Classical oboist and debut author Marcia Butler recalls her earliest memory of music at just four years old. That’s when she first experienced the life-altering impact of music, a feeling she could only describe as a sublime, “squishy giddiness” felt deep within her core as she listened to her mother’s opera LPs. Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde resounded through their suburban Massachusetts home while her mother’s vacuum hummed along during weekend housework, and Butler was transported to a new world.
Now, in her haunting, brutally honest, and beautiful memoir, THE SKIN ABOVE MY KNEE (Little, Brown; February 21, 2017 ISBN: 978-0-316-39228-0; $27.00 hardcover), Marcia Butler shares just how a young woman becomes a brilliant musician and a true artist. Growing up in an emotionally desolate home with an abusive father and a distant mother she longed to connect with, Butler was magnetically drawn to the oboe—an interest that marked her as unique among her fellow band students. She devoted herself to the discipline and rigor of learning the oboe and practiced obsessively. She quickly became a young prodigy, earning a full scholarship to music conservatory in New York City, and dove headfirst into the hyper-competitive classical music world.
Butler paints a vivid portrait of the sacrifices and joys of a life in music. She chronicles her troubling childhood and her desperate and frugal years in music conservatory, in which her staple meal of the day consisted solely of a head of iceberg lettuce—and then recounts the new challenges that arose as she became an in-demand freelance musician, who performed and recorded with such musical luminaries as pianist Andre Watts, soprano Dawn Upshaw, and jazz pianist/composer Keith Jarrett. She also performed with prestigious orchestras, as a soloist and chamber musician, at Carnegie Hall and on Broadway. Along the way, she succumbed to dangerous, abusive men, drugs, and a pattern of self-destructive behavior. She also grappled with illness and estrangement from her parents and her sister. But despite her turbulent life, Butler asked, in her darkest moments: could music truly save me?
THE SKIN ABOVE MY KNEE exquisitely depicts just how far beauty and art can take us. With fascinating insight into both the intense devotion and laser-like precision necessary for a career in professional music and the grit and glamour of chasing dreams in 1970s and 80s NYC, Butler’s searing memoir is ultimately the story of a true survivor.
Seated inside a prestigious church on the Upper East Side of New York City, you prepare to begin a concert marathon of music called the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, telling the story of Jesus’s death on the cross. You’re not religious, yet religious content is immaterial to the profundity of the music. Nearly three hours long, the work requires you to play all three instruments in the oboe family: the oboe; the oboe d’amore, pitched a third below the oboe; and the English horn, pitched a fifth below the oboe. And yes, you have to make different reeds for each instrument.
For weeks, you prepare. You make lots of reeds in order to get exactly the right ones—those that will hold up and have the endurance necessary to perform this marathon work. Because it has numerous solo arias for the oboe, the Passion gives you a prominent voice. It’s like playing a concerto, many concertos, over the span of a three-hour concert. You want to put your own stamp of artistry on it yet at the same time be in service to the master composer of all time: Bach.
But there’s the endurance issue that worries you—and worries every oboist. Your mouth, your embouchure, which is the position of the mouth around the reed, has built up rigid, strong muscles over time, and you can surely play for long periods. But it is just muscle, after all, and you do get tired on occasion. And that is not a happy sensation, especially during a concert. The St. Matthew Passion tests the endurance of all oboists.
You are now into the performance at about the two-and-ahalf-hour mark. Jesus, hanging on the cross, has died a few minutes before. Your right arm begins to go tingly and numb. The heavy weight of the English horn and the position of your right arm cause this. You are about to play the big chorus with bass solo and orchestra, which is one of your favorite sections. But your mouth is extremely tired, and you are very worried that you won’t be able to get through the piece. Or even hold up your instrument.
The music restarts; you begin. The whole orchestra, and the chorus and the soloists, must sense the strain of the evening. Then, what feels like a cloud of energy begins to gather at your feet, milky and vaporous. And as you play, this cloud spreads across the floor and envelops the whole orchestra. And you are aware that not only do you have the energy required to play, your mouth also feels as if it is not even on your face. Your right arm is suspended as if by an invisible sling. And as you play and notice these unusual sensations, you look around the orchestra and imagine that every person playing is buoyed by the same incredible energy and life force. And you’re hearing all the notes, every single note, being played and sung by everyone. But not only that: you also hear or sense all the spaces between the notes.
You suddenly understand that there is no separation or distinction between the notes, the spaces between the notes, and the people playing the notes and the people listening to the notes and the church and the street and the city and the earth. Maybe even the universe. You understand in this very brief period of time that Bach’s intimate portrayal of the death of Jesus is one way to become connected to the universe. And you hold on to this for the rest of the concert. As you silently leave the stage after the concert, you look at the other musicians, wondering if they, too, understood or sensed what happened. It is art and it is love, communicated through the soul of Johann Sebastian Bach.
About the Author
Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for twenty-five years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. Her work has been published in Literary Hub, PANK Magazine, Psychology Today Magazine, The Aspen Institute, BioStories and others. She lives in New York City.