My recent hiatus from writing was a result of some soul-searching. That phrase soul-searching has always interested me since it suggests that there is some kind of cavernous space inside a person that merits exploring, and what you find, is something of value. After two competitions, one at the University of Oklahoma and the other at Western Michigan University, I learned that I had reached multiple limits. I had done everything I could, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to organize and prepare myself. Yet, even with my efforts, I could not shake my frustration over the outcomes. It was not the burn of “losing” but the bitter resentment that I did my best and my best was still not enough. This frustration didn’t wash away but lingered in my practicing. With another recital and a string of concerts approaching, I was feeling the pressure building.
What ultimately released this pressure was a series of fortunate events which perhaps are best explained by an examination of a movie. If you haven’t seen the film, Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer, Andrew, and his brutal instructor, Fletcher, whose methods can best be described as “the means justifies the ends”. Physical assault, verbal abuse, and emotional manipulation are just Fletcher’s tools of the trade as he “[pushes] people beyond what’s expected of them”. Fletcher justifies his cruelty, malice, and sadistic nature claiming that it will produce the next “great”, the next legend of jazz. Andrew, as a driven and impressionable young man, eats it up. Like a zealot kneeling before the altar of wrathful god, he punishes himself with practice until, literally, he bleeds on his drumset. This continues until Andrew convinces himself that yes, the path to greatness requires sacrifice and what he must throw upon the pyre is his humanity.
Andrew makes two claims in this scene.
(1) He has no need for friends.
(2) The hallmark of success is being “great” both in ability level and notoriety.
Thus, he has bound his self-worth and sense of identity to how well he can play and how well people know how well he can play all while disregarding personal relationships. So too Fletcher, as the mentor who has no qualms about throwing chairs at his students heads, couldn’t care less about the well-being of the person as long as they are the perfect musician. This is why, in my opinion, Whiplash is a fantastic drama of the silver screen but a strangely misguided celebration of the life’s most toxic and intoxicating drug: the ego.
I think that the ego, while happy to feed on petty victories like external validation or short-term gains such as pleasure, is a glutton for negative thoughts. And with a limitless feast of that comes from being in an intensive program such as the fiction “Shaffer Music Conservatory”, the cruel tutelage of a teacher, the inherent pressures of a competitive industry, or simply the stress of trying to perform at your best, the very fragile and sensitive ego is sent into a dangerous tailspin.
For me, there was no Fletcher throwing chairs at my head but there was an equally cruel and unforgiving force in my mind. My ego had built offensive and defensive mechanisms to protect itself from present, past, and future threats. Every moment I was on guard. “Don’t miss that shift… Don’t play out of tune. What would such-and-such teacher / student say about how that sounded?” If I wasn’t constantly distracting myself with backseat-driver directions I would revisit past failures or worry about future disasters. The worst part about it was that for every painful experience, either real or imagined, it would spawn another series of overreactions which would lead to more pain, etc. The vicious circle had consumed me.
One of the main factors that broke the cycle was a mock-interview with Julie Nemire, Director of Academic Advising for the College of Fine Arts and Brad Wong, School of Music Director. After being gently grilled with questions that would likely be asked in an application process, Mr. Wong and I discussed my career options. I know I put people in a difficult position when I ask them, “what do you think I should do when I grow up”, but Mr. Wong gave me sage words of advice which I will summarize:
While a developed resume, prolific performing career, or pedagogical prowess are all important factors, the question is not “what can I do” but should be “what can I contribute”.
Like the crash of the cymbal, my mind hit surprising clarity. I realized why I had identified with Andrew’s character, I realized why I had “reached my limit”, and I realized what was really important to me. My personal self-worth, like Andrew, had depended on how well I could play my instrument, how well I could teach, or how intelligent I could be. Moreover, respect and admiration from my students, teachers, and peers could only be earned by being “legit”. This incredible amount of pressure I put upon myself was fueled by the negative cycles of my mind. Yet when I re-framed the entire situation to “contribute”, it all made sense. The blood, sweat, and tears spent in the practice is not for my own personal glory, it is so that I may tell the narrative of the composer to an audience or be at a level to collaborate with a colleague. Perfection was not a virtue or even an ideal that was worth any value because it lacked meaning. Thus, the pressure to achieve unrealistic standards, fed by my ego, was no longer a worthy purpose.
This is not to say that it is not my goal to achieve a high level. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. I am happy to announce that in the fall I will begin my DMA in Cello Performance at the University of Oklahoma studying with Professor Jonathan Ruck while serving as graduate assistant to the musicology department. A journey on my cellistic odyssey is about to set sail I look forward to exploring what the future may hold.