Witchcraft for Cellists: a program note

Today, Sage Cigarettes published my poem “Witchcraft for Cellists.” Here’s a little note about it.

When I was 10, I began playing the cello in a public school music program. I had private lessons, then attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for my last two years of high school. I got my Bachelor of Music degree in Cello Performance from the Peabody Conservatory, received a Certificate of Advanced Studies from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, and returned to the US to do my Master of Music degree at the University of Miami. I specialized in new music and wanted to make a career in new chamber music in particular. But starting even before I went to UNCSA, I’d had pain in my wrists and arms. It didn’t seem to be tendonitis or bursitis; it didn’t respond to physical therapy or heat or cold or acupuncture or chiropractic or massage and the hand surgeon said that the nerve damage wasn’t bad enough to warrant carpal tunnel surgery. I tried taping my wrists, wearing fingerless gloves in practice, taking on exercises that should have strengthened any weak muscles. One instructor suggested I needed a smaller instrument, a 7/8 size cello, to accommodate my smaller hands and short fingers; another had me completely overhaul my technique. This latter approach led to my much-improved playing but not and end to the pain, and as I approached the end of my MM program, it was clear that I was probably not going to be able to continue playing as a professional. I had to face the potential anger of one parent, who was one of those people who insisted at success at any cost; and the worries of the other, who felt that my music-heavy education had prepared me for nothing but grinding poverty. I felt guilty and ashamed and at the same time relieved that I could stop trying to overcome the pain. I enrolled in a PhD program for musicology. I played a few times in public after that, but soon stopped playing altogether. I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which my doctor thought had been present since I was very young and that had flared when I had Lyme disease. More recently, my neurologist and rheumatologist have given me diagnoses of mixed connective tissue disease and lupus. These are chronic autoimmune diseases. No taping or heat or physical therapy will fix my hands and arms. 

“Witchcraft for Cellists” began as a theatrical piece in which I wanted to write about my career as a cellist and its ending and the traumas associated with playing and my education as a musician and how I found myself to be much happier as a scholar and writing texts for the new music I’d once hoped to play. But the piece I was trying to write was too painful, ironically, to write. It still is. I doubt now that I will write much about that period of my life, although it sometimes comes out, a tiny bit, in my creative work. So I changed tacks. “Witchcraft for Cellists” was fun to write. I got to think about some of the pieces I’d played and how they might fit into a magical landscape, and how ritual is part of all musical practice. If you try any of the spells, let me know how they work for you. 

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