2020 in Books

Although I am, at this point, really dragging, unable to get back to any emails in a reasonable amount of time, and needing to lie down multiple times a day, I am gritting my teeth and making myself write this post, because it is February 2021 and if I don’t get around to this now, I never will.

2020 was a real [obscene hand gesture] of a year—I won’t bore you with details because, well, it communally sucked for everyone, didn’t it? If you’re interested, I wrote a whole piece over on Substack that is my best attempt at describing the suspended state of despair I think we were all in, and specifically describes the futility of making music in that state.

If you missed it, I also put together a blog post in August summarizing the things I had managed to accomplish; for the highlights of what else I was able to do after that, kindly see the press page on my website.


My reading goal in 2020 was to read more new books than I had the year before; since I finished 64 new books in 2019, my goal for 2020 was 65. I ended up blowing past that number in August, and by the end of December had finished a nice round 100. I have no idea what my reading goal is for this year, if any, since a goal of 100+ gets you into the realm of reading for the sake of reading, which goes against everything I stand for, so for now I’m just 🤷🏻‍♀️ about my reading goal for this year.

Before I get into my list, several observations I took away from a year of reading:

Continue reading

A Few Updates

I logged into my blog just now to make another Twitter thread post, and checked to see when I’d last updated this blog (“It’s been a while, maybe two months?”). To my mild horror, I found that my last post was on January 8.

That was a whole era ago—a different, simpler time before a global pandemic hit a woefully unprepared America, before hundreds of thousands of people died, before several waves of panic-buying and lockdowns, before several industries (including the arts) were forced to face the threat of nonexistence, before a national-and-then-international reckoning with racial inequities and the generational legacy of violence, before massive job losses and medical equipment shortages and viral hotspots, and before countless other cracks, visible and invisible, appeared in the structure of society, and we learned that nothing is certain, and everything is frightening.

Against the backdrop of all of this, my own little life has been quietly chugging along, and 2020 has served up a truly mixed bag, career-wise: a few steps forward, a few steps GONE. Poof.

The important thing though, is that I am okay. I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge. I hope you’re okay too, and if you’re able to I hope you’re doing what you can to support others around you, whether that’s supporting a small local business, tipping delivery workers generously, or donating to food banks and mutual aid funds. (I’ve been doing my best to do all of the above.)

With that, here are some updates on what I’ve been doing this year, for those of you who still follow my blog but not social media (I know you exist! I see you!)

  • I released two recordings this year. They’re both short, sweet singles, and you should absolutely listen to them on your streaming service of choice, so I can earn a few pennies. (The links below allow you to choose your streaming service, FYI.)
  • To accompany the first release and celebrate Louise Farrenc, I put together a gender-balanced playlist featuring my new recording as well as other gorgeous pieces of solo piano Romantic music. (I still listen to it; it’s a good playlist, dammit.)
  • I did a couple of interviews in which I discuss my own musical journey, these lesser-played composers I love so much, my take on success and the music world, the Uncertain Times the music industry is in, etc.
  • I started, then stalled on, a new outlet for my writing on Substack. At the beginning of the year I gave into peer pressure joined several of my colleagues by setting up a Substack, with the intention of publishing once a month. I hit it out of the park, if I do say so myself, with my first post, a take on the double standards in classical music that set the scene for dumbest controversy ever, and was all set to keep the momentum going once a month. Then the pandemic hit the US, devastating, well, everything, and suddenly the posts I had in the can seemed tone-deaf and inappropriate. I haven’t updated since, but I think I’m ready to have another go soon.
  • I’m still writing and posting practice videos over on Patreon. This is the one platform on which I’m still posting consistently, because as it turns out, the existence of steady pay, however little, is the key to consistent output—who knew? I feel a little weird promoting it at a time when your money can do so much good going elsewhere, but if you have $5-$20 a month to spare, and want to keep up with what I’m doing, this is how I fund my recording projects. (For real, the Patreon money goes straight into a business account that is used for me to write checks to the recording studio I work with, and any expenses I pay out of it have to be justified to an accountant and the IRS, so you can rest assured that none of it goes toward my macaron addiction or scented candle collection.)
    • P.S. The reward for the top-tier support level—$20 a month—is that I send you mail once a month, and this has become one of my favorite activities in lockdown: writing letters/cards, decorating the envelopes, picking out my favorite stamps. Cannot recommend highly enough how soothing of an activity this is in a time of isolation.
  • I updated my website (finally) to reflect the projects I’ve done and the platforms I’m on. My website at the beginning of the year had no place for me to show the recording or writing I’ve been doing, or the places I’ve been mentioned/featured/promoted. I overhauled it and it now has all these handy pages (recordings! press! writing! a whole page just for social media!) where the stuff I’m listing in this blog post actually has an official home.
  • I started some hobby accounts just for myself. As my personal social media accounts have started tilting in the direction of being semi-professional, I’ve felt weirdly self-conscious about spamming Twitter and Instagram with random things I love. So I created an Instagram account to log my 2020 reading where I write a little mini-review of every new book I finish, and, in classic Millennial fashion, an Instagram for my cat. (Oh yeah, I got a cat. She’s the best quarantine buddy in the world.)

That’s it for now, folks. 2020 is not the year I planned for, but I’m still proud of the things I’ve been able to do, and it’s a privilege to have any accomplishments at all and to share them with you. I hope you’re okay, in whatever way “okay” means to you. Stay safe, wear a mask, and thanks for being here.

Death of a Snob

My mom mentioned the other day that at some point when I was young, I went to a playdate at a house that had a piano. So I sat down and played a difficult little piece for a very polite audience, and when I was finished one father said, “That’s nice. Hey, can you play anything by the Beatles?”

I think that’s about the time I became very stuck-up about music—I’d realized at that point that outside of my parents’ house and my piano teacher’s studio, no one seemed to be listening to the type of music I was playing. So, like all young people who feel misunderstood when they like something non-mainstream, I became very snobby about music.

Like many quietly horrible things, like gelatin-based salads and casual racism, the music snobbery came from a place of misguided good intentions. Classical music had always captured my heart, lit up my imagination, and described all the complex emotions that defied language, and I couldn’t understand why people would turn their backs on so sublime an art in favor of the nonsense that came out of the radio. I erroneously decided that such ignorance had to be intentional, and as such deserved mockery.

I like to think that I was a nice kid, but my snobbishness knew no bounds, and got worse the older I got. It’s a miracle I made it out of high school with any friends left. If someone told me they liked “the Moonlight Sonata,” I’d snort. “You mean you like Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, Op. 27 No. 2 in C-sharp minor, right? Have you even heard the third movement, or are you one of those people who just listens to the first and thinks that’s the whole thing?”

I was also so utterly convinced of the objective superiority of classical music that I was certain that, if one blasted Liszt’s “La Campanella” enough times in the hallway, the sheeple would snap out of it and recognize true greatness. Come to think of it, I think that’s the exact same reasoning that explains why people stand on street corners waving signs about Jesus.

Luckily for all the people who stuck around to put up with me, I had a couple of realizations:

1. The obvious thing: classical music, like all forms of art, is deeply personal. There’s no one magic piece, genre, or style you can use to get everybody hooked. My gateway drug was a “Classical Masterpieces” compilation CD set, but for somebody else it might be a Bugs Bunny cartoon or Fantasia. I spent so many years pooh-poohing John Williams as a Hollywood hack that it came as a surprise to me that his movie scores have led many people down the rabbit hole and turned them into real fans of classical music. Even after you’ve discovered the wonderful, wacky, colorful world of art music, what turns people on can vary wildly. I’m pretty sure there’s a dopamine center in my brain that’s exclusively activated by Beethoven, yet I know plenty of people for whom his music doesn’t do anything. (I have since repaired my friendships with these people despite their obvious shortcomings.)

2. The hard truth: if you exclude other fans of classical music because their reasons for loving it aren’t good enough for you, you’re not going to have a lot of allies left. You know, besides the really pedantic purists who analyze everything to death and insist you won’t truly appreciate this piece until you’ve read this one book in the original German by candlelight. I have met people like this (heck, I’ve been one of those people) and they are not very pleasant. Classical music lovers are classical music lovers, and concerts are way more fun with more people in the audience.

3. The really uncomfortable truth: classical music gets painted as an exclusive institution because it is. As much as we musicians and music lovers like to trumpet (pun intended) the universality of music, it is an unpleasant fact that the groups of people allowed to write, perform, criticize, curate, and preserve art music have been, and still are, limited to a small cohort defined by privilege. Often, when we talk about “classical music,” we really mean European and American music, and when we talk about European and American music, we really mean music written by European and American men, and when we talk about music written by European and American men, we really mean music written by European and American men of the upper and middle class and…you get the point.

And hey, the classism affects audiences, too. While enjoyment of music can be had at all levels of familiarity, people with more music education and experience are more likely to appreciate and support the arts. But music education isn’t exactly universal. Most kids who get to learn to play music are kids with parents who can afford to get them lessons and instruments and take them to concerts. Music classes aren’t offered in all schools, they’re usually the first thing to go when the budget cuts roll around, and music appreciation often isn’t something that’s taught along with history, math, or science (even though it’s a direct application of all three things combined). Classical music is a massively important cultural keystone, but it’s also extremely daunting for those not familiar with it, and its reputation for snobbery can turn people off from seeing what all the fuss is about. Writing off people for having no knowledge of music when they haven’t been given a chance to be exposed to it is…well, it’s as exclusionist as you can get without straight-up building a #*%^ing wall.

This combination of epiphanies killed my inner snob pretty quickly. A couple of years ago, if I heard a snippet of the William Tell Overture outside of a concert hall (which describes 100% of the times I have heard it), I’d sigh theatrically and say, “Poor Rossini.” Now? Sure, it’s a little annoying that Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and Vivaldi’s “Spring” are constantly churned out by commercials, movies, wind-up toys, et. al…but it’s admittedly also kind of cool that tunes from classical music are woven into the fabric of modern culture and kept alive in the ears of people who might not otherwise ever hear those melodies.

So what does it mean that I’ve renounced my snobbish ways? It hasn’t necessarily changed my tastes—I’m still pretty picky about what I listen to and like, and I have a very limited range of tolerance for most pop music—but my attitude has evolved a lot. I make it a point not to condescend to people who don’t know much about music, and in fact it’s kind of fun to figure out how to explain something I learned very technically in a way that’s approachable and relatable. I’ve learned that if someone likes something even tangentially related to classical music—movie scores, video game music, classical crossover, or heck, Für Elise—it means they like music, and it gives me an opportunity to indoctrinate them into my cult introduce them to other pieces or composers I think they’ll like.

It’s also affected the way I perform; there’s less “Let me show off for you and make a point about how amazing I am by playing all these notes” and more “Let me show you how amazing this music is and why I love it so much.” I think it comes through, for performances that have a lot more heart and substance.

And if nothing else, being un-snobby about music has made it so much easier to get along with other people who, when it comes down to it, love classical music for the same reason that I do: because it’s awesome.