Jules of All Trades

A blog about learning. 

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.

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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? 

No. 

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: 

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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. 

 

Chopin-approved.

Chopin-approved.

Words Left Unsaid: My Remarks at Harvard Law School

Langdell Library, stalwart bastion of legal learning. Also, it's a great place to nap. Photo credit: HLS Facebook page. 

Langdell Library, stalwart bastion of legal learning. Also, it's a great place to nap. Photo credit: HLS Facebook page. 

Sometimes, circumstances dictate that the words burning a hole in your heart stay there for a little while longer. Maybe you’ve just moved your firstborn into his college dorm and want to tell him what his first 18 years of life have meant to you - but, perhaps, in front of all of his new roommates, now is not the time. Or perhaps you’re at a wedding, and you know that an illness or death in the family is weighing on your friend, and you want to offer your ear for her deepest sorrows - but, perhaps, now is not the time. 

I had this experience last weekend when I was invited to perform and speak at Harvard Law School’s Bicentennial celebration. HLS had set aside two days to celebrate the contribution of the HLS community in the arts, and I had been invited to represent some aspect of that contribution. The organizers requested that I both perform and talk about my time at HLS and how it influenced my life. I had 15 minutes total. 

I spent days wrestling with how to summarize my personal journey of the last 10 years into just a few moments. Also, with the smattering of classical piano’s greatest hits I had chosen, these remarks also had to serve as an effective transition between a Percy Grainger transcription and a Scriabin Etude… After much hemming and hawing in my head, I came up with the statement at bottom, which I clocked at about 5 minutes. 

Of course, I ended up skipping most of it. As is sometimes the case, you show up at a performance to see that it is not at all what you had imagined. Hundreds of law school students, staff, and faculty swarmed the performance area, lured and kept there by free food and drink (a genius move on the organizers’ part). Other performance acts on the program included hip-hop artists, rappers, drag queens, and parody singers. My time on the schedule was now listed at 11 minutes. They introduced me as “Juliana Han and the Faculty Fiddlers,” which I had never heard before, and ushered me on stage abruptly after an A/V hiccup stalled an introductory video about who I was. 

On stage, with the glare of spotlights and law’s brightest minds on me, I decided that, perhaps, now was not the time. I gave an abbreviated version of the remarks, more casual, more focused on the benefits of my legal training. And I was grateful for the opportunity to be there at all, and to share a tiny sliver of my art and what gives my life meaning. 

Someday, there will be more time for the remaining words.

I'm not usually big on mottos, mission statements, or slogans, but I really like this one. The world needs more questioning, reasoning, and action. Photo credit: Hopewell Partners. 

I'm not usually big on mottos, mission statements, or slogans, but I really like this one. The world needs more questioning, reasoning, and action. Photo credit: Hopewell Partners. 

[P. Grainger: Free Settings of Favorite Melodies. Fauré: Après un rêve.]

Hi, my name is Juliana Han and I am a proud graduate of this law school and very honored to be here for this celebration. About 10 years ago, I was a student at this fine institution. 5 years ago, I was a corporate associate at the law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, working on high-profile mergers and acquisitions. Today, I am finishing my doctorate at Juilliard and building a career as a concert pianist. As someone recently asked me, how did it go so wrong?? 

Well, it’s hard to go wrong attending HLS. As most of you here already know, legal training can serve you well in LIFE generally. Being a lawyer means knowing how the world works. My musician friends often come to me with problems, like when a friend spent her life savings on a violin she didn’t actually want, or when someone’s bathtub broke and her landlord wouldn’t respond, or when a colleague had a question about his immigration status. As a BigLaw lawyer, I could say to them: I’m sorry, did you have two public companies you wanted to merge? No? Hm. 

Kidding aside, I draw upon my legal background constantly in the arts, particularly in leadership roles, such as in my position as director of the Piedmont Chamber Music Festival. And the deeper I get into the arts world, the more I realize that the sort of legal training I have is exactly what the field needs more of. Questioning and structuring and changing the status quo are not skills that necessarily come naturally to musicians, but they are trained into the sort of person, like you, who goes into the legal profession. 

But why be a pianist? Why not be an arts lawyer, or an arts advocate, or a patron of the arts? While I value all of these roles, for myself and for others, the key difference is in the practice we choose for our lives. By practice I mean something you do every day with a directed intention of becoming better at it than you were yesterday. Over the years, I have found that having a practice gives my life greater purpose. If the practice of law is what gets you up in the morning, excited to become a better lawyer than you were yesterday, then you are in the right place. Today, I spend my time in the practice of music, which, like the practice of law, requires long hours of intense work. The difference for me is that the subjects of my practice are some of the world’s best music. These days, I jump out of bed to go practice, to spend hours crafting a piece of music to its most profound extent. The first piece I played for you, a setting of Gabriel Fauré’s song, Après un rêve, is one of those searches for greater emotional depth and profundity. 
    
My next selection is an etude, a study that is designed to teach the pianist some element of technical or musical proficiency. Like all of the best piano etudes, whether by Chopin or Debussy or Liszt, these etudes are not just technical exercises but works of art. I’d like to play for you now an etude by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. You could spend a lifetime practicing this piece – and greater pianists than I (am) have done just that. I hope this provides some insight into the practice of music. This is Scriabin’s Etude opus 8 number 5. 

[A. Scriabin: Etude Op. 8 No. 5.]

To end my set and to transition into Professor Crawford’s presentation of classic Broadway tunes, I’d like to play a transcription of Gershwin’s timeless song, “Embraceable You” by the piano virtuoso Earl Wild, a snippet of which you saw in the intro video. I feel incredibly lucky to both create music and support it with my legal skills. Now that I’ve been on both sides, I see more than ever that art needs (and has always needed) all the help it can get to survive. So I ask of you: If art enriches your life in some way, if it presents to you visions of beauty, if it tells you something about your place in this universe or your relation to other souls in this world, if it moves you - then fight for it, fight against cuts in arts education, fight against the elimination of national funding, fight for people of all economic backgrounds to have access to expression through music. Fight for it, and I’ll be right there with you. Thank you. 

[E. Wild: Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs; “Embraceable You”] (video of previous performance here)
 

Photo credit: Dan Chen. Many college memories were revisited as we wandered Harvard Square afterwards. 

Photo credit: Dan Chen. Many college memories were revisited as we wandered Harvard Square afterwards. 

On Being Asian-American/A Noodle Soup Addict

Is this post just about food, or does it have some nuance? You be the judge. 

Is this post just about food, or does it have some nuance? You be the judge. 

Nobody gives you a manual on how to be the child of immigrants. Your parents, if they arrived as students to the United States as mine did, may have received a pamphlet at an orientation meeting about life in their new country. We, their children, however, get no such document.  Instead, we are born straddling two worlds and left to figure out how to navigate both. 

The country we grew up in is the easier one to manage. After all, it is home. Born and raised in Ohio, I assumed the Midwestern life: eating unhealthy foods, playing outside with the neighborhood kids, and staring at the tv for hours every day. If you grow up as I did in an area where there aren’t many people like you, you identify with the majority culture. Of course there were times when I was told that I didn’t actually belong, based on my name, appearance, or some other superficial indication. And immigrant parents sometimes imply that you don’t entirely belong, in a subconscious effort to cleave you to their beliefs, which are increasingly incongruent with the world that you know best.  Despite these moments however, I knew that I belonged here as much as anyone else. As a child, my patriotism flared fierce anytime someone challenged my identity. When asked where I was from, I stood my ground. I am an American, and I am from Ohio. Final answer. 

Halloween with the neighbors. 

Halloween with the neighbors. 

The other world, the world from which your parents came, is more of an enigma. Its influences are undeniable, embedded in your DNA and the way your family raised you, fed you, and taught you. However, these old world influences are overshadowed by the more familiar ways of the home country, so they recede to a dark file cabinet in your consciousness. How many of us were forced to go to Chinese School on weekends, suffering through hours of seemingly pointless class and retaining nothing? How many of us know nothing about the history of the country from which our parents come came?  Despite the Cultural Revolution being responsible for the mass migrations that ultimately led to my soul being deposited on American soil, I was probably in my twenties when I read any more than a few paragraphs about it in a world history textbook. 

Something about this guy. 

Something about this guy. 

For me, the enigmatic old world is Taiwan, where my parents were born.  While growing up, I visited Taiwan only twice: once when I was three and once when I was 12. The trip when I was three consists of very hazy scenes viewed from the height of a chair seat. I remember the air being damp and surfaces sticky, and I remember the sounds of street peddlers in the early morning. I also remember going to this day school that I absolutely hated. The kids at the school, upon finding out that I was from the USA, showed genuine horror, exhorting me not to go back because all the people with all the guns would certainly shoot me dead (some things never change, huh?).  Apparently I cried every day until someone came to pick me up. Attending American preschool was fun, but trying to fit into this one made me miserable.

Although often hidden, these old world influences are prone to come out at strange times.  At one point in middle school, I slapped my Sanrio eraser onto my face in utter boredom or exasperation, and I realized at that very moment that it smelled like Taiwan! The eraser smelled like Taiwan! It took me decades to figure out why. One day in an Asian grocery store, I rediscovered the Yakult drink, these yogurt drinks that come in insulting small sizes. Seriously, as an adult, it’s barely enough to wet your tongue, but as a kid, it was a wonderful treat. And then I made the connection - the eraser smelled sweet and slightly cultured like this drink! 

Taiwan_Yakult_100ml_20160726.jpg

It makes sense that, as a child, smells and tastes constitute your strongest consciousness of the old world.  Before you can understand the hardships your parents endured, the challenges they faced, the training and education they craved, and the sense of greater opportunity they longed for, before you can understand all of this, your nose and your stomach tell you about your parents’ past lives. From the earliest age, you understand that food and drink mean home. 

As a kid, I grew up on awesome home food and drink. My mom is an excellent cook, and her side of the family is in the restaurant business. My uncles, once fine chefs in Taiwan, run a vastly under-appreciated Chinese restaurant in Ohio, where they make gourmet dishes for Midwesterners who would just as happily go to Panda Express.  Once in a while they’ll carve an exquisite bird from a carrot or turnip just because they can, and because it only takes so much skill to fry crab rangoons. In this environment, I grew up a bit of a Chinese food snob, which means I get pretty grumpy when I am forced to eat non-Asian or sub-par Asian food for long stretches of time.

So it is no surprise that my trip to Taiwan at age 12 featured some delicious eats. I remember the warm pineapple buns from the bakery down the street, the papaya milk from the convenience stores, the seafood at fancy restaurants, the freshness of the vegetables everywhere. My family lived right off of Yong Kang Street, which is FOODIE CENTRAL in Taipei (and aren’t all Taiwanese foodies?), so you could trip out the door and have the meal of your life. They lived right off of the triangular-shaped park near one end of the street, which was the starting point for all of our tasty expeditions. 

pineapple-bun.jpg

My favorite food, however, was easy to find - right at the corner of the park. There, beef noodle soup awaited me every night. At that corner, an old man sold the dish from his rickety steel cart piled high with bowls, which seemed barely rinsed. Basically, the options were a small or a large bowl. Once you ordered, he would slap in the soup and the noodles and the beef (so tender) then hand the steaming bowl immediately back to you. As a kid that soup was so spicy to me but also so addictive. We went so many times, I got used to my mouth burning and my skin damp as we stood in the night air amongst the hordes of Taiwanese people. It was always worth it. Back in the States, I’ve tried all kinds of versions of beef noodle soup in an attempt to relive the satisfaction that came from one bowl of that street stall. I even try making it myself, tweaking my mom's recipe to my tastes. But nothing has ever come close to the real thing. In the futile attempt, I have become a noodle soup addict. How can a bowl of hot goodness be so comforting regardless of the ambient temperature? 

The park today. Seems cleaner than I remember. 

The park today. Seems cleaner than I remember. 

Fast forward to last summer. I had unwittingly chosen as my life partner a non-Taiwanese violinist in a quartet with serious Taiwanese roots. He went more regularly to Taiwan than anyone I knew. I decided to join him last year on one of these quartet trips, as an excuse to experience the country as an adult and to see my family. Once there, I expressed to my uncle a desire for good beef noodle soup and he, perhaps jaded by long exposure to the treasure, shrugged and agreed to take me to a famous place. At a bustling noodle shop just off of Yong Kang Street, we waited in line not too long before being seated upstairs at a large round table with other diners. The interior was cafeteria-like and not at all fancy, but there was a convivial feeling in the air. Each of us ordered the house beef noodle soup, and when it arrived, my family commenced slurping it as if it were just another meal.  I took my time smelling the broth and scooping up a spoonful, fully expecting to be disappointed. Then I put the spoonful in my mouth -- and something magical happened: my memory was sent spinning into a time warp. Here in this dark, rich spicy broth, was the exact same flavor that I had had at that cart near the park decades earlier. All of a sudden, I was back there, the same night air on my skin; in my mind, the constant annoyance of a preteen, the discomfort of being in a foreign land, and the discovery of my relatives as strangers and yet family. It all washed over me in a fraction of a moment.

Now the literary among you will read this and call to mind the famous madeleine moment in Proust’s masterpiece, Swann’s Way. I cannot hope to describe this moment with any similar facility, but I’ll tell you that my beef noodle soup moment was just like Swann’s madeleine moment. One mouthful of soup sent me hurtling on a journey of memory that unearthed long-buried memories like an industrious squirrel recovering nuts. The familiarity of the soup was strangely emotional. It was as if I had returned to a place that I did not know I had left. The intensity of the moment told me that I too was of Taiwan - that the country was somehow embedded in my being, even if I hadn’t yet organized its influences. I paused, spoon in midair, mouth agape, marveling at what just happened as everyone around me slurped onwards unawares. My uncle later told me that this restaurant was opened by the old man with the cart and a business partner who later backstabbed the old man and took over the enterprise after learning the old man’s secrets. After being ousted, the old man apparently went back to the corner of the park to restore his stall, but it was too late. At this point, the restaurant has outlived the old man. A sad story that explains why the soup was so familiar. 

The magical soup. 

The magical soup. 

After years exploring Asian-American identity, I still don’t fully understand what it means to concurrently inhabit two worlds. But for me, the old world soul of an immigrant's child is like that sip of soup. The collective experiences of our forebears are all there in us somewhere, subtle and intermixed like the flavors of a secret recipe. And it can take a while for those influences to emerge. We start with sensory triggers and hopefully move on to more intellectual probes of the old world. I'm now in my second consecutive summer of discovery in Taiwan, and I'm grateful for these opportunities to deepen my understanding of this place. I now appreciate much more - not just its culinary riches and natural beauty but the social structure that has put in place stronger infrastructure and healthcare systems than in my home city, and the ways in which people treat each other with warmth and generosity and hospitality. 

It has been personally beneficial for me to acknowledge my dual identity and not suppress one or the other, but on a national scale this is critical. Recently in my home country, groups of people who believe in one supreme identity have come into the open, brandishing their symbols of exclusion and violence against people unlike them. As someone who is 110% American, I feel a duty to validate the non-white portion of myself and the immigrant struggle that gave me the opportunities I have, as a way of celebrating this country that I love so much. At the same time, for perhaps the first time in my life, I am fearful that my home country will finally lose sight of diversity of identity as an invaluable thing. These days, I’m clinging to my soup, hoping that we come around. 
 

Farm to Tablet?

The other day, I walked into that new Amazon bookstore at Columbus Circle, and it’s pretty cool. The book selection is small but curated. The front covers, rather than spines, face out, displaying their colorful glory, and the lighting makes each book glow like a gem in a jewelry shop. If you’re an Amazon member, you can take anything home TODAY for the online price - funny how buying things from an actual store now feels like instant gratification. There was also an electronics section, where my fingers lingered on the leather cover of the Kindle Oasis. Overall, it was an impressive sight representing the consumer gains of an interconnected world, an e-commerce company that keeps bumping down the challenges of distribution, and the technological advances that are designed to make our lives easier.

Think they use one of those card catalogues in wooden drawers? 

Think they use one of those card catalogues in wooden drawers? 

As soon as I walked out though, I suddenly had an unexpected flashback to a memory decades old. The when: junior year in high school. The where: world history class. The who: me and a group of friends who all did very little work and still got pretty good grades. Our cavalier (arrogant?) attitude, impatience for classroom learning, and knowledge that we could get away with a lot, made for a pretty fun time. In world history class, we sat at the round tables way in the back of the room and basically did our own thing. At one point, we decided our superiority was self-evident enough to declare independence - we christened our table with a country name, drew up a flag and taped it onto a pencil for all to see, and moved our seats as far away from the rest of the class as we could. Amazingly, I don’t remember any backlash from the teacher for this obnoxious behavior. At my large, Midwestern public school, discipline was lax and my classmates were hilarious.

While thus self-segregated from the rest of the class, one thing we did was to browse this voluminous National Geographic magazine collection which nearly blanketed the room, lining the shelves and overflowing in baskets. The collection went back decades and was perhaps part of a bequest from an individual or library or both. I remember picking through a few every class, my eyes wide at the pictures, waiting for a noisy moment to surreptitiously tear out the most amazing ones for my bulletin board at home. I saved pages of rosy-cheeked children in foreign lands, otherworldly landscapes, and badass animals. The world in those yellow magazines was so different from this concrete, carpeted edifice in which I was forced to spend my days.

How WOULDN'T something like this catch your attention??

How WOULDN'T something like this catch your attention??

There was one picture which I didn’t tear out, but is seared into my memory. The article must have been about the Amazonian rainforest because that was the subject of the picture. This picture - I wish you could have seen it. I spent a nontrivial amount of time just now trying to find it for you on the internet but to no avail. Instead, let’s take this picture as a point of departure:

Now imagine that you are in a boat, traveling not too fast down this river. The sun is to your left, shining on the trees on your right upon which you gaze, head turned, but the sky behind those trees is dark with storm clouds. The forest, springing from the bank with an irrepressible lushness represents every living shade of green. Across the dividing line between plant and water, the river is also a vast plane of color, reflecting in mirror-image the forest and darkened sky, dotted with glints of sunlight. In the sky is a rainbow, impossibly painted into the scene. The colors were so vivid it was hard to believe this was a real place.

From that day forward, the word Amazon conjured up that picture and everything I had learned about the rainforest - its immense biodiversity, its critical role in keeping the balance of environmental gases viable for life, its mystical and largely undiscovered pharmaceutical promise, and yes, its rapid destruction in the name of human progress. I first learned about the destruction of the rainforest as a kid in the late 1980's, but facts from the last few years show that these and other environmental changes are happening at a faster pace than we've ever seen. We are now hurtling towards a future, if unmitigated, that will likely kill all of us sooner than we think. As a scientist and as a fan of being outside without baking from the inside out, I am probably already an alarmist, but this recent straightforward New York Magazine article had me scared shitless.

I first saw these graphics in Thomas Friedman's book Thank You for Being Late, which puts these environmental changes into context with contemporaneous technological changes of equal seismic impact. 

I first saw these graphics in Thomas Friedman's book Thank You for Being Late, which puts these environmental changes into context with contemporaneous technological changes of equal seismic impact. 

I know I am too young to be nostalgic, and I know that not everyone feels the same about climate change, but that day in the Amazon bookstore, I was unbearably sad - because the Amazon of my childhood, the Amazon of that picture, may someday be no longer, and our children will then think that the Amazon is just a place to buy stuff. I have no problems with the Amazon Books store. But whereas both that store and the rainforest can be things of wonder, only one is a thing of beauty and survival.

What I Learned at Juilliard

Somewhere over the rainbow, on West 65th Street ...

Somewhere over the rainbow, on West 65th Street ...

As part of a recent concert with horn player and MSM buddy John-Morgan Bush, we did a Q&A on musician life with local high school kids. They asked thought-provoking questions about topics like finding the right teacher, practicing, dealing with disappointment, and generally preparing for a life in music. Some of them will soon have to decide, as many of us have - should I go to music school? 

It’s a tough question. When I was their age, the choice was clear - “real school” gave you real benefits - practical skills, a marketable degree, a shot at a job. What did conservatory offer? As far as I could tell, they gave you access to a building and a teacher, and you sat and practiced as much as you could, after which you had no job prospects. Sounded pretty dumb to me. 

Decades later, when I decided to leave my job and go to that “dumb” place, all I knew was that I wanted to play music, and play better, and that conservatory was supposed to help. I think that’s why most people go. But a million questions remained. How do I get better? Better at what? What do I need? To what end? Who will help me? I didn’t really have a clue. 

The answers to all of these questions started to fall in place after I heard an anecdote about Josef Gingold, one of the most influential violin pedagogues of the last century. As the tale goes, he would ask a violinist to play Paganini, to see if they had fingers, a Bach fugue, to see if they had a brain, and a slow movement from a Mozart concerto, to see if they had a heart. 

Gingold with one of his many famous pupils, a young Joshua Bell. Read what Joshua Bell had to say about his beloved teacher here. 

Gingold with one of his many famous pupils, a young Joshua Bell. Read what Joshua Bell had to say about his beloved teacher here

That story, apocryphal or not, has stuck with me because it is one of the most vivid yet succinct illustrations of what I need to develop to become a complete musician. It also explained lots of things: why someone with dazzling technique could still put audiences to sleep, how intense emotional experiences could make you a better musician, and why so many scientists and doctors are Bach-obsessed amateur musicians. It also explains why true musical prodigies are rare: to fit the bill, you have to have preternatural ability in all three arenas from a very young age, and most of us are born with lots of room to grow.

I’m pretty sure Gingold didn’t intend this, but his story also transforms all conservatories in my mind into some version of the Land of Oz, where young violinists wander the Yellow Brick Road between practice rooms, linked arm-in-arm and dressed in the creepy Technicolor costumes of the 1939 film. Some of us are the Scarecrow, hoping for a brain, others the Tin Man, looking for a heart, and some of us a weepy Lion, seeking courage (I’ll call this body control or technique - which gives the courage to play anything!). In some way, we are all Tin Lion-Crows - we could use help in all three areas. (It also makes me wonder which administrator at Juilliard is the man behind the curtain. Hmmm…) 

Which character was I, and what was I seeking in the Land of Oz? I didn’t really know. I always figured my Scarecrow brain was decent - as a kid, I used to recreate pieces I’d heard on classical radio on the piano, and memorizing has always comes easily to me. A former teacher once asked me, a week after I started a Bach keyboard partita, whether I’d memorized it yet. “It seems you memorize something by just looking at the cover,” he said.

But I suspected that I needed help in all three arenas. For instance, certain repertoire felt beyond me - my arms would get too tight, or my sound would be choked, or I couldn’t play facilely enough, and I couldn’t figure out why. I could fool enough people, but I felt like my body was struggling. (This struggle would eventually lead to playing injuries, a painful experience I have painstakingly overcome - and a story for another time). Of course, my musical heart and brain also needed maturing. I had long been winging it on my own undeveloped intuition; my music history and theory was mostly unschooled. I remember once when someone asked me if a piece was contrapuntal and I didn’t know what she was talking about. I think I was 14. 

Luckily, I ended up in the amazing Oz-ian land of Juilliard, an often surreal place with an unreal amount of talent. It was the only school I applied to because it was a good school - and two subway stops from my apartment. And I lucked out! My time in Oz was transformative for all three Gingold-ian spheres - brain, body, and heart. Here are just a few of the most influential courses and teachers I found there. All of them changed my life, sometimes in surprising ways.

Juliana Gets Courage
(Private lessons)
Private lessons are the centerpiece of musical training, conservatory setting or otherwise. I knew when I arrived that I had technical gaps, but I didn’t know that my chosen teacher, Jonathan Feldman, was a veritable piano technique guru. He taught us the principles of the Taubman approach, which is designed to minimize unnecessary tension and maximize the use of the body (particularly the upper body) to produce whatever result you wanted on the piano. 

I had unwittingly stumbled on a technical approach taught and used by many of the piano virtuosi I had long admired. And it was available to me too! It was a revelation to realize that these people weren’t necessarily born with special wrists or fingers - they just really knew how to use them. Over my first few years at Juilliard, I had to break down my old technique and build new habits. At times I felt like a child beginner, but after the rebuilding was done, I had the tools to address anything in the piano repertoire (with work) and to diagnose and help others with technical issues as well. It is no understatement to say that I would probably not still be a pianist today without this technical training. I am no longer fearful of my physical concerns, and I can spend more of my time transcending them and dwelling on the artistic planes of music. Absolute game-changer for me and for many others. (Find out more about Dorothy Taubman and her legacy here, at the institute maintained by the wonderful Edna Golandsky).

Juliana Gets a Brain
(Orchestral Conducting; French Diction). 
I think most of us enroll in conducting thinking it’ll all be about how to wield a baton like the greats, but it quickly becomes clear that to be a good conductor is to be a good musician. You can move your body in a myriad of ways, but unless the intent is deeply considered and clear, you might as well be this:  

Orchestral players, we've all been there, amirite?

Orchestral players, we've all been there, amirite?

The course, in which we conducted different excerpts every week with an "orchestra" of duo pianos, helped me grow my Oz-ian brain through plenty of practice in score-study and musical analysis. Preparation for every class required me to marshal all of my skills, then multiply them by a panoply of instruments and their transpositions. You had to keep track of all relevant aspects - such as phrase lengths, harmonic changes, texture, and character - for all of the individual parts, and communicate them in a way that produced an effective net result. This class definitely gave my old brain a few more wrinkles (good for brain, bad for face). Sure, I also learned my way around a baton and improved my own personal conducting style, but more importantly, I realized that my sense of command was directly connected to how well I had studied the music and crafted my interpretation in advance. 

Conjuring music without an instrument, somewhat counter-intuitively, also helped me develop physical command. I was freed from the strictures of the piano and could channel my interpretation more freely and creatively with my body, but every movement had to communicate effectively. Our patient and supportive instructor, Jeffrey Milarsky, showed us how small modulations in our movements could have vast consequences for the clarity of the rhythm, dynamic, or shape we were trying to show. Our motions had to be expressive and yet enunciate our intent - a helpful practice transferable to the playing of any instrument! 

Another brain-builder, in a different way, was the French diction (pronunciation) class. This was a sleeper hit. I certainly wasn’t excited about this course, but it’s required for my degree program so that graduates can find gainful employment as vocal coaches and opera pianists. Having never spoken anything but native tongues, I knew French would be a struggle. But at least I now know why. Pronouncing a foreign language is not magic; it is training your tongue and lips and face to do unfamiliar things with ease. Despite how frustrating it can seem, it is doable with practice and a good teacher, and we had the best one of them all: Tom Grubb. Exacting, blunt, and analytical to a fault, he had us practice our French vowels in front of hand mirrors for an entire year. While I’m not sure I mastered the many gradations of the “e” vowel that he himself devised, I’ll never forget how to produce them. This course was another lesson in using my brain to harness my body in a very specific, analytic way. Like excellent piano technique, good diction was not someone else’s birthright, but could be mine too with a lot of dedication. 

Thanks to these courses, and as part of my journey towards a growth mentality, I no longer subscribe to the myth of talent or genius. There are analytical approaches out there to help with any skill, whether it is signaling a new tempo with a flick of a wrist, playing rapid octaves without pain, or singing on nasal vowels. Those tools and their accompanying empowering mindset were some of the greatest gifts of my conservatory education. 

Juliana Gets a Heart
Did I also get a heart? I think so. I can’t attribute this to any particular course, but I have to say that there is something healing about being immersed in the world’s greatest music all day (Mahler 2? Slow Mozart? All Bach?). My heart, cold and defensive from years of production rather than introspection, began to peek out and warm to the passion of these works. I think those of us drawn to music find a spiritual power in sound, as others find it in a natural vista or a great painting. As I played, listened to, and studied music, I could lose myself in it, be buoyed up in it, and meld myself with a more universal force. This immersion helped me reconnect to that aspect of music that I love, and to revive the ardor somewhat deadened by corporate servitude.

So, should you go to music school? Well, if you know what skills of brain, heart, and body you’d like to work on, and you can summon the resources to help you, I guess there’s no need. Many successful musicians went to Harvard, for instance, and came out the other end no worse for the wear. But those people often already had careers, which indicated a certain level of precocious accomplishment. If you, like me and most normal people, need more help, it it sure would be a tall order to gather everything you need into one place. 

Ultimately, like in any adventure, it’s the people you meet who are the most influential to your growth. I’ve met so many phenomenal colleagues and mentors in music school, and for that I'm immensely grateful. Daily, we continue, with each other's company and help, on the journey towards being the most complete musicians we can be. 

Marrying Bruce Lee

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I’ve had an intense fear of weddings, especially my own, since I was a little kid. One of the recurring nightmares I would have, in addition to getting stuck in elevators, driving off bridges, and hiding from a prowling gunman in my house, was that of my wedding. Around age 10, I dreamed that my kung-fu teacher wanted to marry me. At the time, my mom had enrolled me in kung-fu class because she thought I was a skinny weakling (which I was). I hated it - I was the only girl in the class, and it seemed the only thing I beat everyone else at was touching my toes during stretches. Anyway, in the dream, it was my wedding and I was to be married to this kung-fu teacher, who only smirked and never smiled and beckoned me down the aisle, Bruce Lee style, as if inviting me to a lifetime of mortal combat. It was terrifying.

I’ve often wondered where this fear came from. I suspected it was related to the large number of weddings I attended growing up in my home church. Many times I was there because my mother, for a time, baked the wedding cakes, partly as artistic outlet, partly as a service to the young couples in the congregation who couldn’t afford fancy cakes. I would help in the two-day process, from baking the sheets to frosting them to carefully transporting them to the church and assembling the tiers and accoutrements. It was somewhat stressful. As a kid, all you want to do is help, and I remember dropping an egg once during baking and thinking I was an utter failure. The stakes were high! You can’t drop someone’s wedding cake!!!  

Whether that was the reason or not, I always knew I couldn’t face that kind of wedding. I was perfectly happy attending friends’ weddings of all kinds, but I could never see it for myself. I always figured I wouldn’t have a wedding, which was just fine by me. So a year ago, when the love of my life asked me to marry him, the question became real. Wedding, or no wedding? He thought it might be nice to have a small public commemoration of our commitment. I agreed, with one firm rule: no aisles.

It wasn’t just the dreams. Something about walking down an aisle gave me the willies. It wasn’t until I started looking for a dress that I started out to figure out why. I recently participated in a focus group for a wedding website, during which two perky young women asked me to describe my process of finding a dress. I started to recount the travails - the pushy bridal salons! The expense! The befuddling style terms (do YOU know what a basque waist is??)! The black box that was tailoring and alterations. At the end of the interview, one of the girls asked tentatively, “so… was there anything you liked about the process?”

Truth be told, kind gentlewoman, I did not enjoy buying a dress. The expectations were too high. Every time I tried something on, I imagined myself at the center of attention, hundreds of cool, emotionally detached eyes staring me down, judging whether I was a pretty or a plain bride, whether I had a winsome figure or pleasing body type, whether I adequately fulfilled society’s concept of the wedding day as the most beautiful day in a girl’s life. No matter what I wore, it just didn’t seem good enough. Well, I didn’t seem good enough. I didn’t look like those 20-year old, 6-foot tall models in every wedding dress ad. I looked like me - a woman in her mid-30s with a slowing metabolism and frizzed out hair who seriously needed some undereye concealer.

I don't look like this. Do you?

I don't look like this. Do you?

Aha. There it is. Turns out, I have a self-image problem, and a wedding just magnifies it. I’m more accepting and forgiving of myself than ever, but put the pressure of THE dress in the picture, and I revert to every insecure moment I’ve ever felt. And as a scrawny child turned overweight teen turned late bloomer adult, I’ve had a lot of those moments. Like when my high school boyfriend told me I had forgotten to take off my smock after ceramics class, but it was really just a plaid shirt I actually liked. Or when I gained so much weight freshman year of college that people audibly gasped when I came home that summer. Or when I first started wearing makeup in my late 20’s and probably put on way too much (literally everything I know about hair and makeup I learned from teens on YouTube).

I know, it’s ridiculous. I’m a grown woman. I KNOW that each one of us is born beautiful in our unique ways, and that beauty has much more to do with the depth of kindness and humor and personality in a person’s eyes than in their body proportions. Despite this knowledge, I remember all too well what it was like to be in middle school or high school, constantly comparing yourself to others. Those feelings are still there, and they’re intense, and they’re the same for so many people. I recently came across this powerful viral video of a seventh grade girl presenting her slam poetry (slamming her poem?) on this very topic.

As she spoke, with a force of conviction a fraction of which I’d like to have some days, it was like she was talking to me. Her poem describes a life spent constantly trying to be something you’re not in order to fit in, whether by dressing or acting a certain way, or denying your strengths (nerds, anyone?). She returns throughout the poem, with rage and hurt, to the same question, “Why am I not good enough?” Luckily, I’m decades past middle school and should know by now that I AM good enough. But, boy, is that a hard feeling to own after decades of conditioning otherwise.

Planning a wedding, the marker of your wholehearted commitment to life with another person, is an occasion to reflect on and reaffirm your individual and joint life values. The dress-shopping experience, surprisingly, was a good reminder that one large requirement for a happy marriage is acceptance. We usually talk about accepting the person you’re marrying and not changing them (which is definitely a must), but I clearly still need to work on accepting myself. After all, those judgmental eyes in my dreams don’t belong to anyone but me.

Buying a dress was a tangible lesson in what acceptance looks and feels like. It’s not just a thought experiment or a catechism for blind recitation. Acceptance is an action - mustering the strength to look something in the eye and be at peace. In this case, acceptance of myself is looking in a mirror and being willing to see whatever is there. Acceptance of another person is looking them in the eye and seeing their reaction rather than a target for your emotions. Of course, not all things should be accepted - that is a separate inquiry. But I think many of us at times could use a little more acceptance of our stand-alone intrinsic worth.

I ended up buying a dress that was comfortable and has, I think, a quiet beauty. When I wear it, our gathering will hopefully reflect who we are: no shows or displays, no processions, just quality time with family and a few friends in a time and place to reflect on love and life together. Nobody will be watching me, but I will be seen by those who love me. There is no fear in that.

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