Sunday, December 29, 2013

Excuses vs. Strength: A Different New Year's Resolution; or, My 2nd Post about Making Excuses

For the past several years, I have subjected my Facebook friends to a lengthy list of New Year's Resolutions.  They always come with descriptions and explanations of purpose (I've never been accused of being concise), but they boil down to the following four things:

1. Get great at the horn
2. Attain some kind of fitness goal
3. Be kinder to myself
4. Learn a new skill

I've experienced varying levels of success and failure in all four areas.  I've begun to feel silly about making the same statements over and over again, though, so I thought briefly about not making any resolutions this year.

A better solution came into my life last week.

I spent the five days before Christmas in a constant state of bliss in Northern Virginia and DC with some of my favorite people on the planet.  The night before I left, I grabbed a drink in Adams Morgan with my longtime friend Jeremiah.  Jeremiah is a phenomenal musician and teacher, and the founder of Harmony Rising: A Music School Online.  He's also a yoga and spinning instructor, and convinced me over an Old Fashioned to come to the spinning class he was teaching the next morning.  I hadn't been to a spinning class since undergrad- which, as I was reminiscing with my good friend Adam, is now longer ago than I care to admit.  Still, I knew Jeremiah would be an amazing instructor, so I dragged myself out of bed Christmas Eve morning and went to class.

I arrived early so Jeremiah could help me set up my bike.  The class began, and we all started pedaling. I felt exhausted after the first 15 minutes.  I began searching for every excuse possible to let myself stop adding resistance and just pedal at a slow pace for the remainder of the class.  It was at that point where Jeremiah- an extremely enthusiastic leader- said the following:

"Are you looking for excuses?  Or, are you looking for strength?  Either way, you'll find what you're looking for."

Ouch, Jeremiah.  That one punched me right in the stomach.  I knew he was addressing the whole class, but I felt like he was reading my mind. And, it worked.  I decided that I didn't care that my thighs were throbbing, that my face was beet red, that I most certainly looked ridiculous trying to keep pace with all of the fit people in the class.  I pushed myself as hard as I could.  I had a major case of jelly legs when the class was over, and it was awesome.  I felt I had already accomplished a great feat by 9:30am, and the rest of the day was mine for the taking.

Jeremiah's words have remained with me since he uttered them a week ago.  They've helped me achieve small victories daily, and have caused a great deal of contemplation.  Completing a spinning class may seem like a trivial accomplishment, but what if I applied the excuses vs. strength rule to all of life's struggles, major and minor?  How much greater would life feel if I persevered instead of lamented?  What if, instead of falling victim to my many excuses, I instead call upon my inner strength to achieve something better?


Can you guess what my new, improved and concise New Year's Resolution is? No?  Okay, I'll tell you...


This year, I resolve to have the wisdom to search for strength instead of excuses.


Happy New Year, friends!  Let's raise our glasses to a healthy and loving existence for all beings everywhere!



Thursday, November 21, 2013

Plow Pose and Perseverance

This post has nothing to do with music, education and culture.  This post has everything to do with music, education and culture.

One of my most stereotypical qualities is that I love yoga.  I still consider myself a beginner yogi, and sadly I go through periods where I don't practice very much at all (even though I KNOW that I always feel much better when I practice regularly).  I appreciate many types of yoga, but the style in which I find the most tranquility is Yin Yoga.  Unlike active (or "yang") yoga practices, yin yoga is a passive practice that involves holding each pose for an extended period of time- usually somewhere between three and eight minutes.

The first time I went to a yin class was around this time two years ago, during my last year of doctoral coursework in Cincinnati.  I was making more frequent visits to my favorite studio, World Peace Yoga.  I had no idea what yin yoga was, and only showed up because the class fit into my schedule that day.  I was expecting a "normal" class (whatever that means) full of sun salutations and warrior poses.  I was definitely NOT expecting to hold pigeon pose for 5 minutes on each side.  I remember being very sore at the end of the class, surprised at the difficulty of that 90 minutes of life. Yet, I kept going back for more.

Usually, the final pose preceding shavasana ("corpse pose") was an inversion held for five minutes. With the sole intention of placing your body in a position where the heart is above the head, the inversion could be as simple as laying flat on your back with a yoga block under your sacrum, knees bent and feet on the floor.  It could be shoulder stand.  Or, it could be plow pose: with the head, neck and shoulders remaining on the ground, the rest of the body is inverted so that the toes touch the ground beyond the head.

A recent "selfie" in plow pose.  It's really hard to take a photo of yourself in this pose.  For a better example, look anywhere else on the internet.

The first time I tried plow pose, I felt an intense sensation in my back.  Since the teacher always warned us to never go so deeply into a pose that you feel a sharp or electric pain, I came out of the pose immediately, opting for a milder inversion to complete my practice.  This happened for weeks: I would attempt the pose, feel the intense sensation, and fearfully back out of it.

Like it always does, eventually my stubbornness kicked in.  I decided to try to wait out the discomfort. With each class, I held the pose for a few seconds longer than the last, but the sensation never went away.  However, sitting with the irritation for progressively longer periods allowed me to distinguish the difference between a powerful discomfort and pain.  I was a competitive gymnast in a former life, and suffered a back injury that ended my participation in the sport, so back pain has always sent up a giant red flag in my brain.  I compared the back pain I underwent when I was a gymnast to the feeling I experienced in plow pose, and realized they were not the same. The feeling was strong and unfamiliar, but it was not pain.  It was not sharp and debilitating. It was not harmful.

Once I realized this distinction, I decided that my next class was the class I would remain in plow pose for the full 5 minutes.  Since I theorized the sensation wasn't actually pain and therefore probably not harmful, I knew I could make it.  I turned myself upside down, prepared to face something similar to getting a piercing or tattoo: intense discomfort during the activity, followed by an endorphin-induced high.  To my delight, I didn't have to wait until the pose was over.  After approximately 90 seconds, the distress went away entirely.  For the remainder of the pose, I experienced what I can only assume is bliss.  I felt euphoric, completely at peace, transcendent.  I was the owner of my happiness, and no one could take it away from me.  This became ritual with every plow pose in every yin class for the remainder of my time in Cincinnati: coaxing myself to endure the momentary suffering for the reward of acute joy.

Then I moved to Boston for 9 months.  I went to yoga classes when I could afford them, but never found myself in a yin class.  I fell out of practice.  I forgot about plow pose.

Then I moved to Lexington.  While I've started practicing yoga again since I moved here, there's only one yin class in the entire city, and it happens to be at a time I can't make.

Fortunately, now that I'm back in the same region of the country, life takes me to Cincinnati quite often (...it's possible that I help life along in that mission).  About 3 weeks ago, I was lucky enough to catch a yin class at World Peace Yoga again.  It had been about 16 months since my last yin class, but I remembered why I loved it as soon as I stepped on the mat and prepared for the adventure.  I found myself longing for the end of class to come so I could do plow pose.  To my surprise, however, instead of just craving the feeling of bliss after the torment, I found myself wanting the entire experience: the intense discomfort included.

I've been to 4 yin yoga classes in the last three weeks, and with each class I have the same desire for the pairing of discomfort and pleasure offered by plow pose.  I found this peculiar at first, but I think I'm beginning to understand it now.  I don't think the bliss is possible without the discomfort that precedes it; how would I know it was bliss if I didn't have the opposite by which to compare it?  Or, maybe the second half wouldn't feel so amazing if the first half wasn't so uncomfortable, meaning it wouldn't truly be bliss.

Whatever the reason, I can only hope that plow pose is one of my life's greatest physical metaphors.  May bliss be at the end of every torment.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Music and Memory: For Andrew

I spent the last two days playing with Orchestra Kentucky, sitting in my 4th horn seat.  This is a great regional orchestra in Bowling Green, drawing musicians from Lexington, Louisville, Owensboro, Nashville, and Evansville (and more places, I'm sure).  Among other fun works, last night's performance included Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  This is the third time I've performed this work in my young musical career, and the second time while sitting in the 4th seat.  There are a lot of great moments in the 4th part; the only unfortunate aspect about it is that there are several movements in a row where only one, two or three horns are needed, eliminating the fourth horn for several minutes of music.  It was during this tacet section that I remembered.

This is the piece my orchestra at CCM was playing when Andrew died.

Andrew Austin Howell was an amazing person, who also happened to be a fantastic horn player.  He has just begun his junior year at CCM when he died in the early hours of Saturday, October 23rd, 2010.  He was 20 years old.  I think about Andrew every day, but it's been a while since I've thought about when the event occurred, and the painful days, weeks and months that followed.  Sitting in the orchestra two days ago, it was like I had turned back the clock almost three years.

I remember the text I got from Stephanie late Saturday morning.  I remember calling all of the graduate studio members, telling them all to sit down first.  I remember everyone gathering at Emily's apartment, including CCM director of wind studies Rod Winther, and Randy Gardner's lovely wife Barbara (Mr. Gardner happened to be in Philadelphia, and was frantically returning back to Cincinnati).  I remember Eric putting on several pots of Highlander Grog from Seven Hills Coffee, and Mr. Winther (a coffee enthusiast) saying it was the best coffee he'd ever tasted.  I remember ordering pizza and making french fries, and joking about how this was appropriate mourning food.  I remember us all taking turns laughing and crying.

I remember Sunday when we all gathered at the Gardner's home.  Anni happened to be in town that weekend, and recent graduate Danielle joined us too.  Usually, convocations at the Gardner's home involved bowls of ice cream and games of cornhole.  This was no such occasion.  We all tried to make it a supportive environment, and a time to share happy stories and fond memories.  We did our best, but the tears still flowed freely.

And then, I remember Monday, when we all had to show up at CCM.  I don't think any of us walked in alone that day.  Professors were extremely lenient with us, understanding if we just couldn't make it through class.  At 4PM, it was time for orchestra.  I remember sitting in the section with Austin, Robert, Jeremy and Eric.  I remember Annunziata's kind words.  I remember the rest of the orchestra's compassionate glances.  I remember Pictures at an Exhibition.

I remember Tuesday morning, when we had studio class for the first time since Andrew died.  I do not envy being Mr. Gardner in this situation.  How on earth do you hold a horn studio class when a member of your studio just fell off of a roof and died?  Not surprisingly, he made a great choice.  We listened to music for an hour.  Arkady Shilkloper, among other artists.  The class ended with an impromptu conga line.  The following hour was a grief counseling session, which the Wind Studies Department was hosting all day during normal rehearsal hours.  After that, Emily, Cecilia, Eric and I decided we couldn't handle the rest of the day at CCM.  We went and got giant burritos (again, appropriate mourning food) from Habañero, brought them back to Cecilia's and my house, opened up the futon, and stayed there for the rest of the day.

For the rest of the year, Emily tagged us in any picture she found of four kittens cuddling on a couch

I remember the vigil Wednesday night.  There was a huge crowd there.  Friends and teachers spoke.  The horn choir played an arrangement of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.  Cecilia played principal, and was rock solid.  I was sitting in the back row between Eric and Brigette.  It was the most difficult and most important performance of which I've ever been a part.  The vigil ended with a recording of Josh Groban's You Raise Me Up, which was one of Andrew's favorite songs.

I remember studio class on Thursday.  Mr. Gardner was brilliant, and decided this day should be his infamous Distraction Class.  It was the funniest one I experienced in my four years at CCM, probably because we were all so in need of a good laugh.

I remember the weeks and months that followed.  I remember having to go and pick people from CCM because they couldn't handle their sadness, and bringing them back to our house for a reprieve.  Our futon stayed open for at least a month, and we gained several temporary roommates.  I remember the night approximately a month later when, alone in my house, my body finally gave in to the pressure of staying strong for my friends; I called my parents, sobbing and shaking.  I remember the group hug on our last day of studio class in December, and the celebratory feeling we all shared for simply making it through the quarter.  I remember the concerts and recitals dedicated to Andrew's memory.  I remember gathering with his family in January to celebrate what would have been his 21st birthday, going to the spot in Bellevue Park where some of his ashes were spread.

Andrew's family and friends on his 21st birthday

I remember one year later, when we held a giant memorial concert.  Corbett Auditorium was filled.  Our horn studio was joined by members of the horn studios from Ohio State University and Indiana University.  Mr. Gardner asked me to represent the horn studio by giving a speech about Andrew.  I don't remember much from the actual moments I was speaking, but after I spoke I remember immediately running to the hallway behind the backstage area, putting my head between my knees.  Emily came and found me to make sure I wasn't barfing.  When I stood up, Mike held on to me and wouldn't let go, noting that he could feel my heart beating through my chest against his body.


I remember two years later.  I had just arrived in Los Angeles a couple of days prior, beginning my brief residency at Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA).  It was my first Andrew anniversary away from my CCM family, and I felt so alone.  Two of my fellow Sistema Fellows, Carlos and Sara, were also in LA with me at this time.  I had spent a grand total of 6 weeks of life with them at this point, but wasn't left with much of a choice but to tell them that I was probably going to have a very bad day.  Luckily for me, this was the beginning of a great friendship among the three of us, and they were wonderful about the whole thing.  I was also fortunate enough to share a phone call with Stephanie and Austin that day, who were also spending their first Andrew anniversary away from CCM.

Now, it's almost three years later.  I still have many of the same feelings I had when it happened.  Sadness. Confusion. Anger. And, happiness.  Happiness that I had Andrew in my life.  Happiness that he brought the CCM community closer together.  Happiness that I am fortunate enough to make the most of my life.  In a cathartic way, I hope that every time I play Pictures at an Exhibition, I will remember that time in my life; for me, every performance of the work will be dedicated to Andrew.

_________________________________________________________________________

"Andrew."

This was how I snapped out of my whirlwind of memories during Sunday's rehearsal of Pictures.

"Andrew."

The conductor had stopped the music to address a member of the orchestra.  His name happened to be Andrew.

Sometimes, the universe does strange things.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Keep it Simple

Last week I had the great opportunity to perform in the horn section of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.  It's always a real treat for me when I get to play with them; this time, the deal was even sweeter because I got to play with my good friend and CCM colleague, Jeremy.  Jeremy and I carpooled from Cincinnati all week, and had a lot of time to catch up.  We had many great conversations about making the most out of life, and living exactly how you want to live.  A subtopic of this conversation involved Jeremy's summer practice routine, which entails getting up at 5:00 every morning.  To a lot of people, waking up at 5am daily is undesirable and may seem impossible. Here's a summary of what Jeremy had to say about it:

"People ask me how I get up at 5 every day.  I say, 'I set my alarm for 5am and then I wake up'.  It's that simple."



This simplicity resonated with me so much.  Like many people, I have a hard time getting up early.  I'm the girl who sets 10 alarms on her phone and ignores every one of them.  Eventually I stumble out of bed just in time to throw on jeans, pour some coffee in a travel mug and walk out the door.  In the moment, it's so easy to make excuses for sleeping in.  I always try to justify it by convincing myself I'll have plenty of time during the day to complete everything I need to.  This is rarely true.  At the end of the day I usually end up being mad at myself for my inability to do the right thing in the morning and just wake up when the alarm tells me to.

Jeremy's simple explanation of how he gets up so early every morning really got me thinking- mostly about how I tend to make simple tasks way more complicated than they need to be.  Getting up early is difficult for me for a number of reasons.  Some are legitimate; some aren't.  Whether the reasons are justifiable or not, I know getting up early will help me live every day exactly how I want.  What if, instead of rationalizing or justifying or making excuses, I just got up whenever my alarm went off?  What if I kept it that simple?  I know that there are more pros than cons of getting up when I intend to.  I'll feel better about myself, and I'll actually have a fighting chance of getting the day's tasks completed.

It's like the old quote- falsely attributed to everyone from Albert Einstein to Mark Twain- about the definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results".  I can't expect to make changes in my life if my daily routine never changes.  If I want the outcome to be different, I have to consciously make new choices.  For starters, I can't expect to live every day like superwoman if I keep ignoring my alarm.

I'm trying something new this week.  I'm going to get up at 6AM every day.  This will allow me plenty of time to get some face time in on the horn before I set foot in the office.  My trial run this morning was successful.  The alarm went off at 6:02, 6:03, 6:05 and 6:08.  Once the last one went off, the excuses crept up.  "You really could just sleep till 6:30."  "But you're SO tired!"  "It's still dark outside..."  Normally, I would have chosen to listen to at least one of those excuses.  Instead, I thought of Jeremy and how he'd been awake for an hour already, and asked myself one question: "How badly do you want it?"

If I want my life to include everything I desire, I have to make changes.  It all comes down to choice.  I could choose to listen to my groggy excuses in the morning, or I could choose to simply set my alarm for 6am and then wake up when it goes off.  When you think about it objectively, the latter is far simpler than coming up with a half-asleep elaborate ruse of justification.

Getting up early is just one of many examples I could use of how I make my life way more complicated than it needs to be.  I hope this is only the beginning of discovering more ways to simplify my life, taking away baggage and living fully and honestly.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Musical Relevance: Part 1

Before I get into the vegan meat of this post, I should say that when I refer to "classical music," I mean in its absolute broadest definition- symphonic, chamber and solo music from all eras, performed on instruments traditionally found in band or orchestra settings.

Now, on with the post!

As a graduation gift, Heath and Virginia presented all 10 fellows with a copy of Arlene Goldbard’s new book, The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists and the Future.  You can read more about Ms. Goldbard and her publications here.  Thanks, Arlene, for permitting me to use your words as the catalyst for this post!  The fellows had our first exposure to Ms. Goldbard when she spoke via Skype at the symposium/seminario/gathering (affectionately dubbed the “symposinario” by the fellows) we held at the end of March for members of the greater Boston arts and education community.  Her short “provocation” at the event was indeed just that, and though I’m only tens of pages into her book, thus far she is upholding her title of provocateur.  The following quote sparked today’s blog post: 

...our capacity to act is conditioned on the story we tell ourselves about our own predicament and capabilities. ...To even begin to conceive responses worthy of current challenges means removing all barriers to clear sight.  For me, this translates into a simple proposition.  We need to see like the most committed and skilled artists: eyes wide open, taking it all in, turning away from nothing, cultivating empathy and imagination, venturing forth, taking risks, admitting mistakes, persevering.

This brought so many thoughts bursting from my brain that I had to put the book down and start writing.  These musings will (hopefully, if I don’t get lazy) be broken up into a few different posts.  Today’s post will touch on my interpretation of “removing all barriers to clear sight,” and what that has meant in my life as a musician, particularly in the last two-and-a-half years.  

A large barrier came down several years ago when I fully realized the conditions under which I was able to receive my musical education, and that not every child is so lucky to have these resources (you can read about that here, if you're so inclined).  This is how El Sistema entered my life.  Since then, I've placed ample thought and energy into removing access barriers to classical music.  Some people could certainly consider it a barrier in itself that I still focus on classical music.  I've spent all academic year thinking about this, and will undoubtedly continue to think about it for years to come.  While I value other types of music and intend to utilize them as publicly desired, I still believe that classical music does not need to be viewed as a barrier to sight or accessibility.

I grew up in a little town just outside of Winchester, Virginia.  Winchester is a small and historic city in the northernmost part of the state.  Thanks largely to its proximity to DC, the arts scene in Winchester when I was growing up wasn’t nearly as dismal as it is in other communities I’ve seen; but, to say that classical music is relevant to the overall culture of this area would be false.  There was no extracurricular youth band or orchestra for wind players.  Try as I might, I could never find a horn player to be my teacher; I became a horn instructor myself at the age of 15 because of this.  I didn’t know summer music festivals for youth, like Interlochen or Blue Lake, existed until I got to college.  Upon high school graduation, I was the only person in my class who was pursuing music as a career.  Music was relevant in my personal life, but not in the culture of my community.  I chose this path anyway, and there are a number of other people from my hometown who have gone on to pursue successful careers in music education, performance and entrepreneurship.

Additionally, I am the only professional musician in my extended family, which is quite large.  My mom and sister, and a few of my aunts, uncles and cousins participated in band or orchestra growing up, but none of them possessed the same passion for it that I did.  There was no great musical influence or culture in my family.  Yet here I am.

My story is not unique, as I discovered most intimately when I arrived at CCM for grad school.  One of my favorite things about CCM is that it’s filled with people who grew up in a similar fashion as I, yet still ended up in the field of music performance.  I’m sure this is not unique to CCM, but I’m using it as an example because it’s my personal point of reference.  Was classical music relevant in our childhood?  Personally, sure; but culturally, probably not.  Evidently, it didn’t matter, because we were still deeply impacted by music to the point that we chose to do something out of cultural context with our lives.

Dead European composers could easily mean nothing to me, yet my love for classical music is one of the driving forces in my life.  Additionally, being a classical musician has opened my eyes to so many other types of music.  I’ve performed with everything from jazz ensembles to polka bands to civil war era brass bands.

Shameless proof of the civil war era brass band gig

Don’t get me wrong- I understand that classical music is not for everybody, and it does not have the power to affect everyone in the way it has affected me.  That’s totally fine.  There are certain kinds of music that I will never like, so I don't expect everyone to join me on the classical music train.  I am also fully aware, now more than ever, that I fit two of this country’s primary classical-music-lover stereotypes: I’m white and highly educated.  Furthermore, I know that there are far more extreme scenarios than mine of classical music not being encompassed in a person's culture.  Regardless, it's still fair for me to say that classical music was not relevant in my culture growing up.  Now it’s the number 1 component of my culture, and I can’t imagine life any other way.


Call it a barrier of sight if you wish, but even after countless hours of analysis, I still don't believe classical music as an entity needs to be a cultural barrier.  This certainly doesn’t change the way classical music is perceived by society as a whole, or the fact that there are institutional and societal barriers to accessing classical music.  What to do about this will (again- hopefully, if I don't get lazy) be the topic for my next post: “taking it all in, turning away from nothing, cultivating empathy and imagination, venturing forth, taking risks, admitting mistakes, persevering.”

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bluegrass on the Horn

I'm completing this post from a coffee house in Lexington, KY.  I have accepted a position as the program director for North Limestone MusicWorks, which is the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra's new El Sistema - inspired initiative.  I could not be more excited!

About 2 weeks ago, the Sistema Fellows graduated from NEC.  It was a small, intimate ceremony with some family members and lots of friends in attendance.

Post Graduation: The fellows, Heath, Virginia, Tony and Leslie

Sara, Carlos and me after the ceremony


The ceremony opened with encouraging words and anecdotes related to our class from NEC president Tony Woodcock.  Then, each fellow had the floor for a few minutes.  Everyone spoke; some used media; some played music.  I bet you can guess my choice.

I did, of course, say a few words before I played my horn.  I spoke of the theme of firsts, and the number 1, in my young sistema life.  I had 1 year with 9 amazing fellows.  I experienced my first trip to a Latin American country.  I taught music lessons with a language barrier for the first time.  I'm about to move to Lexington to help start Kentucky's first El Sistema - inspired program.  Following this theme, and furthering my exploration of musical relevance, my short commencement performance was another first:

I played bluegrass music on my horn.

As this was my first foray into bluegrass, I kept things simple.  I actually started with a shape note hymn, and then bridged into the melody of Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky."  It was nothing outstanding, but for me it accurately represented my year of experimenting in performance; I used my 5 minutes of graduation spotlight as a testing ground for musical courage.

This was the second time that I've performed at a fellowship event.  Several hours after graduation, I was having a discussion with my friend and fellow Xóchitl.  She said something to me that went kind of like this: "You're much more comfortable when you're talking with a horn in your hands.  You're more laid back.  You make jokes."

Similarly, when I returned to Cincinnati last month to give my lecture-recital, I saw many friends from the horn studio whom I hadn't seen since my move to Boston.  I received one comment over and over again: "Rachel, you look so much happier!"

These observations pointed out things that I hadn't consciously noticed, but the words also didn't surprise me.  While I'm still figuring out the balance in my life (and probably will be for many years to come), these comments serve as proof that performance, education and inclusion are necessary elements of my career; I cannot relinquish any of the three.

I still have a lot to figure out, but I'm enjoying the musical journey.  I feel strongly that I'm in the right place to continue to learn and grow as a musician, performer, educator, and leader.  I can't wait to spread the El Sistema love to Lexington!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Venezuela Series: Barquisimeto, week 2


I just completed an indescribable week in Barquisimeto.  I'll try to describe it anyway.  Fair warning: this will be a long entry.

On Monday, Elise, Monique, Sara and I got to the Barquisimeto conservatory around 10am to meet with its music director, Luis Jimenez.  Luis was one of the famous original eleven members of the first El Sistema orchestra, and hearing his story was priceless.  He is originally from Barquisimeto, and has been a major part in making the Barquisimeto conservatory the Venezuelan powerhouse it is today.  The part of his story that affected me the most pinpointed the exact moments when music education went from being a privilege to a social right in Barquisimeto.  It reminded me of why I got into this work in the first place, and what my goals are as a musician, educator and citizen.

After this great history lesson, the four of us met with Johnny Gomez, who is the director of the special needs program at the conservatory.  Barquisimeto is on the top of the field of providing music education for children and adults with special needs, it it was amazing to hear the man who started it all talk about how they got to where they are today.  We were all a little weepy by the time he got through with us.  More on this later.

After lunch, seven of us headed to a breathtakingly beautiful suburb of Barquisimeto called Santa Rosa.  Santa Rosa is home of Lara's Divina Pastora.  It also houses a nucleo that is only a few years old, where the children rehearse mainly in and around the town square every day.


Panorama of Santa Rosa's square

We were all anxious to get back to work, and our wish was granted.  Carlos and I began our week-long journey as team teachers for the brass students.  On Monday, we worked with three of Santa Rosa's horn players: Maria, Maria and José Victor.  I should also mention that before we left the conservatory for Santa Rosa, we ran into Mao.  Mao ended up having the afternoon free, so Xochitl and Diogo invited him to hop in the van to Santa Rosa with us!  Mao was a great addition to the Santa Rosa horn team.  He also gave me the necklace I'm wearing in the photo below.


Thanks to Carlos for grabbing this shot!

The nucleo usually ends rehearsal at 5:30 every day, but Carlos and I got the time wrong and ended up keeping our kids until 6.  No one told us to stop rehearsing.  The kids never asked for a break for the entire 3 hours we were working with them; neither did Carlos and I.

After we finished rehearsing, the fellows and nucleo leaders went and grabbed some sweets at the dulceria in the square.  Some of the kiddos joined us.



The student on the far right is José Victor, who Carlos and I met for the first time last week at the audition prep day at the conservatory.  They were working on the first horn part to Mahler’s 1st symphony.  During a rehearsal break, the horn students asked me which horn part I usually play, and I said 2nd.  José Victor ran out of the room, and came back a few minutes later with the 2nd horn part for me to play along with them.  I was very excited to see him again when we arrived at Santa Rosa.  At the beginning of rehearsal on this particular afternoon, his music was completely disorganized.  Carlos told him that we were going to come back (which we didn't actually know at the time), and that he expected José Victor’s music to be organized alphabetically.  Remember this a few paragraphs down the road.

On Tuesday, I did something I never thought I would do: learn to read braille.  One of the administrative team members for the special needs department of the conservatory spent a portion of the morning teaching several of us the basics of reading braille.  We started with the letters and numbers, and then we went into reading music.  She stressed to us to try not to compare reading music in braille with reading it by sight on the staff because they are completely different ways of reading music, and she was right.  The most notable difference is that in braille, there is no staff.  In reading braille music, portions are actually notated with the expectation that the learner will use intuition to figure out certain things, such as which octave the next note in the series is in.  I think it's so cool that there is a literacy system with inherent intuition built in.

I had to leave the braille session a bit early because Mao and I had arranged to have a lesson, which lasted for two hours.  The only reason we stopped was because I had somewhere else to be.  I taught Mao some horn, and he taught me some Spanish.  My teaching skills were exercised in a completely new way working around a language barrier.  Not surprisingly, we had a great time together.  (Side note for you, Cecilia: you made a guest appearance in the lesson via my laptop screensaver!  I got to tell Mao that you are my best friend and you play horn too!).  

After my lesson with Mao, I hopped in the van with the fellows.  We drove two hours outside of the city to Carora (note: this is an extremely hard word for a gringa like me to pronounce).  Carora is a stunningly beautiful and quaint pueblo.  Once again, we were joyfully put to work immediately upon arrival.  Carlos and I got to work with the wind ensemble for a short while before taking the trumpeters and hornist out for a sectional.  They requested to work on technique, which was no surprise to us; however, we opted to take a different approach and work on buzzing and sound production.  The young hornist had never had a horn teacher before, and I felt lucky to pass on any knowledge that I could in the short time I had with him.

Students at Carora

After the sectional, everyone went to full orchestra rehearsal.  Diogo was the celebrity of the day, conducting the orchestra through a rousing rendition of Mambo, followed by the ever popular Venezuela.  After this rehearsal, all of the fellows were treated like royalty.  All of the students wanted photos with us individually.

 Carlos getting mauled by small children

New friends from Carora


Wednesday, the fellows split into groups and dispersed ourselves throughout Lara.  Some went back to Corora; others went to Tamaka; Elise stayed at the conservatory; and Carlos and I returned to Santa Rosa.  This time we worked with the horns, trombones and 1 trumpet.  As the students were unpacking their instruments and music, I José Victor had something new with him: a thick white binder stuffed full of music.  He went above and beyond Carlos' request.  He made artwork for the cover.  He put in a table of contents.  Every piece of music was organized alphabetically, complete with tabs to separate the pieces.  All of the music was in clear plastic to keep it from blowing away, as they rehearse outside.  We were stunned.



We made another trip to the dulceria after rehearsal.  José Victor joined us.

He definitely ate the whole thing.


Thursday was the most profoundly emotional day for me.  We spent the afternoon at the conservatory being treated to a workshop and performance by the Coro de Manos Blancos (White Hands Chorus).  This choir is for individuals with special needs, ranging from blindness to autism to motor disabilities to deafness.  Everything about this was astounding.  I plan on writing a longer blog entry within the next few days about this experience.  All I'll say for now is that none of us were shy with our tears this particular afternoon.

Friday was my favorite day of the week for many reasons.  For starters, I decided to get in my morning practice session on the roof of our hotel.

This was my view.  And yes, I obviously played the Short Call.

In the afternoon, Carlos, Xochitl, Monique and I returned to Santa Rosa one last time.  Carlos and I had our biggest brass section yet: 4 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones and a euphonium.  Carlos conducted them while I ran around adjusting hand positions and playing along with the students struggling with harmonies.  The last hour was spent in full orchestra rehearsal, where Carlos conducted and I jumped in to play along with the kids.  At the end of rehearsal, the nucleo director and all of the children thanked us deeply for sharing with them.  We thanked them in return, though I doubt I can express the impact the Santa Rosa nucleo had on me.  To experience kids with such hunger to learn in a seemingly constant state of joy is something I will never forget.  Even though I could barely talk to them, they showed me so much love and appreciation.  Wherever I end up in June, I want my nucleo to be reminiscent of Santa Rosa.

The fellows spent the evening with our new friends from the Barquisimeto conservatory and Santa Rosa.  I received patient assistance with my Spanish, and learned how to salsa and merengue.  It was a perfect way to end a fantastic week in a beautiful city full of kind and generous souls.

We are now back in Caracas for a few days, wrapping up our trip.  We return to the US on Tuesday.  I feel like I just got here, like I just started to understand what Venezuela’s El Sistema is about.  I have so much to think about, but right now my brain can only focus on how and when to get back to this beautiful country to continue growing and learning at the source.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Venezuela Series: Joyful Inquiry

¡Hola de Barquisimeto!

By Monday at lunchtime, we had been out of Caracas for just over 24 hours.  I'll be honest- it hadn't been the best 24 hours of my life.  I'm a pretty independent person, so being in a situation where I need help to do everything is extremely frustrating.  The combination of having only a remedial grasp of the Spanish language and being a vegan in a meat-and-cheese loving country was beginning to feel completely paralyzing.  The other fellows are being fantastic and are helping me so much, but it's the fact that I NEED that help that makes me so uncomfortable.

After a morning of incomprehension and an awkward lunch, I returned to the Barquisimeto conservatory feeling pretty useless.

Then, I met Mao.

I was walking around trying to figure out where to go when I walked past a young man practicing horn in a corner of the nucleo.  He greeted me, and exploded with joy when he saw a horn on my back.  We began to try to speak to each other.  His English is about as good as my Spanish.  We exchanged some pleasantries, but I was concerned that if I stayed and talked with him for too long I would lose the group and not know where to go, so I continued on my way.  Within a few minutes, I learned that I still had about a half hour before any classes started up again.  I heard Mao playing the 1st horn part to the trio from Beethoven's 3rd symphony.  Obviously, I couldn't resist.  I returned to where he was practicing, took my horn out of its case, and asked him if I could play the 2nd part along with him.  He excitedly agreed, but was quite nervous to be playing with me.  We played the passage together a few times, eventually switching parts.  He asked me if I could play some of Richard Strauss' 1st horn concerto for him, so I did.  Then he played some of Mozart's 1st horn concerto for me.  He sounded great, but nervous.  I played it for him, over-exaggerating the phrasing to show him that he could be more expressive.  He understood, and played it again.  It was significantly better.  We then moved on to a book of duets I had with me.  His nervousness began to subside.  Sometimes, techniques would come up in the duets with which Mao had trouble.  He would ask me how to fix them.  I would demonstrate different techniques, and he would try them.  It took a while, but when we got to lip trills I was even able to communicate to him that it took me years to be able to be able to do them, and that I got there by practicing them slowly and moving the metronome marking up one click per day.  We played together for nearly 2 hours; I only ended our session because I was afraid I was supposed to be somewhere else.

I also learned a little bit about Mao as a person.  He's 18 years old.  He actually attends a different nucleo in Lara, and was just at the Barquisimeto nucleo for the afternoon to practice.  He's a university student- I didn't quite grasp his major, but it's something to do with numbers.  He's only been playing horn for a year, though you'd never guess it by how good he sounds.

Mao was also the embodiment of gratitude.  He hugged me about every 10 minutes.  He told me over and over how happy he was to be playing with me, and that my teaching was like magic.  When we were finished, he asked me if he could make copies of the duets we had been playing.  We went across the street to make the copies, and he had me write a message to him on the first page (in English, thankfully).  We took several pictures together.

Mao and Me at the Barquisimeto Conservatorio

This gratitude is common from every student I've encountered in Venezuela.  They are all so gracious for every ounce of help they are given.  This appreciation is a result of their insatiable hunger for education, for improvement, for music.  I have yet to come across an apathetic student.  They will try anything to improve, and are exuberant while doing so.  Every learning experience is one of joyful inquiry.  No amount of information you give them is too much, no challenge too great.

When I return the to US and to teaching, my goal is to figure out how to cultivate this joyful inquiry within all of my students.  They have this figured out here, but I can't yet put my finger on exactly how they do it.  This is my goal for the remainder of the trip.

I'm so glad that I met Mao, and that I was able to make music with him and teach him a few things.  I definitely learned more from him, though.  Mao lifted my spirits with his desire to learn and his love of music.  He reminded me that all experiences can be intensely valuable when viewed through a lens of joyful inquiry.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Venezuela Series: Caracas Wrap-Up

On Thursday, we had the great fortune of meeting with El Sistema's executive director, Eduardo Mendez.  As you can imagine, Eduardo is quite a busy guy, so the fact that we got to meet with him is pretty outstanding.  He got about 10 phone calls on two different phones during our short time with him, but only answered the phone when the caller was Dr. Abreu.

Not surprisingly, this meeting was amazing.  Eduardo gave us so many insights on what El Sistema is and isn't, and how to gain the most out of our experience in Venezuela.  If I wrote my thoughts about everything he said, this entry would be 50 paragraphs long.  Here are a few gems from the conversation (expect later posts on some of these topics):

*You can't buy a teacher; you have to develop him.
*El Sistema Venezuela are NOT the "owners of the truth."  El Sistema will look different in different places.
*You cannot sacrifice quality for quantity.  It doesn't matter how many; it matters how good!  This is how transformation happens.
*Anyone can play at his or her best level.

Elaine, Elise and Xochitl before our meeting

In the afternoon we went to the nucleo in La Rinconada, an area of Caracas owned by the government.  This nucleo has three different buildings, and serves children from the ages of 2 - 18.  We observed many different sectionals and rehearsals, in an experience similar to the one we had in Montalban.

Inside one of the La Rinconada buildings


After our nucleo visit, we went back to the Center for Social Action to attend a concert by the Simon Bolivar Wind Ensemble.  The age range of this group is somewhere around 16-24.  This wind ensemble also includes full cello and bass sections, which I have never seen before.  They performed several exciting works, my favorite of which was an arrangement of Johan de Meij’s Extreme Make-Over, which is based off of several Tchaikovsky themes.  It brought back fond memories of when I performed this work with the JMU brass band several years ago, though I’ll admit my heart sank when some of the most thrilling and challenging horn parts from the original brass band version were given to the alto saxes in the wind band arrangement.

On Friday, after a morning and early afternoon full of swimming, sunshine and horn playing, I had my favorite experience in Venezuela thus far: our visit to the Sarria nucleo.  This nucleo is at an elementary school, though not all of the El Sistema children come from that specific school.  The level of playing was phenomenal.

These young trumpeters have only been playing since September.

These students have been playing their instruments for 2.5 years

After observing several sectional rehearsals, we all got our hands dirty in the beginning orchestra rehearsal, comprised of children who have only been playing their instruments since September 2012.  We were all sitting in the sections with our specific instruments, helping out where we could.  After a while, the conductor pointed to me with his baton and beckoned me to the stage to conduct the orchestra through Pomp and Circumstance.  I’m convinced the conductor somehow knew that I was the least capable fellow in the room for this task.  After a quick “hola, me llamo Rachel,” we dove in.  When we reached the end of the piece, all of the children applauded for me.  I was stunned.  Then the conductor came back on stage, and I returned to the brass section.  The trumpets and horns had only learned the introduction to the piece, and were sitting and listening intently to the rest of the orchestra after they had played through the part they knew.  Carlos decided to take over the trumpet part, and I followed suit on the horn part.  This did not go unnoticed by the rest of the orchestra.  Once again, when we reached the end of the piece, the entire orchestra turned to the brass section and applauded Carlos and me.  At the end of rehearsal, girls from the violin section ran up to me to hug me.

My new friends in Sarria

I left this nucleo feeling so loved and appreciated, even though I was barely able to communicate verbally with any of the students.  They were so hungry for musical help, and so loving and affectionate.  The “vibe” at this nucleo cannot be put into words, but the fellows left feeling amazing and yearning to spend more time there.

Most of the nucleos around Caracas were taking the day off on Saturday for various reasons, so Rodrigo took advantage of the free time to show us around.  We went to the top of La Avila, which is the highest mountain in Caracas.  The view from up there is breathtaking.




After a great walk, we stopped for lunch in a nearby town.  One of the best things about Venezuela is the juice.  Every restaurant has several different kinds of natural juices, which taste infinitely better than our chemical-laden juices in the US.

Strawberry, Blackberry and Peach Juices

We wrapped up this beautiful day with a concert of Verdi arias by the Simon Bolivar orchestra and guest vocalists.  This is not the same Simon Bolivar orchestra that tours the world, but is comprised of the more senior members of El Sistema: “Abreu’s kids."  It was an honor to be present in the audience, and to bear witness to the product of Abreu’s early years of building orchestras around the country.

Thus ends a fantastic week in Caracas.  I am posting this blog next to a sleeping Elaine and Monique in our hotel room in Barquisimeto.  I’ve been told that there is amazing brass playing happening in this city, so I am extremely excited for what lies ahead.

See you in a few weeks, Caracas!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Venezuela Series: martes y miércoles

Tuesday was the day we have been waiting for all year: our first visit to a Venezuelan nucleo.  We spent the afternoon at the Montalban nucleo, on the west side of Caracas.


This nucleo houses 16 different ensemble programs for around 2000 kids between the ages of 3 - 18.  We observed a variety of classes, including general music for the 3-4 year olds, a cello class, a beginning violin class, choir, woodwind and brass sectionals, the youth orchestra string sectional and youth orchestra winds sectional.  

Eight horns for Tchaikovsky 4? Of course!

My main take-away of the day occurred in the beginning violin sectional.  This group of approximately 40 children, somewhere between the ages of 6 - 9, just began their studies four months ago.  Bow holds have been mastered, and after working exclusively with open strings for a few weeks, they have started utilizing the fingerboard.  They are working on the most basic concepts of violin playing, performing very simple tunes.  During the rehearsal of one of these songs, the instructor paused to express to the students the importance of presence and emotion during performance.  She told them, "you need to know how to draw a smile from the audience."  The connection with the audience and the meaning behind why they are playing music is taught to these kids at the same time as the fundamentals of basic musicianship.  It's no wonder why the Simon Bolivar orchestra is so captivating: they learn to convey an energy and a love for what they do from the very beginning.  They know that the performance isn't just about what happens on stage.

Wednesday morning was spent at Caracas' Centro Academico de Luthería, which is the main training school for El Sistema luthiers.  Housed in a vocational school, the workshop is run by El Sistema luthiers who teach students between the ages of 14-26 how to build and repair orchestral and traditional Venezuelan string instruments.  Once the students are certified- which takes an average of two years- they are then hired by El Sistema to either work for one of its 30 existing instrument workshops, or to start a new instrument workshop in an area of the country that doesn't yet have one.

Inside the Centro Academico de Luthería

We got to talk to many of the luthiers and apprentices, who were extremely gracious in sharing their expertise with us.  The highlight of the morning was when four of the luthiers performed for us, which resulted in an impromptu dance lesson for Monique and me (stay tuned for videos once Carlos gets his blog up and running!).

Wednesday afternoon was spent at another branch of the Academico de Luthería.  This particular site is a pilot program in partnership with the Venezuelan Foundation for the Cure of Paralysis.  All twelve students in this nucleo have varying degrees of limb paralysis.  At this center, the students learn how to make and repair bows, as well as complete basic repair on string instruments.  Just as with the other academies, once the students are certified they are employable.  

This partnership is a lovely realization of El Sistema's ability to create equal opportunities for access and inclusion.  The luthier at this shop had never worked with students with physical disabilities; he learned how to do so on the job.  This required him to learn how to do all of his work sitting down, as his students have to do.  He also fashioned special tools to aid his students who have hand impairments, and came up with games and exercises for them to build dexterity in their hands.

It's important to note that the main cause of lower limb paralysis in Venezuela is gunshot wounds, followed by traffic accidents.  Most of the students at this academy received their paralysis through a traumatic experience.  With that in mind, the luthier explained to us that while he is not a therapist, this nucleo serves as a sort of group therapy for the students.  It gives them a supportive social network and a trade.  In alignment with the words of the luthier, all of the students present expressed their joy and gratitude for the opportunity to be involved in the program.  Several of the students travel two hours one-way just to get to the center every day.

What a beautiful embodiment of everyone's favorite fundamental of El Sistema: Every human being has the right to a life of dignity and contribution.

The rest of this week in Caracas includes a meeting with El Sistema's executive director and additional key staff, 3 nucleo visits and endless beauty.  Stay tuned!

I am being spoiled rotten.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Venezuela Series: Day 1


¡Hola!

I'm writing this post safe and sound from the comfort my hotel room in the Euro Building.  Apparently there are a lot of people staying here this week, and all of the twin bed rooms were taken; thus, we each have a room to ourselves during our stay!

Yesterday was a long but exciting day of travel.  We all arrived at Logan Airport around 2:30PM EST.  The exhilaration was already tangible.

Clearly, this is Carlos' "excited" face

Our first flight to Houston was delayed due to snowy and icy conditions, though none of us seemed to care too much: we knew better weather was just around the corner.  I was lucky enough to be seat buddies with the lovely Xochitl Tafoya, with Heath, Monique and Elise just across the aisle.

This was also my last Instagram blast from the US

After a long but smooth flight, we touched down in Houston.  We were looking forward to a mere 3 hour layover since our previous flight had been delayed, but no such luck: the flight to VZ was delayed as well.  Heath kept us entertained with a quiz on the Oscars, which he conveniently happened to win and therefore didn't have to follow up with the prize he was promising.  At around 1AM CST, we were finally en route to Venezuela.

I have no recollection of the flight to Caracas, as I was passed out the entire time.

Upon arriving at the airport and sailing through customs, we were met by the smiling face of Rodrigo Guerrero, El Sistema's International Affairs Officer and personal assistant to Dr. Abreu.  We made the journey from the airport to the hotel in a mammoth-sized van, being completely overwhelmed by the beauty all around us.

The view from my hotel room.  Not bad.

After a nice lunch at the hotel, Rodrigo met us again and took us to Caracas' Center for Social Action Through Music.  This building has only been operating for two years.  Filled with practice rooms, small and large rehearsal spaces, performance venues, masterclass rooms, libraries and computer labs, approximately 2500 kids and young adults utilize this nine-story building every day.

The upper photo is the stage of the Simón Bolívar Hall, which is the largest performance space in the building, seating 800.  The lower photo contains the hall's comfortable and eye-catching seats.  Did I mention that all performances in this space are free?  Oh yeah, and the view from the 9th floor isn't so bad, either.

Is this real life? Who am I to deserve this experience?!

While the nature, architecture and scope of the Center for Social Action is breathtaking in itself, the truest form of beauty happened in our candid discussion with Rodrigo in an office space (which, of course, doubles as a rehearsal room) inside of the building.  We were talking about El Sistema's developing stages of assessment and evaluation to gain hard data revealing the program's success.  Monique asked Rodrigo to speak not of numbers, but what it was that made him believe the program was working in terms of strengthening communities.  He told us a story of a doctor in Barquisimeto who grew up in El Sistema playing the trumpet.  While he did not pursue music as a career, he valued the importance of music and El Sistema in the lives of the people in his community.  Barquisimeto is also home to one of the larger sistema programs for children with special needs, including deaf children.  Over the past several years, this particular doctor has arranged for deaf students from the nucleo to receive cochlear implants FOR FREE.  The doctors and nurses donate their time, and the cochlear implant manufacturers donate the devices.  This is how Rodrigo knows the system is working.  It has nothing to do with improved grades or school attendance (though the numbers do stack up in those categories); it's about the impact sistema has on molding citizens who care about their communities.  It's about creating a culture of love, respect and service.

After only a day, I find myself completely inspired and renewed.  I look forward to the coming days of conversation, observation and pedagogy.  Tochar y luchar!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Peacemaking and First Horn Playing

Throughout the year, the fellows have been lucky enough to receive a series of classes focused on leadership from NEC president Tony Woodcock.  A theme that popped up on a number of occasions in these classes was the concept of leading like a great second horn player.  This obviously resonated with me, not only because I am a horn player, but because the second seat is my favorite.  I love the fourth chair too, but there is just something about sitting second that challenges and inspires me every time.

The main job of the second hornist is to make sure the first hornist sounds like a million bucks.  If the first horn player is 10 cents sharp, the second hornist had better be 10 cents sharp too!  The second hornist must also be able to match the first hornist's note length, volume, articulation, and phrasing.  She must know the first horn part and player intimately.  Eventually the second hornist develops an intuition, and can anticipate how her first horn will play a certain passage.  This perfect union between horns 1 and 2 is also essential for the accuracy in intonation, blend and style for the remaining members of the section.

I'm a second hornist, musically and personally.  I'm uncomfortable in the principal chair.  I've never liked the spotlight.  My favorite thing to do is help other people shine, which would explain why I love teaching so much.  I believe my purpose in life is to love everyone, and in turn to let everyone know that they are loved by someone.  I'm not always successful at this, but I do try my best.

My second horn-ness is apparently noticeable to other people, too.  In a recent group exercise, the fellows had to come up with a word or metaphor to describe each person's role within the group.  Some people ended up with cool metaphors like "Galileo" and "Friendly Wise Goose" (100 points to you if you can figure out who that is!).  Mine was simple: "Peacemaker."  This made me incredibly happy.  That's exactly who I want to be, not just in the fellowship, but throughout all aspects of my life.

The next task of this same exercise was to come up with a word or metaphor representing a quality of which the fellows would like to see more from each person.  My amigos were trying to think of some way to express that they wanted me to feel free to stir things up a little more often, rather than always keeping the peace.  My dear fellow Diogo found a way to express this with which everyone agreed: "More first horn!"

This fit in with the theme of this year: step out of your comfort zone and do something completely different.  How do I do this?  How do I continue to embody my second horn harmonious and peacemaking values while not being afraid to take the lead and set the tone every now and then?  There was a point in time in my life when I played a lot of first horn (literally and figuratively).  I liked it then, and thought I was doing a good job.  Looking back, I was actually doing a terrible job and had no idea what I was doing.  What can I change now to make sure that I know I'm doing it well?

As I embark on this journey to Venezuela, I feel like I am further out of my comfort zone than ever.  I'm getting ready to go to South America for the first time, to a country where I don't speak the language, all the while trying to figure out my role in Sistema in the US as a musician, educator and leader.  I'm equally excited and nervous.  I can only hope to come home with a heightened sense of clarity and purpose (and a completed lecture-recital text, but that's another topic entirely).  Perhaps all of these exciting and unfamiliar experiences will help me channel my inner first horn, too.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Getting Comfortable in the Grey Space

Today's post is a bit of a change of pace.  It's not a direct report on all things music and sistema, but instead a more detailed and honest look at the scary inner workings of my brain.

I'm an all-or-nothing thinker.  I always have been, and probably always will be.  All-or-nothing thinking (also known as polarized thinking) consists of looking at things in absolute, black-and-white categories with no middle ground.  It's sort of the "second place is the first loser" mentality; you're either perfect, or you're nothing.

I'm acutely aware that polarized thinking is my default setting, for better or for worse.  Though it may sound like an unhappy place to be mentally, it does have its usefulness- it keeps me working really, really hard all of the time.  I want to be a horn player.  I want to be an El Sistema program director.  I want to be a teacher.  I want to be a scholar.  I want to be an innovative, entrepreneurial musician.  I want to have it all, and I want to do all of it extremely well.  I never want to be anything but perfect, because anything less is failure.  (As an aside, this is why my blog posts are so sparse.  Try to find a typo in any of my entries.  I dare you.)

The other fellows and I are all considering many great opportunities for next year.  Some are concrete employment options with other candidates applying for the same position.  Others are really great projects waiting to be realized, currently only existing in theoretical space.  Additional part time jobs are available, allowing ample time for freelancing and other music making.  All are great options, and all allow us to follow our passion.  However, at this point in time, none of these are black and white opportunities; they are all in grey space.  Grey space doesn't exist in my default setting.  With all of these grey options, how can I be expected to make a decision? More urgently, how can I get through the anxiety of the next several months caused by not knowing where I will end up?

This is my biggest struggle this year. As a black and white thinker, I don't do well with theoretical opportunities or with having to wait and see what happens. Grey space makes my skin crawl, my heart race, and my brain speed into overdrive.  I'm a fairly spontaneous person, but when it comes to my career I want solid and stable answers.  Grey space makes me feel like I am directionless, like I will not be able to accomplish anything if everything remains unclear and undecided. 

I haven't come up with any magic answer for this yet.  I'm trying to be patient and take the advice of wise people. I received a particularly useful nugget of wisdom from President Obama's inauguration speech on MLK day: "We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect." Another wise (though slightly less famous) man, Rey Ramirez from Soundscapes in Newport News, provided the Breaking the Fourth Wall conference attendees with these words of hope in Philadelphia: "We're changing the world just by being here."

Grey space has come up in conversation a number of times lately, ranging from career goals to cultural considerations to personal life.  Though it's uncomfortable for me, I'm learning that most situations are nowhere close to black-and-white; there is usually an infinite amount of grey space in between, leaving plenty of room to celebrate small victories, learn from minor setbacks, and give people the benefit of the doubt.

So, the wait continues. We are all working hard to figure out where we will end up six months from now, while simultaneously striving to build community through love and music. We're getting as comfortable as we can, believing that the world can be improved even when we're operating from the depths of the grey spaces.