The Cleveland A'tudes: An Interview with Madeline Lucas Tolliver

Name: Madeline Lucas Tolliver

Age: 29

From: Charlotte, NC

Instrument: Flute(s)/Piccolo

Job Title/Position: Ensembles Manager at the Cleveland Institute of Music; Flutist for North Coast Winds; Flutist for Ars Furtura; Flutist for Bluestreak Ensemble; Freelancer

Favorite Brew: Iced Coffee, black

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get involved with music?

Madeline Lucas Tolliver: I’ve been playing music as long as I can remember. I did Suzuki piano from the time I was six until I went to college, but I started the flute a couple of years after I started the piano. When I was around eight I went with my older brother to his recital at a school in Charlotte and I saw this flute player playing on the program. I thought her playing was stunning, she was so expressive and I can still picture her playing, standing on the stage. So that that turned me towards the flute. But, in full disclosure I also did not want to carry a large case around *laughter*.

CR: Excellent! So why did you pursue it as a career?

MLT: I’m not really sure I ever thought about not pursuing it as a career. My parents were incredibly supportive, the perfect mix of wanting me to have every opportunity but not forcing me into any of them. But, it was just kind of my main thing. The only other thing I ever thought about doing was Law School, and sometimes I still think about that, but not very hard.

CR: Interesting. What schools did you attend?

MLT: I came to the Cleveland Institute of Music in 2005, got my Bachelors in 2009 my Masters in 2011, and I’ve been here ever since.

CR: What do you like most about CIM?

MLT: There’s a lot of things to love about it, actually. When I auditioned I remember feeling that it was just a really friendly place. When you audition at CIM they make a nice homemade lunch for everyone at the auditions, and it has a very family oriented atmosphere. After having been here for 11 years both as a student and a staff member, it’s still very true. It’s a very supportive community, and Cleveland in general is like that too. Everyone is very supportive of what everyone else is doing. It’s not the sort of, you know, stealing people’s gigs, all that kind of stuff.

CR: That’s great to hear! Yay for Cleveland! So a lot of musicians deal with negative self talk. Were there struggles or challenges that you dealt with or are currently dealing with that revolved around negativity?

MLT: Yes, absolutely. Negative self talk in our industry is a big problem. I think one of the causes of that, which is especially apparent in people who are still in school or recently out of school, is that our education in the area of music is very narrowly focused. We spend most of our time trying to win a job in an orchestra or military band with the idea that that job is going to pay all of your bills. But, the education system in America in music doesn’t prepare you for the reality of the situation which is that only about 20% of people who graduate from music school wind up in that situation quickly. The rest of us are all left unprepared for what it takes to live a life that’s cobbled together from numerous sources, desires, artistry, all the things that fulfill a person, and that’s a shame. I’ve seen a lot of people who still struggle with that concept.

CR: For sure. What sorts of things do you wish you’d had more opportunities to take advantage of if the school had offered different courses? What do you hope to see implemented in schools to expose more students to the different types of music making?

MLT: Well, I wish I could have taken two years of classes on how to manage a self-run business, because it’s very complicated. There are so many factors that go into it: marketing, taxes, bookkeeping, expenses and income, projected budgeting. I mean, people who are accountants and run businesses, they go to school for four years to figure out how to  deal with this sort of thing, and as a staff member at the school, I deal with students who don’t even really know how to open a bank account. I know that a lot of teachers will say that a student’s main focus during this time in their life should be on perfecting their craft, honing their skills on their instrument, and, fundamentally, they are absolutely right. But I don’t see any reason why you can’t do both at the same time. I think that you should be getting that real life training and experience alongside the intensive musical training that we get right now; it’s totally possible. I see a lot of exciting things developing in this area where I work and I am happy to be a part of it.

CR: Yeah, I agree. Things like accounting, bookkeeping, it’s totally applicable to what we’re doing; it’s not a waste of time.

MLT: Exactly. There is so much that goes into building a life as a musician, and you don’t always get a lot of help with that extra stuff in school.

CR: So how have you taught yourself how to build a life as a freelance musician?

MLT: Well, I’m very lucky because I worked for the Cleveland Orchestra when I graduated and worked there until I started back on staff at CIM. I was sort of able to learn on the job when I started at CIM, I had the freedom to feel my way out, to start from the ground up and build. Recently I’ve had to look back at some of my records from the first years I was on the job to find out some historical information, and I was pretty horrified actually *laughter* I thought, ‘who could decipher this, I don’t even know what I was talking about’. I’ve really learned a lot during that time, and thankfully I’ve had the space to do that as well, to grow and to learn. I’m generally a self motivated person, so if I need to figure something out I’ll usually figure it out. In Cleveland there’s also a great network of musicians that I play with, and that makes it easier to get gigs, get organized, to get into ensembles. It helps to find a community and sort of branch out from that.

CR: Absolutely. What’s something you would encourage a student to do outside the field of music to make themselves more well rounded?

MLT: The easiest thing for a student to do is to expose themselves to a much wider range of music. The majority of the playing opportunities that I have as a musician are on the fringes of what is traditionally considered classical music. Lots of new music, lots of chamber music, lots of non-traditional set ups, Pops concerts. Once again, this narrow focus on large ensemble music is limiting because people are unaware of and less experienced with what’s out there, and the more unaware you are, the bigger wall you put up to those outlets and to those opportunities. It’s unfortunate that there seems to be a lot of disdain amongst a lot of classical musicians for these non-orchestral musical outlets, when in reality for me that’s where I met the coolest people, where I have the most fun, have a good time, and make money. I can’t imagine why that’d be a bad thing *laughter* So I would really encourage music students to take whatever opportunities they can to experience and to perform music outside of their comfort zone, especially contemporary music.

CR: For sure. It’s so fun when you can customize that to how it works with your life, combining this and that.

MLT: Yeah, and really the truth is is that most people would be OK with that life, but I think people fear judgement that comes with it sometimes. I’ve experienced that myself, I’ve been afraid and have felt like I’m being judged, just in terms of feeling bad even though this is what I actually really want to do. I want to do chamber music, I want to be an administrator, and that’s my choice, but I know that people are out there judging me thinking that I’m only doing it because I couldn’t do this other thing. That’s a really damaging perception in our industry, perhaps the most damaging, and that’s what I’d like to see change.

CR: Absolutely. So what sorts of things do you do to remain positive and encourage your peers to remain positive as well?

MLT: Well, I have a great support system around me. I have a very supportive family, a great husband who is also an artist and my partner of 11 years. It’s really important to have people you can rely on practically and emotionaly, but, you also have to be able to help yourself. Sometimes you just need to focus on yourself, not compare yourself to someone else or the expectations that others place upon you. Lately, I’ve been asking myself “how am I right now?”, intellectually, rationally, emotionally, how am I doing? Which one of my senses, intelligence or emotion or whatever, which one of those things is out of whack right now and how do I take care of that? So, self-awareness is really important. I have a friend who does a lot of journaling, and I must have started 1,000 journals in my life and have never keep them up. But for her I think that really helps her to reflect outside of the feedback loop of her mind, to step back and asses. Musicians talk about how when they want to get better, they have to listen to themselves. Well, listen to yourself then, and not just recordings, listen to your thoughts. You have to strip away the walls and the barriers that are in between you and your output. You just have to be objectively comfortable, assess yourself, and sometimes that’s a hard look in the mirror. Pinpoint what you’re feeling bad about, and then take actual, real life steps towards changing that. That’s how I combat feeling bad, I try to think of something I can immediately do to move in the right direction. Action always seems to get me out of that rut.

CR: That’s great! So what sorts of things are you inspired and motivated by?

MLT: Generally speaking I’m most inspired by my colleagues. The times where I feel the best while playing music, especially in chamber music, is when I’m playing with my colleagues and there’s that incredible sense of connection. Sum of all parts equalling the greatest good sort of feeling, that really excites me. Outside of music, I have a real sense of life being short. I have a daily, almost hourly feeling that this is all we get, so I really just want for every day to be cool, be awesome, and no matter what that means, I look forward to celebrating something each day. Everyone has their blue times, but I do pretty well maintaining a positive outlook. I’ve always liked history and I have a keen sense of just how short our existence is in the face of all that has happened before our lives, and all that will happen after. I think this feeling freaks some people out, but I feel like it gives me freedom.

CR: For sure. So we talked a little about this validation and success and what makes us successful, but how do you define success, and by your definition do you feel successful?

MLT: I think of success in very personal terms, and by that I mean that probably most people should think of it in personal terms. For me, I just want to get to a point where my husband and I and any future children we have, if we choose to have them, can sustain ourselves while doing something that nourishes us and our community through artistic education and performance outlets. I don’t need to be rich, but I’d like to have my own arts organization that provided a foundation of love for the arts for young people. Life is hard. Having something like a love of music, a love of movies, a love of dance or painting or writing (the list goes on and on) can keep a person sane when everything else is too hard to deal with. I’d like to be able to share that with others while sustaining my family. Moving in that direction I would feel very happy and successful, but success, for me, is also to not feel badly about what I’m doing, to not be doing harm, and at the same time to be able to cultivate the life I want. I’m not there yet, and I have many goals and dreams I haven’t accomplished yet. There is time.

CR: Awesome! In the way of advice, is there either something that someone told you that was great, or is there something you can offer to other musicians?

MLT: My teacher in college was Joshua Smith who’s the principal flutist of the Cleveland Orchestra. There’s something he always says before a performance, which is “play with love”. What I thought he was saying was something like ‘good luck’ or ‘toi toi’, but I’ve heard him say it a few times and I started to think more deeply about it and it’s a really important expression for me. Sharing music is one of my greatest loves. I want all of my output to be my choice, and that could be selfish or controlling, but every time I perform I want to retain that it’s my desire, it’s from me, it’s with love. I want to take that with me forever. I just never want to associate it with something I have to do, a job or a chore. We’ve all been there, but it’s a terrible feeling, and I want to do my best to avoid that.

CR: For sure. It’s nice when it really does tap into something beyond having it be a job. Do you have a memory that pops into your head that’s most memorable for you in relation to music?

MLT: Well, when I was 15 I played the first movement of the Nielsen Concerto with the Charlotte Symphony. I remember walking onto the stage, then I remember getting a bunch of flowers afterwards. I legitimately, then and now, have absolutely no memory of what happened on stage. My mind and my body were just so in the music or in the moment, in the experience, that my brain just didn’t keep a record of it, couldn’t keep a record of it. I remember how I felt, but I don’t actually remember it. I’ve had some similar experiences since then, and usually they’re moments of what I would consider some of my better musical moments, but that’s the first time and probably the most memorable in that way.

CR: That’s great! How would you describe yourself in three words?

MLT: I read this question and I was like, “aw shit I have no idea”. So I asked my husband, I asked some other people because that question is easy to ask but it’s really hard to answer. So, I did come up with three words with the help of others and those words are: caring, creative and organized. Caring in the sense that I just want to do my best, the best possible job. Earlier you asked me about motivation, and that really is what motivates me, whether I’m performing or managing a rehearsal at work. That is a value my parents instilled in me. Take pride in your work, whatever it is.

CR: *laughter* Yeah, I know it can be an awful question

MLT: Yeah, but it really made me think though. It’s not a bad question, it just really made me think.

CR: Well, that’s what I’m here for *laughter*. So, what are some qualities you believe are shared by all people regardless of their profession?

MLT: A desire for connection, the desire for art, the desire to experience something, a connection to another person, a connection to a community, I think all of those things are very universal, even for people who consider themselves introverts. An unfortunate quality is that there’s always an impulse to sort of place ourselves in a hierarchy within the people around us. Whether that be in our career, family, neighborhood, whatever. Our political and economic systems sort of enhance those desires, unfortunately, but those two things are pretty universal.

CR: Very true. Other than music is there anything else you’re passionate about?

MLT: I am passionate about social justice. I spend a lot of time reading on that subject, and outside of more serious topics, I’m a big baseball fan. I also like cooking and taking culinary adventures. My husband and I like to go to different restaurants and eat whatever the chef prepares, we like to be surprised. But, I spend most of my time working and playing music, so hopefully in the next couple of decades I’ll have a little more free time; that’d be nice.

CR: Do you have a favorite quote or mantra that you live by?

MLT: Life is short. I feel like I think about that a lot more than most people, but life is short, so just make the most of it.

CR: OK. Is there a charity or a cause that you’d like to raise awareness to?

MLT: Yes, generally speaking I’d like to see more El Sistema modeled programs, specifically in Cleveland. There’s one called the Rainey Institute and one called Joyful Noise, and I don’t mean to exclude anyone by not mentioning them, but there’s just so many people doing amazing work. I really feel that that style of education is unique and special blend of social justice and artistic output that serves a really important function. Those types of programs could be the most important thing that we do in our generation of artists.

CR: That’s a good point. In summation, is there something you’d like to leave people with?

MLT: I would encourage people to consider their truly personal desires and goals first before worrying about what other people expect of you. That’s all.

CR: Well thank you so much!

MLT: Thank you!