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.  

What Comes Next?

These last few weeks have been an absolute whirlwind, and I have had a lot of trouble finding words to express my thoughts and emotions as of late.  With regard to social interactions this is not such a surprise seeing as I am very much an introvert; however, this phenomenon has been amplified recently by the onslaught of new experiences and people in my life.  In the midst of big changes, my initial reaction has been one of quiet observation, and while this vantage point can be a bit lonely at first, it has brought to light some interesting ideas.  In an effort to process my thoughts of the last couple weeks (so I can hopefully break out of my introvert shell), here’s a couple connections I have made.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts I grew up in Orlando, Florida, and while I did not spend my entire childhood at Disney World (shocker, right?) I was heavily steeped in Disney mythology like most American kids.  Probably the most striking commonality of all these stories is the “Happily Ever After” ending-a sleight of hand that compresses a life story into a tumultuous series of events bookended by stability and happiness.  When we are young, we are often led to believe in the myth of “Happily Ever After,” that everything will come together magically all at once and then life is pure bliss.  But this fairy tale ending begs the question, What Comes Next?

In the context of performing Hamilton, this question has been particularly pertinent to me-not only because “What Comes Next” is the name of a song from the show, but also because we give eight performances each week.  We all work hard, play our hearts out, go out to celebrate, and then go to sleep; however, when we wakeup, we must repeat this same cycle (sometimes twice) each day.  It was brutally obvious, even from the first rehearsal, that playing for this show is not a game of speed, but a game of distance – a job that tests consistency and pacing from show to show.  The dichotomy between sprinting and distance running is reflected in the contrast between the world we see in movies, shows, and plays on one hand, and the world we live in every day on the other.  It is easy to live life in search of the next big thing – to live in a state of perpetual boredom and routine until a highlight comes to break the monotony; however, there is so much more enjoyment in celebrating the journey rather than focusing on the elusive destination…but how to do this?

A former teacher once described the difference between a student and a professional as this: the student practices until they get something right, whereas the professional practices until they don’t get it wrong.  The realization that “Happily Ever After” is never certain mirrors the shift in objectives that occurs when students become professionals.  You can practice like a student and nail the first rehearsal, but what will you do for the next rehearsals or the concert?

When I look back on my time in college and grad school, I remember struggling most in my weekly private lessons.  It was very clear in my academic classes and orchestra rehearsals what the expectations were from my professors; however, lessons are a bit more freeform because the only thing limiting progress is what you individually are capable of achieving on a week-to-week basis (since you’re not at the mercy of the pace of an entire class).  While it is easy for me to make observations now that I’m no longer in the middle of it, I wish I had made this connection in my college and grad school studies rather than seeing my objective as solely what my teacher asked for in a given week.  Now that I am the sole person driving my practice and defining my goals and expectations, I am starting to realize the unique challenges of being your own teacher while at the same time garnering more and more appreciation for those who helped me learn and grow as a musician.

A landmark experience in my music education was attending Brevard Music Festival for two summers as a college student.  Aside from the amazing music making that happened there every week, the incredible location nestled in the Appalachian Mountains provided an experiential fulfillment unlike any other.  I took every opportunity to drive up on the Blue Ridge Parkway and just take it all in: from the scenic views with the accompanying silence and peace of the mountain air, to the dizzying roads and near misses with oncoming traffic.  The Parkway stretches on for almost 500 miles (which at a max speed of 40mph takes quite awhile!) and has a similar number of overlooks, which were definitely the highlights of these drives.  The overlooks provide an interesting parallel to real life: you never know what you will see or when they will come up, and sometimes they come up too quickly for you to stop and turn off the road or you simply drive past them without noticing if you’re not looking for them.  It is easy to stop at an overlook overwhelmed by the view and feeling like you’ve arrived at the end of the road, but if you keep going chances are you’ll find something different and even more stunning.  Similarly, if you’re expecting every overlook to be a postcard view, you will undoubtedly be disappointed more often than not as reality may not always live up to your expectations.  Instead, let us resolve to enjoy the journey without focusing on the destination, let us resolve not to sell ourselves short with exclaiming “Happily Ever After,” and also, let us resolve not to be discouraged by the uncertainty of What Comes Next.  The road continues on, and there is plenty more to see and do if you’re looking in the right places.

Go West

Hello everybody!  I’m sorry it has been so long since I wrote last-it has been a very busy month and a half.  For this post I have a lot of different things that I want to talk about, and so I hope you all will humor me as I open the floodgates and let the words spill out for the first time in weeks.  I’ll see you on the other side…

2017 was a year of incredible change.  I began the year with a mind full of questions, an endless to-do list, and thick clouds obstructing my future gaze.  “What comes next,” my friends and family asked me ad nauseum.  “Perform my Masters recital, graduate, move to New York, and be a musician,” I replied nervously.  It was a year of making plans and then having to change them last minute due to unforeseen circumstances or new opportunities.  This is a tale of new beginnings.

My original plan to move to New York did not work out in the time frame I had anticipated, which caused me to move back home to Florida for a couple months-just in time for Hurricane Irma.  I have nothing against moving back home after school or people that choose to do that, but I knew even before graduating that this was not a path that would lead me where I wanted to be in my life or my career.  So, for me to have to take this pivot step felt like a failure in many ways and my mind ran as wild as the hurricane outside: either my plan to move was not well thought out or it was some sign that I was not meant to move to New York (or some other variation of these thoughts).  With every passing day, the thought of starting over somewhere else became more and more difficult to fathom as the stakes became higher, and with that New York seemed to fade away from feasibility.

Then something changed-opportunities started to pop up.  One conversation with an old friend opened the possibility of subletting his apartment in Harlem.  While mulling this over, another opportunity emerged that led to my audition for the 2nd National Tour of Hamilton on violin.  Within weeks, I went from considering staying at home in Orlando for a year to having a place in New York with a lead on a possible job.  Too good to be true?  It definitely felt that way; however, I knew I would never get another shot like this.  I will say though-as intense as the audition process was, it was no match for waiting for that callback (detailed in my post “Wait for It”).

In Seth Godin’s blog this past week, he had a post entitled “Beginning is Underrated” in which he wrote about the beauty of diving headfirst into something new and unknown-focusing on endless possibility instead of obsessing over the impossibility of preparing adequately.  For many of us, including me, this approach does not come naturally-it is hard to be filled with wonder when you’re caught in a web of questions.  With age comes an increased awareness of the complexity of everything, and so it follows that over-thinkers like me will become more and more hesitant to start something new as we grow older since we recognize more and more how many pieces need to fit together just right in order for success to come.  It is a commonly held belief that learning a new language, a musical instrument, or a sport is much, much harder once you’re an adult; however, I believe the pattern of overthinking that I described earlier (something we develop as adults) is largely to blame for giving children the upper hand in learning a new skill.

Approaching something new with a childlike frame of mind is very similar to the teaching philosophy in the book The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey.  In this book, Gallwey argues that the best way to learn is to observe others and objectively experiment without falling into the trap of judgment and negative self-talk, a pattern of behavior that has been especially problematic for me.  Even in practice I often fear making mistakes to the point that tension creeps into my playing and my mind is consumed by negativity instead of creativity.  Recognizing this voice as simply a product of the adult mind is key to unlocking the power to temper its influence.  The mind is like an apartment building in the City, and your conscience is merely a single tenant: while you may not have so much control over who moves into the building as it gets older, you can choose which guests to let in to your personal space.

Back to the story-through a carefully orchestrated series of events that I could not have foreseen or possibly put into place (read: Divine intervention), I got the job as a touring violinist with Hamilton for their 2nd National Tour!  Thus began the eye of the hurricane: a period of relative quiet from November until late January in which I learned the music, enjoyed the holidays with my family and friends, and mentally prepared for the rest of the storm to come.  “In the eye of a hurricane there is quiet for just a moment-a yellow sky.” 

In the weeks leading up to departing for Seattle for the tour, so many questions filled my mind: What would come next?  How would rehearsals be?  Did I prepare enough?  Am I ready for this big leap?  Seth Godin’s post that I referenced above came at the perfect time-after doing all of the preparation, I realize that I got this opportunity largely by diving in head-first and not letting myself be consumed by doubt, and this is exactly the frame of mind I need in order to be successful in what will come next.  And boy, what a joy it is to be here at the beginning of something amazing surrounded by people who are so excited, prepared, and driven to bring artistry to every aspect of this incredible show.  I cannot imagine ever calling this “work,” for it is far too inspiring, fulfilling, and fun to ever be given such a title.

So, in a couple month’s time I go from hoping to move to New York to starting the Hamilton Tour in Seattle-a new beginning by any measure.  Here’s to starting anew, throwing caution to the wind, and giving it my all without fear of failure…I encourage you to come along for the ride, to “Go West.”

Wait For It

Within the last month, I have tried on no less than five separate occasions to see Yayoi Kusama’s Festival of Life exhibit at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea.  The key emphasis is on tried because each time I went the line was down the block and completely wrapped around the building, and on at least two of those days it was cold and raining as well.  I tried morning, afternoon, evening, weekend, and weekday-still the line seemed to be getting longer and longer each time.  Now, growing up in Orlando, I consider myself a professional at waiting in lines because it is just how life is there: you wait in line at Disney World, Universal, trendy restaurants and bars, and also on I-4, which is the only way to get to any of those places.  However, I chose not to wait because I believed eventually, whether by luck or probability, I would find a time where I would not have to wait so long.  Finally today (on my second try of the day, mind you), I found the line to be miraculously short and jumped at the chance to see this exhibit that I had heard so much about.  Wow!  What an incredible experience-one that you could only get in New York!

While many of you have been waiting for me to post again, I have been waiting for many things to happen these last couple of weeks too.  Who is good at the Waiting Game, a tumultuous time between test and result where nothing happens?  Blindfolded, on a rollercoaster train slowly ascending a seemingly endless lift hill-every passing second fills you with more potential energy and adrenaline; however, you are pinned to your seat at the mercy of the invisible track laid out in front of you.  Will it be a long ride or a short ride?  Will it be intense or light?  Smooth or Rough?  To seasoned veterans it is easy to resist being consumed by the possibility of what lies ahead and to instead occupy life’s loading screen with other productive activities…but I’m realizing that I am not so good at removing myself from thinking and overthinking about what comes next.  I’m also quickly discovering that this skill is key to being successful in New York.

There are so many things I want to say in regards to what has been happening since I wrote last on November 13.  For the moment, however, I will focus on a lesson that has been proven to me through this last month and countless times beforehand.  Opportunities are seeds with the possibility to blossom into beautiful trees or to simply vanish into the ground never to be seen again.  Similarly, whether or not you obsess over taking care of a seed, it will grow or fail on its own time often due to circumstances that are out of your control.  While it is scary to think of failure outright, comfort comes when you recognize that any opportunity, big or small, begins as a tiny seed-a simple possibility devoid of description.  Therefore, It seems most advantageous to plant as many seeds as possible and disconnect yourself from the hope or weight that they might carry after you have done everything you can to facilitate their success.  Also, it follows suit to treat every opportunity, seemingly big or small, with tremendous importance.  All seeds look small, unimposing, and equal to our eyes; however, each one carries a tremendous, unseen potential that makes cultivating worth the time and effort.

Regardless of the amount of opportunities you are given in life, it is of the utmost importance to throw your full strength and effort into each one.  Never allow yourself to fall into a habit of underperforming in any context regardless of the perceived size or importance of an opportunity.  Your life is the sum of your experiences, and your legacy is the prevailing impression you leave behind on your family, friends, enemies, superiors, and colleagues.  You never know which opportunity or person will open doors for you in the future; therefore, make your own luck by cultivating every seed with love, care, and passion.  Make an impression on everyone in your path by working to leave each job, organization, or school better than it was when you opened the door for the first time.  Instead of obsessing over the possibility, do what you can to ensure each seed is prosperous and then let it grow on its own.  Treat each seed as if it will grow into a massive tree, and once you have done the work have patience.  If it doesn’t work out do not worry, for there are always more seeds to plant.

The Stages of Big Changes

Realization.  It has been about 3 weeks since I’ve sat down and blogged, and I must say a lot has happened since then!  Last time I wrote, I was on the eve of moving to New York City and beginning my life here as a freelance violinist.  And just a little over two weeks ago, I walked out of JFK airport with two large suitcases, a violin, a backpack, and a mind full of variations on the question “what would happen next?”

Hesitation.  With four bags and what seemed like the weight of the world on my shoulders, I arrived to my apartment in Harlem, carried my bags up the stairs, slid the key inside and turned…but the lock did not budge.  I tried the other key I had, but to no avail-only then realizing I had never before tested these keys my friend had left me.  In a panic, I tried both keys again but this time turning the opposite way (counterclockwise), and finally was able to get the door open.  I know it’s a little detail, but through this one experience I could tell that I had no idea what this next chapter would bring, despite all the preparations I had made and scenarios I had played out endlessly in my head.

Indecision.  After settling in, I realized that it was getting late and I hadn’t had a bite to eat all day.  Longing to get out of the apartment and see my new surroundings, I took the D Train to one place I knew I’d have many options (and prolong my Indecision)-Rockefeller Center.  I know that’s a total tourist move, but seeing as I come from Orlando I consider myself a professional tourist-plus I was far too tired to engage my Anthony Bourdain sleuthing skills to find the perfect hipster restaurant off the beaten path.  Anyway, I get to Rock Center, grab my Potbelly sandwich, and sit down-only to realize there are no seats available…anywhere.  Once again, I realize how New York life has betrayed my Florida instincts-first the lock on the door, and now the underlying assumption that a $10 sandwich comes with the guarantee of a place to sit and eat it.  Tired and hungry, I pace back and forth between the three seating areas overlooking the ice skating rink hoping to find a table.  After a couple visits, I see an occasional table free up; however, by the time I recognize them and begin to hurry towards them, someone else beats me there and my generous, quiet personality admits defeat.  It was a scene straight out of a sitcom-baby New Yorker’s first venture on his own.  Driven by hunger, I began to cast aside this generosity and replaced it with determination in my steps-now it was only a matter of time before I found a place.  Just like any other opportunity in life, finding a place to sit down in New York requires being in the right place at the right time with the right attitude.  I find it funny and quite entertaining that basic facets of life in The City (unlike life in other places) teach its inhabitants these life lessons.

Wonder.  It’s amazing how a simple change of attitude will completely change your perspective.  After conquering the specters of Indecision and Hesitation, as well as recognizing that I did indeed possess the skills (or the determination to learn them) in order to eat in New York, there was suddenly a world of possibility that opened up to me: absolutely anything I could imagine eating, drinking, buying, doing for a living, or doing for fun was available to me in this City.  As I strolled through Central Park I began to think about opportunities and career paths and how I have seen them in the past.  Often in the classes and seminars I took on career development, we would analyze an artist or professional’s path retrospectively-from the beginning, but already knowing the end result.  This practice, however, skews the career paths to look extremely clear and linear (like normal blocks on the New York grid), whereas in the moment they are often quite curved, hidden, and full of branching paths (like pathways in Central Park).  This newfound Wonder combined with the reassurance that lacking a clear path forward is indeed how life looks for every person pushed the drive within me to the speed of a New York Minute.

Focus.  Now is the time to work, to give it everything and then some-because life depends on the fruits of labor.  You will never have this moment back, and if you do not use it well you will relinquish your successful future and cease to make your own luck.  This is the cusp of something big-what will come next?  As long as you work as hard as you can, meet as many people on the way, push yourself outside of your comfort zone, and find a way to enjoy the ride-it doesn’t matter what comes next.  Despite the possibility of twists, turns, forks, and obstructions, I will embrace this path forward and learn to love the journey instead of being preoccupied with the destination.


From a Drummer to a Violinist – A Lesson

On Christmas morning, when I was 6 years old, all my dreams came true.  As absurd as that statement may sound to me now, 20 years later, it was definitely true to me at the time in my 6-year-old world with my limited life experience.  In typical fashion, I woke up first and darted down the hallway to the family room, and awaiting me at the other end of the house was a small, black Mapex drum set.  Little did I know, this drum set would unlock so many doors in my life-and also flood me with a plethora of questions from friends and family.

I had started the violin a year before, and no one could seem to wrap their head around the combination of instruments.  Playing drums and violin was like wearing purple and yellow together or bringing your cat to the dog park, and to answer the most asked question I ever received-no I cannot play them both at the same time.  However, playing drums did expose me to music and ensembles I would have never known had I only stuck with the violin.  While many found the combination of instruments puzzling, I find that I learned lessons from drums that influenced my violinist perspective and vice-versa.  This is especially apparent to me now after studying violin almost exclusively for the past 7 years and keeping drums up only as I had the chance.

I recently played for a funeral back in Orlando in which I had to arrange a pop song for violin and voice.  Having played many arrangements of pop music in various instrument combinations, I can say that my biggest complaint with these arrangements is usually the pacing.  The new version is often lacking any sense of an arc from start to finish, a sure sign that not enough thought was put into the arrangement.  However, even with a 24-hour time constraint, I found this aspect to not be too difficult, which led me to ask-how could I be able to do this with minimal formal training in composition?

The same weekend, I was playing drums at my church for their services for the first time in over a year.  I couldn’t help but realize that the regular, studio-quality musicians that play there were following my lead not only with tempo, but also more importantly with pacing.  Every build and fall was sculpted around the addition and subtraction of volume, layers, and complexity of the drum part I was playing.  In that moment, I realized that probably the biggest lesson I learned from my 20 years of playing drums was how to compose and orchestrate in real time with complexity and direction-and to do it in a way that is both convincing and tasteful.  This is a skill I probably never would have learned had I not played drums, partially because I would have never recognized its prevalence in all music if I was stuck in the orchestra hall for the rest of my life with my very limited vantage point.

I remember a conversation I had with a Doctoral Candidate at Michigan State who asked me about the history of improvised violin cadenzas-he was very adamant about prescribing improvisation to “classical” musicians in their curriculum in order to improve their creativity and musical senses.  While I used to struggle to grasp the thought that any part of a classical masterwork could be improvised on stage, I realize now that the ability to improvise with direction, cohesion, and to do it convincingly is the highest expression of musical understanding.  It is something we all must learn to do if we are to call ourselves “musicians,” and I never would have recognized its value without this epiphany I had on the drums.  A student in music school will often hear these words uttered by their professors: “give it meaning,” “make it fresh, new, exciting,” or “play it as if you are improvising.”  I always had difficulty understanding what this meant aside from “play it differently than the way you practiced it because it doesn’t sound good,” but now I think I’m starting to understand truly what it means.  It is a journey in and of itself to apply a fundamental new approach to every aspect of both learning and performing, but every work of art demands this reinterpretation, or else it falls into the pit of irrelevance.

Here’s the Link to the Northland Service from 10/8/17

Humble Beginnings

My 24-hour Trip to New York

Wake up at 6am
Shower and get ready
Dress to impress
10 pounds of life on my back
Drive to the airport
Check in and wait
Fly to Newark
Take the train to the train

Then I see the city skyline in the distance: dark, artificial clouds rising from the horizon. I know why I’m here. I know what I came for.

Meet my friend at Penn
Thai for lunch around the corner
Take the A Train
Quiet neighborhood, simple living
Small, interior, dark
Bed for a ceiling
Two and a half feet tall to wake up
Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel
Take the D train to West Village
New York pizza
Walk to Rock wood Music hall
World class blues and jazz
Snug Seating for thirty
Five feet from the stage
Friends recognize familiar faces in the band
Two beers
Take the D train back
Climb into bed

I may be confined inside, but outside is a city of endless possibilities. Here I stand, at the origin of every successful artist and young professional. While the path ahead is foggy, I can see the first stop in the distance: a humble, worn sign reading simply “Harlem.” Welcome home.


Hello, and welcome to my website!


I will soon be posting regularly about articles and books I’m reading, concerts and shows I attend or perform in, and snapshots of life.  I hope you will join me on the journey as I move to New York City and convert from the academic world to the real world!