Remembering Linda Shaver-Gleason

By · Date 1/20/2020

On Christmas Day, 2019, Dr. Linda Shaver-Gleason offered the internet an important gift, as she had with reliable regularity for the past handful of years. “My present for you is to be uncomfortable for some time; just enough to make you see and question your situation,” she wrote on Twitter. “Then back to celebrating.” A musicologist, mother, and mythbuster who nurtured a vibrant and curious community of music lovers and friends, Linda was assassinated by cancer in a California hospice facility on January 14, 2020. She was 36 years old.

Writing on her blog, “Not Another Music History Cliche!,” and standing as a pillar of classical music’s niche on Twitter, Linda elegantly deployed her encyclopedic knowledge, research skills, and quick wit to cut through common classical music anecdote-myths, such as “The Rite of Spring” provoking a riot at its premiere. Not content to simply explain the truth and leave it there, she also delved several layers deeper to analyze why the myths persisted, and urged her readers to think critically about the information they were fed by advertising and clickbait.

“I think a lot of people think of musicologists as the people who are ruining the fun by saying, ‘But that’s not actually what happened!’” she said in an “exit interview” with fellow musicologist Will Robin shortly before her death. “I’m not trying to ruin that; I’m trying to give more information, to flesh it out.” Linda’s writing also explored larger topics, including why wind band music isn’t respected as much as orchestral repertoire; snobbery in classical music; and whether music is a universal language. She intentionally opted not to pick apart the writing of amateurs and bloggers, instead confronting the prose of “people who should know better.” “Your job is to stimulate enthusiasm, not quash it,” she wrote for Musicology Now, cautioning other public musicologists of the ivory tower’s perils. “Having more people listening to the widest range of music is a good thing.”

Linda Shaver was born on June 22, 1983 and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. Musically minded from a young age, she followed her sister to the piano at age four and picked up the viola at nine. Her initial area of study was viola performance, in which she earned a bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of the Arts and master’s degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Amidst this, she met Chris Gleason on an online forum for the whimsical science fiction webcomic Melonpool, and the two married in 2005. Throughout her education, she nurtured a love of writing and teaching, and ultimately decided to make that her path. She embarked on UCSB’s PhD program in musicology, focusing on reception history; for her dissertation, she wrote on how Felix Mendelssohn’s music was received in England, earning her PhD in 2016.

After her 2015 diagnosis of terminal stage IV breast cancer derailed her plans to pursue a position in academia, she channeled her energy into writing for a public audience on her blog. As the 2016 American election cycle and the proliferation of the “alt-right” hijacked much of the social media sphere, Linda’s presence was a beacon of hope and clarity amidst the noise, day after day illustrating the internet’s powers for positivity and creation.

While her medical treatments and the progression of the disease limited her ability to travel after her diagnosis, she cultivated a network of music lovers and friends around the world through the blog, Twitter, her program notes, and articles for outlets including VAN. Though she never met many of her online friends in person, physical distance was never an obstacle to connection.

In Linda, the online music community found a voice of relentless kindness and unfailing honesty. Through her writing, one could detect a subtle challenge to be the better listeners, learners, and citizens of this planet. Also palpable in her writing was a sense of urgency, spurred by the knowledge that she was living on whatever time modern medicine and the desire to fight would afford her.

She began her blog shortly after I started writing as a freelance critic and reporter for the Boston Globe and various other outlets (VAN included); by her measure, I was one of those “people who should know better,” and many times while on deadline I found myself wondering, “What would Linda think of this?” With her eyes in mind, I was motivated to do my research thoroughly, question accepted truths and platitudes, and be firm but not mean.

When she started her blog, it was already a foregone conclusion that she would be living with cancer for the rest of her life, and in her social media posts, she faced her eventual assassin—as she did all things—with grace, humor, and unflinching candor. She was vocal about the byzantine path to getting her diagnosis; as she told it, her OB/GYN twice wrote off pain and lumps she noticed in her breast as clogged milk ducts from nursing her then-infant son Linus. Cancer was only discovered months later when a course of painkillers failed to heal back pain—initially attributed to carrying Linus around. It was later found that she carried mutations on a BRCA gene, a hereditary trait that increases the risk of developing breast cancer at an unusually young age.

After two years of treatment, she was told the cancer had spread to her brain on the same day she learned she’d advanced to the second round of auditions for her beloved “Jeopardy.” She railed at the possibility of losing her keenest cognitive abilities to the aggressive radiation treatments that would prolong her life. “I want my son to know who I am now. I am going through treatment so that he will continue to have a mother, even if she’s only 75% of me. But I am angry that he will never know me at 100%,” she wrote. “I want to see what he does next; I want to help shape who he becomes next.” She went on to snag a spot on the game show, and outlived a five-month prognosis to watch herself take second place on TV. She picked up the hobby of making custom-colored braided friendship bracelets, which she sent many to friends around the country. She also continued to blog, and announced in January 2019 that she was stepping back from posting to craft a proposal for a book that would expand on the blog’s material.

Because she was never concerned with the precarity of academic jobs and was never under the “magnifying glass” of a tenure track, she told the podcast “Are We Okay,” she felt free to be less guarded with her opinions than other musicologists might have been. “I kind of want to rock the boat before I go,” she said. The rising generation of academics on Twitter paid attention to her incisive analyses; though she never held a professorial position herself, her writing was added to many syllabi around the country.

Following a gauntlet of aggressive treatments, Linda’s health took a sudden decline in early December 2019, and it seemed like she had few days left. Many of her friends and admirers on Twitter quickly added “Hyphen” to their names on the website in tribute to her Twitter handle, @LindaHyphen, and I felt myself internally screaming at the thought that the assassin could arrive before she’d had a fair chance to settle up with life.

A sigh of relief rippled through the internet when she reappeared, posting as lucidly and clearly as she had before. She entered a hospice facility where she spent her final weeks arranging for collaborators to finish her book, saying goodbyes, taking in love from her online community, choosing music for her memorial (she wanted a sing-along to George Harrison’s “What is Life” at the end), and spending time with Chris and Linus. As the end approached, she wrote, she had no regrets—aside from not pushing her OB/GYN over what she “KNEW wasn’t a clogged milk duct.”

In December, the North American British Music Studies Association approved a proposal for a memorial prize for emerging scholars and public musicologists. Her editor at Clemson University Press, Alison Mero, confirmed that her book was on track for publication in 2021 or 2022. Like the blog, the book will be oriented toward anyone who cares about classical music, with no formal education or training required. “I had ideas…I asked for help in making them real. It obviously didn’t make me rich, but it opened my world and brought so many people into it,” Linda wrote in 2017. “It made my life worth living.”

Memorial contributions may be made to any organization that supports musical training for children.