Being a student of oboe, I have read several works by oboists over the course of the last year. Heck, it is the Amazon Series and the wonderful read it is based on, Mozart in the Jungle, that is responsible for my playing oboe in the first place. Hai-Lai! Blair Tindall’s book focused solely on her musical formation and career, providing salient personal details of living the musical life along the way. Laila Storch’s book, though written about the late and great Marcel Tabuteau, is as much a personal memoir as it is a biography, in which she shares her personal trials as the first female oboist at Curtis, and is actually loaded with great insights for the new oboist. But Marcia Butler’s book, The Skin Above My Knee, is wholly different in timbre; it is much more autobiography than, if you’ll allow me, oboeography.
When a close friend clued me into Ms. Butler’s work, as presented in a New York Times book review of three musical memoirs, I skimmed the review and decided the book was a must-read. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine where it would take me. Thinking along the lines of other memoirs by the classically trained, I expected a book loaded with tales of auditions, teachers, practices, performances and successes along the way. Ms. Butler does deliver these tidbits in alternative chapters – she segregates her book in alternating chapters, one of Marcia the performer, the next of Marcia the person. But her book, much like James Rhodes’ Instrumental, is about the force that music has on one’s life, its ability to hold that life together – the glue so to speak – and to redeem.
I discover that, once started, I could not put the book down, and as the story built, my reaction was a continually growing chorus of wow… The Skin Above My Knee is not a wistful read about parental longing, nor is it for the faint of heart. For those who have experienced childhood traumas, there are a fair number of triggers written throughout the book, often quite softly but at times glaringly so. Family relationships are beyond broken and insipid. Adult relationships are additionally presented in all of their destructiveness.
Our biases are carefully honed by societal expectation, and my construct of the professional Classical soloist was totally shattered by The Skin Above My Knee. Ms. Butler’s life presents itself more as struggling rock star than classically-trained soloist; sex, drugs, alcohol, dangerously risky relationships and their consequences all abound. But it is love unrequited that is the backbone of the book, and of Ms. Butler’s life. And how that love is fulfilled by her love of music. And especially her instrument. After a long stint in her personal desert, living off coke and vodka and her oboe collecting dust in the closet, Sleeping Beauty finally awakens. She resolves that, never again, will anything nor anyone come between her and her muse. She has hit rock-bottom and emerges to go on to play wondrously, to have her career. It is clear that the oboe was her life preserver, her Kirsten.
I find Ms. Butler’s book to be quite inspirational. Though I wish she delved more deeply into her professional world, there are the salient details written about just how not glamorous a Classical musician’s career can be; in one passage, she details her typical week, which revolves around making new reeds, then extensive practice and performances. Her discussions humanize her profession, from conversations shared in a car with her concert-mates in the middle of the night, to living off donuts and soda. Her world is one of real people, with real issues like the rest of us, not some prima-donnas upon a stage to be idolized. And that is Ms. Butler’s point, her “wish in writing the book is first, to give courage to others who’ve suffered difficulties… and second, to tell the public about what we do as musicians, because the world is so rarefied.” She does this in spades.
Check out Marcia Butler’s The Skin Above My Knee – it’s a wonderful read