What Is Success?

Success does not require formal training.

Success does not equate to following the rules.

Success is not measured by recognition.

But this does not mean success is easy to achieve.

The problem with success is that we let others define what it means.  

We grow up constantly being compared to our classmates, our friends, and our family.

We watch as those who exhibit the most skill within the confines of any “test” are recognized.

We learn to aspire to the spotlight and to fear leaving without a legacy.

We are taught to blend in when the only sensible route for differentiation is to stand out.

We are rewarded for playing it safe only to learn later in life that those “rules” don’t matter.

This leaves us feeling betrayed by a system into which we put so much energy and trust.

But education is designed to teach us how to succeed in educational systems—it is self-serving.

And to let it (or anyone else) define what “success” means is silly.

This does not mean to disregard ideas from your trusted teachers, friends, and family.

This does not mean to do whatever you want, whenever you want.  

This does not mean to blindly follow your own path.

After all, success absolutely requires you to work hard—as hard as you possibly can.

Because achieving success is very difficult.

And the odds are not in your favor…But not for the reasons you might think…

You see, the reason success is scarce is because we get hung up on everything above.

We spend a lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears chasing after something that will not fulfill us.

Clawing for recognition at all costs, and silently pained when it comes to others over us.  

Because we are rarely taught the truth:

Success in a career is simply earning a living doing something you love.  

Remember that: what YOU love, not what someone else defines as “successful.”

And while we’re at it, let’s discard the myth that more money or fame equals more success.

Doing the thing is hard enough, and it is worth celebrating when you get there.

Any recognition that comes along with it is simply a bonus, but it is not required or guaranteed.

And if you do happen to earn that living doing what you love, don’t stop there…

For success is not a static entity—you must constantly improve and differentiate yourself.

And you must reevaluate if the living you are earning is sufficient both for today and for tomorrow.

Take faith in yourself and the race you are running.

And don’t trouble your mind comparing yourself to others—instead learn from them along the way.

Appreciate their struggle and celebrate in their success as you would want them to celebrate in yours.  

Let’s redefine what it means to be successful in any career, one person at a time.

On the Death of a Close Friend

“Are you sitting down?”  

There is no good way to give bad news.  It hits like an earthquake: suddenly, unrelentingly, and with countless aftershocks that are equally devastating.  It is a rare moment where the emotional world manifests as a physical force, knocking us off our feet both literally and figuratively.  I wasn’t sitting down, but even if I was this news would have pulled the floor out from underneath me.  Receiving news like this is a fact of life that I have struggled coming to terms with for many years, a specter perched in the back of my mind akin to a ticking clock: easily covered up with white noise, yet persistently poking through the subconscious.  

It wasn’t until 2 hours after that phone call that the news of Jason Ryan’s passing began to sink in.  As I began my first show on the two show day, I recalled a text he sent me out of the blue several months ago when Hamilton opened in Orlando:  

“Hey bud!  I wanted to make it down for the show but I am still on the job search and haven’t landed anything yet.  I would have loved to come and see the show!  I’m sorry I couldn’t make it but keep me posted as to where you are touring!! Once I get a job I would love to come visit during a weekend.”

The thing is, I never asked him to come see me in Orlando, nor did I expect it from him.  While many of the times we’d talk would be unexpected, a unique attribute of his character has crystallized as I reflect now on those sporadic conversations: Jason treated every friendship, opportunity, and experience he had as a blessing.  In a world haunted by the past, obsessed with the future, distracted by fleeting things, daydreaming of greener pastures, and constantly making excuses, Jason created his own current with his unwavering hope, infectious love of life, and devotion to his friends.  As if his uncommon perspective wasn’t enough to leave a lasting impression on everyone in his path, Jason didn’t know a stranger.  He was simply unforgettable, and in the moment when you hadn’t thought about him for awhile, you’d get a message that would brighten your day.  

________

In the Fall of 2010, I piled my life high into my car and caravanned with my parents to Stetson University for move in day.  A haze of reluctance and insecurity hung in the air: after six years with the same class of just north of 100 students at Trinity Prep, I was fearful and ill-equipped to handle even the slightest of changes.  Enter Jason Ryan.  He was the first person I met at Stetson on Orientation Day as he was a Focus Leader.  Donning a bright green plastic Stetson Hat and a voice full of joy, he was a ball of energy that quickly snapped me out of my timid reluctance to begin this new chapter.  He was that upperclassman friend that invited me to join his group at lunch, included me on his crazy shenanigans with and without Nerf guns, instilled in me a love and pride for our School of Music, and inspired me to work as hard as I could while showing me that it was still possible to enjoy the ride.  

He never asked me to join Phi Mu Alpha.  He never had to.  His genuine gravity pulled me in-how could I not want to be a part of the things to which he was so dedicated?  When I discovered he was my big brother, I was ecstatic-but I could never have predicted how enduring and special our friendship would be.  Aside from being such a great mentor, inspiration, and friend, he always made the time to go the extra mile.  I’ll never forget one special Saturday he had told me to set aside completely for a surprise.  A week or two before my initiation, he showed up at my dorm first thing in the morning and asked if I didn’t mind driving.  It was about two hours down the road through the Ocala National Forest and off I-75 at a gas station in Lake City that he surprised me with two tickets to see the FSU football game, my childhood home team.  While the Marching Chiefs played the National Anthem center field, he caught the attention of our entire section as his rich bass-baritone voice belted out the words, bel-canto style.  Needless to say, in typical Jason fashion, we made a lot of friends that day.

Although we had not lived in close proximity after he graduated for most of this decade, our friendship endured.  I visited him twice in Boston, first to attend his Master’s Recital at New England Conservatory, and second to stay with him and his soon-to-be fiancé, Matt, while I auditioned at Boston University for their Master’s program.  Most recently, Raveena and I caught up with him and Matt months after they moved to New York while I was on vacation from Hamilton.  Though it had been years since we had seen each other last, our friendship seamlessly picked back up as if no time had passed, and I could already feel his gravity adding to the force pulling me back to New York.  As we talked more in the coming months, his presence in The City made me so excited for life after tour, a future of finally living in the same place once again after so many years spent at a distance.  

________

There have been so many questions running through my head since Sunday: How could this happen? Why him? Why now?  But the one that I keep coming back to is What can I do now?  Nothing in life can prepare you for the death of a loved one, and I am at a loss trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces.  What I do know for sure is that I have not cherished life and my experiences the way Jason did, I have not kept up with old friends and made every effort to make those relationships enduring like he did, and I have routinely talked myself out of tackling big goals instead of relentlessly whittling away at them with hope and passion as was so characteristic of him: needless to say, there is still so much to learn from him even after his passing.  They say that after death we live on in the memories we shared with others, the love we gave freely to others, and the many ways we affected those whose paths we crossed…And while I had taken that statement at face value up to this point in life, I cannot think of a person this describes better than Jason and the legacy he has left on all of the people in his life.  So thank you, Jason Ryan, for teaching us all what it means to be a great human, a kind soul, a loving friend, an inspiring artist, and a spring of hope.

________

To the Stetson School of Music community, I cannot think of another student who loved and believed in the School with the fire that he did.  

To the Brothers of Phi Mu Alpha, I cannot think of an individual who better embodied those qualities we hold near and dear to our hearts.  

I have never been to a Senior Recital in which a single musician both filled an entire 800 seat hall and simultaneously entranced each soul to gracious silence (and I haven’t heard of one since).

I have never known a person who loved life and the people he shared it with as much as he did.  

The earthquake from his untimely passing has brought forth a tidal wave of love and beautiful memories universally from all of those he touched in life, a truly uncommon and incredible sight to behold.  

 

20 Things I’ve Learned on Tour

Reflections on 1 year on tour with Hamilton

 20 things I learned about work, life, and myself.

  1. It is absolutely vital for your well-being and happiness to have friends at work.
  2. If it feels scary, then it’s probably the right thing.  
  3. Walkable cities with reliable and diverse public transportation systems are the best.
  4. Getting to watch shows instead of playing in them is a blessing.  
  5. When your environment is constantly changing and you strip away the people and things that make you feel “home,” then you begin to discover who you truly are and what you truly want. 
  6. Even introverts have a limit to how much time they can spend alone.  
  7. Four weeks in Vegas is too much.
  8. Sprinting is based on talent, Distance Running is based on character.  
  9. AirBnBs are better than Hotels.
  10. The people around you are incredible resources-listen to them, learn from them, and collaborate with them.  
  11. There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing on a day off. 
  12. If you don’t practice, you won’t get any better.  
  13. Never forget to take care of yourself, because no one else will.
  14. Vacations are just as much for you as they are for your coworkers. 
  15. Hold on tight to the people that know the real you and love you all the more for it.  
  16. If you aren’t a voice to make things better, then you are inviting complacency.  
  17. Nothing beats a home-cooked meal and sleeping in your own bed.  
  18. Despite the day to day ups and downs of life, make every effort to enjoy the ride-because you never know when it will end.  
  19. “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” -C. S. Lewis
  20. Give 100% of yourself to everything you do, otherwise you are wasting both yours and everyone else’s time.  

P.S. I love my job, and I love you guys.

I’m Thankful…

For my Parents

For their authoritative yet understanding demeanor; for their unyielding support of my passions; for knowing when to save me and when to let me fall; for encouraging me to be myself; for always making time for me and always being there when I perform; for demonstrating the power of actions over words; for teaching me how to lead by example.

For my Brothers 

For picking up where my Parents left off; for teaching me how to be cool; for showing me how it feels to be accepted for who I am; for the never ending advice and encouragement at a moment’s notice; for sharing with me: time, energy, experiences, love.

For my Family

For always giving me love, no matter how much or little we see each other…even if we barely know each other; for always showing genuine interest in my life; for welcoming me with open arms; for being patient with me as I learn what it means to love unconditionally, as I grow older and understand the true value of family.

For my Friends

For accepting me for who I am and how I am: at my best and at my worst; for giving me their time and energy; for being inclusive; for being honest, even when it’s hard; for being equally supportive in my successes and failures; for teaching me what it means to be a good friend.

For my Teachers

For having the courage to teach me how to teach myself; for being patient when I don’t understand or work hard enough; for teaching me to love the journey more than the destination; for pulling me off the floor after failure and pulling my head out of the clouds after success; for showing me that there is always more to learn.

For my Job

For giving me the opportunity to perform for so many people; for teaching me consistency; for showing me just how amazing work can be; for allowing me to do what I love every day; for connecting me to people that teach me and push me to be better; for proving to me that I can do it.

For Music

For giving me a language far more expressive and personal than words; for being the soundtrack to my life; for comforting me in hard times and exciting me in happy ones; for bringing people together; for providing an artistic channel in which to process raw emotion into something more; for giving a voice to my creative energy.

For the Naysayers

For pushing me to realize my full potential; for helping me to understand what I truly want in life; for teaching me that I cannot please everyone; for keeping me unsatisfied, ever reaching higher.

Position is Key

There is a disconnect between the short term and the long term: we live day to day with different moods, roadblocks, and routines, yet our minds dream big with distant goals pushing us forward and giving us a reason to applaud or admonish ourselves each day.  How can we overcome unpredictability of the short term in order to realize our dreams in the long term?

I watched a video the other day on the Galton Board and was taken by the random, unpredictable paths of the balls producing the same predictable shape every time (in order to understand how it works, you only need to watch up to 2:30 on the video).  While it is practically impossible to predict the path of any one of the balls, bounces to the left and bounces to the right are equally likely-so most of them will fall directly below where they start.

This experimentally proven result is a metaphor for the seemingly random journey to achieving our goals.  While it is easy to obsess over each day hoping for a favorable bounce, it is far more beneficial to put time and effort into positioning ourselves to accomplish what we want and letting the inconsistencies and randomness of the day to day work themselves out in the long run.  Instead of worrying about what we cannot control, we should instead have faith that there are many possible paths to realize our goals (often paths we are consciously unaware of), despite any day to day setbacks we may encounter.

I did not have a clear path to success when I moved to New York last October, just some skills, some connections, and an audition.  While I still cannot fully comprehend how quickly things fell into place to lead me to Hamilton, I firmly believe moving to The City, taking every opportunity I could throughout my life to build a unique skill set, and making friends along the way put me in the position directly above where I wanted to be.  Even if things had not worked out, chances are I would have landed close to where I wanted to be, on a similar path to realizing my personal goals.

The next time you have a rough day and your personal frustration is building, I challenge you instead to take a moment, reaffirm what your long term goal is, and ask yourself “am I in the best possible position within my control to achieve this?” If the answer is no, then adjust your position accordingly to increase your odds; and if the answer is yes, take a deep breath and do not worry about setbacks of today knowing that the odds are in your favor.

Perfectionism: A Tale of Two Races

How can you measure perfection?  In the context of a test, a perfect score means getting all the questions correct.  This requires defining a standard by which to measure all of the participants, but a perfect score is not a guarantee for the very thing a test seeks to measure: the understanding and assimilation of material.

How then do we measure perfection in the context of a performance?  On one hand, it is nearly impossible to define a universal rubric by which to measure a performance given the sheer number of details involved.  This has quickly become apparent to me because personal opinions about the strength of any given show varies depending on who I ask.

In what seems like a former life, I studied Chemistry alongside Music.  One of my favorite teachers said something that has stuck with me for years: he routinely told his students that grades meant nothing to him and that we should not obsess over them.  Instead, he said our focus should be on learning and understanding the material as fully as possible and that grades would naturally work themselves out-brilliant advice that was definitely against the grain at a prep school full of kids employing every tactic to raise their GPA in order to stand out on their college applications.

Artists, subjected to a life of terminal perfectionism, should  take a cue from my former Chemistry teacher: focus on learning and understanding every nuance of what you are working on to the fullest as well as how the pieces fit together, and, in doing so, the accuracy and strength of performance will work itself out over time.  Knowledge itself is a journey: we can only learn at our own pace, and our limited understanding of the world around us is ever changing and much more nuanced than we are led to believe.

In the same way, learning music is also a personal race.  Many musicians, myself included, obsess over being able to reproduce the notes exactly in live performance; however, it is quite possible to perform perfectly and completely miss the connections with the music and the audience.  When you set perfect execution as the highest goal, you place yourself in a race against everyone else in your field with the only hope of differentiation being that you come in First Place.  This is a race that is near impossible to win, “A race to the bottom,” as Seth Godin calls it.

Rather, let us strive to speak through what we create, to connect those who listen to the world we have discovered through our own learning process, and to achieve something far beyond simply playing what’s on the page.  These goals require so much more than simply learning the notes: they require a complete understanding of what we are performing in the same way that success in Chemistry requires more than simply acing every test.  With these goals comes the development of individuality, artistry, and community.  This is the race worth running, and the beautiful thing about this race is that there is room for everyone who has something unique to say.

Be Prepared

As of Friday, May 4th, I have performed Hamilton 100 times.  This is incredibly hard for me to wrap my head around as this time last year I had just performed my Master’s Recital and was weeks away from graduation with nothing certain on the horizon except a desire to move to New York City.  Upon further inspection of the 100 performances to sold out crowds approaching 3000 people per show is the realization that we have performed Hamilton for close to 300,000 people…and all it took was three months of touring and performing eight shows a week.  What’s even more incredible is that despite only a handful of technical issues and one case of a flying prop into the orchestra pit, the show has been incredibly smooth and consistent thus far. 

So, how did we put the entire show together in a little over a week?  How did the band establish a cohesiveness within our first, nine-hour rehearsal day?  And how did we unite our cohesiveness with the cast and crew that had been working separately for many months before we even came into the picture in just a couple short rehearsals?  From my limited perspective, I believe a combination of three interdependent factors led to smooth sailing from the beginning: personal preparation, high expectations, and a universal excitement surrounding the show.  First, with our extremely limited rehearsal time together and a sold out crowd waiting for us nine days after our first rehearsal, we had to individually be able to play the show cold before we even walked in the door.  Beyond this, we had to already have a deep understanding of the interconnectivity of the orchestration beyond our individual parts, which would be expanded as we played together more.  However, this personal preparation would be unsuccessful without the high expectations pushing each of us to our limits in the months leading up to the first rehearsal.  If left to our own devices, we would have been stuck in the “good enough” mindset with no desire to overachieve.  Finally, the magic glue that brought everything together was the sense of excitement surrounding this show: it put us in the right mindset during our preparation, it coated our interactions with others in professionalism and mutual respect, and it reinvigorated us in the moments when we were physically and mentally worn out.  On their own, preparation, expectation, and excitement are extremely important factors that drive us to work our hardest, but it is the combination of all three that make Hamilton a reality eight times a week.  

A year ago, I could have never imagined that my first audition would prove fruitful, but once the shock of success wore off I realized the magnitude of the responsibility I was given: I was tasked with performing the same show eight times a week, 52 weeks a year to capacity crowds with sky-high expectations.  I knew this would require a level of consistency, endurance, and relaxation both mentally and physically that I had yet to realize in my playing.  While I had done strings of performances of the same works before (week-long runs of musicals, operas, and other concerts), I had never done eight shows a week in which I was single-handedly responsible for playing my part-usually I was part of a section of violins all playing the same part.  I knew that I would need to fundamentally re-engineer my process of preparation and practice in order to produce results I had never before attained.  For this post, I will explain the process of preparation that I undertook in detail, focusing for now on the months leading up to the first rehearsal.  While I am aware that my process will not prove fruitful for everyone who tries it (since every individual has different strengths, weaknesses, and drivers), I am nevertheless compelled to share the many facets of my preparation as to inspire others to delve headfirst into their passions without fear of failure.  

During the audition process, I was given the opportunity to sit in the pit at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York to watch the musicians perform Hamilton.  Although I was not as familiar with the full score by that point (I had been focusing primarily on the songs I had to audition with), it was an incredibly insightful and eye-opening experience to see and hear how the original quartet (the same one that performed on the soundtrack) plays the show: from the technical elements like articulations, note lengths, and timing with the click to musical elements like phrasing and use of vibrato.  This completely transformed my approach to the music and greatly informed my months of preparation, which I will detail next.    

In the months leading up to the first rehearsal, something my former drum teacher repeatedly told me stuck in my head: “Prepare 200% so that when you’re nervous or having an off day you can still deliver and exceed expectations.” However, doing this is not as black and white as simply practicing twice as much as you think you need to: preparing a musical book is like doing the multi-faceted, semester long assignment that integrates everything you’ve learned up to that point…and don’t even think about procrastinating.  This was very much uncharted territory for me, and all I could think of was how I would not be able to re-record at all in live performance (I was able to do this as much as I wanted for my audition).  So, my ultimate goal was to apply the same deep-level technical and musical understanding to the entire book as I did for the audition songs, to gain a complete context of how my part fit in with the rest of the quartet, band, and vocals, and finally, to be able to perform this consistently and accurately.  In order to make the most of my time, I purposefully overestimated the amount of work I had to do and underestimated the speed at which I could accomplish this.  

From many years of experiencing different practice and rehearsal techniques while saving the methods that worked for me, I codified something I call “Layered Practicing:” a combination of studying without an instrument in hand and then learning and re-learning the same music through different lenses.  This practice method builds an incredibly detailed and intricate understanding while at the same time gaining an unparalleled level of familiarity and flexibility.  Before I even began playing through the book, I listened through the entire soundtrack following along with the violin part and noting the idiosyncrasies between the print and the recording in a journal.  In my first pass through, I focused primarily on technical things like note lengths, articulations, fingerings, and style while also making notes about sections I perceived would be difficult either for technical or tuning reasons.  After studying five songs, I would transfer the notes I took to my part and practice slowly to absorb the intricacies of the part while applying what I learned from my homework.  Once I got through all 50 songs, I repeated the process-this time focusing on musical aspects like phrasing, use of vibrato, dynamics, and timing.  As I became more familiar with my part, I would isolate sections of certain songs to practice slowly each day for mostly technical reasons and then slowly put them in context and work up to speed in a variety of different rhythms, accents, bowings, and articulations in order to fully ingrain the patterns in my head and fingers.  I slowly worked from playing sections of songs, whole songs, strings of songs, whole acts, and finally, the whole show.  As I played through more and more, I was able to focus less on my part and more on how it fit in with the others: I made notes in rests as to other instruments playing or the passing of motivic ideas as well as times I was playing with others.  Meanwhile, I continued listening to the soundtrack in a variety of environments and focusing on different elements to glean other details subconsciously.  

After a month and a half of practicing and studying this way, I met with Jonathan Dinklage, the Concertmaster/Violin 1 chair for Hamilton in New York, in order to ask a couple questions I had concerning how the quartet should fit in with the ensemble in terms of timing and intonation, concerning the job description of the “concertmaster” in the context of a string quartet, and concerning other general things including how he would recommend I practice in my last month before rehearsals.  In order to make the transition between practice and performance as smooth as possible, he gave me a recording of the video feed from the conductor camera with audio to practice running the show as it would be in a live performance.  He said this is how he would prepare the show if he was subbing and added:

“Practice running the show along with this video while counting every rest and focusing on every detail-until you cannot take it anymore.  If you do this, you will have a fantastic first show, and a terrible second show-but then you will be good!”

And so, in addition to the process I had already begun before, I began working my way up to full run-throughs with the conductor video while noting any additional differences between this new recording and what I had grown to expect from my prior study.  In essence, after learning the show completely with the studio recording, I completely re-learned the show with the conductor video a month and a half later, from the ground up.  By learning the show in a variety of different ways with slightly different variations, I was paving the way to be more sensitive and flexible with the company I would eventually be working with on the Philip Tour.  In order to build stamina in a healthy way, I started by running the show once or twice a week, eventually building to a run-through every day the week prior to our first rehearsal.  Finally (flashback to the beginning of my preparation), I knew that in addition to being able to do everything aforementioned, I would need to greatly improve some basic things about my violin playing alongside learning the book.  In my practice journal, I wrote the following things down to be consciously and subconsciously working on during my preparation:

Intonation in all keys, always

Clean relaxed shifts, always

Clean strokes on arco, no extra noise

Better string crossings and bow changes

Relaxed, precise trills (all dynamics)

Relaxed, precise tremolos (all dynamics)

These are things that I am still working on improving every day on tour, even after 100 shows-they take a lifetime to truly master.  However, I know that I have made tremendous progress on them by writing them down and keeping them in mind over the last couple months.  

In the end, I walked into our first rehearsal feeling 100% confident in my personal preparation, and quickly learned the absolute joy of experiencing what it feels like to put a show together with an entire band, cast, and crew that had spent months preparing for this moment.  The ease with which the show came together in just over a week is a testament to incredible preparation, high expectations, and the magic that surrounds Hamilton.  As someone who had never been satisfied with my preparation in the past, I believe this process showed me the mindset that pushes me to accomplish things I didn’t think possible as I said before: overestimating the amount of preparation needed and underestimating the speed with which it can be accomplished.  I have more stories and lessons from the days following our rehearsals and first performances, but I will save those for other posts.  Even though my lessons or recipe for preparation may not resonate with everyone, I hope that laying my process and thoughts bare will help you to realize that you too are capable of accomplishing the things you feel are unattainable.