A Chronic Case of Mistaken Identity

The era of max confusion.

The era of max confusion.

Scientists say that our brain processes life events when we sleep, but really, someone should figure out what’s happening when we shower. My mind always seems to range off the farm during showers, particularly the long ones when I’m lingering because I have a fabulous hot water heater and it’s cold out. I was lingering the other day and for some reason, my mind went to all of the times that I have been mistaken for someone else. Does this happen to you? It happens to me all the time and I don’t know why. Do I have a generic face? An “everyman” demeanor? 

It has happened my entire life, but the first incident I remember clearly was at my very first sleep-away music camp when I was a teenager. I was spending the summer at Brevard Music Center to focus on my piano studies, but brought my violin along too to maximize my musical experiences. I remember sauntering into the orchestra auditions with a confidence that I’ve definitely lost since then and acing the sight-reading portion like I belonged there. “Didn’t miss a note,” one string faculty muttered to the other, as they accepted me into the first violins. Please. Didn’t I tell them I was a pianist? We eat single lines of music for breakfast. 

A nice place to practice.

A nice place to practice.

Anyway, I’d never been to a music camp, and that summer was the germ of my belief that summer music festivals are heaven on earth. We practiced in wood cabins, each with a little grand piano in them, nestled in the misty Blue Ridge mountains. We thought about music all day, whether in practicing, lessons, classes or concerts. I met people who were more serious about music than I’d ever knew could be possible. One particularly sensitive girl was always weeping after her lessons. “I … just … can’t hear the music .. the way my teacher tells me too. I hear it totally differently!” she would wail, as we patted her on the back. Once, all of us pianists had lunch with the piano faculty, and I sat across from a woman faculty member whose name I have forgotten. Being the socially untrained introvert, I was focused on my cafeteria food and letting the conversation flit around me. The woman across from me all of a sudden pointed to me and said to everyone, “Look, she’s playing piano on her face!” I froze. I almost always have music playing in my head, and when I’m bored, I’ll play it with my fingers, or I’ll be typing out words from the conversation around me on an imaginary QWERTY keyboard. And that’s when she went on - my first case of mistaken identity. “You have a doppelganger,” she told me. “In Georgia. Are you from Georgia?”

Weirdly enough, another white middle-aged female pianist teacher would do this exact thing, but with way less self-awareness, after another music festival. I had met her at Kneisel Hall but did not work directly with her, so I knew that she barely knew who I was. A few months later, I went to a recital of hers in NYC, and stood in line to say congratulations. When I reached her, I was prepared to mumble my usual, “Wonderful concert; thanks” but she swept me in for a hug and was like, “HOW ARE YOU?” in a voice that was far too excited for our relationship. “You look so great! How long has it been since I’ve known you? It seems like forever. You were so little back then and now look at you! Where was that anyway? Did we meet in the Wideman competition I judged? Anyway, are you around this week? Oh, I can’t wait to catch up. ” Completely caught off guard, I gamely agreed to meet her for coffee the next day, thus acceding to an even more awkward encounter than the one we just had. I know, I know, I should have just said I was busy, but I was totally caught off guard. I have never entered the Wideman competition. Nor had I known her for longer than a few months. She was clearly thinking of some other young pianist. 

road to chamber music enlightenment, maine.

road to chamber music enlightenment, maine.

Did I go to coffee? Yes. By then she was much more subdued and had clearly realized that I was not who she thought I was, but rather than admit her mistake, went through with the coffee date. We both did, like sheepish champs. We talked about her quest for real estate in NYC, her tenured professor job, and other things totally irrelevant to my life. We pretty much both waited until the courtesy half hour was up before declaring that we should let the other get back to her busy life. 

These two so far have been white women, so you might be tempted to think that it’s a classic case of “all look same.” Certainly, some of my mistaken identity incidents fall under that category. When I was working in rural South Africa with an NGO, there was only one Asian family in the entire town, and I only ever saw them in their storefront, sitting behind the giant cardboard boxes of plastic slippers and other goods they sold. Of course, the people at the NGO swore they saw me in town all the time even though I was actually living on a farmhouse a little ways away. I thought of the young woman they probably saw instead, her small child at her side, who in all likelihood did not speak English, let alone Zulu. How did she get there, I wondered. A Chinese woman in the African bush. 

staff meeting.

staff meeting.

No, I was mistaken for other people by Asian people too. The one that stuck in my craw the worst was during freshman year of college, where a very cheery Taiwanese boy (no less) would without fail, see me in the freshman dining hall and call me Winnie. Winnie was about 5 inches shorter than me, did not have bangs, and I think I can safely say, looked absolutely nothing like me. I can’t tell you the number of times I corrected him only to see him at dinner and have him wave brightly and say the dreaded words, “Hi Winnie!”. Other Asians would do the same to me all throughout college. First there was my “twin” Joanne, another Asian girl who I suppose shared my body type, and then Iris, who people call me to this day my “voice twin,” meaning we sounded alike when we talked. It wasn’t enough that my appearances reminded people of others; apparently my mannerisms did too! 

fit for kings, wizards, and harvard freshmen.

fit for kings, wizards, and harvard freshmen.

Which reminded me of the most recent case of mistaken identity, in which my physical appearance played absolutely no part. As co-director of the Piedmont Chamber Music Festival, I often go stand in the back of the hall during concerts after I’m done playing, just seeing how things are going. I noticed one Asian man staring at me and chalked it up to some people just being creepy. However, as I was standing in the back, he made a point of coming over and whispering, “So, when’s the last time you saw Mrs. Campbell?” I whispered back rather coldly, “I don’t know” and then raised my finger like an elementary school schoolmarm to shush him. Mrs. Who-the-hell-was-he-talking-about? Also, don’t whisper during concerts.

Undeterred by my rudeness, he found me after the concert and proceeded to say all kinds of things that were obviously not about me. That our parents were good friends in medical school, and that this Mrs. Campbell character had been my piano teacher back home and was very fond of me, and that his parents had told him all about my accomplishments at Harvard. I let him know that he was mistaken, but he insisted. “But I read your bio! Weren’t you a science major at Harvard?” I said I was, but clearly he was thinking of someone else. “Maybe it was another Han in your class,” he said, somewhat dejectedly. Um, nope. Mervyn and I were the only ones that year, and Merv is definitely a dude. Sorry to burst your mistaken identity bubble. 

After all of these years, I don’t know why people think I am someone else. Maybe my face is a collection of the most common Asian features. Maybe my personality is bland to the point of being indistinguishable. Maybe certain items in my bio are just too common. Or maybe people are just worse at remembering people than I can believe. I don’t know what it is, but I’m always more annoyed than embarrassed for the mistaker. 

By the time I got out of the shower, however, I was less annoyed. After all, this mental inventory took me back to so many experiences, so many places of joy and discovery, so many events shared with so many dear people. It reopened doors to those old memories and let me browse the gallery of long-lost moments. These memories came back readily, like how there were bats in the girls cabin at Brevard and we all awoke shrieking in both panic and gleeful camaraderie as they swooped across the bunks. Like how all music festivals make me think that if only I had a cabin in the mountains with a piano in it, life would be just peachy. Like how freshman year meals at Harvard were both mundane and magical, as we all ate together, mindful of our select status and collective achievement, at long wooden tables in a cavernous castle-like dining hall surpassed in grandeur only by Hogwarts. Like how proud I am every year to see the festival that Wayne and I work on all year come to fruition, watching as the fantastic musicians we’ve invited cast their spells over the audience. Something about me may be forgettable or interchangeable or similar or familiar, but I’ve been lucky to have my own life, a unique collection of experiences that’s really all mine.

Practice Tips, from the Pros

practicing With my trusty Hello Kitty eraser. Photo by Dre Tsai while visiting me at  Kneisel Hall.

practicing With my trusty Hello Kitty eraser. Photo by Dre Tsai while visiting me at Kneisel Hall.

You’d think that people arrive at music school knowing how to practice. After all, they’ve been doing it for years, with some measure of success. 

Well, I sure didn’t. As kids, my brother and I had a practice routine that was more like training for a 50-yard dash. Upon hearing our garage door open, we would turn off the TV and race to our positions - he in his room with a violin, and me in the living room at the piano - and pretend like we had been diligently working since getting home from school hours ago, instead of watching The Disney Afternoon

Like most musicians, I’ve had to build up my practice strategies over time, finding what works best for me. Before I talk about my own strategies, I’d like to share some of the most impactful practice advice I’ve received, from some of the leading pedagogues around.

ESSENTIAL PRACTICE TOOLS - Edith Wiens

I learned many things from playing for Edith’s voice studio at Juilliard, so much so that I would sometimes jot notes afterwards - and it wasn’t even my lesson! It was fascinating for me to watch as she coached young singers through the music (and the business of music) with a clear-headed, organized approach. She talked about practicing with the same clarity. One of her requirements was that students always have a metronome and a recording device in their practice sessions. They would also record their lessons for playback and review during the week. 

To some, using a metronome and recording yourself is obvious. To others, it is didactic. I agree with Edith - and here’s why. The end-result of the practice is the performance, which is a public event. The entire point of the performance is to project the music outside of yourself. However, your musical intentions may not come across exactly as you hear them. This is especially true for singers, whose ears and instruments are housed in the same body! The metronome and recording device provide impartial, sometimes brutally honest, external feedback to help you make sure that what you are trying to convey is in fact what is coming across. 

WHAT TO PRACTICE - Margo Garrett

Margo was the mama bear professor in our collaborative piano department at Juilliard, supporting all of us in whatever goals we had. She is a true mentor as I’ve defined it - she has advocated for me in numerous arenas, putting her weight behind me to help me achieve my goals - and I cannot thank her enough.  

In lessons, Margo had something on point to say about any challenge. I forget the context, but I remember her saying that, ideally, you should have on your practice list repertoire in all stages of development: perhaps one piece you have just begun, one that you can almost play through fluently, and one that is nearing performance and needs to be refined with a fine polish. I found this formula to extend my practice endurance; by shifting tasks periodically, I am able to focus better, practice for longer, and be more productive. Cuz, let’s be honest, if you’re faced with learning notes for three hours, you’ll probably end up on your phone scrolling through Facebook. 

CREATING THE VISION - Brian Zeger

My lessons with Brian, a pianist and head of the vocal arts department at Juilliard, were intellectual in a way that I really enjoyed. I would often jot down his reading recommendations in the margins of my scores, in the hopes that someday, when performances weren’t breathing down my neck, I’d have some time to check them out. 

I think a lot of my teaching style takes after Brian’s - starting with big principles, proceeding logically, and bringing in lots of context for the music. One of the uniquely pianistic tricks that I learned from Brian was what he called “ideal to real.” The challenge of piano playing is that we have 10 fingers, but often they are sharing musical roles interchangeably and rapidly in real time. Unlike most instruments, pianists are expected to execute counterpoint, that is the interplay of several independent voices at a time. It might be easier if the melody voice was always in the right hand, or always in certain fingers. In reality, it never is, and mastery of the shifting voices in complex music is what sets truly great pianists apart (in my opinion). 

To untangle the tangle, Brian would have me simplify the texture until I could isolate the voice I was trying to shape. For instance, I’d play one voice with the most convenient fingers, rather than the ones actually required, in order to play it in the most ideal way possible. Once I had heard it in its “ideal” form and gotten that sound in my ear, I could then go back and try to recreate it under “real” conditions. 

This strategy has so many benefits - close listening, getting unstuck from the physicality of playing, transcending instrumental constraints and creating the sound world of your dreams. It’s something I often tell my students when they get too caught up in just wiggling their fingers. 

FINDING THE EASE - Jonathan Feldman 

Of course, piano is a physical pursuit, and someone needs to talk about that dimension, but few know how. Jonathan was our department chair and our gruff but softhearted papa bear to Margo’s mama bear. I credit him with rebuilding my flawed piano technique and opening up the entire piano repertoire to me. I fear no piece now, thanks to him and the Taubman approach

To get there, however, he had to break down my existing technique patiently for about a year. Re-learning something you have done for the last almost three decades is not easy, worse if you have been told you are pretty good at it. During my entire first year at Juilliard, as I re-learned how to play each finger, I felt like I had lost the ability to play anything at all. Every time I sat down, I had irrational fears of “falling off” the keyboard, as if the piano and I had gone down Alice’s rabbit hole and it had grown twenty sizes taller. 

I remember Jonathan once, after I had been hacking at a piece with obvious frustration, raising an eyebrow and saying, “You know, playing the piano can actually be pretty comfortable.” Comfort was the last thing on my mind, but you could see it in his playing. If he wanted to demonstrate at the piano, he’d playfully bark “Get up!” and take your place on the bench, then proceed to play with the exact same ease with which he had been sitting in his chair the moment earlier, eating his yogurt. 

The idea that playing should be pain-free and fluid guided me to the technical breakthroughs I would eventually have while working intensively with him at the Music Academy over the summer. It also instilled in me the non-negotiable belief that if something starts to hurt, it is time to stop. No exceptions. Playing piano is a physical pursuit; knowing your body as a pianist is just as important as for any athlete. 

HOW TO PRACTICE - Andrew Harley

Andrew Harley, visiting professor at Juilliard for a year and now at Eastman, joins many esteemed teachers in encouraging the exact opposite of what you hear in the practice rooms: playing through pieces as fast as humanly possible. Pianists are particularly guilty of this, racing through works like gazelles darting helter-skelter across the plains, evading some lethal predator, perhaps an impending competition, important lesson, or one’s own self-doubt. 

And in response, Andrew would say in his scholarly British way: practice slowly with the most beautiful sound you can muster. And you know what? I found that if I had the self-control to actually do it, it saved me hours of time. A few times slowly and beautifully through a piece would engrave my musical vision into my brain way more indelibly than a hundred times running through it.

HOW LONG TO PRACTICE - a recommended source and a not recommended source. 

This is the number one question that I get from people curious about the life of a musician, and it is a big one. But unlike practicing slowly, which most teachers agree on, this question can be very divisive. 

Once, I was at a summer festival having a lesson with a noted pianist and pedagogue, and I have to admit he was not really helping. Among other things, I had asked how much practice time is ideal because I was struggling with the intensive practice, rehearsal, and coaching schedule at the festival. He shrugged and said that when he was a young pianist, the sky was the limit - he would practice as many hours a day as possible, 8 or more not out of the question. Then he paused, and said, “Well, then there’s the other view. Robert Levin says that a smart pianist doesn’t need more than 2 hours a day.” 

Now. I had already realized that this pianist, while a laureate of prestigious competitions and active performer, was not an effective teacher. However, having studied with Levin at Harvard, I know he is a legit genius and a wonderful teacher (his masterclasses are second to none - check them out on Youtube). I am not Robert Levin, but I know I can work smart. Given the choice between Levin’s approach and the approach of this teacher, I now aim for 2-3 hours a day. Look, I need a little buffer to account for the enormous gap in intelligence between me and Bob Levin :)


BONUS: WHEN IS IT GOOD ENOUGH? Joseph Yungen

Joseph Yungen was a fellow doctorate student with me and is one of the most innately talented pianists I know. But he was also amazingly zen and even joyful about playing the piano, an activity that left many of us stressed and/or depressed. I remember playing Beethoven Piano Sonata Op. 78 for Joseph and some other colleagues in preparation for a recital. The enormity of the task of playing Beethoven didn’t help my feeling that I was falling far short of what it deserved. I turned to my friends for comments afterwards, hoping they would lay down the smack and whip me into shape. Instead, Joseph, in his considered way, said, “It’s already very beautiful. But you can’t struggle against it and expect it to get better. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Just let it go and enjoy it.” I generally hate such advice, but in this case he was right - sometimes you just have to let go of perfectionism and expectations and just remember the privilege of playing this amazing repertoire. A practice session in that mindset is never time wasted. 

Why Do We Teach Kids Mediocrity?

Why Do We Teach Kids Mediocrity?

Summer, regretfully, is over. Students all over the country are heading back to school, and here in Iowa, I had lunch today with two lovely young ladies, one of which is starting high school tomorrow. 

At some point during that lunch, I suddenly flashed back to a number of scenes from my own high school. I’m not sure why - maybe it was listening to her worry about the upcoming year; maybe it’s because my 20th reunion is approaching; maybe it’s because I now mostly teach kids fresh from that phase of life. Whatever the reason, a set of memories came rushing back, linked by a theme I had never realized before. 

Someday I will write about the many positives of my secondary school experience. Today is not that day. 

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