Monthly Archives: January 2013

How I Stole My Own Identity

Last Saturday, I was called to play tuba in a local orchestra to fill out the brass section.  The repertoire for the evening was Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite #2, and Sibelius Symphony #2, neither of which I had played before.  Both of those pieces have fairly exposed tuba parts, which can be scary, but it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.  When I sat down to play, though, I had to face one of my demons: Totidemcorosrequiemaphobia.

multimeasure rests

Totidemcorosrequiemaphobia – Fear of Multimeasure Rests

That’s a lot of time silently counting, watching, and waiting to enter.  That fortissimo C at measure 100 comes from out of nowhere, so there’s no room for error.  Come in too late and you missed your entrance.  In too early… I don’t even want to think about it.  I’m out of practice playing this kind of music, so it’s not difficult at all to be off by a measure or two, even with all the cues from the other instruments.  This made for a fun, but very stressful performance.

More disturbing than the actual fear of the performance was another fear that was growing inside me.  I started thinking about how I was hired to play in this concert, and as a result there were certain expectations of my abilities.  Any mistakes I made in something as simple as counting rests were unacceptable.  So if I happened to come in early or miss an entrance, I wasn’t just embarrassing myself by playing out of turn; I was also failing to be the professional musician I was hired to be.  And that would hurt much worse.

The next day I went to a Magic the Gathering tournament celebrating the release of a new set.  I traditionally do very well in these release tournaments, so imagine my dismay when after two rounds I was knocked out of contention.  My thought process took on an eerie similarity to the one from the night before: I’m a great player, but I lost terribly.  This calls into question whether I’m actually a great player.

evil dan

Evil Dan, complete with evil goatee and mustache.

Both of these experiences deal with how I perceive myself and the rigid nature of my identity.  My self-perception is so tied into what I have defined as being a “professional musician,” or a “good gamer,” that when that perception becomes challenged, my first line of thinking is that I’m incorrect about my perception; that I’m not actually professional or good.  And that sooner or later, I’ll be called out for not being what I claim to be.

It’s easy to get locked into that way of thinking, but it’s not the only way the situations can be approached.  Let’s break it down.

Here’s my initial take:

A) I am a professional musician.
B) A professional musician does not make mistakes and is always reliable (no snickering!).
C) I made a mistake counting rests.
D) Therefore I am not a professional musician.

The only thing that is a fact in this logical progression is C.  Everything else is an arbitrary perception.  What if I took this tack:

A) I am a professional musician.
B) A professional musician always strives for the best sound possible and plays as well as possible.
C) I made a mistake counting rests.
D) This has no bearing on whether I’m a professional musician or not.
E) Therefore I am still a professional musician.

This is definitely a more flexible and kinder approach.  I’m not sure about the accuracy of it, but it is another way of thinking about it.

Let’s try this one:

A) Why do I care whether I or another person thinks I fit the description of a “professional musician?”
B) While I’m busy worrying about this, I’m missing the opportunity to enjoy playing music.
C) How about I just prepare as well as I can, play as well as I can in the moment, and then anyone who wants to define what I am can do as they please.

Ultimately, I have little control over how people perceive me and my playing.  I can practice for countless hours and hone my skills to a razor sharp point, and anyone can still think whatever they want.  However, I do have some control over how I perceive myself.  Instead of judging non-stop, maybe I can just let it be what it is, and find happiness and gratitude in that.  I have a feeling that letting go of that anxiety can only make me a better player anyway.

We can take the same approach to Magic.  I think:

A) I am a good Magic player.
B) A good Magic player wins consistently.
C) I lost consistently.
D) Therefore I am not a good Magic player.

Instead I could think:

A) I am a good Magic player.
B) A good Magic player wins more than they lose.
C) I lost this tournament.
D) This is just one of many tournaments.  I still often win.
E) Therefore I am still a good Magic player.

But it might be more beneficial to think:

A) What tangible benefits do I get from being a “good Magic player?”
B) This game has brought me so much joy.  Being a “good Magic player” is a tiny part of that.
C) How about I play as well as I can, and enjoy myself as much as possible, and anyone who wants to judge my worth as a player is welcome to do so.

The trick here is to realize that my identity is not as closely tied into these arbitrary definitions as I might think.  I am a constantly evolving and changing individual with plenty of strengths as well as areas to improve.  It’s important for me to step back from time to time and admire the picture that is my life, despite any shortcomings.  Or maybe even understand that the shortcomings are a part that add complexity and reality to who I am.

My friend Michelle recently posted a blog by Bethany Butzer about this titled What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?  Well, it’s not about gaming and tuba playing, but rather about how we identify ourselves and how that identity can be a hindrance to our happiness if we perceive it as a rigid truth.  The blog post really spoke to all my own internal dialogues of the moment, so naturally, I recommend it as supplemental reading.  Hey, while we’re on the subject, read The Dubliners story Araby by James Joyce, which is about that shattering moment when we realize that our perception of ourselves and the world does not match up to reality.

So remember when you’re feeling crushed by your own disappointment in yourself that there are alternative approaches.  There is no black and white terminal demarcation of who you are.  There are infinite shades of grey that we can be a part of, and the trick is to find the joy in every one of them.

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It Just Feels Right

Last Sunday, I was in my studio/office/practice room working on editing a podcast project, when I got a call from my good friend E.J.  We go way back; I have toured with E.J. in the band Maggi, Pierce, and E.J., and we have played together countless times.  We even have our own band for when we play together called We’re Terrific.  He was having problems with the Pro Tools files for his upcoming album, and wanted help setting things straight.  For the last month or so, E.J. has had a key to my house, and has come in while I’m at work to chip away at mixing and shaping the tracks in his songs.  I was about ready for a break, so I told him to come on over.

We were able to fix his files relatively quickly and began to discuss several of our projects we were working on.  He brought up his latest album and a jam session he was hosting later that night.  I brought up my podcast and my endeavors to get booked at specific venues.  We watched a video I made of the open mic I played while out in San Francisco at the Hotel Utah, and commented on how engaged the audience was.  People were laughing and cheering; it amazingly seemed like they were actually listening to the performer on the stage.  We talked about how difficult it can be to find a venue and a vibe like that.

Dan and EJ as Bowie

We’re Terrific!  We’re an alligator, we’re a momma poppa comin’ for you.

Afterwards, E.J. got ready to leave, but was waylayed by the piano in my living room.  He started playing a few songs, and pretty soon I had my accordion and toy piano out and was playing/singing along.  E.J. is a phenomenal musician to play with; he knows exactly how to blend into the sound of the other people he’s playing with, and he has a great ear for the melody and harmony.  After playing two of his songs, we talked about a show we did a few years ago in which we played the complete Aladdin Sane album by David Bowie.  This got us both giddy and we started jumping around from song to song from the album, first playing Time, then Lady Grinning Soul, and finally Watch That Man.  We ended with a rousing rendition of Moonage Daydream.

It was in no way how I had planned my afternoon to go, and it was such a great reminder about what I love about playing music.  There was an instant gratitude that we could have so much fun making music together.  Later, after he left, I taught the first piano lesson in about six years.  I was understandably nervous, but after I had taught my young student a song or two, he turned to me and said earnestly, “Wow, this is fun!”  It got much easier after that.

So all of these positive experiences were coalescing in my head: the appreciative audience in San Francisco, the impromptu Bowie jam session, and a young person’s first glimmer of excitement playing music.  It reminded me that despite any uncertainty I encounter while trying to find a way that works for me, there are shining moments of positivity which just feel right.  It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the unending series of forks in the road that lead to uncertainty.  Is this gig going to be a waste of my time?  Should I partner up with this person, or will it cost me in the end?  How much money am I willing to invest in this indeterminate proposal?  I need to remember that there are also times when the sheer joy of the situation erases any such concerns.

Times like these shift your barometer of determining success.  Once you have this great moment of connection playing with someone, it’s hard to go back to the drudgery of playing with someone who you connect with less (or not at all).  In that sense, sometimes I find these moments of joy scary, since they so often lead to disappointment and discontentment with the every day.  However, I like to live by the principle “too much of a good thing is fantastic!”  I believe that rather than being merely glimpses of the ideal, these moments can also be gateways to the shifts in lifestyle that make the ideal a more consistent reality.  It seems so simple.  You find a way of life you love, then you live that way.  Certainly there are life events and obstacles that stand in the way of that, but I think too many of those obstacles come from ourselves and are merely illusions.  Or, as my favorite card game tells it:

Wall of Opposition

In concordance with these thoughts about positivity I’ve been having, this weekend I also discovered Jerry Seinfeld’s internet series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  In addition to being an entertaining look at Seinfeld’s relationships with his friends and colleagues, I found a similar sentiment in the episode featuring Michael Richards (aka Kramer).  At about the twelve minute mark, Michael Richards talks about his first reading with Jerry Seinfeld and how there was that immediate connection: “I knew when I started reading with you, I just said ‘They can’t pass that up.'”  It was great to see artists at that levels encountering that elusive feeling of “rightness.”  Here’s the complete episode, which is definitely worth watching:

So all that’s really left for me to do is to make a choice.  Do I accept these fleeting moments of positivity and connection as just that: fleeting moments?  Or do I start making the changes in my life to make them the baseline by which I compare everything else?  It sounds like a silly question: why wouldn’t I just try to make my life as rich as possible?  But shifting my perspective to embrace the positive is more than just a mindset.  It involves a lot of introspection, a massive amount of work, and potentially a fair amount of sacrifice along the way.  I’m excited, though, about the possibilities of living the happiest and most fulfilling life possible.  And I may not be ready to dive in head first, but I’ll at least continue getting my toes wet for now.

Creating Space for Learning

Back in my life as a junior in high school, I was required to take physical education classes, as we all were.  I remember one of the subjects I studied was weightlifting, something that was (and still is) quite foreign to me.  I had imagined it would be filled with what would later be termed as Jersey Shore idiots (no offense… wait, that’s a lie), but it ended up being filled with lots of people like me who had no idea what they were doing there.  However, I actually learned more about the human body and the physiological way that we acquire strength and endurance that I had in, say, the kickball or tennis sections I had taken before.  Of particular interest was how we grow muscle.  The act of weightlifting breaks down the muscles, then after resting, the muscle rebuilds itself stronger than before.

Dan Weightlifting

I did learn that muscle growth is directly proportional to making this face.

Now, there are plenty of things about weightlifting that I would not carry into other disciplines.  I don’t think playing the tuba requires a special belt, that teaching is best performed in a singlet, or that you should have a spotter for your romantic relationships (wait a second… I might be on to something…).  The idea of creating space to allow growth, however, does seem relevant, especially in light of how my recent experiments in productivity worked for me.  By giving myself the open space to be creative, I was able to let ideas stew and develop into something that would have been more difficult if I had forced myself to work within tighter confines.  I feel like it’s a concept that can be beneficial to just about any learning process.

This open space comes in two forms.  The more obvious one is a direct correlation to the weightlifting analogy.  The idea is that we go through concentrated exposures to information, and then need rest to sort the thoughts out and let them sink in.  An example of this is taking the time after a lecture to reflect on what was discussed.  Another is an intense practice session on a musical instrument, followed by listening to examples of good music to apply what was practiced to real life examples.  Or even taking a few days after a heated argument or discussion to consider how what was discussed impacts our own views.  We need this time away from the intensity of the moment of information collection to consider and reconsider what it is we’ve taken in.

Punch Out

Clock him out!

The other form is more difficult to consider, especially in a culture that revolves around a very specific sense of the word “productivity.”  So many of us in the business world are expected to punch out(!) any time we step away from our desks, as we are expected to be consistently productive.  Classrooms are considered a success if there is a flow of information from when the students sit down to when the bell rings.  Teachers are hired and fired based on a narrow set of metrics that involve standardized test scores.  But in addition to the discussed need for space surrounding our concentrated activity, I also believe we need space to learn within the concentrated activity.

I found this especially true when I was practicing the tuba during my recent “productive sabbatical.”  So much of the learning and the joy of learning took place when I stepped away from rigid constraints and allowed myself to meander.  Rather than playing the same exercises and etudes the same way, I would record a piece of my practice and immediately play it back.  Not only was this effective in developing the sound I was wanting, but it was fun.  Taking the time to explore what I could do on the instrument made practice less of a grueling thing to get out of the way.  It transformed it into an open canvas, ripe with the potential to be a masterpiece or a mistake, both of which were acceptable.

This second form can be applied in many different ways.  For instance, I’m thinking of ways I can apply it to the Excel classes I teach.  So often I have a track that I know will work to smoothly transition the class from one topic to the next.  What would it be like if I took some time to rest at each waypoint along the way?  I could do this by exploring different ways formulas can be used, for instance.  I’m constantly using Excel for unorthodox means.  Sure I have my lists of data and tables of calculations.  I also have used it to test and flesh out the Collatz Conjecture, to automate the generation of a customized and randomized sealed deck in the game Magic the Gathering, and to write music.  Bringing up those types of ideas in a class can lead to students adopting and improving on what I’ve created.  It can also give them ideas for new innovations that I haven’t even thought of.  It’s also possible that I could just get blank stares and poor evaluations at the end of the class.  There is that same potential for innovation versus disaster that I found while exploring practicing the tuba; but unless I make the space to discuss, create, and explore, I’m confined to the mediocrity of a preset mode of learning.

How can we make this happen in other kinds of classrooms (in public schools, for instance)?  We need to let go the reins a bit, and let the students take the time to explore hands-on what they’re learning.  If you happen to be a teacher, that idea can be terrifying; I know it’s terrifying to me.  With so-called merit-based pay for teachers and the fear that the slightest bit of freedom incorporated into certain classes can lead to anarchy, that terror is understandable.  It’s not something that happens overnight, and a cultural change is needed to really make strides within it.  But piece by piece, we need to begin to integrate into the classroom the openness for students to set the direction of their learning and the freedom to explore along the way.  Not only is this often more effective that the traditional route, but it’s also usually more fun.  Having fun while learning gives us greater incentive to continue to learn.  And just as with the previous two examples, this can turn out positively or negatively, but unless we do it, it will turn out predominantly mediocre, middle of the road minds.

Certainly we don’t all have the luxury to experiment with space within and around the things we’re doing.  Some of our cultures are inconceivable far from allowing that kind of slow time.  So we need to strike where we can and find the areas where space is possible.  Take the time to let your mind grow after intensive periods of work.  Explore the space we can build into our activities to make creative tangents and connections possible.  If it’s good enough for your body, shouldn’t it be good enough for your mind too?

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