Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Little Things

As a new day begins I mentally prepare myself for another practice session. Some musicians love to practice, but if we were all being honest I think most of us would admit there are days (ok, weeks) we wish we didn’t have to practice at all. Why? Well it’s hard. It takes considerable emotional and mental energy. Assuming that most musicians don’t have the luxury to practice all day, there’s the trick of balancing practice with other work, such as teaching other people how to practice (which can be equally draining!) But aside from music work, there are all the little things we all have to do to make life happen, like cleaning dishes, walking the dog, and paying bills. 

I’ve given much thought to the ‘little things’ recently. On the one hand, they can be bothersome because they are never “done” the way my final paper in Philosophy 101 was “done". There will always be more practicing to do, more dishes to clean, and more bills to pay. On the other hand, it’s the little things that can give meaning and purpose to life: even the most menial tasks needs to get done. Or I suppose one could always just not do it and live the consequences. But I think we can all agree that when we accomplish little tasks - whether for ourself, or for a roommate, spouse, or child - the accomplishment infuses our life with a purpose, dignity and beauty (and their’s too!)

So what is the ‘pile of dishes’ or the ‘Bach E minor Partita’ on your agenda today that you do not feel inspired to do, and what will happen if that little thing is neglected? Perhaps nothing obvious. I know now from past experience that when I avoid practicing, I end up losing out on a great way to experience being human: knowing the dignity of good work I’ve been called to do.

So instead of grudging the practice and the pile of dishes, I am going to be thankful for this work - however menial or never-ending the task may seem - remembering that it gives my life purpose and dignity.

Thursday, August 25, 2016


To whom am I addressing this question, and why do I think it’s important enough to write about? I am writing primarily to those of you who have pursued music degrees as well as any of you who might be wondering whether you want to pursue music seriously. 

My goal in posting this article is to bring a complex matter, which I believe is affecting classical music performers and audiences alike, to the reader’s attention.The matter in question concerns the performance-driven ethos of the contemporary music scene. Though it may be counter-intuitive, I want to propose an alternate lens through which performers can view their work - whatever that may be - as successful.

For me, the risk in pursuing a music degree is not a financial one, despite what they say. Imbedded deep into the fabric of many music conservatories in the United States is an unspoken belief: being a successful performer means winning competitions, executing technically flawless performances, and playing with perfect intonation. This mentality is usually taught indirectly, but finds reinforcement when competitors with the loudest sound and fastest scales win the competitions, for example.

Just as succeeding in the performance arena means winning competitions, not winning equals failure, which pretty much describes 99% of performers. In addition to the cut-throat environment, the number of performers who feel like failures only adds to the level of insecurity and status anxiety. Damage increases when graduates go on to view themselves and their colleagues primarily as technicians competing to prove their worth and gain a particular image of success. The act of making music is then reduced to a display of self-affirmation and egotism, which I argue attracts a certain kind of audience: the one who delights in spectacle and virtuosity. 

I urge music conservatories to consider how they communicate what it looks like to be successful to their students, and if necessary to revisit their definition of success. I also encourage teachers to acknowledge the subliminal messages in conservatory culture. I am grateful for and indebted to each of my teachers who taught me a refreshingly different mindset: Dr. Daniel Paul Horn, defined his expectations for me as “becoming better than what I once was.” This was a picture of success I could tackle without despair.

In a culture where perfection seems to be the only measuring rod, I think the real risk in pursuing a performance degree is in choosing to do it a different way. It takes guts to be content with my unique gifts and faithfully hone these skills, instead of anxiously trying to out-play my peers. It took courage to pursue a doctorate in piano performance and it took courage to stop proving myself once I got it. It takes a daily effort to articulate the difference between being the best and being better than what I was yesterday. But it’s an important difference. For me it’s been the difference between a life of slavery and a life of freedom.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bringing Music Home

Once upon a time, the home used to be the center of productivity. Weavers, bakers, farmers: they all worked from home, or their work space occupied the downstairs while their private rooms remained on the floor above. Today, most of us leave our homes to be productive elsewhere, returning after an 8-hour work day to relax - even possibly escape from - the work environment. 

As a musician, though, I work from home - a lot. Our living room functions as practice room, teaching studio, rehearsal space, recording studio, and a family living room. Despite the apparent challenges in living in such a multi-purposed room, I've experienced something quite unexpected: the gift of live music making in our home every day - and I love it!

Most people I know listen to recordings of music at home. Live music is for concert halls and singing is reserved mainly for football or baseball games, or worship services if you're religious. And this got me to thinking: do we lose something more than live music making when we stop making music together in community? Or put in another way: what may be gained by bringing music home?

Obviously I'm biased. But I would like to think that if I had a different job I would still want to make music at home. Here are some reasons why:

1) Making music is showing hospitality:

In the cherry blossom's shade
there's no such thing
as a stranger.

In this haiku by Kobayashi Issa, the beauty of the cherry tree (as well as the shade it provides) brings people together in awe, in gratitude, and in celebration: strangers become friends. In a world where we thirst for more meaningful interactions with others, live music making in one's home is another powerful gift that brings diverse people together with a common interest.

2) Making music provides us with new motivation as well as stability.

There's a lot of clutter in our culture: different voices clamor for attention. Music - especially music from another time and culture - can create peace and order in an over-stimulated environment. J. S. Bach's music, for example, allows me to retreat from this world into a quieter, refreshing space. 

Conversely, music can also challenge us not to remain complacent with the way things are. Much of western classical music was composed during morally, politically, and socially turbulent times. Composers wrote their music with the hope that it would change the way people thought, behaved, and responded to current social issues.

3) Making music: making community

Making music is oftentimes an outward-facing activity: it draws attention away from oneself while simultaneously inviting one to participate in something greater. 

What would bringing music into one's home look like? This might be a good time to pick up an instrument, to learn something new, to continue one's education. Or if several attempts to learn end in frustration, there are other ways of bringing music home too: the house concert is growing in popularity among music lovers. 

Could the act of live music transform the home as a result? Imagine a society where homes brought diverse people together in gratitude and celebration. Picture a culture where the home was a peaceful environment, as well as a place where hearts and minds could be shaped to respond in more compassionate and wise ways. It's true that music can't perform a liver transplant or stabilize currency. But making music can enrich life and build up community, and provide continuity between our contemporary existence and a way of life from past eras. Will you join me in bringing music home?