden box. We don’t always react well to artists who choose to create when they should be mourning. It can seem opportunistic or cold. But I think the impulse it stems from is incredibly human: emotional stress is tied to heightened artistic feeling. That feeling might even be a sort of coping mechanism or a release valve. We notice the gait of an ant on a nearby leaf as a partner leaves us. The pattern on the carpet during the doctor’s diagnosis. It’s a way to step outside of ourselves into something greater in the face of our profound isolation.

It’s because I’m a writer that I’m able to face another round of auditioning. I wait backstage, and I stare down aloneness like a wild animal, only taming it with my pen, my notebook, and a clever turn of phrase. Instead of fight or flight, write. Too smarmy, maybe. Perhaps I’ll get it right later if I make it to the final round.

Meet the Contributor
Robert Herbst is a writer and violinist based in Chicago. His fiction has been published at Scoundrel Time, New World Writing, HAD, and other publications. He is a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and he enjoys the company of his dog, Reba, who is a very good girl. You can read more at robbieherbst.com or some dumb jokes on Twitter @rickarob.

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