31 days of bipolar|day 20

Do you consider yourself creative?
How do you express that? What piece of work (or whatever is applicable) are you most proud of?

The short answer: Sometimes. The long(er) answer: under the cut!

My undergraduate degree is in music. My master’s degree will be in music therapy. Music is pretty much the only thing I can honestly say I know well. I love what music does for those around me and how it’s not only my education… but my passion and escape. I can’t wait to become a practicing music therapist and use music to change lives.

When I’m swinging upwards, I can be very creative. When I crash, it becomes routine and work and forcing myself through it. It’s a tightrope that I’m constantly walking between creative pursuit and pablum.

I began playing flute around age 5. It became my escape from abuse quickly. I started playing violin around 10ish.

Then, I was introduced to theatre in my early-teens.

I fell in love completely. I also learned that to be a decent theatre musician, I’d have to become competent at piccolo, saxophone, clarinet, and oboe or bassoon. I taught myself alto sax and clarinet in order to play my first musical. I also figured that if I were to be a fuck-up at life, I’d have theatre to fall back on because competent reed doublers are harder to find. It was the smartest decision I’ve ever made, and I’ve not made too many of those since.

I’ve been a reed doubler for just over 15 years and have performed in hundreds of shows in that time. Piccolo has become my strongest double by far and the instrument I truly enjoy playing the most. I joke that it’s because I’m lazy. I get ridiculous amounts of time counting rests and about 2.5 bars of glitter and flourishes — and get paid the same amount as everyone else. I can hide behind my piccolo easier than any other instrument and I have a lot of good times with it. My piccolo is my trusty best friend.

I fell in love with fiddle music early on, because I grew up in Bethlehem, PA, where Celtic music is very important and just as imbedded into its long history as the Steel and Bach are. It gave me an excuse to kick back from taking everything so damn seriously. I’ve recently returned to my fiddle roots by playing in a folk punk band. That’s pretty cool. Fiddle playing also fueled my love of alcohol and substance abuse for a long time. It’s kind of the de facto state of being as a fiddler. The joke goes, “What’s the difference between a violin and a fiddle? A pint of Guinness.” Liquor on the bridge. I guess the biggest irony in this is that I’ve not had a drink or substance in just over two and a half years.

I also sing and find freedom in that pursuit. The direction I want to take as a music therapist is one of helping my transgender humans (specifically my brothers and transmasculine folx) pursue their own freedom through music. My background is as a classically-trained soprano. But as a transgender musician on hormones, my voice has dropped to a pretty low bass – about 2.5 octaves in 3 years on testosterone. And that’s pretty awesome, all from a weekly injection the size of my pinky nail. I was sad to lose my voice at first — and one of the biggest reasons I tortured myself by not transitioning sooner — but to have had the experience of re-learning how to use it as an educated musician has been a pretty amazing experience. While I’m still learning how to use and challenge it, I finally feel like my voice is my own. I’ve written about this in a previous blog post (that I will link to eventually). It’s true freedom to listen to my singing voice and finally feel like it belongs to my mind and body. I sing with a local LGBT mixed-voices choir that’s become progressively more trans, non-binary, and queer since I’ve joined. It feels pretty amazing to have this outlet to re-learn how to use my vocal instrument as it’s changed. Having a supportive choir that celebrates all voices and walks of life has made all the difference. We’re singing a program of all female-identified composers in a few weeks. This never happens anywhere and I feel a sense of pride in being able to sing this program. It’s, sadly, an act of resistance. But it’s necessary. I’ll probably never get to perform a program like this again because, let’s face it, the classical world is still dominated by dead cis/cishet white men.

I’ve seen the world twice over because of my little “hobby”. I’ve gotten to perform in some pretty awesome things and places over the years, many of which because I’ve lived in the right place at the right time in history when things are just changing rapidly towards the ideal of progress and love of all. I underplay my accomplishments constantly because it’s overwhelming to think about where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced in my 31 years and almost 16 years of professional musician life. Some of these include: playing for marriage equality legalization in Pennsylvania, being in the first LGBT group to march for the Independence Day parade in the birthplace of the country, performing in London, busking in Athens, Greece… and my most proud day thus far… getting to march for President Obama’s second inauguration as an openly-LGBT musician. Being on a bus at the Pentagon with fellow LGBT and ally musicians and listening to President Obama speak of how we are all human is forever etched in my mind. It’s easily the most incredible and proud moment of my life. And I got to experience this as a (mostly-)out queer musician.

Another “accomplishment” I hold dearly is having been honored by my LGBT community band with our annual Clothespin Award. The honor was for musical service to the band I’ve proudly belonged to for the past decade. It is named after Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin sculpture by City Hall in Center City Philadelphia, where our little merry band of misfits was re-born 11 years ago. Several gay men kept this secret from me for a minute, which is hysterical. My band has allowed me to be out as a transgender musician. They’ve given me the support to not only come out, but to actually transition and become the man I’ve always known I am. They’ve allowed me the opportunity to not sacrifice my passion for music because I am transgender.

Music is still an old dead white men’s club. My band and choir’s very existences are an affront to this notion and a fight towards inclusion. That’s why we need LGBT music ensembles. Because music should be for all who seek it. It’s a universal language more beautiful than any other. It should be accessible to all. While I’ve performed in countless productions and ensembles throughout the years, Voices of Pride and the Philadelphia Freedom Band are the two that I feel like I can claim to be home. For years, I didn’t feel safe being out as a musician. I hid my long relationship from most professionally. But that was never the case with band. I don’t feel like I need to compromise my sanity and identity in order to be seen as a serious musician. I can remain true to myself and still be accepted.

But it’s the “smaller” things that have changed my professional life. A few years ago, I was doing shows non-stop. I was burned out and strongly considered quitting theatre forever. It became routine and academic and not even mania could shake that. Then! I was introduced to a theatre troupe of some pretty incredible actors with developmental disAbilities. Working with this group forever changed my life. These beautiful adults gave me a new perspective on what it means to be an artist. They taught me how to enjoy theatre again instead of treating it as just work or an academic pursuit. The worst thing that came out of almost losing my life was losing the ability to work with my heroes. I miss getting to work at 7am and being greeted with love and life and passion for the arts by individuals who treat every performance as if it were their first. Getting to work in that arts building has been the most incredible experience of my life. I learned a lot there — not only about how to be a better artist… but about how to be a better human being. I miss these folx dearly every day. If you want to experience pure passion and love for the arts, spend a day with artists with Down Syndrome. They’re the epitome of talent and love.

So I guess it’s not really any “accomplishment” in particular. It’s just the immersion of music in my life that’s the guiding force in my existence. To tie this all back to living with bipolar disorder… I suppose my mental illness makes me more susceptible to being in the arts.  It’s my constant. It’s the one thing in my life that I’m willing to fight for. While it’s not an inherent “symptom” of bipolar disorder, a hell of a lot of us tend to be more creative. I attribute this to my susceptibility to feel things with greater intensity. My mental illness does contribute to my creativity. They are intertwined/

I’m excited to see what the next round of musical adventures brings me!

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