Jules of All Trades

A blog about learning. 

Subway poem #4

Subway rides, growing longer and more crowded, provide plenty of time to reflect on current events. This one is for the survivors of Parkland, Florida. 

"Things Fall Apart"

The most striking part of
Nigerian tribal life in
Chinua Achebe’s book was not
The shamans and ghostly rituals.
It was when Ekwefi, a young mother,
Said of her beloved daughter
(The only survivor of ten babies),
“Perhaps she is here to stay.”
Meaning, on earth. 
“I pray she stays.”
I remember thinking,
What a savage place, 
Where mothers are resigned to lose their children. 
Again and again.

Even non-mothers know
A youthful death
Is a cosmic wrong. 
I learned this when
I saw a college friend in her coffin,
And knew with the truth of
My young being that
This body, thick with disease, 
was not her. 
She had been a dancer,
A breathtaking one, 
Springing off the stage
Like a willow branch off the breeze.
But now she was elsewhere, resting.

Those left behind do not rest.
Dead children leave living parents with
Hearts shrouded in a black ivy, 
A suffocating growth with knifed edges. 
When a fourth grader at church
Was taken by cancer,
Her father wept on a blog.
I read once then turned away,
Unwilling to watch him struggle
To breathe in the darkness.

Every time tender American souls
Are cut down by American bullets,
I wonder how Chinua Achebe would frame This moment
In our history. 
I think he would be confused, 
And repulsed. 
Because unlike disease or foreign invaders,
It is we who are killing our young.

We can stop. 
But we don’t. 
Instead, mothers send their treasures to school,
Hoping that they will stay
Who is the savage now?
America falls apart.

Contemplations on a Jar of Iced Tea


One lazy spring day in law school, I was discussing with a then-boyfriend the materials and methods for really great iced tea. He mentioned something I had never heard of: sun tea. 

“Yeah,” he said. “You put some tea bags in a big glass jar and then you leave it outside for a few days, and then you have great iced tea!

“A FEW DAYS?,” I asked. “That can’t be right.” I was often skeptical of what he said and didn't hesitate to say so.

“No, it’s true. My dad always made it this way. Trust me.” 

“YOU LEAVE IT OUT FOR DAYS? Hahaha. Great way to make BACTERIA tea,” I cackled. 

“Look, you don’t know because you’ve never done it, but my family has been making sun tea like this forever. And it’s really good.”

“FOR DAYS! HAHAHAHA!” <cackling intensifies>

“Fine. You don’t believe me? Look. Look. I’m calling my dad right now.”

<he calls his dad>
“Hey dad, how’s it going? Hey, I had a question about something: how do you make sun tea? …. Uh huh … uh huh ….. You leave it out for how long? Wait, wasn’t it a few days? I thought you … oh. Ok. Got it. Thanks dad... Yup, I’ll talk to you soon.”

“So??” I said, eagerly, cackling inside. 

“Uh. You leave it out for a few hours. He said leaving it out for a few days would be stupid.” 

I cackled so loud I almost split in two.

Let’s just say that that relationship didn’t last because I was not a very nice person. I've been working on it. 

But the conversation did demonstrate something I have noticed over and over - a blatant disregard for food safety in pretty much everyone I know. If you have an Asian parent, you grew up with this - rice is left in the rice cooker, soup is left out overnight, leftovers are simply covered up and left on the counter. The items in a mom’s fridge seem to last forever; the dishes that you swore you’ve already eaten for a week still living on in their little Tupperware kingdoms of immortality, jarred things from years ago still doing their thing in their jars. This legacy continues in us, their children. I think of this now as I discover a jar of iced tea that has been in the fridge undoubtedly for weeks, and my husband, the son of Chinese immigrants, assures me it is totally fine. 

It looks fine I guess, but remember, kids, you can't see bacteria. 

It looks fine I guess, but remember, kids, you can't see bacteria. 

I believe many tummies have been sacrificed on the porcelain altar of “it’s totally fine.” 

I, on the other hand, demonstrate a healthy respect for our microorganism brethren. I constantly ask Google the question, "How long does [food item] last?” I diligently label newly-opened containers with the date. When in doubt, I throw it out. I even view moldy cheeses with suspicion, delicious as they are. In every instance, someone has reassured me that the subject of my concern is “totally fine.” 

When did I turn the corner, from unsuspecting rice leaver-outer to militant spoilage vigilante? I can tell you exactly when it happened: while doing cancer research in a biomolecular lab. In our lab, there were three areas set off for distinct purposes: the cold room, the warm room and the hot room. The cold room, as you suspect, was a giant room set at about fridge temperature where you could do experiments with proteins and gels and other things sensitive to heat. The hot room was not actually hot but where you dealt with radioactivity - there were special hoods and disposal containers, and you had to sign in and out every time you used it in case there was contamination.

Now the warm room actually was a very warm room, set to the temperature at which E. coli prosper and propagate. Kind of like a hippie music festival for bacteria, everyone making peace, love, and my cancer-gene protein while rocking out on a gently shaking platform.  I had to use this room every time I needed the “bugs” to grow me a batch of protein, and I’d put my GIANT erlenmeyer flasks, full of the little guys and their favorite soupy food, on the shakers and wait for them to do their thing. Since then, I've associated that temperature, 37 degrees C or about 99 degrees F, with that warm room and the sensation of the thick air crowding my reluctant nostrils with the euphoria of breeding bacteria. 

All three rooms were mildly unpleasant, but the warm room was my least favorite because of the smell. However, it did give me a very visceral sense of how bacteria multiply: how quickly they do it, what conditions they like, and how a liquid’s murkiness deepens as their numbers grow. And now I can’t help but see those conditions everywhere. For instance, after making a giant pot of homemade stock, those in the “it’s totally fine” camp might leave the pot out all day to cool before putting it in the fridge, or WORSE, just put it in the fridge (sacré bleu!!!). I can’t help but see in such a pot a giant bacterial Lollapalooza. I took my fears to the internet and found to my relief that, indeed, there are methods for taking a pot just off the boil and cooling it down in a jiffy. 

Now, you may well have picked your side, and from your side, you may well think I am a crazy person. And to that I’ll say: the food and drink purveyors of the world with any accountability are on my side. For example, if you look closely at Starbucks, every ingredient, every batch of liquid, is marked with a date and even time of expiry. In restaurants, there are a host of safeguards like inspections and food warmers and food coolers and inventory management. And even with these systems in place, shit happens (literally), like the E. coli outbreak at Chipotle, or like my first and last trip to a poke place downtown, where a friend and I ate a heap of raw fish and both spent an agonizing night in the bathroom, reflecting on how dysentery must be a terrible way to die. 

But, don't let me sway you. Everyone go ahead and do your own thing. Feel free to roll the dice, as thousands of our ancestors have (because I imagine scarcity left them no choice). As for me, I have the robust American food supply and the fear of the mighty microbe behind me, and I am going to throw out that iced tea right now. And a few other things. 

P.S. here’s a legit recipe for sun tea.

2017: Lessons from a Year in Blogging

After years of decamping to the Juilliard computer lab, I finally got my own work computer. And it is beeyooteefulll!

After years of decamping to the Juilliard computer lab, I finally got my own work computer. And it is beeyooteefulll!

Happy new year! The running out of the calendar is a great reminder to stop our bustling about and sit down for some much needed introspection. My usual method of year-end reflection was to jot a short journal entry about memorable moments, triumphs, and disappointments, and then outline my upcoming goals. It was a crude method, but adequate to trigger the twinned emotions of closure and anticipation at year end.

Last year around this time, I started this blog instead. I had no idea what it would be about, but I had just launched my musician webpage and knew that it needed some “content,” fast. So I dubbed the blog “Jules of All Trades,” imagining that I would write articles full of tips, tricks, and hacks about everyday topics such as decluttering, good books, relationships, and cooking. You know, the usual. 

Instead, this blog morphed out of my hands into a very personal forum where I attempted, publicly, to process the events of 2017. Let’s face it: this year was tough in many ways, and there was no shortage of things to process. I didn’t expect to stray so far from my neat pile of mainstream blog topics, but I think it was the right choice. I once heard a powerful piece of advice from a law school mentor: when picking a legal research topic, start with what makes you angry or keeps us up at night. Most of the topics in my blog posts were spawned out of intense, irrepressible emotion, and that made the writing easier and more meaningful for me. 

So I kept it up, as much as I could. By the numbers, in 2017 I wrote: 

  • 22 blog posts
  • With an average of 1200 words each
  • About every 19 days. 

It’s not much when you add it up that way, but over just one year, this little blog experiment has taught me so much. Here are just three lessons I've learned from blogging this year: 

1. Writing regularly improves your writing.

For those of you who are afraid to show your writing to the public, I’m with you. I’ve never considered myself a good writer, and my perfectionism means that I have written far more posts than I’ve posted. (It also means I often go back and edit entries after posting….). However, practice makes perfect, does it not? Also, I’ve been inspired to grow my writing skills even more this year by reading more. Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America is up next. 

2. Writing in a public forum connects you with people, often unexpectedly.

When I started this blog, I had no readers. I was pretty sure it would stay that way forever, but three months later, I wrote an article (out of extreme frustration) about Betsy DeVos and what she taught me about my own learning journey. This article somehow was widely shared, getting over 2,300 hits that day!!! THAT’S A LOT OF PEOPLE I DON’T KNOW! The support from beyond my networks took me completely by surprise. I got emails through my website from strangers who had seen the article on Facebook or Twitter and wanted to share their own experiences with finding a growth mindset. I also heard from friends I hadn't talked to in years. It was an utterly amazing experience. 

So, heartened, I kept writing, especially when I felt a discomfort in my heart that needed soothing. The other top posts from this year ended up being:

"What I learned at Juilliard"
"What Is Privilege? On Cleaning Bathrooms At Harvard, And Harvey Weinstein"

Each one got hundreds of visits the same day that I posted them. Overall in 2017, I had over 12,000 page views from almost 7000 unique visitors. I know those numbers are insignificant in the world of high-rolling blogs, but to me, it was an overwhelming amount of human connection. The fact that people stayed engaged enough to read what I wrote, and that it meant enough to some to write me personally, made me feel heard and supported more than I could have hoped for. 

2017 site traffic

2017 site traffic

3. Writing with gratitude begets more gratitude.   

Being a natural-born realist (some would say pessimist) I have to be very careful not to ship the whole world to hell in a hand-basket anytime something makes me upset. Writing in a public forum provides me the accountability to try always to turn anger, frustration, and hurt into more helpful emotions, such as acceptance, learning, and above all, gratitude. Having this platform for working out my strong emotions to events this year was an immense blessing, because every time I resisted ranting and tried instead to find a more uplifting message, that positivity returned to me a hundred-fold, amplified by those it had traveled through before coming back to me. Gratitude, like any other habit, grows with practice, and this blog has given me an arena to keep up the practice. 

So. I guess what I’m trying to say is, THANK YOU. Thank you for reading, for the texts and emails and comments in person supporting this little project of mine. It has been one of the bright spots of 2017, and that’s because of all of you. Looking forward to 2018, I’ll try to write better, think deeper, and lift us all up higher, together.

Might I suggest that we all practice gratitude together? It puts us in control of our emotions (instead of the other way around) and readies us for the hard work that has to be done in 2018. There is much to be done. 

Happy new year all, and wishing everyone your best year ever. 

P.S. If you haven’t already, please subscribe at the bottom of this page to get these posts by email! You’ll never miss one, even if I forget to post it on Facebook :) 

Tax Bill Poetry - Patriotism

“The Price of Freedom”

When I was in first grade,
We sang My Country Tis of Thee in music class.
Halfway through class, 
Came to the door of our classroom,
And my teacher went to talk that person. 
Whoever it was.

Who was it anyway?

We weren’t singing. 
We were waiting.
Waiting makes six-year olds antsy.

I crept out of my seat,
To see who it was.

Just then, my teacher returned.
Seeing me out of my seat - half tiptoed -
She flew into a rage.

“You wanna see who’s in the hallway? 
Why don’t you go and sit out there? 
Take your goddamn time.” 
She grabbed my arm
And kicked me out of music class.

As I sat in the hallway,
Tufting the carpet between my fingers,
Listening to my compatriots sing,
I mulled over the words,
“Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From ev’ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!”

And I was a little confused, 
Because no father of mine had ever died here,
As far as I knew.
I was the first one - 
The first American-born American
In my family.

But, I knew I loved this country
More than anyone. 
More than that idiot now oppressing my freedom. 
For sure.

Children have the keenest sense of injustice
As you may remember.

So I decided, there in the hallway,
That if it came down to it,
If someone had to die to keep freedom ringing,
If it came to my turn,

I would do it.

Tax Bill Poetry - Healthcare

"My uncle clutched his heart"

He was late picking me up,
Unusually late.

My uncle lived with us for years, 
Leaving in the morning to sear food in woks
For hours
On his feet
All day
Returning after the late-night hosts had begun their monologues
Bearing pints of my ambrosia:
Hot and sour soup.

But in all those years, we never talked. 
I replied yes to offers of crab rangoons. 
When asked for my heart’s desire,
I requested kung pao chicken, shyly. 
And more soup, of course. 
I praised the Szechuan pickles. 
The finest I’ve ever had. 
But in all those years he lived
In the bedroom between my brother’s and mine, 
We never talked.

When he finally pulled up,
He looked sheepish. 
He said he‘d had chest pains and pulled over for a while
To wait it out. 
He apologized. 
It was very painful, he said. 
It was not the first time, 
But this one was very painful.

My eyes opened wide in horror and
I started lecturing:
See a doctor!
You have to take care of this!
Don’t put it off!

And then I remembered
That long days over hot woks did not entitle one to health insurance. 
Did not entitle
THIS American citizen
To health insurance. 
Nor time off. 
And I shut up.

There was silence as we drove the darkened road.

Quietly, he said,
That if he ever felt like he might die, 
He would go to the ER.
And if they couldn’t save him, 
Well. That was just how life went.

And I realized
That for some people,
Working hard every day
To survive, every day
Without end
Without help

Makes it easier to leave this life
than to get basic medical care.

Tax Bill Poetry - The Estate Tax

There are times when speaking out directly about a course of action has done no good. This is one of these times.

Here is the first of three poems inspired by the tax bill. This one is about the estate tax.


“Generational Wealth”

When I was a lawyer,
We talked of generational wealth in hushed tones.
“That’s like .... generational wealth,” we’d say,
About a retiring partner’s cashout.

We tried to imagine the sum,
Its spatial, numerical, consumer dimensions, 
And in our trying, we decided
That it was a worthy goal,
Symbolizing unmistakeable success.
We all wanted it, too.

Years later, 
As a musician,
I was talking to a real estate developer
(who had inherited her wealth).
She was going to kick out elderly immigrants from affordable housing
That she owned
That she had inherited
And rent the units
For a lot more.

I knew some of them might die on the street.

She complained about how hard she worked, but - 
Ultimately -
“I want to make sure my grandkids can eat, you know?” she said cloyingly, 
Cocking her head towards me, 
Sure I would understand.

And then I knew.

Generational wealth
Is the socially-accepted term for
Pure —
Straight-up —


Bach, Glorious Bach

Photo by Jiyang Chen. 

Photo by Jiyang Chen. 

What happens when you steep yourself in Bach? Do your fingers and toes turn pruny and then start to write counterpoint? Audiences in NYC and the Bay Area will soon find out when violinist Wayne Lee and I present Bach's complete sonatas for violin and keyboard starting December 1 and 2! Join us if you can!

For the NYC series, I wrote a guest post about the wonders of steeping in Bach for Listen Closely, the community-based chamber music series presenting the concerts. Read this post on Listen Closely's website, or full text below.


For most people, the word “immersion” probably conjures up language learning, infinity pools, and blenders. It is less likely to conjure up a concert experience - after all, musical programming these days often offers a dizzyingly diverse array of styles. Which is great.

So, color me skeptical when two years ago, Wayne Lee decided to play all of J.S. Bach’s six works for solo violin over two concerts, presented by Listen Closely. My skepticism had two roots. First, the Bach solo violin works represent the pinnacle of artistic and technical writing for the instrument. There’s a good reason one is required for almost every violin audition and competition. The study of even one of the six can occupy a musician for years. To do all six at once? Crazy.

My second concern was as an audience member. Two concerts of just one type of composition by one composer? Would I get bored? Would it all sound the same?

After attending both concerts, I am happy to report that my fears were completely unfounded. First of all, Wayne Lee is an absolute violin beast, with a rare musicality and depth of insight that shows in everything he plays. After one concert, an audience member remarked that, usually when he listens to performances of these pieces, he hears how hard they are. When Wayne played them, all he heard was music.  

Secondly, as an audience member, the immersion experience revealed more than I thought possible. By listening to six distinct works of Bach over two evenings, I began to internalize his style, to hear increasingly more detail, and to dwell more fully in the moment of the performances. The best way I can describe it is that it was like a road trip - at first you’re aware of everything but the journey: did we pack enough beef jerky? Which exit are we looking for? Did someone call Auntie Jane to tell her we’d be 4 hours late? But after a while, you settle into a rhythm and can watch the world go by. The longer you drive, the more you notice the diversity of landscape. When I was a kid, we drove across the United States, and I remember watching in wonder as the plains became the Rockies became the salt flats became the coast. In Bach, the landscapes are equally distinct and awe-inspiring. After a few minutes into Wayne’s cycle, I began to discern Bachian soundscapes - poignantly beautiful laments, vivacious celebrations, and heavenly visions. By the end of the concerts, I was listening completely differently. I was IN the world of Bach, and each nuance, each change of pace, was more meaningful than it had been in the beginning. It was a transformative experience.

Because of those solo Bach concerts, it was an easy decision to do this cycle of complete Bach sonatas for violin and keyboard. Bach is the perfect composer for performing cycles, or a series of concerts focused on a type of work by one composer. He wrote so many works in groups of six: the solo violin sonatas and partitas, the cello suites, the Brandenburg concerti, the English suites, and on and on. As the master composer that he was, he explores the full potential of each category - they feature as much diversity within each work as between works. It seems six was the magic number - by the sixth work, Bach had both defined the boundaries of the genre and systematically defied them.

These six violin and keyboard sonatas also exemplify that mastery and creativity. Although they mostly follow the same 4 movement formula - slow-fast-slow-fast - there are surprises everywhere: a fifth (solo!) movement! A presto movement! An über-chromatic movement! Clearly, these sonatas were not the mindless exercises of a composer rushing to publish. Bach imbues every moment of his deft counterpoint with the highest form of his art.

But even if you don’t notice all of the points of compositional mastery, you can enjoy such a cycle because, ultimately, we love Bach for his profound beauty. Given that fact alone, an immersive experience in Bach can be as rewarding as learning a new language, as relaxing and invigorating as a good swim, and as good for you as a blended smoothie!

These sonatas are some of the most wonderful works written by Bach, and the challenges posed by playing them on modern instruments is well worth the reward. We hope you will come with us along for the ride. Enjoy the view!

What is Privilege? On Cleaning Bathrooms at Harvard, and Harvey Weinstein

PC: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

PC: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

At the end of my freshman year at Harvard, my best friend Joanna and I decided that the best way to start our summer break was to stay on campus an extra week and clean dorms. This job, called “dorm crew,” was an extension of a system in which work-study students cleaned dorm bathrooms during the school year. Why did we do this? Was it for the character-building benefits of manual labor? For the inner satisfaction of making filthy rooms sparking clean? As a gesture of hospitality to the alumni paying big money to rent the rooms during reunions? 


The correct answer is: boys. We had been hanging out with two guys in our entryway, and they were staying on campus a little longer. That meant we wanted to stay a little longer (go ahead, roll your eyes at this stupidity; I certainly am), and dorm crew offered housing that week.

In addition to housing, there was another perk - money! They paid us a smidge over or under $10 an hour, I can’t remember, but I remember thinking if I worked 8 hours a day for 5 days, that was a lot of money! I reported this to my mother, who told me in her usual blunt way that that was NOT a lot of money and this was NOT a worthwhile endeavor. But to me, at the time, three digits was pretty good. You see, I arrived at college with no money of my own. Had I attended Harvard just a few years later, my financial aid would have been a full ride, but as fate went, I arrived on campus, signed a stack of loan promissory notes, and was advised to take advantage of my work study “award.” Funny that they call it that, when most of the options don’t sound that rewarding. I chose to work as an usher at Sanders Theater, which wasn’t too bad. I got to see music performances of all sorts, and the work was easy - take tickets, tell patrons they can’t bring in their coffee, and hold firm with annoying students who couldn’t get a ticket but want you to let them in anyway. I made almost $40 a night! That was my own money, and it was precious. So when it came to the opportunity to make hundreds in a week, I thought, not bad! 

Looking back, I can’t believe how naive I was. It was one of the hardest weeks of my life. I thought I was prepared - as a kid, my brother and I had to do pretty much every chore both in and out of the house: sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, dusting, washing dishes, taking out trash, laundry, ironing, gardening, mowing and weeding, and random home repairs. I was totally prepared for this, I thought. But I wasn’t. The rooms were disgusting beyond belief. Imagine the messiest person you know, imagine him or her as a stressed out teenager, and imagine what his or her small room looks like after not disposing of trash or cleaning the floor or any other surface for an entire year. You cannot actually imagine. And the bathrooms. Omg, the bathrooms. Despite regular cleanings, some of them were legitimately hazardous waste sites. I should have called the EPA. My first thought when I witnessed these horrors was that there was really only one recourse: 


But, I had signed up. I had to do it. The schedule was grueling. We had strict instructions about what needed to be done in each area - for the living area, we started by hauling out everything left behind (from tvs, fridges and other large appliances to copious amounts of alcohol. Some guys worked dorm crew just for the loot). In the bathroom, it was a combination of rough de-griming followed by increasingly detailed levels of cleaning. I remember crouching down and scrubbing shower walls for hours. My back hurt, my arms hurt, my legs hurt, and yet I was bored out of my mind. To make matters worse, my student supervisor Misty (who I’m sure is a managing partner at an i-bank now) was a relentless taskmaster. She saw the littlest streaks on faucet handles and checked the backs of the toilets, and she would scold us about everything. I resented her immediately. WHAT SICKO CHECKS THE BACK OF THE TOILET??

Somehow, the week finally came to an end, and the check I got in the mail didn’t even come close to compensating me for my troubles. I was sorry I did dorm crew, and I vowed never to do anything like it again. 

Why did I think of this now? Well, I’ve been reflecting a lot on privilege, and how it is so hard for us to recognize our own. In a sense, it’s understandable - if you haven’t experienced something, how can you understand the struggles of someone who has? For instance, until I did dorm crew, I’d never before felt the pain of pushing my body beyond what it wanted, for work that was so unsatisfying. Yet there are so many around the world who work much more physically demanding jobs for the entirety of their lives, for the pennies in my wallet. Intellectually, I knew that, but after dorm crew, I started to notice and perhaps understand these people more. In law school, I interviewed for summer jobs with agencies working against human trafficking and slavery, and I doubt I would have done that without dorm crew. I gained infinitely more empathy and perspective by living the slightest version of their lives. In so doing, I clarified my own privilege: it is a privilege to not have to do manual labor. 

Manual labor is just an example, of course. The greater issue is the increasing divisiveness and inequality in society that makes it harder and harder for us to empathize with others. I worry today about the kids I see - for instance, kids who think that cleaning and other manual tasks are only done by other people. I worry about how easy it is to close yourself off to the realities of others if you've never been asked to push your own bodily limits. Freedom and control over the use of your own body, your physical being, is something many of us, especially in the developed world, take for granted, but even in our midst there are people who feel they have to give up their bodily comfort and even integrity to survive. 

I thought about this, the privilege of intact bodily integrity, recently, because of the sexual harassment claims that have risen up like a mushroom cloud over the American entertainment industry. Like all women, I experience harassing remarks constantly and have had my body subjected to demeaning and violative treatment. As a small instance, I remember being groped on a packed subway car; a hand reached from behind me and rubbed itself into my butt and crotch region before I whipped around to see who it was. That was mere seconds, but I reached a level of fury and fear for my life that is seared into my memory. Others have far worse stories to report, and I cannot even read about them without these emotions resurfacing. 

In the wake of the media blitz around Harvey Weinstein, there have been more conversations about sexual assault and more men involved in these conversations than I’ve ever seen, which is awesome. The reactions from well-meaning men have included doubt and fear about how their past behavior has been received and confusion about how to proceed going forward. 

Graphic in a recent broadcast by sky NEWS. 

Graphic in a recent broadcast by sky NEWS. 

Another reaction I’ve heard and read is that, yes Weinstein is a scumbag, but might the mob be jumping too quickly to pillory everyone else now? Shouldn’t we proceed cautiously, and wait for proper procedures to suss out the facts, before judging the accused or ruining their lives? Now, I agree to an extent - we need fair justice systems and presumptions of innocence, and we shouldn’t dump on a public figure just because it feels good. But here’s what I was thinking - when these headlines break, just as much as some people can’t help but argue fairness and temperance, others can’t help but flash back to every harassing encounter in their entire lives. For many women, these encounters begin early. I was probably in elementary school when someone called my home and, hearing a little girl on the line, proceeded to talk graphically about genitalia for minutes before I unfroze myself and finally hung up, my entire body shaking. What has become clear to me is that the lack of those very experiences that fuel outrage or mortal fear is itself a privilege. That is why smart, educated, nice, helpful and good people willingly work against gay rights, universal healthcare, reproductive rights, progressive taxes, etc. Because they are privileged to NOT have had the experiences that fuel outrage or mortal fear on these issues. 

You might say that what I call privilege should be called human rights. I agree.  But that is not the world we know. In the world we know, we need this word - privilege. Admitting privilege, then, is acknowledging that you are in a better situation than someone else. Note that the existence of more privileged classes above you does not negate the duty to admit one’s privilege. This is because acknowledging privilege is seeing inequality below you. It is the first step to fixing that inequality. 

Denying your own privilege, by contrast, is accepting the status quo. Many people do this using the fiction that they or their families deserve things more than other humans because of some quality they believe about themselves (e.g., being smart, hard-working, respectful, savvy, etc.). I am very worried when I hear people imply that the reason they have things is due to those qualities. Congrats on your accomplishments, but I guarantee you there is someone in terrible conditions who has all of the same qualities who will never enjoy the life you have. Acknowledging that you don’t deserve this any more than they is the only way to desire change for everyone.

I am sure now that that dorm crew experience had a deeper impact than I could have imagined. The following year, in a philosophy class, the teaching assistant (a dapper, well-coiffed and somewhat snooty white male student at HLS) posed a discussion question: should manual labor like dorm crew be required for college students? Back then, I was far more unschooled in my emotional control and in my debate tactics, and I argued violently and vehemently that yes, it should be required, and oh-ho! Might it teach all of these spoiled kids some valuable life lessons!! Predictably, I not only alienated everyone but disposed them against my position. I also came off as an angry asshole. 

I think what I wish I had said, is that diversity of experience, especially unpleasant ones outside of our own sphere, builds the empathy that leads us to admit our privilege and thus do our part to change the world. I don’t mean that we should all try to engage in hard manual labor or feel sexually abused. But one simple way to start is is to ask more questions, to listen more, to those with different experiences. Like many other women, I have never spoken of the harassment I experienced until now, because no one was talking about it. There is an ocean's worth of pain yet to unleash in the women around you, and if you listen, I guarantee some of the things you hear will be infinitely more uncomfortable than any cleaning duty. Even for me - I took a class in law school about gender violence, and it was one of the most depressing experiences of my entire life. I despaired for humanity. Nevertheless, what I learned drastically informed and changed how I view sexual assault. 

I am privileged to not have been the victim of more serious sexual assault, as so many friends of mine have been. I am privileged to work in a field that engages my mind AND that is physical in a way that connects mind body and spirit. And yet, I can only see that privilege because I have experienced, however briefly, the other side. Let’s work to experience more, to see our privileges and admit them, and to work towards a world in which we don’t need this word anymore. It can’t come soon enough. 

Wisdom Wednesdays: Surviving Self Assessment

I'm loving these images from the Consulting Random Work Generator. They're too true, too good.

I'm loving these images from the Consulting Random Work Generator. They're too true, too good.

Welcome to Wisdom Wednesdays, a series in which I recount the things people have said to me that have changed the way I think. The beauty of wisdom is that it often comes from unexpected places, and I’m pretty sure the people who gifted me these pearls didn’t even realize they were doing so …. So if I call you out by surprise, my apologies! It’s really your own fault for being so profound.

Here we go.

The Topic: Self-evaluation.
The Guru: Mitch, a cellist.

Evaluating yourself can be unpleasant in any field. As a consultant, I had to fill out a performance review at the end of every case, listing what I did and didn’t do well and how I could improve. It was annoying, but ultimately it wasn’t a big deal because what really mattered was what my superiors wrote about me. So I usually just put in a few generic statements using buzzwords that might please the higher-ups: “QC more.” “Go for the deeper dive.” Etc.

My last consulting performance review. I can't decide if "Quiet, but ruthlessly efficient" is what I want on my tombstone, or what I want in a dishwasher. 

My last consulting performance review. I can't decide if "Quiet, but ruthlessly efficient" is what I want on my tombstone, or what I want in a dishwasher. 

Writing about yourself is annoying, but watching or listening to yourself is definitely worse. Prior to becoming a musician, I had to do this very rarely. Once, I had to review a video of me giving a mock opening statement in a legal writing class. I also once listened to a recording of a radio interview I did about my research in South Africa. I can’t say I learned anything from these reviews - it was more out of curiosity to see if anything egregious happened.

As a musician, self-evaluation - in the form of reviewing your own recordings or videos - is more involved and, for me at least, agonizing. It’s painful for many reasons. For instance, after hours in a recording studio doing multiple takes of everything to get it right, the last thing I want to do is relive every second again. At that point, I can’t even hear straight anymore. When reviewing a recording of a live performance, I am loathe to destroy the magic of the experience - the recording will undoubtedly be scrubbed of the electric spirit of the live setting. Furthermore, all the things that didn’t go as well as I wanted are now etched in stone (of the digital HD variety) for perpetuity. Ugh. 

Nevertheless, there are many times where such self-review is necessary, especially as a student, when there are countless applications for auditions, competitions, and festivals. As a masters student, I applied to many chamber music festivals, which often require audition tapes of solo and chamber repertoire. One fall, I was reviewing my videos from prior festivals to see which might be best to send in. That past summer, I had been a pianist at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, a wonderful program run by Yale in the middle of nowhere Connecticut. One of the pieces I had performed was the Schumann Piano Quartet in E-flat; my group consisted of three fantastic string players, who were also awesome people (my favorite kind of group). We were coordinating the sharing and editing of the video file, and kvetching about the process. Actually, I was whining, and I probably said something like, “Ugh, I hate watching videos of my own performances. It’s never good enough.” I expected the others to reflect my misery, but instead, Mitch, the cellist, looked at me with genuine bemusement and said, “Why? I’m already better than I was then. Even if I made a recording a week ago, that represents what I did then. I’m past that now.”

I was startled enough to stop complaining (momentarily). Here was a way of thinking that had never occurred to me. I had only thought of recordings as potential failures - there was always something I could do better, always moments of disappointment, always ways in which I fell short of my ideal. In essence, I only used recordings to judge myself against some impossible standard (I’ve written about this before in another context - notice a theme yet?).

What Mitch was suggesting in his offhand, honest response, was that we can and should use feedback as an opportunity for growth and encouragement. The growth part is already evident to most musicians - when watching or listening to yourself, you immediately notice from that more impartial vantage point things you’d like to change and observations you couldn’t have made in the moment. Regular recording and review is utterly indispensable to any musician, and we all know that.

However, the growth benefits are for many of us still dwarfed by the fear of failure, of being faced with our shortcomings. This week’s guru suggested that we lessen that discomfort by adopting the novel idea that every recording is an opportunity for self-encouragement. This is not some fluffy self-talk: the beauty of this idea is that it’s true! Indeed, no matter how I think the performance went, I am better for having done it. We inevitably learn from the act of performing under pressure, whether that is for a live audience or studio microphone, and if we continue to practice in the days following, we are both subconsciously and consciously incorporating those learnings into our craft. As we put in the work, we are better, day after day, than we were before, and the act of recording or performing has propelled us even faster down that path!

From that perspective then, the recordings are just markers in time - chances to practice the art of performing, to integrate what we have learned, to acknowledge our progress since earlier markers, and to chart the course towards a better self.

I know: easier said than done, especially for the perfectionists amongst us. I recently received videos from a live performance and immediately started compiling a list of self-doubts: the repertoire was new! the piano wasn't as I expected in the lower register! I missed those notes! Etc. These reflexes are hard to change, but if I shelve the video, I won’t have a chance to see the ways in which I am already past that moment in time. In the area of self-assessment then, as in all parts of my life, I need to develop more of a growth, rather than standards, mindset. It helps that in music, comparing yourself to a perfect standard completely misses the point.

To that end, here’s a selection from that recital: Scriabin’s Etude in E Major, Op. 8 No. 5. Onwards and upwards!

Why We are Mentoring All Wrong

More great mentoring cartoons at this Forbes article. 

More great mentoring cartoons at this Forbes article

A line in a recent New York Times article caught my eye: “High-potential women are overmentored and undersponsored.” Intrigued, I followed the link to a Harvard Business Review feature, which mentioned a woman who felt “mentored to death.”

Yes. Nameless high-potential woman, I hear you. I'm not sure if I'm a high-potential woman, but I have grown wary of being “mentored.” It’s gotten so bad that whenever I hear about another mentoring program, I roll my eyes. Having been a minority woman in the fields of science, business and law (particularly corporate law), I’ve been in my share of mentoring programs. And I agree with the article - such programs cost time and money and have very little to show for it. In my experience, mentoring programs follow the same formula: pair me up with someone who matches me in two dimensions (usually gender, field or ethnicity), and give my mentor a small budget to take me out for meals a few times a year. It’s perfectly nice, being taken out to meals by a perfectly nice person, having perfectly nice conversations about our lives, but I can’t say I’ve benefited much beyond that. If the point of mentoring was to give me an extra boost, as a minority or woman, into the higher leadership circles of my field, it definitely hasn’t done that.   

The HBR article concurs. The upshot of the study is that women do get some of the benefits of mentoring; just not the ones that really matter to advancement: 

“They were not getting that sponsorship. They were getting mentoring. They were getting coaching. They were getting developmental advice. But they were not getting fought for and protected, and really put out there.”

The result was a correlation between mentoring and promotions for men but not for women, despite women having just as much (or even more) mentoring.

Why doesn't mentoring do as much for women's advancement? The study co-author, Herminia Ibarra, focused in on what she called the “sponsoring” function of mentoring. Basically, it’s when a mentor, usually a higher-up, uses their position to go to bat for you, to advocate for you, to protect you and defend you in the fights that matter. For some reason, many mentors - program-matched or organically grown - just don’t do that for women.  

This got me thinking about the mentors I’ve been lucky enough to have. Even in music, where advancement and promotion are not as defined, there are people putting themselves out there for me: advocating for me, recommending me for jobs, supporting my proposals for change in the face of resistant systems. These people exist, and for them I’m very grateful. 

I want to tell you about one of my first musical mentors (an unlikely one at that) and what I learned about true mentorship. The year was 2008, and I had just arrived at the Manhattan School of Music on a bit of a crazy lark: I had finished law school, accepted a full-time law firm offer -- and decided to first take a break to play piano. During the doldrums that are the 3L year, I dusted off my fingers, took a few lessons, and auditioned for piano graduate programs in New York and London. MSM gave me the most scholarship, and not knowing any better, off I went for a year of piano-cation. 

Upon arriving, I sought out performance opportunities; turns out, this is no easy task! Through the grapevine, I heard that this one professor held a performance class every Tuesday for two hours where anyone could play anything and he would give you comments. Sounded good to me!

I went to visit the class one week. It was held in a beautiful recital hall, and students who had signed up would queue up to go on stage and play through their piece for the professor, who sat in the audience. I can’t remember the exact moment I first saw David Dubal, but I remember it was a bit of a shock. Here was a man dressed famously in a head-to-toe purple velour (velvet?) suit plus a colorful scarf or old-fashioned hat, with long and quite unkempt gray hair, dark sharp eyes, and a strangely loud and reedy voice. His appearance was odd, but his comments were completely screwball. He made up nicknames for students on the spot (my favorite one was “Juliana Liebestraum” but often I was “the Han woman”). He described music in the most colorful ways I had ever heard. I recall him once describing at length a particular brand of jarred olives, to describe the briny smoothness he wanted out of a student’s sound. “This is the oracle?” I thought to myself. “What an odd dude.”

Dubal in his element. 

Dubal in his element. 

It took me weeks to muster up the courage to play in front of him and the other impressively talented students (I hadn’t played for so long!), but once I started, I played in his class as much as I could. And after a while, I understood not only his greatness, but his critical value to my musical development. Without overstatement, David Dubal has been one of the most important people keeping me playing the piano and helping me progress in my artistry. In that sense, he has been one of my most important musical mentors. 

It’s difficult to encapsulate someone who means so much to you, but I’d like to share four features of a true mentor and how Dubal embodied them to me. 

ONE: A mentor knows the field. Cold.  
There is no doubt that Dubal is an authority when it comes to the piano. He’s written multiple books, including The Art of the Piano, an encyclopedic must-read reference about piano's performers, literature and recordings. He’s hosted radio shows about the piano for decades. He’s given lectures everywhere. The man knows the piano better than just about anyone. 

So when you perform a piece for him, he has all of the context: the composer’s trajectory, the style, the seminal recordings of the piece (he knows what year they were recorded and, uncannily, their exact timings). This context gives him a musical intuition that is not just thoughtful but utterly informed. If he says the tempo or pacing is off, or the texture too thick, or you’re not following the markings, it’s not because he doesn’t like it, but because the weight of the classical music tradition says so. 

I’ve come to trust his ears. If he hears something that can be improved, it’s worth considering. He may not always tell me how to fix it, but I trust that his comments are in good style and taste. And what is style and taste in art if not gleaned from context? 

TWO: A mentor knows the challenges you’re facing.
In those MSM years, I faced the tough reality of trying to play difficult music despite a lack of training and years of disuse. I no longer was a fearless kid, performing concerti in front of hundreds of people with nonchalance. I was an adult who was acutely aware of my shortcomings. I face-planted on stage ALL THE TIME. My hands would get sweaty and I’d slip off the keys. My heart started racing the minute I approached the stage. My memory would freak out and I couldn’t finish the piece. These trials by fire were devastating, yet I made myself do it repeatedly because I knew I had to. After one class, I crept out of the class, slumped down in a nearby hallway and quietly cried out of shame for about half an hour. 

Piano is hard. Performance is even harder. And Dubal knows it. He’ll be the first to point out how tricky a deceptively simple piece can be, or how much bravery it takes to go on stage and put your skills on display. That day I utterly crashed and burned on a Chopin scherzo and went out into the hallway to cry, he had gently advised me not to worry, that it just needed a lot more time, and that I should hole up in a practice room for a week to get it right, and that he'd send roast beef sandwiches to my room every once in a while to keep me going. When anyone (many of us) showed signs of nerves, he was gentle but realistic. I remember him saying, “playing the piano is the hardest thing there is,” and I believed him. He told stories of famous pianists who were debilitated by stage fright, including Vladimir Horowitz, whom Dubal interviewed extensively. He had plenty of advice for the challenges, often instructing us to play through our pieces multiple times to feel how the second and third chances felt less pressured. Then, he would remind us to play as if it were already a second chance, or to remember that our lives were long, and that this might just be the third performance out of hundreds. These days, I don’t get debilitating nerves anymore, but if I'm a little too jittery for my liking, I think back to those words. 

THREE: A mentor gets what you’re trying to do.
After MSM, I went to Cravath for a few years, only to (unexpectedly) return to music at Juilliard. Luckily, Dubal was there too. There, he teaches the most popular adult-division class for decades running, “The World of the Piano.” This too is a forum in which pianists can run repertoire, alongside commentary by Dubal about the music and the composer. 

I can’t stress how valuable it is for a pianist when preparing for a public performance to have adequate practice runs before the big date. Dubal’s class is one of the few reliable options I have, and to that extent it is a huge resource. He tries to accommodate everyone who needs time, welcoming alumni and students and random guests alike. 

The Juilliard class. More photos and recent article about Dubal here. 

The Juilliard class. More photos and recent article about Dubal here

He often introduces us and our stories to the students in the class, most of whom are working or retired adults who are all passionate about music, but not necessarily pianists themselves. One day, while describing us pianists, he was enumerating the various challenges we face today - low income and lack of jobs, long hours and low appreciation, declining audiences, poor music education in the population - and said that pianists struggle against all odds because, above all, “they just want a place to play.” In that moment, I knew it was true. We performers just want a place to share our art with people. That, above money or fame or recognition, is what keeps us going. That’s why playing for myself in my apartment after a "day job" will never satisfy me. 

Many times, his offhand commentary about a musician’s life just rings completely true. About practicing, he once said that he has to do it everyday, otherwise he feels as if he hasn’t brushed his teeth. I have yet to find a better way to describe the compulsion I feel to practice, and the discomfort I feel when I can't. As a lifelong pianist and lover of the piano, Dubal gets us and what we’re trying to do. 

FOUR: A mentor knows what support you need, even if you don’t.
Observing Dubal in those MSM classes, I realized that his feedback was quite uneven - he’d tear into the details of the score for one student who seemed quite well prepared, but heap praise on another student who I felt had barely gotten through her piece. I realized over time that he gave each student just what they needed at that point - whether it was encouragement, a few key points, or a barrage of details. For me, on my lowest day, he could have torn my disastrous Chopin scherzo apart and handed down any number of scathing criticisms I was already heaping on myself -- but he offered roast beef sandwiches instead. I remember one girl who came in and said that she was discouraged in her piano playing, but then proceeded to play one of the most passionate renditions of a Bach prelude and fugue I have ever heard. It wasn’t perfect, but it had so much verve and rhythmic power, and here was someone who was considering quitting the piano. Dubal told her loudly enough so that everyone could hear, “LISTEN TO ME. You must keep playing. The world needs to hear this.” 

I’m not sure how he knew what we needed; he just did. After graduating MSM, I started work at the law firm. I thought that I’d find rainbows, a pot of gold, and happily ever after at the firm, but within months, I knew that wasn’t the case. It was a busy time for M&A in a busy M&A group in a busy law firm, and the first few months went by in a blur of far too many deals at the same time. 

As the most junior lawyers, we had been informed that we shouldn’t expect to go home for Christmas. So I didn’t make travel plans, and good thing, because there was a huge push for a deadline on December 23rd. I remember working late into the night with Christmas music in my office, singing along and skipping through the halls with delirium to my mid-level associate’s office. There was something sad about not being with my family for Christmas for the first time in my entire life, but I tried not to let it get to me. 

And then, out of the blue, Dubal called and left a voicemail on my phone. This is what I remember of it: “Juliana, I haven’t seen you for a while. I fear you have been consumed by some …. Work or JOB (<disgust in his voice>). Always remember that you MUST play the piano, you must ALWAYS play the piano...” I sat in my office, my office chair like a ship adrift in a paper ocean, completely unmoored. Play the piano? Me? Now?

It took another year for me to decide to return to music, perhaps for the very first time. That voicemail is one of the most meaningful and touching gestures I have ever received - from someone who believed in me when I had given up on myself, from someone who saw my passion when I hadn’t yet found it, from someone who knew the path and the darks and lights and was willing to help me through it. From someone who knew the challenges of the journey all too well, and yet knew that the struggle was a worthy reason to attempt it. 

I don’t know if these institutional mentorship programs will ever get it right, because to be a true mentor you have to have the passion for the field, the wisdom and intelligence to grasp the problems and the solutions, and rarest of all, the empathy for those rising through it to help any way you can. It’s a tall order. But if you have those things, you really can change someone’s world. I’m grateful for Dubal, and for my past and future mentors on this life path. Free meals are nice, but I’ll take a roast beef sandwich from a mentor any day.