Cellist Andrew Briggs: "a richer perspective on music that will define our careers"
Updated: Jan 9, 2020
I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Ecoles d'Art Americaines Festival at Fontainebleau this summer. Like the other music students, I was attracted by the world-renowned faculty, the intensity of the program, and the inspiring beauty of the Château. And the festival failed to disappoint: the four weeks were some of the most important musical experiences for me to date. From the opportunities to perform solo and chamber works, collaborate with composers and architects on new music, and our lessons and master classes, my colleagues and I walked away with a richer perspective on music that will define our careers.
[W]e don’t always need the hall to make the musical experience. This has led to a movement of exploring non-traditional venues [...].
Yet as all of us musicians develop further and further, there is the lingering question as to why devote our lives to music. What is the benefit beyond our personal interest in pursuing a career in music and the arts? We sometimes can answer this question at a traditional concert performance. Even with the distance of the stage between the performer and the audience, you feel the connection of the present moment transfiguring into timelessness. And talking to the audience after, you discover how meaningful that moment of shared emotion can be - especially for a non-musician entering into this world.
You are connecting emotionally with people that you would have never had the chance to meet in your life.
This environment of sharing classical music has a tradition in the concert hall. Yet as we ask the question why devote our lives to this art, we realize that we don’t always need the hall to make the musical experience. This has led to a movement of exploring non-traditional venues, including performances outdoors, in bars, and even pop-up concerts in shopping centers.
One of my favorite experiences of sharing music outside the concert hall is in outreach performances. The term outreach refers to bringing classical music to people in places who do not have regular access to this art. For me, these performances have included hospitals, retirement homes, public schools, and even psychiatric wards and high-security facilities. Without preconceived notions of the outcome, these performances often have surprisingly positive results. You are connecting emotionally with people that you would have never had the chance to meet in your life.
[M]usic-making can generate a moment of restored humanity for your audience and yourself.
At Fontainebleau, this opportunity came to me as a chance to play at a local geriatric hospital. Having played for several hospitals in Paris this past year, I immediately said yes. Each experience has reminded me how powerful the emotional connection in music can be. In moments of pain, frustration, and loneliness, music-making can generate a moment of restored humanity for your audience and yourself.
The morning of performances started with visits to individual rooms. The seniors were sometimes very coherent, and other times not. Yet as I began to play, the energy in the room immediately shifted. Whether they were happy, upset, or confused to why I was there, the moment the music started all that melted away. There was nothing left to question, and there was just the energy of intense connection. And when I finished, the quiet awe of the moment dissipated into gratitude on both the side of the performer and the patient.
One of my favorite parts on this particular trip was playing happy birthday for a woman and having the whole cafeteria sing together.
After some rounds in individual rooms, we continued to small communal areas to play for groups of patients. And here I experienced the realities of being in a hospital: patients were sometimes talking through my performances, they were eating their meals, and perhaps unaware that I was there. But in the milieu of the noise, the music captured the attention of the others who looked to me for a moment of human interaction. One of my favorite parts on this particular trip was playing happy birthday for a woman and having the whole cafeteria sing together. It is in these experiences that I feel the direct connection to why music is important to me – the chance to connect and create relationships with anyone I play for.
The idea of relationships was important for me in another way at Fontainebleau. I was given the opportunity to perform a recital at the Fondation des États-Unis in Paris where I was a Harriet Hale Woolley Scholar and resident this past year. As a resident, I performed recitals on their Rendez-Vous Musicale concert series every two weeks, often for a group of ‘regular’ concert-goers who follow the series for the whole year. You start to recognize and talk to these audience members who become almost like family, experiencing your growth and transformation over the course of the residency. And for an American in Paris, having this family is vital for feeling connected to where you live and who you are.
[T]he feeling of family emanated between the musicians, having worked together for the entire four weeks.
On the night of the recital, the concert hall was packed with 176 people. I was lucky enough to share the concert with my close friends and colleagues I had made at the Festival, performing a program of the Poulenc Cello Sonata, the first movement of the Ravel String Quartet, and the Dvorak Piano Quintet. During the performance, the feeling of family emanated between the musicians, having worked together for the entire four weeks. From all the rehearsals and coachings, we had developed our own language of cues, looks and inside jokes - we had an amazing time together.
And after we finished, I realized that I had been playing for my family from the past year. The ‘regulars’ who attended the series throughout the year had come back to hear me play, cheering me on within the crowd and congratulating me afterwards. It was at that moment that I realized how important music was in forming community; within such a short time I had these amazing family and friends that were before complete strangers. That is the power of music: creating connections from nothing that in turn gives purpose and identity to all those involved.
[I]n a world that is pulling itself apart, music and art are the tools to help bring us back together.
As a musician, you spend many hours alone practicing your craft. The time with your instrument can sometimes feel daunting and isolating, a life fit for monks seeking nirvana. Yet the moment you play for another person, the purpose behind this intense work comes to light. You are developing the skills of building relationships, finding connection between the notes to find connection between people. And in a world that is pulling itself apart, music and art are the tools to help bring us back together. It is not a selfish moment of personal pleasure, but an expression of intense desire for a world to be connected through our shared human experience.