I Read Books at Recitals (And You Can, Too!)

People seem to be confused when I bring books to performances. If someone near me is curious enough to ask, they assume I’m an amateur enthusiast who just likes a nice place to read. “No,” I tell them, holding my page politely but not shutting the book entirely, “I’m a musician as well.”

Somehow, this is unacceptable. As a music student, I should be the example of discipline when listening to live classical music: back straight, attentive, maybe nodding my head when something sounds particularly good. I should not have my neck bent down in the pages of a book. I should not appear bored with what’s on stage.

No one said anything to me Sunday night when I did this. CMYS brought JACK Quartet to Yellow Springs with free tickets to students and adults under 25. I sat with friends in the back, knowing the sound is good at any seat in First Presbyterian and visual doesn’t matter. I intended to sit by myself with a book and not be much company, but the world doesn’t end at the hands of polite companionship. I paged a well-loved library copy of Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and listened.

This isn’t because I get bored at concerts or recitals. Quite the opposite — once a composer friend of mine asked quite seriously how I could sit through long Sunday afternoon recitals at the orchestra festival we both attended with no complaint. I didn’t realize this wasn’t the norm.

I’m no example of attention. I don’t believe it is possible to sit through a performance and focus on the performance alone. The mind wanders. Yoga Nidra allows this in meditation, but once it’s noticed to call the mind back to center. Don’t dwell on the shopping list or the scuff on the cellist’s shoes. Acknowledge it, and return. I’m not saying audienceship is a form of meditation, but when the mind wanders in a recital, let it. Then call it back.

This isn’t taught in music school. We’re told the basics of concert etiquete — enough to turn our noses up at anyone who claps between movements — and which performances are mandatory. Maybe we were supposed to learn how to endure the performance on our own. Maybe our generation just can’t sit still. The day Wright State took away the concert attendance requirement, audience numbers dropped.

I don’t always read during performances, but when I have a particularly intriguing book that will occupy my imagination those two hours anyway, I might as well bring it. I enjoy the combination of reading and listening; they both take on different meanings this way. During JACK’s performance of Elliot Carter’s String Quartet No. 1, I was reading Patchett’s essay “Love Sustained.” It is about Patchett’s relationship with her grandmother and her grandmother’s death, and I cried silently reading it. Carter’s Adagio now sounds like the complicated love and heartbreak of watching a family member succumb to dementia.

The secret to youth sitting through performances isn’t to make it more exciting or to even shove books in their hands. The discipline isn’t to sit still, but to sit with only your own mind for that long. This why they don’t show up for a world-renown ensemble for free on a Sunday night (I was one of a very few of JACK’s audience members under 25). I don’t hold the answer, I just wonder what would happen to audiences if listening was natural and not disciplined, and to audience numbers if we left the formality at the door.

The Program Notes You Won’t See at My Recital

I’d love to write program notes for people who’d love to read them. I’d love to offer a digital version you can read on your phone (I don’t care if you have your phone out at my recital). I’d love to bring in extra recycling bins for everyone to dump the physical copies that will probably go unread.

Just last week I was reminded of my least favorite question: “How do you have time to read a book?” It’s the most judgmental question you can ask a person. You’re saying, “How dare you use your time wisely when I would rather complain about how busy I am.” Everyone is busy. You make time for things you want to do. I want to read.

Because of this, instead of program notes, I would much rather have a recommended reading list to occupy you during my recital. The rules are simple: books are listed under their corresponding flute piece, with a short summary describing why it was selected. Use this summary to choose one book to bring to the performance, either from the list or let it inspire your browse through the library.

Program notes are my favorite part of a performance. I want to know the performer when I read their notes. This performance is heavily inspired by literature, which is a personal tool I cannot add to my own notes. Use this hour to open a book if it’s something you joke about never getting to do.

Partita in A minor for flute solo, BWV 1013, J. S. Bach

The Partita is four movements of dance music. The styles are traditionally refined, but Bach adds just enough scandal in the harmonies to make it interesting. For this, look for American classic literature: This Side of Paradise, the pseudo-autobiographical novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald about well-to-do young men who get away with more than they should because they are men; or Lost Lady by Willa Cather, a shorter novel about a socialite woman who gets away with nothing because she is a woman, no matter how charming and attractive.

Sonata “Undine” for flute and piano, Op. 167, Carl Reinecke

“Undine” refers to a German romantic fairytale of a water sprite who marries a knight to gain a soul. Several reiterations of this story exist (most notably “The Little Mermaid”) in other cultures, many of them with a sad ending. Reinecke was inspired by the tale, but the sonata is not strictly narrative. I turned to the four Books of Earthsea when searching for imagery. The first, A Wizard of Earthsea, is headstrong and invincible. Magic in Earthsea is held by those who know “the true names of things,” the language of the Making. The protagonist, Ged, is as reckless as the playful melody of the first movement. He isn’t faced with the truth of his power until the second movement, which is repetitive and tumultuous. It is broken by a humbling, romantic melody, and returns quietly to vivace. The final movement is represented by the third book of the series, The Farthest Shore, which was originally intended to conclude the trilogy. The romantic melody of the second movement returns, almost as an afterthought. Similarly, the final book, Tehanu, was written decades later when Le Guin, then middle aged, could tell Ged’s story in the next stage of his life. I have written above this passage a line from the third book: “I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”

Syrinx, Claude Debussy

In Greek mythology, Syrinx was a follower of Artemis known for her chastity. She is pursued by the god Pan, and asks for help from the water spirits when he corners her and threatens her virtue. They turn her into hollow water reeds that whistle hauntingly when the god angrily breathes across them. Pan cuts them down, fashions the first set of pan pipes, and plays this melody. It is mournful, yet not overly sad; it is multi-faceted and finds new colors each way you turn it. The poetry of W. S. Merwin is similarly meditative and nostalgic. Open any page of Vixen.

An Idyll for the Misbegotten, George Crumb

Crumb chose flute and percussion as the voice of nature and quiet intensity. When I was learning this piece, Dr. Chaffee assigned Julie Otsuka’s books for the latter qualities. A Buddha in the Attic describes the lives of female Japanese immigrants in California in the years before and during WWII. The book describes actions only with simple language, never elaborating or assuming a character’s reasons. Crumb writes in the program note: “The ancient sense of brotherhood with all life-forms … has gradually and relentlessly eroded, and consequently we find ourselves monarchs of a dying world.”

The middle of the piece quotes eighth century Chinese poet Ssu-K’ung Shu: “The moon goes down. There are shivering / birds and withering grasses.” This is whispered into the flute, eerily evoking images of speech through the trees. Crumb laments the “illegitimacy” of mankind in the natural world, our invasion of a community we are killing. This is personified in Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi book, The Word for World Is Forest, where humans harvest resources from an alien planet and its humanoid inhabitants quietly retaliate.


Edit: This is almost the exact handout printed for my recital in April 2018, with additions to the composers’ biographies and two suggested titles. They were indeed the program notes you saw at my recital.

I “Passed through a Membrane” and Found Hypermasculinity: A Book Review

Here is an excerpt from Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work printed on the back cover:

The passage from ameteur to professional is often achieved via an interior odyssey whose trials are survived only at great cost, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We pass through a membrane when we turn pro. It’s messy and it’s scary. We tread in blood when we turn pro.

These were the first words I read when I was given this book as an assignment over the weekend. I have never read Pressfield’s work, which includes novels and other nonfiction, but I did see King Kong Lives and it still is one of my favorite terrible movies (Pressfield does regard this screenplay as a failure, which is fair). Given the limited examples I know, I think it’s alright to admit I judged this book by its cover and wasn’t disappointed in my conclusion.

I couldn’t read this book in public because of the faces of disgust I made. Not only at the above quote, which is an absurd metaphor that turns birth into a battle scene, but probably on average once per three pages (the book totals 132). I put sticky notes in the margins to find the worst ones later, and I ran out of sticky notes. I started tearing the squares in halves to increase mileage, then thirds, and I ran out of sticky notes. Steven Pressfield forced me into OfficeMax during finals week.


This is a self-help book trying to disguise itself as nonfiction. Every online bookseller markets it as an educational tool to aspiring writers and entrepreneurs, and I stopped looking at blogs and reviews of teachers who actually used it in their classroom. I think it goes for nonfiction because, like the worst self-help books, it tells the reader all about her personal flaws (whether or not she knew them or even agreed) but gives no practical steps to remedy. If I took it seriously, it would undoubtedly drive me to drink.

According to Pressfield, what is wrong with myself and everyone else is we are “amateurs” in everything we do. Early in the book are “Three Models of Self-Transformation” that say we can either punish ourselves and atone for our sins of personal inadequacy, view ourselves as “ill” and “flawed” and in need of “treatment,” or we can read this book.

I’m disappointed in my choice of action.


The greatest parts of this book are the personal anecdotes — the parts that actually make it nonfiction. Pressfield has lived a varied life, and if he were to write a memoir I would really really think about buying it from the bargain bin. But the three examples of his own life in the whole 132 pages don’t give me much desire to seek it out.

This book is written from the perspective of a bitter Baby Boomer who thinks the root of societal problems are born and bred on the internet. He romanticizes addiction as a side effect (and perhaps requirement) of the artist, and gives the example that alcoholism is a replacement for unsatiated addiction to success. Obviously, he adores the most misogynistic American authors — the very ones that make me, a woman, extremely ashamed to be heterosexual — with no regard to the consequences of their idealized lifestyle: To Pressfield, Jack Kerouac was the leader of a generation and On the Road was inspiration for his vagabond dreams, but he conveniently omitted Kerouac’s regrets for that life years later in Big Sur; he channeled Ernest Hemingway in his search for a tough and manly “shadow career,” and his short, choppy sentences void of prose (see Ursula K Le Guin’s wonderful response to this trend); and he defended Henry Miller’s alcoholism (and, by extension, the other two authors’ as well) and glorified life.

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And, in true masculine fashion, he uses the grotesque and the controversial as ethos, because if it sparks emotional response, it must be just what you need to hear (a tactic used by preachers much of my life, and led to my 19-year-old break from religion). Everything about “turning pro” can be inappropriately equated to sex and war.

Do you remember where you were on 9/11? You’ll remember where you are when you turn pro.

I bet he also “rejects PC culture.”


“Turning pro” requires self-examination, to break from the tribe (that Pressfield claims doesn’t exist and is wholly unnecessary; turns out I don’t need friends after all) and accept yourself as “different” to become better. It’s a modern take on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, though it’s never referenced, where the poet urges Kappus to spend time alone, to fully know the self to become the artist. This is noble advice.

But the artist has to reenter society eventually. It is selfish to believe a person can be disconnected from life as it is, that what we create and consume isn’t a part of our collective culture. It is completely wrong to think any one of us are exempt, yet that’s the trendiest belief of white men who don’t see the privilege of choosing to remove themselves from this narrative. Yes, I did learn this from Twitter.

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Despite my glaring opposition to much of this book, there are still points of light in its pages. Late in the book, Pressfield recounts the moment he realized he began to “turn pro.” It was completely mundane, the simple decision to clean dishes that had been piling up, and he catches himself whistling. More accurately, he probably saw himself emerge from depression and turned a corner to change his life. It would be years before he wrote anything worthwhile, but that didn’t matter. “What counted was that I had, after years of running from it, actually sat down and done my work.”

The hit of this was completely unexpected. I wasn’t ready to find any part of this book that was actually for me. But this felt like a description of my own life. I am the master procrastinator, and I dread starting any project; if I’m not immediately excited for it I may never begin. I lack that discipline. I know fully once I make that first step, the rest comes easily and I remember how much I love this work. I become addicted to the work itself, to paraphrase Pressfield. But that first step is a bitch.

We may bring intention and intensity to our practice (in fact we must), but not ego. Dedication, even ferocity, yes. But never arrogance.

The space of the practice is sacred. It belongs to the goddess [Muse]. We take our shoes off before we enter. We press our palms together and we bow.

Do you understand how the mystery can be approached via order?


As I mentioned before, Pressfield’s own stories are enlightening and relatable (even, in an odd way, when he introduces an orange tom cat as his first hero), and if this was an entire book of his life it would be more useful. Instead, it is over 100 pages of preaching without any bible to back it up, only his own lowercase word, whether that’s from his god or muse or whatever addiction and idol worship he wants to romanticize next.