Arts At Work I: Ravenna Michalsen

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What do you do?  

This is usually the first question I’m asked in new situations, when people want to know about my profession. The short answer is community outreach at Long Wharf Theatre, where I act as the Community Engagement Manager. But the long answer—and it’s much, much longer—often gives me pause. 

As an artist, arts administrator, producer, director, and organizer, it’s hard to distill that identity into a job description. No two days are the same on the job. And I hypothesize that’s the same for many in the field.

As someone who is constantly asking “Why do this? Why choose the arts?,” I wanted to dig a little deeper. This is the first of a series of interviews on the arts—fine, performing, culinary, and more—and their practitioners at work in New Haven. Work is one of the central tenants of culture in America. This is an opportunity to get a look into the worlds of the people that make art happen in this city. 

What follows is an edited version of the conversation I had with Ravenna Michalsen. Ravenna is a cellist in New Haven, where she teaches at Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street.  

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What do you do? What is work for you?

I think about this all the time. My high school teacher really emphasized to me they don’t pay you to practice. So a lot of the work I do is unpaid—except that it leads to all the paid work. 

So what I do for money, which I think is slightly different from work, is I teach lessons at Neighborhood Music School, and I coach some chamber groups, and I have a theory class, and then I have some private students, and then I sub in three different orchestras, and I do chamber concerts, and then I do gig work. 

Gig work is less preparation, although its more lucrative. You would do a wedding or a fundraiser or a Christmas party, and you are hired to look fabulous and play fabulously but essentially you’re background. Although it very rarely feels background-y, I have to say.

So that’s what I do for money. The work part of it, which I don’t necessarily do for money but leads to all of this, is always contacting people, trying to think of ideas for concerts or for projects … making little videos, finding the right pieces for my students. That’s actually really really crucial to plan their development. And practicing. And if I actually like a piece that I haven’t played or worked on, trying to learn that. Even if it’s Ed Sheeran.

There are songs on the radio that I think ‘Oh that would work for cello.’  There are songs I love that I think ‘Oh I love it, but that’s never gonna work.’

Another thing I don’t do for money but I consider a part of my work is I stretch and I workout every day because I am an athlete. I don’t look like an athlete. I’m not an athlete in the sense of sports, but I have to keep my body in good working order. I lift weights and I run and I stretch every single day of my life. And I use heating pads. 

What about playing the cello feels athletic?

The repetitive motion … you tighten up. If you teach for six hours and then have a three hour rehearsal, it’s hard on the body. It’s not the world’s most protected profession. What I do is largely contract work. I don’t have what is known as a sick day. November I had bronchitis for a month and I worked every day. I don’t have sick days. I don’t have personal days. Who would give me those days?

I’m extraordinarily lucky to work enough hours at Neighborhood Music School to qualify for health insurance that I buy. But it’s a very carefully constructed house of income.

So when people ask you what you do, how do you identify? What words do you use?

I just say I’m a cellist. And then usually what people do is they say ‘Oh my God I play guitar!’ or ‘I sing!’ And then I try and connect in that way.

I definitely identify as an educator but also a player. I take the education part really seriously. People who last in my studio, I’m super devoted to them. I will move a lot of things to make sure they are growing. 

And then there are people who don’t take it as seriously and that fine. I have a solid group of students who’ve been with me for four or five years. And I really like them, I like their families. I have a big cello party every year at my house. We play badminton, we eat food. I make them take selfies with this giant cello that my dad drew for me. I make them do art projects that involve cello.

What is the age range of people at your cello party?

My youngest student now is seven. And my oldest is maybe 65. It’s a whole range.

Could you walk me through a day in the life?

I’ll walk you through a week in the life. Monday and Tuesday I teach and I start in the afternoon, in the morning I would do something like this [our interview] or go to the gym, pay my bills. Normal home stuff.

Wednesday would be when rehearsal might start. I teach some private students, and if it’s a symphony week I’d have rehearsal 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Saturday morning I teach. Saturday is a big music day. I would go home Saturday afternoon, take a nap, practice, and then do the concert at night. Sunday is church service. Or in the summer, weddings  Saturday, Sunday. And then random stuff. 

It’s always changing. The teaching doesn’t change unless it conflicts with rehearsal. You have to be flexible. You can just get an email or a text … saying “we’re having this thing” and you do it. Thursdays are usually my half day off, so Wednesdays are like my Friday night.

How many hours a week do you think you work? Do you count?

That’s a great question. Completely depends on if I have a symphony thing or if I’m gearing up for a symphony or a concert. Then you have a whole bunch of rehearsals in that week. And then [the] concert...does it count, the commute? Does it count, the time you’re waiting backstage? It really varies.

The line between what is and what isn’t gets blurrier. The work that leads to more work is I think all encompassed in the big word. To your point, there’s the work you’re explicitly paid for and the amount of work you have to do to prepare for each of those.

But also continuing to get your name out there. One thing that makes me a little different—and I hope this doesn’t lead to not work—but one thing that makes me different is I do not have any degrees in music. I went to Yale undergrad, I have a B.A. in political science and then I have an M.A. also from Yale in Cultural Anthropology and then I have another M.A. in religious studies where I translated Tibetan Hagiographies. 

I’ve always done music seriously. But I don’t have the pedigree. So you absolutely will meet a ton of people in New Haven who have pedigree up the wazoo, and they are amazing players. but it also means they are embedded in this field for much longer. So I feel like it means I engage in more hustle. 

What do you think the role of pedigree is in your line of work?

I think it speaks to depth of knowledge. I was stand partners in the Greater Bridgeport Symphony with this amazing cellist named Tom Hudson, who is the assistant principal of the New Haven Symphony. We were playing a Shostakovich symphony—No. 5. 

And I asked ‘How many times have you played this?’ I was just chit chatting. And he said ‘I think I’ve played it ten times.’ 

And I was like—the face I’m making here … is one of ‘oh I’m out of my league’—and he said ‘How about you?’ And I said ‘It’s my first time.’ 

His depth of musical decision making and knowledge in regards to that piece is very deep. Mine is not. I can play it, right? And I hope to play it nine more times. 

What do you do when you’re not working?

I have no idea. I literally have no idea. 

I’m really heavily involved in the Shambhala Buddhist Community, I have been since I was 14. I go to the Shambhala Center [Shambhala Meditation Center of New Haven] regularly. I have a regular home practice. I run. If someone wanted to call me up and say let’s go to an art exhibit, I’d love to. 

Although my hours are strange. I often see things I want to do, like the ambassador meetings … or a book club. They often don’t intersect with my hours. Or just Artspace [Artspace New Haven] openings. I always want to go to Artspace openings and I never can.

How did you wind up being a cellist? 

I always wanted to be a cellist. From like the second I heard Jacqueline du Pré play, I was like—that’s badass. That’s like the most badass thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. And I’ve only ever felt that way maybe occasionally about an Olympic athlete. Like watching Usain Bolt run or watching Steph Curry play or watching the level of mastery and confidence and joy. I was just like: Oh my god I want that. I just want that.

You watch Rostropovich—he’s a cellist … well he’s now dead, but was—he’s masterful and virtuosic and everything you could ever want but he looks miserable. And Jacqueline du Pré looks like she’s having a fantastic time.  And I think that immediately had me obsessed with her growing up.

My Buddhist life and my music life has always intersected in strange ways.  I did a semester abroad in India studying Buddhism, and then went back and I took a medication called Ciprofloxacin and I was one of many thousands of people who had a massive horrific immune response to it. So that by my senior year in college I didn’t have much use of my hands and my my joints and my tendons. While everyone else was starting their careers I was having this health breakdown. I ended up at the hospital for joint diseases in New York City and I was told you have fast moving rheumatoid arthritis, prepare for a life in a wheelchair. And I was like what? I’m 21—what?

But I knew it my heart, it just didn’t feel right. I started a PhD here at Yale. It was absolutely miserable. I loved Yale as an undergrad, it was miserable as a graduate student. I couldn’t get the help I needed to take notes. I took notes with my left hand, I was just in a lot of systemic pain. So I dropped out and went on a retreat. I lived at a Buddhist retreat center and I started singing. 

I ended up recording three albums of what I called dharma song where I basically wrote music about historical Buddhist figures and my own practice. And I sang and sang and sang. I toured the country and I toured Malaysia. And sold actually thousands of CDs and then 2008 happened and I went from lots of bookings to zero point zero bookings. And lots of CD sales to zero CD sales. I had to take work as a substitute teacher which was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. And that’s when I decided—I’m just going to go back to graduate school, which is what you do when you have no options in life—you go to grad school.

I went to Colorado University for religious studies—except I don’t know anything about any religion except Buddhism. Went to China, went to Tibet, lived in Nepal for a bit—translated.

Were you playing cello at this time?

No cello at all. When my now ex-husband and I moved to New Haven, I thought—what is the least harmful thing I can do? And I started playing cello again. Slowly, delicately. And I started taking a couple students, and then word got around. Neighborhood [Music School] heard that I was teaching and they really took a chance on me. Maybe I shouldn’t sell myself short. They hired me without a music degree and I have been very happy there. Neighborhood is an amazing institution—and I’m not just saying that because they employ me. They genuinely are an amazing institution.

I started hosting these play-ins at my house where I just gather cellists and we read through stuff. I have coffee and tea and pastry and they pay me $30 and it was slow going and then I met a couple contractors and started doing symphony contracting which I loooove. It’s just kind of taken off from there. I definitely had missteps. 100%. And then 2 years ago I had an amazing cello built for me, I needed a more professional instrument. 

I don’t live hand to mouth—but I live very frugally. I feel incredibly lucky. I do have physical problems. I’ve done a lot of physical therapy. I’ve done Alexander technique. That’s why I have to be so proactive about my body—I do have these lingering issues. 

Do you still do play-ins?

Yeah, yep.

Where do you hope this work will lead? 

I don’t know where it’ll lead. I’d love to be in an opera orchestra, I love opera. I’d love take lessons—right now I can’t afford them. If there’s an opera conductor reading this—please let me play in an opera orchestra!  It combines my love of singing and my love of classical music.

And finally, why New Haven? How’d you wind up here?

I’m from Hamden. I just needed to be close to family. And I like New Haven in general. I like the people. I like how artsy it is. I’ve lived all over. I’ve lived in New York, Vermont, Boulder. I’ve lived in Asia. I just like New Haven.