What I Learned From the Students at Florida State

What I Learned From the Students at Florida State

In a word—openness.

In many more words—they helped me to figure out what I believe is the most important quality that is essential to becoming a great musician.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of an audience and perform. When you do, you are essentially saying “This is what I know.” When I was a student at Juilliard, I cultivated this courage by closing down and defending my outer shell. I approached performing by gritting my teeth and grimacing and bracing myself against my fears, then I propped that whole mess of anxieties on stage and called it confidence.

I carried this “confidence” with me into the teaching studio. I displayed it whenever I watched a colleague use a technique I hadn’t yet learned: instead of saying “How do you do that?” I allowed the moat to circle around me and pulled up the drawbridge. Nod my head, smile sagely, pretend I already know how to make a snare drum roll that smooth. I was embarrassed to admit to not knowing—it made me feel exposed and vulnerable. Fortunately there came a point when I finally received the memo that I was there as a student and not as a teacher. Sending out the soldiers to guard my fragile ego was not the way to learn and I slowly began dismantling the castle to let some knowledge in. I began to get comfortable admitting ignorance (ok that’s a lie; I was not comfortable about this). But I did it anyway.

The students at FSU came in for our masterclasses with this openness already on display. They also displayed their truly blazing technique and their mature musicianship. They’d been taught the vital skills of always showing up on time (which on Planet Music means quite early) and being prepared at the first rehearsal. And technique and musicianship and being nerd-early and being prepared are important qualities. But how did they get there? By being open. By displaying the genuine curiosity they showed me—their willingness to consider new suggestions and ideas.

Essentially, learning means first saying, “I don’t know.” A baby doesn’t pretend to know how to walk—he watches others do it, lurches around on wobbly legs, falls down, gets up. But for those of us in the ultra-competitive world of professional music, admitting ignorance can be scary. It takes guts to say “I don’t know.”

Of course there’s also a lot of practicing—you can’t just be open and absorb new ideas through the skin. It takes hours in the practice room to consider and then implement them. But without openness, without the curiosity to learn more, learning stops. Time spent posturing is time spent with the door closed.

In my three days with these students, that was the quality that leapt out at me—their receptiveness to learning. They showed me that when performing a piece, instead of saying “here’s what I know” you’re saying “here’s what I know now; there’s always more to learn.” They showed me that openness might be the most important quality to foster in students, regardless of subject.

These FSU students are also truly great people, wonderful to talk to and thoroughly enjoyable to spend time with. They are genuinely curious and open about the colleagues and friends and adults around them. It’s not just a great quality for musicians. It’s a pretty great quality for human beings.

Expose Your Therapy

After 25 years of playing music, I would love to stop taking Inderal to control the effects of performance anxiety. In my fantasy, I get excited to play Porgy and Bess, have a manageable amount of adrenaline, play well. In my reality, I panic when I know it’s coming up, wish for a cataclysmic event as a distraction, take Inderal, play well.

On my current favorite reality-show—“Hoarding: Buried Alive”—they talk a lot about anxiety. On the surface, the show is about people staying one step ahead of fines or jail time by cleaning up their massive amount of stuff. Below the surface, it’s usually about loss. Hoarders hold onto things because they’ve lost people to divorce or death. Being asked to part with their items causes tremendous anxiety. That’s the part that interests me. A therapist comes into the hoarder’s house, picks up an item, and asks the person to imagine throwing it away. And when this causes anxiety, the therapist has the hoarder do nothing. Just feel it—Exposure Therapy.

Hoarding’s not my problem, yet I relate to these reality folks. The fear may throwing things away or performing in front of an audience. The diversionary tactics might be saving empty dog food cans, or: not taking any more auditions, bypassing solo or chamber music opportunities, developing restrictive physical “issues,” or changing careers. It’s the anxiety that’s the constant and we are never more ridiculous than when we are running from it. So Exposure Therapy sounds like a wonderful solution for what we fear. I have seen it help tremendously on the show. At first, the hoarder is horribly uncomfortable being asked to sit with the anxiety that getting rid of items provokes. It sucks. Some of them sweat profusely, some of them get really pissed off, some cry. Then, once they actually feel those feelings, they feel better.

How would I make this work for performance anxiety? In the hoarding scenario, they hire a professional organizer; I would hire an orchestra, a conductor, and an audience of 3000. I would provoke my anxiety by putting Porgy and Bess on the music stands and getting ready to play the xylophone part. Putting aside the impracticality and expense, would this work?

I don’t think so.

The reason it wouldn’t work is this: I am only going to get that performance anxiety (and the physical symptoms that go with it) if I feel something is at stake, like my professional reputation and my self-worth. I can’t conjure that feeling in a pretend situation. In this scenario, for which I have somehow found the vast sum to hire a lot of actors, everyone is in on the plan. They know they’re there for exposure therapy, ergo I can screw up, ergo I won’t feel any pressure. If it’s ok to fail, nothing is at stake. So what if I don’t tell them? Since I seem to have so much money to burn, why not hire an ad agency as well, one who will advertise a free opera performance? The flaw in that plan seems obvious to me but I’ll hammer it home: because then it would actually be a performance and my reputation and self-worth would be at stake, at least in my head where the whole problem is anyway.

For some musicians, it helps to duplicate the symptoms they feel when anxious and learn to play in spite of them. The breathlessness, the racing heart, the shaking hands—all can be manufactured with a few flights of stairs and a lot of coffee. I know because I’ve tried it. I also know that I can still go into the practice room and play well in that state. In that scenario, my head is my ally. I can employ it to tell myself to move slowly and breathe deeply. If I’m about to play a performance however, I have the same quivering heart, same shallow breaths, same shaking hands but suddenly my head has been hijacked by panic. Here’s what the panic says in a loud and rude voice: your hands are shaking so much that you won’t be able to play, then you’ll hit a lot of wrong notes, then you’ll have to stop, then you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll die. Never mind that life is not actually at stake; if that kind of falsehood responded to reason, I would’ve talked myself out of it 40 years ago.

We’re supposed to fear some things. It’s just that, when my limbs are flailing like a one-legged air dancer on a used car lot, my response is perfectly crafted for running from a predator. When I think I’ll probably die because I have to play one soft triangle note, that’s not evolution at its finest. It does help, though, to play hard pieces again and again and again. It may not be possible to give up the Inderal, it may never feel like there’s nothing at stake, but that wouldn’t be good anyway. My pride should be at stake. I’m not there to do it badly. My goal now is to feel the fear, take the Inderal, and do my best to enjoy the music.

Behind Closed Doors

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking with members of the Title IX steering committee at Yale University. For a musician, preparing to speak on an Ivy League stage was an intimidating task. In my four years at Juilliard I had taken only two academic classes: English and The History of Western Culture. (Actually I also took a third class as an elective but since all these offerings were in the humanities I should be excused for my execrable math skills.)

I did, however, have a perspective to offer this august group: my opinion, based on my experience, as to why sexual harassment in music conservatories is so uniquely difficult to address. Here was a question I’d been trying to answer for over 30 years—what factors set the stage for me so that when I was confronted with sexual harassment at Juilliard I didn’t know what to do about it?

Two of those factors were products of the time—the long-ago 1980s. I entered Juilliard in 1983. To put that into perspective, 1983 was the first year that our uptown neighbor, Columbia, accepted women. Yes, men and women had been intermingling in schools and in the workplace but in certain areas, that exposure was just beginning. For me specifically, men who were one and two generations older than I were just beginning to teach large numbers of women who played brass or percussion instruments.

Another factor in the 80s, was the lack of information. In preparing for my trip to Yale, I downloaded Juilliard’s 36 page policy on sexual misconduct. Number of policy pages in 1983—zero. (Full disclosure for those not alive then: we didn’t have computers or websites, as Al Gore had not yet invented the internet.) The trial of Anita Hill did not take place until 1991. Clarence Thomas’s congressional hearing started the dialogue that provided guidelines for students and teachers.

There are two factors, however, which are still relevant today. The first—for those of us who choose to attend a music conservatory, music means everything. For some pianists or violinists it was number four in the line up of acquired skills, preceded only by walking, talking, and potty training. I started percussion when I was 10 and soon thereafter told my parents I was going to play in an orchestra. None of us enters music conservatory with any lack of clarity as to why we are there. Music conservatories are trade schools so “switching your major” isn’t an idea that floats through your head when confronted with a bad situation.

The second factor is the outsize power of the teacher. Week after week, year after year, the student is alone in a room with his or her teacher, laboring over the glacial process of improvement. They are our mentors. Nothing can compare to that relationship. Conductors come close—there is certainly a heavy power dynamic with someone who stands on a box and waves a stick—but conductors lead a roomful of students in rehearsals, then perform a concert and leave. We choose a school because of a teacher and stay with that teacher for four years. Here’s a story that sums up that relationship: a contemporary of mine attended The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Curtis has a lower acceptance rate than Juilliard, fewer students, and is tuition-free. It’s a huge accomplishment to gain admittance. So my friend, Ben, attended Curtis for two years until his teacher decided to retire from his orchestra job and move to Indiana to teach full-time in Bloomington. Despite the prestige of Curtis, Ben followed him to the University of Indiana. (I like to imagine that conversation with his parents: “Yeah, I am aware it will cost you and P.S., none of my credits transferred so multiply that times four.”)

So the stage was set with these four factors: no exposure, no information, one passion, one teacher. Once I began experiencing harassment, I felt I had two bad options: stay or leave. I ended up doing both, staying for a year and a half, discussing the situation with no one, and finally, leaving when the stress became too overwhelming. Succeeding in music requires endless practicing and the ability to delay gratification and tolerate performance anxiety; those factors are hard enough but they are factors over which we have control. For me, the most extreme stress came from a situation over which I felt I had no control.

In the weeks before I spoke to the Yale committee, I sweated over the one question I imagined they might ask me: with the benefit of hindsight, what would I have done differently? I felt I didn’t have a good answer; even now I look back and only see two bad options, each of which had consequences. Stay and endure the anxiety or leave and give up a school and a teacher and, most likely, incur his wrath. But in talking to them I realized they had solutions and suggestions I couldn’t have imagined 30 years ago: role play scenarios, training the “whole department” (when actually targeting a particular teacher so as not to reveal the complainant), buddies trained to intervene when they see situations that don’t look right. And if it happened to me now instead of then, I would’ve been able to look through those pages and pages of rules and find a person designated to take my call and do the one thing which might’ve helped: listen to my story.

The Gift of Being Middle Dog

Everyone wants to be top dog. Our collective image of “top dog” is one who is best in a given field and who therefore reaps the rewards. Plushest bed, meatiest bone, ‘such a good boy’ accolades. Our subjects may differ but the common goal is to be the best.

Succeeding at any goal requires this process: practice, try again, slowly progress, question your sanity, practice more, succeed at an interim goal, rage, rage against your shortcomings, improve, practice more, take another incremental step. Any worthwhile goal involves delayed gratification because it’s a marathon, not a sprint. (Unless you’re a sprinter. Then you still practice being a sprinter for many years.)

It was that way for me as a classical percussionist in my quest to win an audition for an orchestra. My timeline from first group lesson to hearing my name called as the winner was 17 years. It was a long and thrilling winding road. Along the way I hit milestones like getting accepted to Juilliard, concerto competition wins, and going to competitive summer festivals that made me think I was headed in the right direction. And there were many devastating potholes: brutal performance anxiety followed by an ulcer at 23; auditions I wasn’t even allowed to attend because my resume wasn’t good enough; knowing I’d played well at an audition, hearing positive comments from the other side of the screen, even nailing the sight reading, then not getting advanced to the finals.

One thing helped tremendously—I never had the pressure of being labeled “talented” or “naturally gifted” or “a natural.” After 3 months of 5th grade group lessons, our band director decided to rank us and placed me 2nd of 3. So right from the beginning I was given the gift of the anonymous middle. If no one’s paying attention to number 2 or numbers 3-12 or whatever, you are free to concentrate on what matters and what matters is the process. You not only lose everyone else’s expectations but the added weight of your own. You’re free to take side trips that might be fruitful. Learning a new snare drum grip at 25 was a frightful step backwards; I sounded like a beginner for a long time. But after many hours (and many months) it paid off: I could play better than I could play with the old grip.

The problem with being top dog is that people usually tell that to the dog. People like teachers, conductors, and audience members. If you believe your own press, your ego is invested in maintaining that status. Over the years I saw students like this, ones who were labeled as ‘talented.’ Some thrived and achieved their goals. Others became overly afraid of failure. They didn’t want to ask the simple questions—the crucial ones that lead to understanding a fundamental concept—because then they might be mistaken for a beginner. The top dog is afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’

If you’re told, right from the start that you’re the best, how does it feel to lose, even temporarily? It’s easy to get defensive to protect your ego because you have to put your energy toward maintaining that spot on the pedestal. It’s tempting to make excuses after not winning an audition: the committee was hungry, the room was too cold, I played last. Or these equally common ones: the committee had just eaten lunch, the room was too hot, I played first. These excuses may or may not have some validity but it’s detrimental to invest any energy in them. Protecting your ego is a distraction from the process. The only place to put your energy after a “failure” is to learn from it. And that’s another gift of not being “a natural.” “Talent”—by definition—is what you have before you start to work. If you have a setback but aren’t relying on talent to come back from it, you instead rely on the process of hard work.

It’s a gift to always see the word “failure” in quotes. Picture a graph on the wall charting the course of the S&P 500 from its inception in 1957 until today. You walk towards it until the only years in your field of vision are 2007-2009. What are you thinking? The stock market is a horrible place to put money and I’m an ass for having done so. Now take a few steps back and focus on the years 2009-2015. Suddenly, you’re a financial genius for your efforts. If you step back far enough, what you see from left to right is an upward trajectory, a great big mountain to climb. The only real failure then, is giving up somewhere along that path.

All musicians have heard these comments: You went to [insert music conservatory]? You must be talented. Or, I wanted to play [insert instrument] but I wasn’t talented enough. I smile when I hear these because—news flash—those features that we label ‘natural ability’ matter very little. Perfect pitch, the ability to learn music more quickly than others, having hands that are equally good instead of a left one that goes rogue and doesn’t want to improve at the same rate as the right—no one would say winning the genetic lottery isn’t an advantage. But if talent (in my made-up statistic) gives you a 20% advantage but you don’t work hard, you’ll be right at 20 meters when the winner crosses the tape. What matters most is passion for what you do. Passion gives you the drive to work impossibly hard in order to inch closer to your goal every day.

When you finally win, go ahead and curl up in your plush bed. Enjoy being the top dog for a while. Just until you pick a new goal.

The Hardest Piece I’ve Ever Played

The Hardest Piece I’ve Ever Played

Let’s agree to agree that Disney songs are some of our most recognizable tunes. If you’re my age, you sang the Aristocrats with your 5-year-old friends until your mom reached for her drink. If you’re the age of the kids I never had, you were golden: you belted out Beauty and the Beast, then Aladdin (then Tarzan, then Lion King, then Frozen…). These tunes are tonal, singable, and downright beloved. And we’ll come back to them.
Let’s also agree that at “a certain age” (that age being whenever it is you start putting “a certain age” in quotes), the concept of “memory” hits you in the face. Having it, keeping it, losing it. Even something as simple as trying to remember where you put your car keys doesn’t feel like, shit, I’m going to be late. It feels like, shit, I have dementia.
I think we can agree to two more universal truths (at least they are true in my universe). The first is that most physical feats are harder to perform fast than they are slow, feats like throwing a ball, skiing downhill while staying upright, or playing an excerpt. The second truth is easiest to put in pidgin-caveman: Hit big thing easier than hit small thing. In fact, some feats aren’t feats unless they involve a small target. Archery would be even more boring if the archer only had to send the arrow on its way.
So why am I talking about these random concepts when the putative subject of this essay is ‘what’s hard to play?’ I’m getting there. To review: fast, small, and memorized. Playing many notes in a short amount of time with teeny-tiny glockenspiel bars for targets while not looking at the music. The only way to push this over the edge, to craft a solo that would cause me to nearly seize with performance anxiety induced shaking, would be for this solo to sound frightfully similar to the Disney tune, “It’s A Small World.” Enter Magic Flute.
Mozart’s Magic Flute is a wonderful opera. Audiences love it—check any list of the most popular operas and it will fall in the top 5. It’s got child-spirits and threatened suicides and serpents and magic bells. Mozart originally wrote the magic bell part for a keyboard glockenspiel, an instrument similar to a celeste. (A celeste is like a piano except it looks tiny and sounds tinny.) Playing the part on a keyboard glockenspiel is not extremely difficult. The player’s fingers, touching the keys, supply all the feedback necessary to play the correct notes. When you play a real glockenspiel, or any mallet instrument, there is a stick in your hand between you and the keys you’re hitting. You’re relying on muscle memory and sight. Again, in caveman: fingers easy, mallets—nope.
Some opera companies own a keyboard glockenspiel, some use celeste, some use a synthesized version. I decided that after having played it for auditions I might as well try it in the actual opera, so I volunteered to play it on an actual glockenspiel with mallets.
I could do this. There was no more—and certainly no less—anxiety in my personal practice time leading up to the first rehearsals. Over the course of the rehearsal period, however, I noticed my anxiety was getting worse. I was taking Inderal for rehearsals but it didn’t seem to be helping. Knowing my hands would not shake didn’t calm my head. Disaster scenarios played out—stopping in the middle of the “It’s a Small World,” getting fired, ending up in a mental institution, banishment to the island of misfit musicians—all seemed plausible. Not realistic, but plausible. And that was because I had entirely too much time to think.
Opera percussion is all about waiting. I had a colleague who called our job “islands of terror in a sea of boredom.” To varying degrees, we were always waiting a certain length of time to play an excerpt with a certain degree of difficulty. Magic Flute stretched the graph in both directions. The first entrance (the ‘Small World’ one) occurs 1 hour and 15 minutes from the top of the opera. As opening night approached and we began running straight through the opera I felt, for that first hour and a quarter, like I was in a waiting room. I’m sitting there minding my own business, trying to concentrate and prepare for what’s to come when the door opens and in walks Catastrophizing. Once he’s there, it’s as if a floodgate opens and all his degenerate friends come rushing in: “my colleagues can play it better” sits next to “negative visualization;” “what if?” cheek-by-jowl with “all or nothing thinking.” After a few minutes, it’s standing room only. Pounding on the door, furious at being left out is “you will be humiliated in front of 3000 people and P. S. they can ALL sing It’s a Small World.”
Of course a professional musician knows better than this. I know that obsessing about these “negative outcomes” is the worst thing I can do. I know I’m supposed to be visualizing how I want it to go. But the effort that’s required to push that thought out of my head is monumental. Trying to not think about it is thinking about it. Waiting to play a hard part makes playing the hard part harder.
One night I was out to dinner with friends. These were uber-intelligent, non-musician friends, exactly the kind of friends who ask the most interesting music questions. They had just seen me play in a performance of Messiaen’s opera St. Francis of Assisi and wanted to know if that was the most difficult piece of music I’d ever performed. It was a very logical guess. St. Francis is an opera that is so long we started performances before the dinner hour and finished after the bars were closed. It calls for 11 percussionists, 5 of whom are on the side of the stage playing solo mallet parts. My xylophone part was so thick I was actually unembarrassed, for once, to show it to the string players. Its many, many notes were played quickly on tiny wooden targets. But Messiaen was not recognizable—after 8 months of practicing, 6 weeks of rehearsals, and 6 performances, I still wouldn’t be able to hum a line of it. It was a different kind of hard. With so many notes going by so quickly it involved a lot of preparation and a lot of concentration. I was nervous, but nervous in a normal excited kind of way, the kind of way I imagine normal musicians get nervous for hard pieces.
No, I told my friends, it wasn’t the Messiaen. It was Magic Flute that was my sine qua non, the “without which” I would not have had to discover a layer of performance anxiety that caused me to turn to Xanax. Xanax and its buddies—Valium, Ativan, Klonipin—do for the mind what Inderal does for the hands. It’s not fun to admit, in fact, it’s the opposite of fun—it’s embarrassing. But I had begun to think about Magic Flute all day long. I woke up anxious. I went to bed anxious. After I’d been telling my shrink that the rehearsal period leading up to the first performance was getting unbearable, he suggested I try it. I resisted until the day of the first performance when I took a pill.
Initially, it was similar to the first experiences I’d had with Inderal. It was pretty magical. I enjoyed the whole run of Magic Flute, all 7 performances. I wasn’t 100% perfect but I was close.
The opera came back only a few years later. I already suspected the Xanax honeymoon was over but it was confirmed when I played Magic Flute again. Not fun anymore. My nerves did an end-run around this new drug and I began obsessing about how easy it would be to have a memory slip in the middle of the piece.
The next time the opera came around I didn’t volunteer to play. They used a synthesized version of magic bells and a pianist. I remain a little bit tortured by the idea that there are great percussionists who probably don’t have convulsions while about to play this. I’d love to be one of them. I actually loved playing it for the short time my neuroses gave me a respite—loved it until I didn’t. I could only walk on eggshells for so long. In the end, I didn’t ‘just say no’ to drugs. I just said no to Magic Flute.

Grumpy Middle-aged Kindle User

Grumpy Middle-aged Kindle User

Americans love stuff. We in the Bay Area are no less American than our Midwestern cousins, but most of us can’t afford a 5000 sq. ft. house to house that stuff. Having lived in the Bay Area for the last 24 years, I am fortunate to be an anti-hoarder, rigid in my zeal for streamlining. In previous moves—from upstate New York, to Manhattan, to Miami, to Oakland—the only personal possessions I took the time and effort to drag with me were books.

Every reader knows: books are not just books. On an appropriately high shelf I had an entire mountaintop sanatorium (Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain). I had an amazing one-sided friendship with a beautiful, insightful drunk (Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story) and I became acquainted with a whole generation of desperate men (Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On.) Not an insignificant amount of “stuff” for an anti-hoarder.

A few years ago, two things happened: I planned to move into a 668 sq. ft. apartment in San Francisco and the Kindle came out. (Truthfully, the Kindle had come out four years earlier than the apartment purchase but I had been hoping it would go away.) My hyper-rational self decided that my new apartment would sag under the weight of my 1500+ books. And why wouldn’t I make the move to a Kindle? The story inside was what I craved—reading it in electronic form would be no different. So I sat around, Sophie’s Choice-style, and came up with a few tokens to take with me. Goodbye Columbus, autographed by Philip Roth, was my first love—we could never part. Two books I had just finished—Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, and 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn—because I was so overwhelmed by the stunning writing. Oh, I wept as I sorted, at least in my minimalistic little heart. I persevered by reminding myself how stupendously green I was, how easy the move would be. Three others, long out-of-print, made the cut because I wasn’t convinced they would make it to electronic form: P.O.W., by John G. Hubbell, a book which included John McCain’s story; Little, by Louis Zukofsky, about his violin-prodigy son; Dawn Over Zero—a book about the Manhattan Project. William L. Laurence may have caused great controversy when he later claimed that the black rain over Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “not significantly radioactive” but he also explained nuclear fission so beautifully that I almost understood it. For the remainder (I know—a dreadful word to use for a book) I spent months making an Excel spreadsheet of their titles and authors, photographed their distinctive spines (yes, really), then loaded them into boxes. Next stop—a prison library.

I bought a Kindle. My first download was a re-read—John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. For days, I’d been ruminating over a particular scene in the book, the scene in which Reverend Merrill reveals that he is the narrator’s father. That revelation had always bothered me. The magical aspects unveiled in the rest of the book all seemed to have an explanation that was plausibly rooted in reality, but this revelation, seemingly coming from God, struck me as too fantastic. Fiction that never strikes the reader with wonder is pedestrian but a story that is too fantastical is just science fiction. Magic happens when fiction is grounded enough in reality that it is just possible. It bothered me that I couldn’t remember whether or not I’d been satisfied that it could have happened in the real world so I wanted to re-read it.

To be fair, my first Kindle didn’t have the search feature that my present (third) Kindle has. (But, to be equitable, an inquiry into “that place where the baseball comes rolling out” on my current Kindle yielded “there are no results found in this book.”) So I went to Barnes and Noble. I knew the scene was about 3/4 of the way through the physical book itself. Even if I hadn’t remembered, I could’ve flipped easily back and forth. I found it quickly (and smugly) and answered my nagging question. The baseball scene was more rooted in reality than I’d remembered—I could believe that the Father wanted so badly to confess that his voice could seem to be coming from Someone else—leading me, the reader, to that delightful place where I wasn’t sure whether or not something divine had occurred.

That was just one small win for the physical book category. Surely I would become better at using the search function. But a bigger problem occurred to me as I was standing in the fiction aisle at Barnes: one of my great joys was to spend hours a week browsing in bookstores, wandering from Barnes and Noble to Berkeley’s independents like Cody’s and Moe’s and Pegasus. I loved picking a category like Medical Narratives or New Memoir and start in the A’s, tilting my head to the right until a title caught my interest. I’d crack it open and read the first page, hoping to be taken in. If that did the job I’d sit on the floor like a squatter, moving only when pressed. I could repeat this until I found my next read or until the store closed. Now my hobby was gone.

I could adapt to a new way to pick out books. I was a) middle-aged, but b) determined—I soon found my preferred sites for both browsing and recommendations. One of those recommendations was my next purchase—The Starboard Sea, by Amber Dermont. A book I had enjoyed this much should have come to mind easily. It didn’t—I had to look through the fiction list on my Kindle to remember both title and author. At first, I didn’t know why; I could easily recall older novels I had known and loved passionately: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from a River. In my own made-up game of Jeopardy, I was the know-it-all who couldn’t be caught. Answer: Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Question—What is my favorite cancer memoir! Answer: The book you felt compelled to read even though it was so exquisitely painful it made you cry. Question—What is Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath!

Why couldn’t I remember a book I’d so recently read? At first, I considered the idea that dementia issues begin in this manner—older memories retained, newer ones lost. Then I realized it was simpler: every time I opened my Kindle to read, I saw only the page where I’d left off. In print, it’s different. During the few days it took me to read Bill Bryson’s ridiculously funny travelogue of small town America, I saw his name and the title The Lost Continent every time I picked up the book. Title, author, reminder.

That leads to the biggest drawback. If the question is “What are you reading?” and the answer is “I don’t know,” it’s kind of a buzz-kill. It makes books hard to share. When I carried around Tom Perotta’s Little Children someone asked if I’d seen the movie. (No. I was afraid it might not be as good.) When I carried around Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I got into a discussion about what a dazzling feat it was to write so beautifully in the first person plural. When I carried around Terri Jentz’s Strange Piece of Paradise, I got to tell the story about how I was so thrilled with the book I got a speeding ticket because I was racing home to finish it. Now, when I carry around my Kindle, questions are about the device itself: Is that the latest Kindle? What’s the charge life? Will it get trashed if I’m too cheap to buy a cover?

I’ll get used to underlining and dog-earing electronically. I’ll (begrudgingly) accept that I have to manually transfer my whole library from one Kindle to the next (and keep hoping they’ll fix that). I appreciate how nice it is to go on vacation without checking a bag. I know there are many great ways to share online—I imagine a reader saying, “Tell that (old) lady about Goodreads, BookandReader, BookTalk.” But an actual print book with a title, an author, and a cover that becomes associated with the story—that’s an invitation, a departure point to begin talking to others in person about what’s inside. That’s what I miss.

Update: After four years, experiment ended. Back to paper.

Number of books read since experiment ended one month ago: 4
Number of books discussed with others this month: 4
Number of titles remembered: 4
Number of glorious trips to bookstores: 3
Number of authors remembered: 1 1/2 (One complete, one first name only. This part will surely not improve but only because middle-age does not work backwards.)
Outcome: Delighted.

Watching Whiplash

Watching Whiplash

The movie Whiplash, released in the fall of 2014, received high praise for its story of an aspiring music student and his tyrannical mentor. Yet many of us who are drummers felt the way doctors must feel watching Grey’s Anatomy. We looked for verisimilitude and found little. I went to Juilliard as a classical percussionist, and if the fictional “Shaffer” was supposed to represent Juilliard, there wasn’t a lot of similarity–raging bandleaders (no); “I set down the crucially important music folder and lost it” (never). There was, however, one area that was identical to my experience as a musician: get ready for performance anxiety because you are going to be judged.

From the first time we pick up an instrument, musicians are scrutinized by teachers in lessons and compared to colleagues. We’re subjected to auditions in which 100 of us compete for one position. For those of us lucky enough to win orchestra jobs, we find ourselves judged by audiences, reviewers, and conductors, a few of whom–while not quite lawsuit-horrible like J. K. Simmons–think nothing of demeaning those of us under their batons. We subject ourselves to this process because we are passionate about music and want to excel at creating it.

Playing music for a living is a great privilege. At some point in our careers, however, each of us has to acknowledge the anxiety that comes from constant judgment. Some musicians appear to handle it effortlessly. I have performance anxiety that came on like a train and has only gotten worse over the years of my career. Therapy (various kinds) and medication (ditto) have helped me understand it yet done nothing to make it go away.

My goal in life was to win an audition and play in an orchestra. I was lucky enough to have that happen. My second goal in life was to write about it.

The process felt very familiar. Both writing a book and learning to play an instrument went like this: Spend hours and years alone, practice, repeat, keep trying. We get good at what we do, not what we fantasize about being good at. Music is a great template for learning to learn. Kids aren’t just learning percussion or trumpet or flute, they’re learning delayed gratification. Those hours alone were the most thrilling part of the adventure because I realized that the only way to fail would be to give up.

Trying to get the book published and trying to win an orchestra job were similar too. Queries and auditions hit me with the same high rejection rate. That’s where I expected the similarities to end. I thought that the anxiety about being judged came from having only one chance to get it right. Even if you have food poisoning and have to leave the pit and barf (happened), you still come back for the rest of the performance because when the guy with the stick points at you, your job is to play. I thought writing a book would be more like making a studio recording—pressure is diminished when you have time for a do-over.

Instead, I felt the judgment begin before I wrote a word. I told a musician friend I was going to write a memoir. His response: what makes your life so special that anyone would want to read it? (Me, grudgingly: “Fair question.”) Yes, we write what we know but we also write what we like to read. I love to read about how one becomes an Olympic gymnast, a ballet dancer, a brain surgeon, a soldier, sober, cured. My friend might have been asking if I had the ability to write well. Of course I didn’t—I needed years of critique and rewriting to improve. But he also asked this: why did I think I was the person to explain how one becomes a drummer?

It was another good question. Just recently, I read both Rebecca Alexander’s and Nicole C. Kear’s memoirs about being diagnosed with devastating illnesses. Each was diagnosed at age 19, each would gradually lose her sight (and in Ms. Alexander’s case, her hearing as well.) Both stories were beautifully told, both were wonderful reads. Was only one woman competent to cover the same subject matter? No, because neither could tell the other’s story.

Most of the judgment comes when readers read. Publication is the author’s performance or—taking a cue from reality TV—the big reveal. It’s Judgment Day. When you write a book and send it out into the world, readers judge your story and how well it’s told. When you write a memoir, that story is about you. It’s impossible to believe that readers won’t also judge your life, as well as your decision to write about it.

But the reveal of reality TV and memoir writing are very different animals. If information is all you want to give or get, there are far quicker ways to accomplish that goal than writing or reading a memoir. You can go online and find out the color of Caitlyn Jenner’s fingernails, or you can read Jennifer Finney Boylan’s beautiful memoir She’s Not There in which she takes the time and care to tell us about being a young boy and wondering why her mother, when ironing her father’s shirts would tell Jenny (then James), “One day you’ll wear shirts like these.” My own publishing timeline is so long I sent my first rounds of queries by snail mail. That would be a long way to go just for revelation.

I’d answered my friend’s question but it led to two of my own. The first: if playing music or memoir-writing inspires judgment and judgment is painful, why do it? I think it’s because we have a desire to create. For me, winning an audition was exciting but the hours spent practicing, really digging for answers about what specifically I needed to perfect in order to play better than everyone else on a particular day—that was the true thrill. Creating that outcome was where the satisfaction came from. Likewise with writing: spending the hours pushing words around on a page and then rewriting and rewriting until I’d found the best way to tell the story—that was my source of gratification. That’s the goal for all those hours: telling the story so clearly, so beautifully, that the reader feels what the writer is saying. I spent many years trying to come up with that answer from a different angle. What makes the drummer Steve Gadd’s playing on 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover so riveting? He’s playing a relatively simple pattern; there’s nothing flashy about it. But he’s not the only one feeling the time—he plays so beautifully he makes you, the listener, feel the time too.

My second question to myself then, was this: if the most satisfying part of the process was writing the book, why publish? If the “performance” of a creation is what inspires judgment, why not just sit in a room, write the story, and leave it at that?

Here’s a story: in October 1991, I sat in front of the TV watching a trial unfold. It was the trial that was supposed to be Clarence Thomas’s but instead became Anita Hill’s. As she spoke, calmly and with dignity, even in the face of snickering senators who asked her if she was a “scorned woman,” I was connected to her. I’d had an experience with a person in power that was similar but I’d never been able to put words to it. That weekend, Anita put the words to it for me and for many others: It’s about power. We didn’t do anything wrong. If the coaches, bosses, teachers don’t know any better, they should now. This is something we need to start talking about.

In Hill’s testimony, as in writing, what we seek is connection. We crave it—we want to be bound to others. To understand each other we have to tell our stories. Art, music, writing, film—these are ways of sharing our stories.

Most people are deeply anxious about being judged. For some, repeated exposure helps, the way that getting small doses in the form of allergy shots can keep you from going into anaphylactic shock at the sight of a peanut. It hasn’t worked for me. I think I’ve come away from decades of performing with an exquisitely heightened sensitivity to criticism. It’s not possible to avoid being judged—sometimes, our harshest critic is the face in the selfie. But as writers, we can try to put words to those feelings. If we’re understood, we might not feel so alone.