Thursday, January 20, 2005


Essay number two for conducting class tomorrow:

Detail your personal mimetical issues and challenges as you have begun to study at the graduate level.

Note for readers: Mimetic theory is the theory of the destructive power of envy. The theory is that we automatically envy that which we desire, and this leads to anger, self-flagellation, and other negative emotions unless we consciously fight to keep our responses positive. The below quote is a good summation.

“Envy desires to have the beauty or power or talent that another possesses precisely because that other strongly and gracefully possesses it, and it desires this at the other’s expense.” - Donald Sheehan

My personal mimetic issues are essentially tied to the areas where I feel no self-confidence in my music-making. Those would be the following:

First: I’m worried that I’m not passionate enough. I envy other people’s passion – when they describe transforming experiences, I simultaneously want those experiences for myself, and want to slap them and tell them that they’re being overly romantic.

The quotes I read in the book about Nadia Boulanger encapsulate this attitude of which I am envious. There is basically a philosophy that “if you could possibly be happy doing anything else, you shouldn’t do music!”

I have actually been worried about this all my life. When I was a child, I would actually sometimes cry in my bed at night about this. I thought I could never be a great composer because I didn't feel things deeply enough. (The irony of crying over not feeling things deeply enough has not gone unnoted.) I thought I could never be great because I wasn’t messed up enough in the head. After all, there is this tendency to revere the composer, to view them as someone touched by a madness that exacts a heavy emotional toll. To a lesser extent, all musicians are viewed the same way – in contact with another world, people who go through things that we mere mortals cannot possibly understand, people who feel more deeply, who are more sensitive. I think this is perhaps an idea left over from the Romantic period, when composers (and musicians in general) went from being employees or servants to honored gods of society. But it is still very, very prevalent today – and it is not in the immediate best interest of musicians to dispel this stereotype, because it’s where a lot of funding comes from.

I don’t actually, when I am in my happy intellectual place, believe this. I believe that everyone can make music. In cultures where the participation in cultural events requires singing, dancing, and playing instruments, I think this stereotype does not (cannot) exist. I will quote the New Grove article on South Africa, on the Venda people:

“The Venda assume that every person is capable of musical performance, unless he is deaf; and even then, he ought to be able to dance.”

and from later:

“However, only a few of those who are born into the right group actually emerge as exceptional musicians, and what sets them apart is not so much their ability to do what others cannot do, but that they do it better because they have devoted more time and energy to it. In applauding the mastery of exceptional musicians, the Venda applaud human effort. In being able to recognize mastery in the musical medium, listeners reveal that their general musical competence is no less than that of the musicians whom they applaud.”

People may have more or less musical competence, but I disagree with the idea (your idea, actually – see pg. 15 of The Musician’s Soul and the description of “the artistic curse) that the ability to create music sets one apart.

Part of the reason I believe this may be self-defense, but partly I believe it because it seems to me to be logical.

It would fall into the category of self-defense because, as I mentioned above, I am worried I am not passionate enough. I could be happy doing something other than music. I could be happy doing a lot of things. It would, in fact, take a distinctly negative job environment to make me unhappy. One of the reasons that I worry that I am not passionate enough is that for a good part of my life, I believed that I simply didn’t have the strong emotional reactions to events that other people did. I don’t lose my temper easily. I don’t act irrationally when drunk. I don’t put my fist through walls. I get pissed off like other people…but I never feel like I lose control. The few times when I decided to pretend that I had lost control to see if I could create a desired effect (for example, of getting people to shut up) were a miserable failure.

I no longer believe that I don’t feel things as deeply as other people. I feel that intense expression of emotion is inappropriate – possibly this is partly learned from my family – so I simply don’t express it as often, perhaps. And as I grow older, I feel as if I feel more emotion. I recognize now when I am stressed, irritated, angry. And dating someone seriously for the first time last year really opened me up – I cried more with him, for no discernable reasons, than I have ever cried in my entire live previous. When I think of vulnerability, I think of the relationship I shared with him.

But the question of passion still deeply worries me. I worry that I don’t respond to music enough. I do respond to it – especially Renaissance music. I have cried in concerts – as I grow older, I cry more often at them. But I have no dramatic stories about how I heard Mahler for the first time and my life was changed. I do not experience sudden epiphanies. And so I worry that I’m not allowed to be part of the genius club.

Second: Because passion in music is so often tied to the concept of musicality itself, I also worry that I am not musical enough.

I was stunned when I was accepted to Westminster. I had been rejected from every other school I applied to, except my “safety”, which was the University of Seattle, Washington (which has the most stunning campus ever, by the way, and you should visit if you get the chance.) Indiana, Illinois, UCLA, Maryland, Ithaca, and Michigan all turned me down. Westminster was my last audition – I knew I was supposed to send in a reply by May 1st, so when I hadn’t heard by April 31st, I figured I was out. I called up the Admissions office fully expecting to be turned down, and just wanting to get the damn rejection letter already, and they told me I was in.

I couldn’t believe it for a good many weeks. I had to get numerous packets, financial and administrative, before it began to sink it…and I kept worrying that some sort of mistake had been made, and someone would call me up to tell me I was actually not going to be allowed to attend.

This was still baffling me enough that I had the gall to ask Dr. Megill the following foolish question at a conductor get-together following the first masterclass. “Why on earth did you let me in?” He laughed, of course, and said that Westminster looked for people with potential, not people who were already polished and knew what they were doing. Putting this together with what I was told before my audition – “We want to see people who can respond to the music” – I concluded that other people must see potential in me, and that I must have been able to respond to the music.

I have decent faith in my nuts-and-bolts musical abilities. I have piano skills, I can sight-read better than most, my theory skills and ear-training are probably above average. Running a rehearsal is something I can do, I know how to keep my eye on the clock, and when it comes to assembling notes and rhythms and articulations, to teaching people the framework, I feel that I do it well, and I enjoy it – I enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together in the most efficient manner possible. But when the time comes to add the “little spark of inspiration” that will make the piece “come alive,” I’m terribly scared, and don’t know what to do. Because I don’t know how to hear it. I may love a performance, have a fantastic time during the piece, and afterwards someone will say, “Oh, that was just dead.” I have no confidence that what I like is, from an objective or majority point of view, great. I came to Westminster because it had the best choirs, and I thought, “If ever there’s a place to learn the difference between really, really good and great, it will be here.” I’m working on trying to hear it, but I don’t feel good about it yet.

Third: Because I worry that I’m not musical, that I lack some undefined inspirational spark (that I cannot even see myself in other people!) I worry that time spent with me conducting is a waste, and would be better spent elsewhere, under another conductor, or even experiencing music in another, perhaps more passive way.

Last year, in order that I could practice for auditions, I formed a chorus of friends and friends of friends. It was 12 people, it was called New Century Voices, and I concentrated on performing new music by young Boston composers, because I have composed myself, and because I hugely enjoy doing new music – I feel part of a living tradition in a way that I do not when I perform Handel. This group really gelled in a remarkable manner, and I loved them so much – I get a little teary when I think about them, still. But although I cared about them, and worked hard for them, and enjoyed rehearsals every week, I didn’t realize until the last concert, when I was sitting backstage with them waiting to go on, that they loved it too. Most of them came initially (I thought) as a favor to me. I didn’t believe them when they said they loved having a place to sing every week, since most of them were not in other choruses. It wasn’t until I watched them talking to each other before going on, and realized that they had met through me, and were singing music that they liked and enjoyed because I had pulled them together, that I realized that I had given as well as received.

I’ve pulled together a group of women to perform a piece by AD in February, and I hope to get some of them to stick around and thus to form a women’s chorus that I can work with, so I can have a rehearsal space each week, and a forum for performing more new music. But the most crippling aspect is feeling that anyone who attends a rehearsal will just be doing me a favor and will be suffering through the experience out of the goodness of their hearts. Shutting up the voice that says I have nothing to offer for long enough to get through a rehearsal can be very difficult.

I think too much, and you know this. All these ideas have been things I’ve been thinking about before tying them in to the concept of mimetics. As I understand it, the proper mimetic procedure for dealing with these issues is to…recognize them, ignore them while I’m on the podium, and concentrate on caring about the people in front of me. This does not seem a very satisfactory solution, I’m afraid. Identifying problems is not the hard part of the process for me. And ignoring them does not seem productive.

There is one further mimetic effect that you do not mention, but which I feel is very real. I discovered this not through music, but through taekwondo, and I firmly believe it is a powerful cultural force, especially in the lives of women in our culture.

It is a curious fact that when learning to spar in taekwondo, women always apologize profusely. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” is a constant refrain whenever contact is made (often even when it’s not.) Apparently, women are far more terrified of causing damage than men, who only apologize profusely when sparring women (women apologize to everybody.)

Related to this is locker-room interactions. Women are constantly denigrating themselves. “You sparred so well today!” “Oh, no, I’m really terrible. Did you see that roundhouse kick? It was awful. And I couldn’t move at all!” “Oh, no, you were really good – I’m so much slower than you are!” Etc. Compliments are given in an honest supportive spirit much of the time, but often, especially in the lower belts, at the expense of oneself.

One could argue this stems from the influence of Asian culture in taekwondo. After all, I have read that in previous times, women in China would go outside after a baby’s birth and announce how ugly it was, so that evil spirits would be disinterested. Tooting one’s own horn was a danger – bad spirits would be attracted to your home.

However, that doesn’t explain why the attitude is so much more prevalent in women than in men. And if you look carefully, self-condemnation is a common method of communication among women. It can be done cattily and snidely, where complimenting another person by insulting oneself is actually a subtle insult. But often it is done in order to ingratiate oneself with the other person.

I know because I do this. Often. And I see other women do it. I don’t think people will agree with me on its frequency, but I really find it a prevalent force. And when I try to stop doing this – when I try to give myself the respect I deserve in speech with other people – it can occasionally be impossible. I am worried that by NOT being self-deprecating, I will insult the other person.

In essence, I believe that I am anticipating a mimetic response, and acting in advance in order to prevent it.

I think we intuit, subconsciously, the entire mimetic theory. And I think that we know that people may get envious of us if we are obviously skilled at something, or talented, or powerful, or beautiful. And therefore we downplay and undercut our skills and gifts in order to prevent a negative mimetic response directed towards us. It is not done out of subconscious concern for the other person – it’s done for our own benefit, to prevent negative emotions being directed our way.

Why else do we so instinctively not stand up and take joy in our accomplishments? We are scared that others will not love us if we shine too bright – we are afraid that if they think we are “better” than they are, they will not like us, they will be angry, because they will be envious.

Why else would Nelson Mandela (editor's correction: actually, it was Marianne Williamson) even have had to make the following speech?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

That is my final mimetic challenge – to believe with my whole body that shining brightly is the best way to serve others.

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