On Leadership

How many times a day do we use the word “leader?” As an educator and as a parent I use this word regularly, writing recommendations, thinking about my family/friends/colleagues, assigning students to positions. It is part of my daily life and routine to empower people with leadership roles (i.e.“X is really showing leadership in this area, I feel like we can take a chance on her ability to rise to this challenge…”). However, while we aid people to become leaders and find their leadership potential we also fearlessly criticize those in power. We constantly question their actions on just about everything (i.e. “how could she support that measure…with that vote she has compromised everything she ever stood for…”). At this moment in time especially, the examples are endless.

For this reason, I have decided to avoid commenting on current political/social/cultural leadership controversy in this post—that is being done enough. Instead I want to counteract my and others’ constant criticism of poor leadership. I have found it productive to notice admirable leaders of various kinds and take notes about their actions in times of crisis as well as in times of relative calm. We can’t find or become what we can’t envision, right? Thus this approach. 

In a recent online survey I took to assess my leadership skills I was given the result of Diplomat. According to this survey, Diplomats value “interpersonal harmony,” “deep personal bonds with their employees,” and are “known for being able to resolve conflicts peacefully.” These are qualities I do value, but the other possibilities were also intriguing to me: the Pragmatist, the Tactician, the Authoritarian, etc. Perhaps being a parent, an educator and a string quartet member makes my awareness heightened in this area, but I am always thinking about how different styles of leadership can be employed to achieve varied outcomes.

Contemplating leadership is already part of a regular practice in my own life. My string quartet rotates the role of administrator of our group for 2-4 week cycles of time, giving each of us a chance to run the group. This is essential for our particular working dynamic in that it encourages creativity in administration, injects new energy into our process and helps us to have empathy for whomever is running the business because we have all been there. It is a mini training ground for mobile and effective leadership; we have short reflective meetings every day and more in-depth ones at the end of each cycle where we assess how things have gone and what could be improved upon. As a result of this process over the past few years all of us in my group have learned a great deal about how to communicate clearly, be efficient in our work and maintain a healthy interpersonal environment. 

With the caveat that I seem to tend towards a diplomatic approach (and taking for granted a few obvious qualities of good leaders like showing up(!) etc.), here is a list of 15 aspects of good leadership I find significant to highlight:

1. Leaders are born through conviction. When listening to an interview with Congressman John Lewis I was struck that he didn’t become a leader in the civil rights movement by trying to be a leader; he felt so strongly about the importance of human equality (and fighting for it in non-violent ways) that he made these actions a priority in his life. Did he come out of the womb with the mandate to serve millions of people? That could be argued. But according to him it was the strength of his vision in adolescence that guided his actions moving forward. Yes, there are people who are physically born into powerful positions, but as we all know, these people are not always good leaders.

2. Leaders listen to what their colleagues/employees want and need just as much or more than they tell others what to do. The constantly evolving ability to listen to others, in my experience, is just about the most important skill one can have for true collaboration.

3. Leaders are able to admit their mistakes and be vulnerable. I was happy to hear about a recent orchestra rehearsal at a major conservatory in which a guest conductor finished a run-through of a piece and said, “okay, here are the three things I noticed I messed up, here are the three things I noticed you messed up, let’s get to work.” This admission of error on the conductor’s part put the orchestra immediately at ease, and they were able to get better work done because they didn’t feel they had to be perfect.

4. Leaders are compassionate. This quality is of course linked to empathy (through listening, see #2), another of the most important qualities leaders can cultivate. In supporting employees and colleagues who are undergoing both joyful and difficult life changes, leaders know when they need to help someone leave the organization if it is time.

5. Leaders assume the best from the people with whom they work. This goes hand-in-hand with empowering the people who work for them to do their best. Assuming that we all have good intentions more often helps people to exhibit those intentions. See Noa Kageyama’s recent, must-read article for how we all benefit from a positive learning and working atmosphere.

6. Leaders know how to set boundaries for themselves and with their colleagues. While exceptionally sensitive, empathetic people (hello, artists!) have the most trouble with this, we always benefit from establishing clarity of working procedures and social interactions so that what is acceptable is not in question.

7. Leaders are self-aware enough to know when they need help doing their work. If leaders are truly honest with themselves they know what they can’t or don’t want to do and are able to hire excellent people for those tasks.

8. Leaders continually work on their communication skills. Great leaders keep a balance between discretion and openness in their communication depending on the situation. In times of crisis, for example, leaders know how to communicate well with an entire organization, making everyone feel a part of a decision. They use executive authority (swift, unilateral decision-making) sparingly.

9. Leaders keep the regular counsel of mentors. In most faith traditions it is expected and often required of spiritual leaders to have guidance from mentors in an effort to stay focused, humble and grounded. I think this should be a required policy in the secular world as well.

10. Leaders are flexible to change especially if the change fits within the mission of the organization, and they welcome feedback on new directions. See #2.

11. Leaders can maintain a certain level of calm in the midst of crisis—we always look to the person in charge for reassurance and guidance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is someone who has been characterized as “methodical in her approach, very rational and reasonable.” Putting aside views of her political decisions it is easy to see that her demeanor has sustained her through over a decade of tense, difficult world crises. 

12. Leaders maintain a robust reflective practice in their everyday lives. Reading, writing, listening, keeping both the awareness of history and contemporary life for reference, this is connected to #9. Because both curiosity and reflection are essential for the cultivation of wisdom.

13. Leaders keep the vision of the organization, its legacy, its most inspiring moments close at hand for a centered, focused perspective. Everyone wants to be brought back to the reasons why they work for an organization. Yoga teacher Baron Baptiste gave advice to yogis wanting to start their own studios: “People can sense authenticity. Have a clearly articulated vision and communicate it to internal and external teams often. As you become skilled at sharing it, you’ll become an extraordinary expression of your business.”

14. If leaders are empowered to serve others, they are more able to relinquish control and power. This helps them to grow visibly in their positions. Whenever we feel that what we are doing is larger than ourselves, is it no longer about us and we can more freely serve. This is linked to #13 in particular.

15. Everyone has leadership qualities. Referring back to #1, it takes conviction and heart to be a leader, and everyone who cares strongly enough about something to act on it can become a leader. I like to think of my friends who started a letter-writing party to correspond with lawmakers about pressing issues affecting our nation. A high school student who attended that party wrote to a senator about her position on education, then passed around the letter the next day at school for signatures.  After sending in the letter (and receiving a response) she became a leader at her school for taking a stance and acting on it. That experience may become a defining moment in her life.

In the midst of so much cacophonous, thoughtless public commentary, writing about what I consider to be healthy leadership behavior is inspiring for me. As much as our lives and activities are up to us, the environment a leader creates matters wholly to our ability to be productive, creative and generous. I would love to think that the more we envision our ideal leaders the more we create a scene for them to emerge, grow and do their best work.

The living, breathing memory of wood

When I was a child my grandparents lived in Lawrenceville, NJ.  We drove down from my childhood home in Vermont on a regular basis to visit them, trying not to miss the tricky exit off of the New Jersey Turnpike.  I have vivid memories of arriving at my grandparents’ house, running up the steps to their home while hearing their poodle barking and of the smell of that unmistakable mix of bourbon and maraschino cherries.  My grandfather would be waiting at the door holding two Old Fashioned cocktails, one for each of my parents.  He had mixed them at his bar made of teak wood, commissioned and made for my grandparents in Hong Kong in the early 1950’s when my grandfather was stationed there as a foreign diplomat.  My grandparents brought their bar with them to each exotic location in which they were stationed, traveling mostly by boat in the 1950’s and 60’s.  They were wonderful hosts, throwing parties regularly, sometimes serenading guests with acts from Gilbert and Sullivan (both grandparents sang and my grandmother played the piano), and of course making drinks at the bar.

The smell and the look of the bar were so particular; the aged wood, the mirrors, the old-fashioned (and Old Fashioned) glasses made of thick, durable glass.  In time I came to associate the smell of the teak bar with my grandfather, a serious and brilliant scholar whose very presence filled me with awe and reverence, and my grandmother, an equally brilliant musician and eccentric thinker.

Later in life after my grandfather’s death, my boyfriend (now husband) and I were sharing a brandy with my grandmother at the legendary bar, this time in Houston where she had moved.  Even though the location was entirely different, the bar still retained its magisterial presence; the sweet smell of wood, bourbon and cherries unmistakable even though she hadn’t made an Old Fashioned in years.  She looked at us and said in her classically dry cadence, “when I croak, you guys get the bar.”

The bar came to us years later in a huge moving truck several months after my grandmother’s death at the marvelously full age of 90.  The bar was wrapped in heavy plastic and it took a very long time to unwrap.  Once we opened the beautifully handmade compartment doors, that strong smell came roaring out, flooding me with memories of 20-30 years before, an entirely Proustian experience.  We shared the arrival of the bar with friends, hosting The Great Hong Kong Bar Party I and sharing Old Fashioned and Negroni cocktails in honor of this piece of furniture that had served so many people in my grandparents’ presence across the world. 

We take our entertaining very seriously because of this piece of furniture in our home.  Not only does its presence remind us of the history of its use throughout the past 65 years, it also asks to be used well.  At a molecular level the bar has absorbed conversations in various European, African and Asian languages, it has been exposed to secretive CIA discussions, and it has witnessed over-the-top performances of musical theater and hours of piano practicing and improvising.  Like other pieces of wood, the bar retains its vibrations; it is a living and breathing material that is marked by its experiences.

I only began to think about our bar in this context when speaking to a friend about the way that stringed instruments change and deepen with age.  As a professional violinist, I have played on many instruments of varying ages and pedigrees.  Some were made during my lifetime, and others, hundreds of years before my time.  The finest, irreplaceable ones, made by famous families such as Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri in the 1600’s and 1700’s have extremely distinctive sounds and personalities based on the experiences of their 300-400 year-old lifetimes.

The movie “The Red Violin” chronicles the tale of a 17th century violin, the people who played on it and the way it was used throughout the centuries.  Although this is a somewhat sensationalist account (spoiler alert: the red quality of the instrument’s varnish is attributed to the maker’s wife’s blood added to the mix), the idea the film presents, of a magnificently crafted violin that takes on the qualities of its players, is absolutely accurate. 

When playing any instrument, one can feel the way the instrument has been played (or not played) in the past.  So if the previous player was a delicate player, the instrument will not respond readily to a lot of force; likewise, an instrument that was played for a while by an overly aggressive person feels beaten up.  Any instrument sitting un-played in a shop or collector’s home takes some time for the sound to “open up” again. For this reason, some notable instruments have nicknames based on their previous owners.  The “Rose” Stradivarius cello, for example, is named so because the well-known cellist Leonard Rose was the cello’s owner for many years, and the way he played was indelibly marked into the cello’s resonant chamber.  For newly made instruments, the same reality applies: my friend has been the only player of his viola for the past seven years—not surprisingly, the instrument responds beautifully to his playing style and continues to deepen and grow as he does.

All of this has to do with wood as an animate material, responsive to people and their playing styles as to weather conditions and environment, much like the tree from which the wood came.  It sounds magical—think Harry Potter wands and the wardrobe from C.S. Lewis’ series—and it kind of is.  So my intuition that our bar commands a certain kind of respect because of its history is a real thing.  And string players’ assertions that their instruments seem to “have a mind of their own,” that they “play themselves,” this is also an example of the personality inherent in wooden masterpieces.  My own violin was made in the early 1800’s in Naples, Italy, and the tree’s wood carries the properties of a humid, seaport town.  Perhaps someday I will take a pilgrimage to Naples to see how my violin responds to its birthplace; if I’m lucky, maybe in its town of origin, close to the geniuses that made it, my violin will reveal more of its secrets.



Non-violence and the artistic practice

I have always been an active person, but it took me a long time to be interested in yoga.  My husband and many friends had been doing headstands for years, and I always admired them and thought I should do yoga.  I also had enough people telling me “you know that would really help you A LOT” that it was a little annoying but I thought I would try it.  Enter early morning classes, online classes via YogaGlo and soreness for weeks on end.  Much of the time I was excited and fulfilled and part of the time I felt mortified at my apparent lack of flexibility. 


Somewhere around the two-month mark I started getting really into the poses and into the philosophy.  I was reading Judith Lasater’s book “Living Your Yoga” in which she suggests ways to apply the principle tenets of yoga to everyday life.  I was particularly interested in her chapter on non-violence (ahimsa) and how essential it is for yogi’s to create a non-violent space in their practice.  Lasater equates pushing oneself too far and being overly self-critical of one’s abilities/body with the promotion of violence.


At this point I had a sobering realization.  Even in those short two months of practicing yoga I had sometimes created an environment I knew all too well from my own violin practice room.  In just two months I had started to flirt with the ridiculously high standard to which I held my violin playing.  And the annoyance at not being fully “competent” in yoga was like the seeping in of my most unhelpful practice sessions.  Times of absolutist, uncompassionate thinking towards myself. 


As artists, especially performers, we give ourselves license to be internally cruel because self-criticism is an important part of what we do to get better (plus it’s not affecting anyone else…?).  Our growth depends on it, and our expectations can never be high enough!  We get locked into a strange dance of reality: the recognition of our faults translates into building self-awareness, which we say is good, but the amount and manner of our “fault-checking” have no limits, no checks of their own.


My experience with extreme negative self-talk is that, like any kind of violence, it always comes back to us in some way.   When the negativity rises from inside and doesn’t get dealt with, many things can happen over time—physical and emotional tension which can lead to injury and/or chronic conditions, just plain emotional stress, and of course self-intolerance which leads to intolerance of others.  All of these outcomes are destructive for our creative force and output.  


Since reading Judith Lasater’s book I have been trying out her suggestions for changing the way I talk to myself in the practice room (whether it be music, yoga or any other pursuit).  One step is to be aware of the internal dialogue.  Lasater recommends starting and ending your practice with some kind of ritual (like ringing a bell), so in that period of time you commit to being kind towards yourself (practicing ahimsa), transitioning from emotionally charged to more objective commentary.  When I first tried this I was shocked at how few minutes had passed before I broke my commitment.  Over time and with much focus I was able to sustain a compassionate space over an entire practice session.


Last month I was intrigued by an article in the New York Times about how Google identified necessary qualities for great, high-functioning teams.  The best teams at Google were ones in which “psychological safety” and empathetic behavior were cultivated amongst all members of the team.  It was refreshing to read something that proved all of my thoughts about a sustainable working dynamic for musical groups, but it also confirmed how crucial these same qualities are for our internal landscapes.


To be clear: this post is not about relaxing standards or giving up on amazing goals.  It’s also not about eliminating all frustration with oneself.  This is about artists taking charge of our working environments and nurturing our creativity!


Patience gets us nowhere fast: wearing a trickster hat

I recently came to realize that I have always had more than a normal tendency to think like a martyr.  Maybe it’s because of my borderline workaholic behavior, but at difficult or disappointing times, I have been known to slip into thought patterns like: “it's not fair, I worked so hard and I must be the only person who has insomnia before concerts” or “ life isn’t fair in general, maybe that’s just the way it’s going to be always…” etc etc.  Blah blah.  Sound familiar?  A lot of creative people I know fall into these thought traps which easily spiral out of control, ruining our ability to have joy in the artistic process. 


In artistic training (and most other training), we are taught that if we have patience and work hard, we will achieve what we want.  Isn’t that the American dream?  Impatience is frowned upon, and we need to earn our accomplishments.  My whole life I have held that belief and have been that kind of steady, motivated kind of person. Dutiful in my work, good at following directions, willing to keep going no matter what happens.  That’s all been fine until it becomes prescriptive, until it becomes only about the work for work's sake, until it opens the door to martyrdom when things don’t pan out.


Last month I came upon a new way of addressing creativity in Elizabeth Gilbert’s inspiring 2015 book, “Big Ideas: Creative Living Beyond Fear.”  In one section she presents the difference between a martyr and a trickster.  In her description, the martyr energy is “dark, hierarchical, fundamentalist…rigid.”  The trickster energy is “light, sly, transgressive…shape-shifting.”  If we are martyrs, life is hard; if we are tricksters, life is opportunity. 


In looking back on moments of the trickster vs. martyr in my life, I found that I still recall the trickster moments with absolute clarity and pride.  Example: learning Dutilleux quartet while an Artist Diploma student with a 3-month-old baby, doing most of my work through score study on the A train down to Juilliard.  That piece remains in hyper-realistic detail in my memory even though I wasn't able to physically practice it very much.  On the flip side, the most intense martyr moments (i.e. refusing to touch my violin for a good three weeks after playing a “terrible” performance) are fuzzy and take up a dark, uncomfortable space in my memory. 


Lately I have found applying the persona of the trickster to be revelatory in my violin practicing.  I have literally been imagining myself putting on a trickster hat when I practice, asking the questions: what can I do to make this more 1. Fun, 2. Easy, 3. Different from what I was doing before, 4.  Different from what I’m supposed to be doing?  Maybe I’ve always had enough trickster in me to balance out the rule-follower, but calling upon it is liberating and fun.  In my practicing it could translate into something as small as committing to a daring fingering way up on the G string, or making a drawing of a challenging passage to understand it in a different light.  It could also be as radical as my quartet adopting an organizational system from software developers, becoming much more productive while cutting out 30% of rehearsal time (more on that in future posts).


Being a trickster pushes up against the idea of patience as something that is preferred.  Yes, persistence and patience are cornerstones of an artistic career, but so are quick thinking/acting and taking risks.  Maybe the thing we want to achieve is actually only a 5-minute creative brainstorm away instead of 2 years away through careful practicing.  Thinking like a trickster also immediately gives confidence and artistic ownership; it is the path towards discovering personal artistry.  


(In the book “Trickster Makes This World,” writer Lewis Hyde chronicles the fascinating importance of trickster characters like the Greek god Hermes and the composer John Cage.  These tricksters are the “boundary crossers” and also the crucial instigators of creativity.)


Patience Gets Us Nowhere Fast" by Capital Cities captivated me from the first listen because I’m not used to patience as having negative connotations.  The band sings “I want it all and nothing less, I want it all, I want the best for you (us)…Patience. Patience gets us nowhere fast.”   In their view, why delay something that is so right, and so right there (love, in this case)?  Maybe if we as artists wear the trickster hat we can have it all ways: the trickster comes in at just the right (or wrong) time to subvert the patient artist, to bring out that desperately-needed, transgressive and creative voice.


Color experiments and creative activation

Synesthesia is defined as “a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.”  In one form of synesthesia people associate sounds with color; an animal sound or an F major arpeggio can illicit strong coloristic impressions for musically sensitive synesthetes, and several composers such as Messiaen drew tremendous creative benefit from this experience. 


I have always been fascinated by the idea that the human senses can collaborate to create heightened artistic moments.  As a child I spent many hours painting with watercolors or drawing while I listened to music and audio books.  My visual art experiments were a joyful way to express myself at home, and I looked forward to this solitary time everyday.  I also loved practicing the violin, but it was the visual art time that more immediately stimulated my creative impulses.  After inspiring trips to art museums and art lessons with a painter, I seriously considered becoming a visual artist because the act of creation was so freeing for me; I had yet to activate the same kind of experimentation in my musical life.


When I was 14 I had a formative experience that forever changed the way I thought about the relationship between visualization and sound.  That summer I was at Greenwood Music Camp, playing barefooted chamber music all day with my friends.  One of my chamber music coaches, violist John Ziarko, had decided that I needed to learn how to play the viola.  I was skeptical of this assignment, but I borrowed a viola and headed out to have an introductory lesson with him. 


When I arrived at the lesson he put Elliott Carter’s “Elegy” on the stand and said, “Play green.”  I was surprised enough to be asked to play in viola clef for the first time, but I also didn’t understand what he wanted me to do.  I muttered something like “what do you mean?” but he just repeated the command.  So after I had figured out what the first note was, I played the opening phrase “green.”  “Good,” he said.  “Now, play it red.”  So I played it red.  Then yellow, then grey, then purple, and so on. 


I was absolutely shocked by the way this simple phrase was significantly transformed with each color.  I wasn’t consciously trying to do anything, just putting myself into a place of trust and using my imagination to create a sound that corresponded to a color for me.  Obviously this exercise translated into real technical differences in execution, but that was not the point.  That could be figured out later.  The point was that my green was unique to my understanding of that color, and I had finally been shown how to explore a deeper creativity in my musical world.


Since that time I have been striving to find more color in my own playing as well as help others to find it in theirs.  I enjoy assigning “color projects” for students who want to open up their palette, try new vibratos and densities of sound, etc. but don’t know where to start.  By literally painting their music in specific ways, using the score as a canvas to try out new colors for the same passage or movement each day, they are able to find their way out of old habits and ways of making sound, thereby unleashing newfound creativity.  I love seeing the pride on students’ faces who might not have picked up colored pencils in five years; at their lesson they reveal beautifully transformed copies of the score to a Beethoven slow movement, as well as a fresh set of ideas for their music-making.


I am grateful to that formative Greenwood summer, and to John Ziarko for helping me to discover a way to access my strong visual intuition when playing music.  I am not a synesthete (or a violist, as it turns out), but the more I let my visual vocabulary challenge my sound vocabulary, and vice versa, the more glorious the collaboration can be. 

Memory and freedom

For several years now my group the Chiara Quartet has been memorizing our repertoire and playing string quartets by heart.  No, not a gimmick, not a feat, but a genuine practice which has made a huge difference to our working relationship in rehearsals and performances; something that makes us feel a renewed excitement and trust in our playing.


Our performances of memorized repertoire began cautiously: we started with one piece on a program which was exhilarating but scary, then two pieces, and then finally an entire evening with no stands.  I still remember the palpable energy of our first concert completely by heart—program: Haydn Op. 20 No 2, Bartok 4th quartet, and Schubert “Death and the Maiden”—there was a ridiculous and terrifying freedom about that performance with nothing between us onstage.


So why memorize as a chamber group?  My answer: memory allows us to release the things that don’t matter.  My group is made up of four very analytical, philosophical, and driven people; part of the reason we’re still playing together after 16 years is the shared and constant striving for depth of understanding and cohesion in our group.  No one in the Chiara Quartet is satisfied with “ok,” which is a great thing, except when no one is satisfied…


This dissatisfaction is what inspired us to start memorizing. We were unhappy with a recording we had made of the complete Brahms string quartets.  Something was missing, a lack of openness and abandon in the sound.  We made the bold decision to scrap the entire project and rerecord the 2-album set, this time experimenting in rehearsal with getting our noses and brains out of the part.  Rehearsing from memory had an incredible effect on our group: all of that healthy left-brained energy was kept in our heads remembering the composer’s intentions, and the focus in our actual playing became about connection and electricity, what we had been searching for.


Memorization forces us to truly grapple with what the composer was trying to say. It is a window into the miraculous world of each composer's language and a game of sorts, resulting in a balance between recalling the score and releasing it in performance.  Questions like: “why would Bartok write 9 ½ iterations of that particular motive instead of 8 (which would be easier for me to memorize)?”  Realizations like: “Oh, that’s because the viola melody sings a little bit longer than expected, creating more awesomeness (Bartok=genius)” etc.  Memorization also equalizes the difference between working on old and new music.  Mozart’s music is no easier to memorize than our dear friend Gabriela Lena Frank’s.      


It also turns out we can’t commit to memory anything we don’t understand.  We make signs, we make maps, we learn in solfege, we sing our parts and others’ parts, we do an immense amount of score study.  And if we can’t figure out the composer’s logic, then we need to create a new one for ourselves.  For example, “the shape of this line in Ravel quartet has an extra “tail,” it looks like a monkey, so it’s a monkey phrase!”  Insert mnemonics and the practices that help us all to commit even the thorniest passages to memory. What better way to get inside the composer’s head?


Here is a performance of Bartok’s 5th quartet, 5th movement that we gave in October 2014 after recording Bartok quartets 1, 3, and 5 for our upcoming CD “Bartok by Heart.” 

Thoughts on playing Mozart, intention, and the permission to sing

When I was a teenager I listened obsessively to the 1950’s Amadeus Quartet recordings of the Mozart viola quintets.  I have a vivid memory of a family trip to the Oregon coast, taking my walkman (yes it was the early 90’s) out to the beach at night and listening to the C Major Quintet K. 515 while lying in the sand.  The longing, the beauty, the vocal openness made life not only bearable, but magical.  Many of us have that loving experience with Mozart. 


But that experience can also be tainted for many performers.  So many of us build up this idea of Mozartian purity and perfection to the point that we are unable to play his music at all.  We have some unpleasant performances and decide that Mozart is an egg not be cracked except by the best performers, the ones who have finally “figured out how to play.”  (I have noticed a similar frustration when talking to composers; not unlike the famous tales of jealously from Mozart’s lifetime, there can be an annoyance and bitterness that sets in when mentioning Mozart: “well, of course the music just flowed right out of him.”)  Trying to find the answer to playing and interpreting Mozart, we practice to be perfect, we over-control, and we miss the point.


I have certainly suffered this Mozart lockdown.  While I have always connected so strongly to his music, for many of my adult years I couldn’t listen to my beloved Mozart quintets.  If a Mozart quartet came on the radio I would shut it off immediately.  I did the same thing in my work.  After practicing for hours upon hours, trying to craft the direction of each phrase and painstakingly tune each note of a Mozart quartet, I thought I could then release it in performance.  But we perform what we practice, so any performance with that kind of preparation sounds micromanaged, with attention drawn to any non-perfect intonation and too-predictably phrased lines.


What I have discovered is that the secret to playing Mozart is a transparency of intention.  Many performers say “I feel naked onstage playing Mozart.”  I agree.  And unless I accept and welcome that vulnerability, playing Mozart is not an enjoyable experience.  The transparency comes from being fully open to the possibilities of the moment, of smiling at risk, rediscovering my heart, and practicing being in that state.  The hours of working on the craft of the music are still necessary and valid, but it is very much the intention that matters in practicing Mozart. 


And these kinds of practice sessions are where I look forward to reconnecting to the magic of my Oregon beach at night.  Listening to singers, tapping into that indescribable longing in Mozart’s music through singing the melodies and finding the release in myself: these pursuits are just as important as any tuning episode.  My group the Chiara Quartet routinely sings Mozart quartets in our rehearsals.  While often devolving into fits of hilarity (especially in the faster movements—we are not opera singers for a reason!), we find that connecting to his ease, his unique vocal energy loosens us up to be more genuinely ourselves.  It is through practicing these intentions that I find it possible to go onstage and play without the fear of cracking the Mozartian egg. 


My quartet recently performed the complete Brahms quartets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  For an encore we played the slow movement of Mozart’s K. 465 quartet, a piece we have performed for almost 16 years and one I always associate with Greenwood Music Camp and the transformation fostered in that summer environment.  Here is our performance from October 2, 2015: