Liz Mahler  

Moving Forward

Liz Mahler
September 14, 2019

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In the following Article, Liz Mahler (no relation to Gustav) discusses her compelling journey from a liberal arts major in college, to a violinist in the New World Symphony, to an arts management professional.Her story touches on many important issues which are crucial for young musicians to hear.She talks about facing a performance-related injury, feeling unsure about her future path, and how she ultimately made a series of choices which have led her to a feeling of great direction.It is an inspiring story for us all.

- Stephen Danyew

Moving Forward

By Liz Mahler

Sometime in May 2008, I packed up all the clothes, books, and music that would fit into my ’95 Camry and got rid of the rest of my belongings on Craigslist. I was about to leave Miami Beach to “roam throughout the country learning about orchestras”—my nutshell description of the Orchestra Management Fellowship Program, run by the League of American Orchestras. This may have seemed like an unlikely scenario for someone who, just three years before, came to New World Symphony to learn how to play the Schumann Scherzo with metronomic perfection.

I didn’t plan on this meandering path. After falling in love with chamber music as a liberal arts major at Harvard, I spent four years at Peabody Conservatory, getting a master’s in violin performance, teaching, gigging, and generally making up for lost time in the practice room. I became more involved with orchestral playing and contemporary music at Tanglewood, and moved to Miami Beach in 2005, ready take auditions in earnest.

Then I noticed a slight tremor in my left pinky finger. It affected me only while playing the violin, and only in certain technical scenarios. No one else seemed to notice, but the unwanted motion was stressful and distracting, something that I needed to compensate for by shifting the balance of my hand. Eventually I was diagnosed with focal dystonia, which, until then, I’d known only as the condition that had prevented Leon Fleisher from playing for decades. I may have made it into New World, but I was no Fleisher. I was twenty-six and had yet to reach the final round of any real audition.

After the initial shock, I took some time off from auditions to reevaluate my situation. There was a stigma surrounding focal dystonia, in large part because, though there were a number of possible treatments, no one had discovered a cure. Many musicians found ways of controlling it and continued to play professionally, but it was difficult to find people who were willing to talk about it. I wasn’t willing to talk about it.

Though my condition was relatively mild, the situation set off a series of questions that formerly had been relegated to the back of my mind. Did I want to pursue life as a professional musician with yet another layer of stress and unpredictability? Was the goal of carving out a career as a musician, orchestral or otherwise, worth it to me? Was law school really as boring as everyone said?

I had a momentary desire to jump ship from music altogether. It seemed like an easy two-step plan—1) make a living in a completely unrelated profession, 2) attend concerts whenever the mood strikes—but I ran into a problem. I could not get myself to care about anything as much as I cared about music. I decided that I wanted to move forward with my life but stay involved in the field; it was just a matter of how.

I started by badgering people with questions. Several staff members at New World took the time to tell me about their jobs—what they did on a daily basis, what they enjoyed—and I began working as an intern after rehearsals. I never consciously quit playing the violin, but something about the idea of making a living behind the scenes gave me a new sense of freedom. I could stop the neurotic habit of evaluating myself based on my most recent performance or practice session. Whatever my new career might be, I idealized the notion of consistent, nine-to-five employment and the possibility of using other parts of my brain.

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