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!

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.