Welcome to the sixth installment of Musician Origin Stories, a series in which musicians describe how they started down the path of music-making.
Anna-Lisa hired me for my first full-time job in publishing back in 2012 and edited all of my posts for the OUPblog so I’m very pleased to present her action-packed story here:
I’m not sure when I first thought about becoming a musician, or even if I thought about it at all. Music-making for me has always been less about becoming something or achieving something and more about a way of being in and responding to the world around me. I don’t remember not making music. My parents have recordings of me singing Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary songs from around age 2. I started studying ballet at three or four and violin at eight. And I’ve pretty much never stopped. It’s a constant, like breathing.
Music-making has also served as a way of entering the room. When I was nine, my family moved to England and I had to leave my rental violin behind. We bought a used fiddle that came in a black wooden case shaped like a coffin that was a couple of sizes too big for it, so I kept it wrapped in towels and pieces of foam rubber. The case had a thin brass handle—like the ones on the drawer of my grandmother’s desk—that would slice into my fingers when I carried it for too long, leaving red welts on my hands that didn’t fade until after math class.
I was awkward and shy when I started in fourth grade at the American School in London, but I joined the Suzuki violin class and was instantly part of a crowd. I quickly became known as the violin girl, an identity I outwardly rejected but secretly prized. I had a place, a name. I changed schools five more times before I graduated from high school and the violin was always my identity card. I found I could hide behind it. It helped my introverted self to navigate the terror of walking into a classroom where everyone else knew each other and I knew no one. I didn’t always know what to say, but as violin girl, I interested them and I didn’t have to think of things to say because they would ask questions. If they knew me only as violin girl, then I didn’t have to worry about whether they’d like any of the other parts of me. It made moving around easier and quickly became tied up with my sense of self.
My senior year, a harpist moved into my school and we started playing together. She had an entirely different approach to her music. I loved reading and logic puzzles and riding my bike to the beach, and singing in the school musical. I especially loved writing and was an editor for my school paper and wrote stories and poetry for fun. I practiced violin to learn the things I needed to know and played for fun, but I didn’t play every single day. I did enough in my lessons, but not a lot more. The harpist got up early to play, stayed up late to play. Every day. She logged her hours, learned lists of repertoire. She was preparing at a level that I was not. I considered this: Should I be doing that? But I realized then that I didn’t want to. (My duet partner is now the principal harpist for a symphony orchestra).
That was when I realized I wasn’t going to be a musician. That’s the epiphany I remember – that to be a musician would require a focus I wasn’t ready for because it meant giving up things that were too important to me to lose.
And yet I didn’t stop. But I did start thinking about how to work in music without being a musician. I went to Smith College and played and played and took music history classes and violin lessons and played the piano in my dorm’s living room and thought I wanted to be a music critic or an arts administrator. I got an internship in marketing at an arts center and another for the Philadelphia Orchestra. When I broke my hand and couldn’t play for a few months, I joined the glee club and the chamber singers and toured England. I took a class called Writing About the Arts where I wrote a paper about a friend, now a professional jazz guitarist, who once gave me part of her record collection (I still have it) and my professor told me I should consider writing about music professionally. I fell in love with music theory, with the watchmaker’s view of the music, with taking pieces apart to figure out how they worked. I took composition and conducting. I played a solo recital. I graduated.
I spent a year playing in pit bands and working in group sales for a small theater company in Boston with an office in a converted apartment across the alley from the back door of the Shubert Theatre and downstairs from a brothel. I ushered shows for extra cash, turned pages for pianists in a new music group a friend managed, babysat on the weekends, sang in a choir, played a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan at Harvard, learned to play canasta from one of the brothel girls one warm spring night sitting on the loading dock of the Shubert and applied to graduate school.
I didn’t tell my boss at the theater company when I asked for a day off to fly to Chicago to meet with faculty of the University of Chicago, which had just accepted me into their graduate program in the History and Theory of music, what I needed the day off for (and then, it turned out, she was on my plane. How she didn’t see me, I do not know). In one of my interviews, the only female professor asked me if I was serious about my instrument. Was this a trick question? I said yes. She warned me that you couldn’t be a serious musician and a serious grad student. I gave notice at the theater company and spent another summer on Cape Cod playing musical theater and then moved to Chicago.
In Chicago I studied music theory, musicology, ethnomusicology, aesthetics, and composition and I played in the chamber orchestra and the new music ensemble and sang in two choirs. I got my masters, started a Ph.D. that I’m still trying to finish, changed my focus, lost my thesis advisor, and got a job managing a baroque orchestra and chorus. I founded a small a cappella choir that performed early and new music. I joined a chant choir at a church near my office in Chicago’s Loop and got paid for singing Vespers after work several nights a week. I became music director for a schismatic Catholic church that, since it didn’t accept Vatican II, still performed the Medieval format of the Mass in Latin. With a quartet I rehearsed and performed a full Mass setting every Sunday for a year.
At some point I got married and had a baby. With a lot of time at home in my own head, I made my way back to my dissertation topic and started thinking about returning to school. Then we moved to the exurbs, away from all scholarly and musical communities, and my musical life – my professional life in general — more or less came to a screeching halt. I continued to research, I taught occasional classes at the University, but mostly I raised my son. We sang together a lot. When he was a little older I taught him violin when he asked. I took him to a lot of Gymboree classes.
One Christmas, my sister-in-law decided to give my son an electric guitar and asked for my help picking one out. We drove to a small guitar shop near my house. We walked around and looked for a while and the man behind the counter came out to talk to me. When you’re a girl in a guitar shop, I find it helps to let people know you’re a musician, much the way you need to let mechanics know you know how your car works, or people will talk down to you. I mentioned that I’m a violinist. As we were checking out with the guitar we’d picked, the man at the desk mentioned that they were looking for a violin teacher. “Oh, I haven’t done that in years.” “Think about it. If you change your mind, here’s my card.” I took it home and stuck it on my bulletin board. I’d started teaching when I was 16, first helping out my violin teacher and then taking on my own students, but it had been at least a decade since I’d had a regular student. Did I still remember how to do this? A few weeks later I wandered back in and they hired me on the spot, never having heard me play or seen my resume. My first student was the man who’d helped me with the guitar.
I spent two years teaching there and it revived me. I took on a teaching job at another music studio a couple of towns away. Pretty soon I had 30 students and started to think about this less as a side hustle and more as a business. I was hired to teach at the local community college. I was writing a lot. And then I got another job, editing Grove Music Online. Halfway across the country in New York City. I said goodbye to all my students and started spending a lot of time in airports traveling back and forth while we waited for someone to buy our house.
Once we finally moved to New York, I slowly returned to performance, first playing violin and cantoring at my church and then serving as a ringer second fiddle and mandolinist with a friend’s band, playing in the back rooms of Brooklyn bars. I started teaching myself to improvise on fiddle and writing and arranging for both the church group and the band. And then I fell in love with a guitar.
Before I left Chicago, my sister-in-law had given me an old acoustic guitar that she’d bought off of the Home Shopping Network and never played. I had fun fooling around on it, but struggled. The guitar I fell in love with I didn’t meet until years later, standing in Retrofret Guitars in Brooklyn, which I’d wandered into on a long aimless walk on a hot day. I played a lot of guitars that day, but the minute I picked up the 1957 Gibson J-45, I knew it was the one. I’ve never been that sure about anything. I’ve played it just about every single day since then.
I think back to my harpist friend in high school and realize that maybe I just didn’t love making music enough, or maybe I was too afraid of it, too afraid of failing. Now I love it enough. And I fail all the time, but I don’t give a damn. I almost look forward to it. It’s the pleasure and privilege of learning something new at middle age. When I would fail in ballet class or in my college violin lessons, I would be terrified of the wrath of my teacher. Now there’s no terror, no self-flagellation (well, maybe just a little). I just try it again. I may never be good enough to perform the way I’d like to, but I can do enough to keep myself happy. I work as a church musician and I started a small informal band at my office so I can play regularly with others. I love it all. And even though I’m working less as a performer (my day job as a music editor keeps me plenty busy), I have never felt more like a musician, never been more disciplined and exacting about learning. And never has it felt less like work.
So I’m not sure I really have a musical origin story. If I had an epiphany about being a musician, it’s a recent one, and it’s built on a lifetime of music-making with a heavy does of self-forgiveness for my many imperfections. In that regard, it’s less about a point of origin and more like a pilgrimage, an evolution, a long narrative. I’m looking forward to the next plot twist.
Anna-Lise Santella is Senior Editor for Music Reference at Oxford University Press. She shares a Brooklyn apartment with her husband, son and a lot of guitars. She tweets as @annalisep and writes about her guitar-playing escapades and quest to write a song at song.
Many thanks to Anna-Lise for sharing her story!