The month of October was rich with foreign travel: Belarus, Latvia, and Italy. This is one of the great gifts offered by music: a Magic Carpet that flies you off to the far reaches of the globe. We are, after all, itinerant pilgrims, we performing artists. I can think of no greater privilege than this! To present what one has to offer through this mysterious act of making and giving music seems to me an ambassadorial role, with great responsibility which I take very seriously. We perform our music for friends we have not yet met, people whose language we don’t speak, and whose culture is different from our own. This is an inestimable honor. It is a life of dedicating your art of music-making to the uplifting of the human heart, because it is essentially an act of transparent giving through a universally understood language.

To look at the other side of the great gift of traveling for ones vocation, there are legions of challenges involved. Firstly, the scrutiny of my luggage with so many flutes can be alarming. I realize it is my job to remain as calm as possible, and instruct the TSA agents how they should properly open my flute case so as not to dump it out. Instead, I am rarely genuinely peaceful as to this procedure while they causally examine the instruments of my soul! My dear husband has learned to stay clear of me as much as possible during these times. More travel challenges are the upkeep of one’s body: to be able to sleep on flights abroad when one’s body is not tired, or not being able to sleep when exhausted; to eat when one is not hungry due to the current schedule, or famished but access to food is impossible. To not be able to have regular exercise but keep energized day after day for all the essential work being done and called to do, such as rehearsals, interviews, teaching, performing, receptions, etc., is very challenging. On the road, nearly nothing is in my control, so I have to be as flexible as a gymnast. But at the end of the day, even all these inconveniences are simply part of the package in bringing the music out into the world. Otherwise, I would simply be a mere practice-room flutist, never coming out to give the ‘flute of my labors’ back to the world in which I live.

Perhaps these travel challenges are God’s way of keeping us humble in allowing struggles in the midst of something that is so privileged as world travel and cultural influence through music. As Garrison Keillor says, “we each have the back-stage view of ourselves”, meaning this should be humbling enough, but reminders to further humility can only be a good thing, fostering wakefulness. All I know is, this is where I most learn the truth of the phrase, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” I live to play music, but without a doubt it is an enormous physical and psychological feat out on the road.

Being in a country where one does not speak the language always fills me with awe. In Belarus, we cannot even read words because of the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s almost like being a child again, needing things explained, translated. When I talk to audiences of my own language, I have a very free approach that is the same way I approach the music. I abandon myself wholly to the moment at hand by putting myself into the responsibility of the Benevolent Force that gave me the music in the first place! Since I’ve already done the work of assiduous preparation, performing is an act of freely delivering. How this giving of oneself is received by the listener is actually not my responsibility, I’m simply responsible for offering myself whole-heartedly to the goal of uplifting, serving. But requiring verbal translating alters this approach.

We had fantastic translators in both Belarus (Olga) and Latvia (Ieva). In concerts and in teaching, pacing is crucial, as I must simplify, be brief and to the point—not always personal strengths of mine. It is times such as these that I am reminded how wonderful it is that music is its own universally understood language, interpretations left to each listener. But when word translations are part of that package, the impact still needs to be visceral, not literal. For this, I marvel at the translators, as they are agile with a second language in a way I can hardly accomplish with my first!

I digress here for this opportune moment for a “translating” joke. I mentioned previously that on the road one is reminded how, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Someone translated this biblical phrase from English into Russian, then back into English. The final translation came out, “the vodka is wonderful but the meat has gone bad!” It reminds me of another hilarious translation, one given by my husband, Lee. He speaks fluent Italian, but on one concert night in Italy he was very tired, and in translating “crystal flute”, he apparently said in Italian, “flute of Christ”! I see no problem, here.

It was my second time traveling to Belarus, but it was most of the band’s first. It is great traveling with a group of good souls, together having experiences that bind us in a familial way—Lee, Tim, Eliot, Chris, Les, and Carolyn. We tried food we have never had in our lives, sometimes due to not being able to read the menu, and sometimes to be daring. On the latter, we vowed never to try those boiled pig’s ears again. We approached the food the same way as the culture: be completely open, especially to the unfamiliar. This is the only approach that enlarges the ‘stakes of one’s tent’, as the saying goes. Our breakfasts at our Minsk hotel included the entire 16-hour cycle of what might be eaten throughout one long day, though presented in entirety as the first meal of the day, no exaggeration. Seven or eight tables were filled with varieties of food, every morning. There were soups, meats of every delicate, dense or spicy style, cheeses, macaroni and cheese, breakfast cereals, lunches, suppers! I cannot name it all.

One morning, I caught up with Les, our sound engineer. He had arrived at breakfast earlier because a group of the band was going out looking for a musical instrument store, whereas I was staying behind, going for a walk on my own. He was just finishing his breakfast and an odd assortment of unidentifiable though tasted parcels were remaining on his plate. In his perpetual humorous demeanor, he stood up to leave and touched his stomach saying, “Well, Stomach, I’ve given you what I can. Now it’s up to you!” I laughed about that for the next couple hours, out walking around!

We had good energy for our packed-house show, helped no doubt by a dinner of sushi! Who knew one could have sushi, here? The concert was, for me personally, blissful. As I mentioned earlier, the performing artist life is only its most real when you get to give it away, beginning with the moment of walking out onto the stage!

The next day, I was transported 3 hours or so to Mogilev, to perform for their Music Academy. Though I was very sleepy, I did not want to miss the countryside. There were birch bark trees, aspens, pines, and multitudes of green fields. The landscape was flat, familiar like Michigan in that way. I like musing as I see the forests and landscape when traveling. I imagine myself being in THOSE woods, right there. I can smell them, hear them, feel them. But in fact, they remain physically inaccessible outside our traveling vehicle on a sunny day. I’m reminded that every where I travel, I long to get to know the place by going into the woods, near rivers, or on top of mountains—anywhere in nature. It is a hunger, a dis-ease that has been with me all my life, due to the good fortune of being born and raised in the glorious Big Sky Country, outside Bozeman, Montana, the Last Best Place.

Mogilev brought the most animated Conservatory experience to date! The entire student body and their professors were completely attentive, and afterwards asked astute questions. One professor in particular entertained us to tearful laughter with his question that would never-become-a-question. Each time I was going to answer his first hint at a question, he would interject with more of what he wanted to say, to roars of laughter, including myself. After this back-and-forth from him at least four times, I asked him, through our interpreter, if he was a flute player. He said, “trombone”. I shot back, “that explains a lot!” More roars of laughter, followed by wild applause. Such was the spirit of these beautiful people, a consistent representation of everyone I met while in Belarus. Full of life, curiosity, playfulness, and gratitude for life! I will be back to this place, for sure!

Next up: three days off in Italy after this superb Belarus experience. But now I find myself ill….It was even my birthday, but I spent that day in bed, in our home in Italy. I’m guessing if you are sick on the day of your birthday, your age does not go up another year! Our time in Italy was supposed to be three days of time-off and rejuvenating, but it was three days trying to come back to life. More humble pie, served up along with the beautiful, serene Italian countryside. Then off to Latvia, feeling no better. There is no calling in sick on the road.

This was my first time to Latvia. I am in love with that country, too. It has qualities of Western Europe in its architecture as well as the food. We were largely ensconced in Riga, but drove to Jelgava, Cesis, Leipaja, and Daugavpils for my work of performing and teaching. On one of the evenings, Ieva (fellow flutist and my translator in Latvia) invited Lee and me to a concert she was part of, a new Latvian work representing the history of the country and its people, including video along with live chamber orchestra and singers. I was stunned by this performance. We sat at the very back of the cathedral, and I had goose-bumps from the start to finish. The vocals were some of the best I have ever heard, anywhere. It was a breathtaking performance. I was already impressed with how high the standard of music-making was as evidenced during my work with teachers and their flute students, and now it was completely confirmed by this performance. This is a country with music deeply embedded in their souls.

Several nights I had little sleep due to being sick. We never learned the cause, either bad food or bad water, but it was with me for the next three weeks. No other band member got sick, evidently their need for humility being far less. But each day I was so grateful just to be able to do my work, and do it wholeheartedly, dissolving into a comfortable bed at each day’s end.

We went from Latvia back to our sweet, silent abode in Italy for my only “official” vacation (i.e. time spent without having to deliver anything whatsoever according to my art/calling). It is the first time I have been in Italy in October, and I experienced a whole new world around me—-trees that had changed color, olive trees that were pregnant beyond belief for harvest (the reaping was quite late this year). Though I was still not physically well, it helped that I could simply get back to physical activity here in the Sabina Mountains, no matter how I felt.

Upon returning home, I experienced renewed gratitude toward living my life being deliberately productive: specific time for hours of practice, specific time for physical exercise, food I can choose and when, etc. There is a time for all seasons, and this is back to the season of building up, the nuts-and-bolts work of honing one’s craft, exploring new music, working the work, creating. It will soon again be that other season, the one when I put myself at the mercy of the universe, the one of giving out, back on the road. My life consists of going back and forth from these two, exquisite worlds. A privileged way of life, indeed!

Blessings to everyone, especially if you made it all the way to the end of this story! Along with requiring translators, I probably also need an editor!
Rhonda (January 15, 2012)

Rhonda Larson