I am greatly honored to have been invited to kick off the 2017-18 speaker series of the Central Ohio Branch of the National League of American Pen Women Tuesday evening. This amazing group of women artists put on a classy event at the Upper Arlington Public Library and could not have been more welcoming or more gracious.
Based in Washington, D.C., the National League of American Pen Women (NLAPW, or “Pen Women,” for short) is a venerable organization comprised of women artists in all mediums working throughout the U.S.
I was asked to talk about my multiple careers in music and letters, including my work as midday host and music director for WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101 radio station; my work writing about classical music for print, broadcast and online media; my career as a poet and my work as a performing singer.
For me, the highlights of the evening were meeting some of the chapter members in the “preception” before my talk, and having a chance to chat a bit more and enjoy some photo ops with them afterwards.
It was especially wonderful to see Mary Hoffman (pictured to my right in the photo above), one of my predecessors in my role as Classical 101 music director. Mary was music director of WOSU Public Media’s classical music radio station when I was a teenager in Columbus and listening to that station every day. Her work inspired me in innumerable ways, and I feel a special honor to carry her torch forward.
These talented and generous ladies sent me home with vase of gorgeous roses (!) and an invitation to join their group. But most importantly, they reminded me what a tremendous privilege it is to work in creative careers and to be inspired by the gifted artists who make Columbus’ vibrant arts scene what it is.
My thanks to branch president Darlene Yeager-Torre, Deborah Anderson and all of the members of the Central Ohio Branch of the National League of American Pen Women for the great honor to share my work and my story with you.
I am greatly honored to have received a commission from the VIVO Music Festival to write a poem in response to Arnold Schoenberg’s pivotal string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), and to present my new poem in its world-premiere reading Thursday evening at the Columbus Museum of Art.
Under the creative leadership of its founders and co-artistic directors Siwoo Kim and John Stulz, the VIVO Music Festival brings world-class musicians to Columbus, Ohio, for one week each summer for performances of great chamber music repertory in venues all around the city. In its third season, the 2017 festival will feature Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht Thurs., Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. in the Columbus Museum of Art’s Derby Court.
In keeping with the theme of Thursday’s concert – “VIVO Transfigured” – Stulz asked me to write a poem that would respond to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and also update the poem of the same title by German poet Richard Dehmel that inspired Schoenberg’s work – in short, to transfigure Transfigured Night.
The task of composing my new poem was exciting and daunting. Delving into and gleaning inspiration from the rich philosophical and cultural contexts in which Dehmel and Schoenberg worked was exhilarating. At the same time, in fulfilling the commission, I was fully aware that my new poem would become, if only in a small way, still nothing less than a part of the history of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.
I will present my new poem “on a cold sea we travel” in its world-premiere reading at Thursday’s concert, as an introduction to the musicians’ performance of Schoenberg’s work. The reading and the performance will be live streamed on Facebook.
My hope is that, when heard before Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, “on a cold sea we travel” will set the stage for experiencing the philosophical and sonic richness of Schoenberg’s music in a uniquely musical way. I took the idea of traveling on a cold sea as much from my experience of hearing Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, with its dramatic waves of sound in continuous ebb and flow, as from the particular line in Dehmel’s poem that the title of my poem paraphrases. In an effort to preserve the essential philosophical resonances of Dehmel’s poem, in “on a cold sea we travel” I have aimed to convey an apotheosis that is truly universal – shared by poet and all who experience the poem. I’ve also conceived the surface music of the poem – the alliteration, assonance, and rhythms of the words – to serve as a special kind of gateway into listeners’ experience of Schoenberg’s work.
My extreme gratitude to John Stulz, Siwoo Kim, and the VIVO Music Festival for this singular honor, and to the Ohio Arts Council for funding in support of the commission.
If you tried to access online my review of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra concert last Saturday, May 21, 2017 anytime before 11:45 this morning, you were not successful.
I, too, tried to access my review – which I had submitted at 11:24 p.m. Saturday – online and could not find it. When I inquired, I was told, in writing, that the review had been published last Sunday, 22 May, on page B2 of the print edition of TheColumbus Dispatch, but that it appeared “that it did not get to the web,” possibly because of “merely an oversight at a late hour with much going on.”
I am happy to report that my review of the final concert of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s 2016-17 season – also the orchestra’s only performance this season of Mahler’s phenomenal Third Symphony and the ensemble’s special concert dedicated to the memory of one of Columbus’ great philanthropists, the avid classical music supporter Anne Melvin – has now been published in the Web edition of The Columbus Dispatch.
A paragraph containing the name of the composer and the title of the final work on the program was edited out in its entirety and, it seems, left on the cutting room floor. That paragraph also gave a nod to some lovely solo playing by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s acting concertmaster.
In case you’d like to read the part of the review that was edited out, below in boldface is the missing paragraph as I submitted it and in its original context – that is, between its preceding and following paragraphs as intended:
Ruan (Chinese lute) soloist Sun Li opened the fifth movement, Rhythm, with a spirited solo set to a funky beat. In the final movement, The Grand Canal, the orchestra reprised music from earlier movements with conviction and flair, which the audience rewarded with a standing ovation.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade opened with stentorian flourish. A lovely solo by acting concertmaster Joanna Frankel led to the full orchestra’s rhapsodic undulations in the first movement, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship.
Wonderful solos in the woodwinds decorated the second movement, The Story of the Kalendar Prince, though the tempo throughout seemed a bit stodgy and the ensemble could have been crisper.
Recently, I gave a performance of a few opera arias with David Thomas, the principal clarinetist with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, and pianist Orlay Alonso, piano faculty at Capital University and half of the Alonso Brothers Piano Duo. You can listen to our performances in the unedited audio files below.
The fact of this performance is, in itself, not really news. But what is potentially of enough value to be shared, is what I learned from giving this performance about dealing with performance anxiety.
The stage can be a cold and lonely place when you know you have it in you to perform well, but can’t manage to get the best of yourself out before an audience. I know this feeling well. And while I make no claim to be any sort of expert in managing performance anxiety, I do claim to be an expert in my own experience with performance anxiety. Hopefully, sharing what I’ve learned about why debilitating performance anxiety happens and how to deal with it can be of help to you and others.
I’ll cover various topics related to performance anxiety in a series of posts published over the next several weeks. In this installment, I take a hard look at the roles of fear and its demon spawn, perfectionism.
Fear: Acknowledge It. Then Request That It Kindly Go to Hell.
It’s my belief, though not mine alone, that performance anxiety has its roots in fear, and often some kind of extremely deeply rooted fear that goes way, way back to our childhoods. I’m by no stretch a psychologist, but common sense dictates that it’s important to look those fears straight in the eye and deal with them. Some seek the guidance of a licensed psychologist for this, others choose not to. But if you’re going to open the Pandora’s Box of your psyche, then be prepared for something strange and probably hairy to fly out at you. And if being “prepared” means that you enlist the use of someone’s professional chops to supplement your own moxie, then that’s what you do.
In the sense that fears are realities in our nervous systems and in our lives, all fears, especially deeply rooted ones, are legitimate. When we’re kids, we develop all kinds of fears because we have few, if any, emotional and intellectual resources to deal with the various and sundry thing about the world that we don’t understand.
Sometimes fears developed in childhood become patterns of belief, habits formed (maybe in an effort to give the rational mind some “reason” why a deep emotional wounds have happened) that we hold onto as we age and even take with us into adulthood.
Here’s a common narrative among creative types, including performers like musicians, dancers, and actors: You were a shy, quiet kid and not exactly Mr. or Miss Popularity with the kids at school. You grew up thinking that people don’t like you. And even though you’re now an adult with a spouse or significant other, with a family, with friends, with good professional relationships, there might still be this little voice that taunts to you in, as Yeats called it, the deep heart’s core: “People don’t like you. They don’t like what you do.”
Imagine trying to step out onstage and dazzle a crowd of people when you’re carrying with you the idea – the fear from long ago – that people don’t like you.
That’s just one specific example. But if I had to guess why so many well-trained musicians and other types of performers are completely derailed by performance anxiety, I might guess that they haven’t ventured down the rabbit hole of their own psyches and debunked the myth that they can’t be appreciated just as themselves, without having to earn affirmation by performing, like a trained monkey, tremendous feats of derring-do.
Perfectionism: That’s Kind of Unreasonable, Don’t You Think?
Anyone who performs in any sense – including giving musical performances, dancing, delivering speeches, litigating in court, speaking up at a staff meeting at work, etc. – knows that it takes a phenomenal level of skill to “wow” an audience.
So if you’re a musician, achieving this “wow” standard can, if left unchecked, result in the compulsion to spend insane amounts of time in the practice room. If you’re a dancer, you might train yourself to the point of physical breakdown.
This kind of drive to perfection can also result in a debilitating sense that, unless you deliver a “wow” performance every time, you’ll never be able to hack it, whatever “it” may be.
Let’s look at why you believe you must deliver only “wow” performances. Let’s say you were the kid who decided to believe early on that no one liked you, and then discovered that when you played the trombone well, or danced well, or did a great job in the school play, people actually clapped for you.
See the connection? You’re trying to overcome the myth of your own social inadequacy by way of performance success. Essentially, you’re trying to succeed your way into being loved. Only for a little while will you be able to trick yourself into thinking that you’re getting what you need. But applause for a good performance does not equal the kind of genuine appreciation and respect – love, really – that the inaccurate tiny voice within you is telling you you’re not getting and won’t get. Eventually this approach will completely break down until you deal with the limiting belief at the root of your compulsion.
Musicians, dancers, and others in ridiculously competitive creative fields frequently say (and believe) that they must deliver “wow” performances every single time because there’s always someone waiting in the wings to step into their spotlight. If the only thing you consider is the numbers game involved in any competitive field, that well may be true.
But equally true is this: You have the right to decide how and with whom you do your business. Surround yourself with collaborators who will respect what you bring to an enterprise – your skill, your artistry, and most importantly, your human dignity. People who respect your personhood won’t subtly or not so subtly guilt or threaten you into burning yourself out or working yourself to the point of physical injury or emotional harm.
Seek out supportive colleagues who have a desire to work only in the realm of positivity. Mentor each other to be the best you can be. Let the joy that comes from working in that kind of creative freedom exude through your performance and infect your audience. That’s a “wow” performance.
Many years ago I spoke with a sports psychologist who had worked with one of the U.S. Olympic ski teams. The team had convened for training, and the psychologist asked them to watch videos of several downhill ski runs skied by other elite athletes on the international circuit. He then asked the skiers to critique what they saw. Not one of the assembled skiers saw a single “perfect” run among the batch of videos, among the elite skiers who had won many major international events year after year, and whose game they were trying to best.
The moral to this story: Be reasonable with yourself. If the thrill of chasing unicorns really does do something positive for you to help make you the very best version of yourself that you can be, then persist in your drive for global musical/dancing/public speaking domination. But if trying to give the perfect performance every single time is turning you into a frustrated, neurotic mess and getting in the way of your being able to deliver solid performances that are representative of your abilities and that you enjoy giving, then please, for the love of God, stop it.
The perfect is the enemy of the good, of the very good, and certainly of the excellent.
Next week we’ll talk about asking permission, something a happy performer never, ever does.
In my work as midday host and broadcast producer for WOSU Public Media’s Classical 101 radio station, I have had interviewed countless world-class classical musicians at pivotal moments in their careers.
Recently, I spoke with members of the Cypress String Quartet, just a few days before the group performed its farewell concert at San Francisco’s War Memorial, disbanding after two decades on the international stage.
The Cypress Quartet’s story is quite interesting. Many top-drawer musicians form quartets with an eye toward someday performing the monumental cycle of Beethoven’s quartets. But the Cypress formed specifically to work on Beethoven’s quartets, and did just that from Day One, developing a reputation – a brand, if you will – as a “Beethoven” quartet of their 20-year career.
This legacy lives on in the Cypress Quartet’s acclaimed recordings of the complete Beethoven string quartets, and elsewhere in the ensemble’s discography.