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!

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.