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Sara Davis Buechner Talks About America’s Progress on Transgender and Social Issues

In her inspiring interview for Piano Magazine, Sara Davis Buechner shares her thoughts on social and transgender rights progress in the United States, among many other things.
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Sara Davis Buechner piano transgender

In your 2013 New York Times article, you wrote about a colleague whom you hadn’t spoken to for 15 years and who you reconnected with and had a musical experience with. You said something very interesting: “He enjoyed working with a pianist who was no longer hiding herself under layers of psychological turmoil and inappropriate clothing.” Have you found that there is a difference in your approach to music or performing pre-transition and after transition?

It was not anything practiced or on purpose but certainly the minute I began to be myself when I walked onstage to play, it was a feeling of great relief and great freedom. I remember the last year or so of concerts that I played as David Buechner going onstage and having to pump myself up with a lot of breathing exercises and extra energy and being very much the actor onstage. I always felt that when I went out onstage I would put on a mask and a suit of armor. Along the same lines, I remember going to a faculty meeting, the kind of thing where all of the guys would show up in their suits and ties. I put on a suit and tie and I remember hating every minute of it. My body was changing and morphing and here I was covering everything up. I thought to myself, “I’m putting on this suit of armor and mask to go in there and I’ll be sitting around the room with people who, some of them, are also wearing a mask and a suit of armor, and the difference is they’re never going to take theirs off.” There are a lot of people—maybe the vast majority of human beings—who go through this life wearing that mask and wearing that armor because it’s easier to deal with everything when you’re doing that. If that’s what society asks you to do, then it’s easier to do it than to question it.

In terms of playing onstage, I struggled for a little time because I had so much gender assumption: “Women are this, women act like this, what is a woman?” You know, learning to dress all over again, learning to put on makeup, even fighting with my voice! I have a deep voice and I really struggled for a long time. There are videos out there to study on how to sound like a woman. I remember throwing them all out one day and saying, “I went through transition so that I can act like somebody else’s idea of what a woman is supposed to be?”

You wrote in the same article, “I see signs of progress in the United States.” Here we sit, nearly a decade after you wrote that, with everything that has happened, especially in the last four or five years, and I wonder if you still see those signs. Do you still have that hope?

I am less optimistic now than I used to be, simply because the pandemic experience has just wearied me greatly. First of all, I’ve known a lot of people who have passed away from COVID, including a couple of students, which really shocked me. When I wrote that article, it was during the Obama administration, and I had viewed that as such a wonderful time in our country’s history. I moved to Philadelphia in fall of 2016, right in time for the election of a certain person, which tells you that almost everything in life is about good timing! That was probably not the best timing of all.

I think of one of the last conversations I had with Paul Badura-Skoda, who I count as my last teacher. I got to know him in 2013. I went to China for a piano festival; there were ten pianists invited who were master players and teachers. I was one of them and Badura-Skoda was the oldest of us. He was probably 86 at the time. He played a Mozart concerto so fantastically and I had always admired his work, so I got to know him and his wife in China. Soon after that, I wrote to him and said, “I really want to play for you. I know I’d be your oldest student of all time.” I went to play for him several times in Vienna and worked through a lot of the Mozart sonatas with him. I was a little too old to have lessons and I didn’t always agree with things that he felt, but to share ideas with someone with such brilliance and who was such a profoundly intelligent musician was a great opportunity. We had dinners after lessons and at one he really surprised me. He was talking about America, and he said, “Why do you Americans not venerate your own saints?” I was really puzzled, and he just made a motion toward two shelves of books: the complete speeches and writing of Martin Luther King. He was completely conversant on his writings and also those of Malcolm X and several others. I was embarrassed beyond belief. I thought, “I admire those people greatly but I haven’t really read all of their stuff.”

This comes to mind when you ask me, “How is our country doing?” because we have so ignored and so trampled upon the beauty and civility and culture of Black Americans, of Native Americans, of Asian-Americans who have come here, sometimes conscripted from China to build out railroads for us. We have so busted on these people, and yet we spend really no time reading the best of what these people have given to our country. What they have given is so devalued and so little thought of. Now we come to a time when this ghastly assemblage of white supremacists has been so outraged at the idea that Barack Obama, a brilliant and very thoughtful man, could sit in the White House chair, and then this monster who was elected president in 2016 sees fit to open a Pandora’s Box for all of these people…where is this going to end? Or is it ever going to end? When I was 8 years old, there were riots in Baltimore after the assassination of Martin Luther King. I saw the smoke rising from the inner city, lives lost, and outrage expressed, and now fifty years later, I looked out my window in Philadelphia to see the exact same thing happening because people cannot take any more of it. We should all be ashamed. It’s not even time to roll up our sleeves and go to work; it’s time to bow our heads in shame. This is supposed to be the democracy that sets the standard for the world, and yet there are many people who don’t want it that way: they don’t open borders, they don’t want people speaking Spanish. What do they want? I fear for the future of our country. I think we’ve gotten very lucky to have President Biden and Vice President Harris. I just don’t know politically where it’s all going.

In the darker days of my transition, when I wasn’t sure of my own future as a musician in the United States, I sometimes made plans to go to Japan. Now, Kayoko and I talk about perhaps, at a certain time in our lives, when we’re really very old, moving there and living there. I wonder about it, because I don’t know if the United States is going to be a very attractive place in about 30 years. I just don’t know. I’m not really very optimistic, but by nature I actually am an optimist. I don’t sound like it today—I sound like a bitter cynic! But I can’t play the piano if I don’t believe in something very beautiful.

Website: saradavisbuechner.com

Full Interview: “Music Is a Path to a Higher Reality, to a Very, Very Beautiful Place. My Whole Life I’ve Wanted to Be In That Place and I’ve Wanted to Take People There With Me”

Named in the pages of International Piano as one of four pianists worldwide championing the performance of pre-Classical repertoire on the modern piano, award-winning pianist David Murray is Professor of Music and Keyboard Area Head at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA, USA. Murray has performed extensively throughout the United States, making his New York debut at Carnegie Hall in 2005, a performance described as “first-rate, perfect” in the New York Concert Review. He has three recordings available from Summit Records: Blue: The Complete Cabaret Songs of William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein, The Juliet Letters, and C. P. E. Bach: Württemberg Sonatas 1-3. His latest recording of sonatas by C. P. E. Bach and W. F. Bach is currently available from MSR Classics.

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