A Desert Song

Author: Katie Buetow '12

On a rainy January morning in Chandler, Arizona, I stood nervously outside the front door of a small ranch house. Inside, the distinct, rapid plunks of a banjo reverberated, only slightly muted by the wall between the strummer and me. I raised my fist to knock, then hesitated, readjusting the cello case hanging from my shoulder. I listened for a few more seconds. I rapped on the door.

The uncertainty churning my stomach was a feeling I’d become accustomed to over the past several months. After graduating from Notre Dame in 2012, I had moved to Arizona to teach at a charter school in Mesa. I liked my job, but I was very lonely. I missed my family back in Michigan terribly. I missed my friends, who had scattered like dandelion seeds to all corners of the country.

One of the most painful absences in my life was the lack of music. At Notre Dame, I’d majored in cello performance. Now, on the rare occasions I had the energy to pick up my cello after work, I became discouraged at the clumsy way my hands struggled through the passages I once executed so smoothly. I also missed the camaraderie of orchestra, the Tuesday-night Brahms rehearsals that left me so alive that I couldn’t focus on my homework for at least an hour afterward.

Desperate for distraction, I inserted myself into various awkward social situations with strangers. I played tennis with strangers; I salsa danced with strangers; I joined a Meetup group full of strangers. Each conversation made me feel shallow and forgettable. I hated all of it.

Back in Michigan for Christmas, I drew further into myself as I tried to pinpoint the causes of my discontent. It was hard to make friends in a new city in a part of the country totally foreign to me. My job was exhausting and, while fulfilling, quite stressful. Every day, 24 pairs of eyes stared at me, assessed me, judged me. It was unnerving and exhausting to be so scrutinized.

I tortured myself flipping through my acquaintances’ artfully filtered photographs of happy hours and trips to Europe. I knew most of the photos were exaggerated — or, at least, enhanced — but I couldn’t stop ruminating on my choices and comparing them to others’. I berated myself for being unambitious and cowardly (as if teaching wasn’t a difficult job; as if moving across the country wasn’t brave). The more it hurt, the deeper I delved. I now realize that I was seeking solidarity — public proof that others were as lonely as I was. Unsurprisingly, I did not find it on the internet. Drowning in the flood of pictures and status updates, I took an unhealthy pleasure in eavesdropping on gatherings to which I had not been invited. I savored my own undoing.

A good friend’s invitation interrupted my poisonous reverie. Stevie was also home visiting his family for Christmas. He was a musician as well, and while we had always discussed jamming, we had never gotten around to it at Notre Dame. Now, idle and inspired by the new Lumineers album, we finally collaborated. I managed to borrow a cello from a childhood friend who had played in the high school orchestra with me. As I waited for Stevie to arrive at my house, I tried to play the Elgar concerto, which usually felt rich and smooth as syrup in my hands. After an extremely out-of-tune first chord, I eased into the wave-like rhythms of the first movement. I was surprised at how much my fingers remembered. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was familiar and natural.

Stevie arrived at my house around 9 p.m. with his guitar and some recording devices. A faint glow flickered inside of my chest; it grew steadily stronger as we played version after version of the song, experimenting with new harmonies and tempos. Three hours and countless takes later, we had successfully captured our version of the song “Stubborn Love.” My pulse quickened, my face glowed red. I could have cried out of joy or despair or both. I was awake.

Upon returning to Arizona, I fought hard to cling to that wakefulness. I scoured Craigslist’s meager music offerings in the Phoenix area, finally settling on an unconventional posting by a bluegrass band looking for a cellist. I had no experience playing bluegrass music, but nonetheless I responded to the ad and attached the recording Stevie and I had made a few weeks before. A week passed. Overwhelmed with grading and lesson planning, I forgot about it. A week later, I received a response from Francisco, the band’s leader, inviting me to sit in on their rehearsal that Saturday.

When he gave me the address, Francisco mentioned it was his teacher’s house. For a moment, I had a jolting fear that I’d joined a band of children. I would be the creepy adult hanging out with the high school kids. I went anyway, but I hoped for nothing more than a mildly painful experience.

I knocked on the door. The banjo ceased abruptly and a young man about my age opened the door. I let out my breath — at least he wasn’t one of my students from Mesa Prep. I met the other two musicians in the band. Now I was nervous again. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t know any of their songs and I had only limited experience improvising. I suffered from a crippling dependency on sheet music. I liked instruction; I liked precision. Without music, I was helpless. For all my years of study, I had nothing to show. My hands were sweaty, an anxiety-induced fate that always plagued me before important performances.

Wiping my palms on my leg, I brandished my bow and charged into the fray. My playing did not sound like theirs, but it wasn’t entirely bad, either. The slow, melodious licks I played complemented Francisco’s rapid banjo, Joelle’s rhythmic bass, and Jon’s resonant guitar. It was unexpected, but it worked. Francisco yelled out the chord names as we played and I picked out simple melodies, usually choosing the bass note of the chord.

At the end of the rehearsal, Francisco invited me to join the band. In the year that has passed since, I’ve learned to adapt my style, to play jazz and bluegrass tunes, and to improvise. I play freely now, confident that I can harmonize with any tune I hear. Instead of fearing the act of creating, I cherish it.

The whole time I studied music at Notre Dame, I never fully understood why I was doing it. I’d been playing for most of my life, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a musician by trade. I was too drawn to my PLS classes, to reading and writing and discussing. I lacked the discipline to develop the technicality necessary for graduate music school. Music was a passion, but not a profession. I considered dropping the degree several times, but after sophomore year it seemed a shame not to finish it. So I meandered on, receiving middling grades in music theory and practicing when I could fit it in. I loved it, but I half expected to stop playing after graduation. Though the thought saddened me, I couldn’t see an alternative.

Six months later, the degree that I doubted ended up saving me from despair. Through it, I’ve gained a family and a purpose. Music was the constant that brought comfort in a time of terrifying uncertainty. Doubting everything about myself, I knew, at least, that I could play the cello. It was the link to my past and my past homes. It transported me from my middle school auditorium in Okemos, Michigan, to the stage of DPAC, to the Lewis chapel, to the shabby stage of the Yucca Taproom in Tempe, Arizona. The concerto that I practiced for so many hours in the Crowley practice rooms now reverberates off the bare walls of my new apartment. I haven’t gone anywhere — not really.

Katie Buetow is an English and history teacher at Arete Preparatory Academy in Gilbert, Arizona. She plays cello for Cisco & the Racecars.