Tag: psychology

Emotion, Through Music, As Weather

In this article, I will leave emotion ungraspable; I do not wish to speak about it definitively. Rather, I would like to focus personally on the relationship, in my life, between music and emotion, blending these two unique realms into one cohabitating discussion. What is emotion? Singularly, I do not know, but combined with music, I do have some feelings…

The secrets behind emotion have been long sought. In 1962, psychologist Robert Plutchik wrote about emotion that “there is serious question about the reliability and meaningfulness of the verbal report. In the history of psychology, it has been pointed out many times that introspecting about our own emotions often changes them.”[1] The emotional appeal of music has been equally enchanting. In ca. 397 C.E., Saint Augustine wrote, “I must testify for myself that when I am moved more by the music than by its meaning, I feel this offense should be punished, and wish I had not listened to the cantor […] But you, Lord my God, hear me, heed, look on with pity, and heal me, before whom I am made a riddle to myself, which is the symptom of my sins.”[2]

And finally, in 2008, scientist Daniel Levitin embraced mystery in his explanation of music:

Scientists are in the business of wanting proof for everything, and I find myself caught somewhere in the metaphorical middle on this issue. As a musician, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the utterly ineffable, indescribable powers of music. […] Our scientific theories have to be able to reconcile this common experience and the strong intuition that music is—dare I say it?—magical.[3]

Emotion—a thing that Robert Plutchik found impossible to scientifically report—is expressed through music in a way that a daring Daniel Levitin called “magical,” and what a conflicted Saint Augustine called a “riddle.” Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music. Like Levitin and Augustine, I am baffled too.

Perhaps “magical” “riddle” is a good working definition for emotion in music.

In the 1970s, composer John Cage used the weather to describe artistic process, observing that “many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead, they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.”[4] Like Cage’s use of this creative and non-technical definition, I will similarly use the weather as a way to discuss emotion expressed through music. This article will move like weather. And like a forecast, I hope to address what swirls around.[5]

Swirling air represents the meeting of diverse parts. Robert Plutchik acknowledged that there is a difference between “laboratory studies of pure, momentary emotions” and the “persistent mixed emotions of clinical experience.”[6] That is to say, the real-world application of emotion deals primarily in mixtures of emotions, rather than single, pure ones. Weather on Earth is complex, too: a mixing of cold and warm fronts, rainy on some days, stormy on others, partially rainy, partially stormy, partially cloudy, or partially sunny on others still. And there is no piece of music that is all any one emotion either. Good memories can be rendered only partially good through the loss of innocence; many find a deep comfort and contentment in feeling sadness. Emotion in music is an array of moving parts.

Like weather, emotions in music swirl wildly around. As disorienting as this whirlwind may be, we must never forget how fortunate we are to have the skies, the clouds, rain, thunder, lightning, and most importantly, the sun. The sustaining love of the sun is, after all, what makes all of this possible.

Nebulous as my approach may be, I hope this discussion will enrich our understanding of music, emotion, and our own selves. While I do not claim to hold technical qualifications to discuss the weather or emotional psychology, I do intend to write from my own experience, with sincerity and imagination. In the following sections, I will attempt to bring emotions to life, expressed in music, and retold as weather.

Clouds (Sadness)


Image: Mila Young

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Clouds can weigh you down: clouds can make you question the existence of the sun. When I was finishing grad school abroad, I received news from back home that my parents were divorcing. I went into a state of depression. I remember going to the practice room, taking scores out of my bag, placing them on the piano, closing the lid, resting head on my arm, and crying on my own shoulder. I would cry for hours, then pack up and leave, never touching a single key of the piano. I ended up having to reschedule my final degree recital, which in turn (through a string of incidents that would take too much space to describe), led me to an unexpected move back to the United States…

Clouds can make you question the existence of the sun.

…but clouds can also give you focus: clouds can give you a reason to not lay in the sun. When I moved back to the United States, I was left without a job, without a place to live, and without work. I was still paying rent for an apartment overseas that I was not living in, and I was struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship. I was deeply saddened by the circumstances. But, I met this dark time with fearless abandon, playing as many concerts as possible, and working tirelessly to rebuild my career in a new country. My own disenfranchisement fueled my desire to succeed.

Clouds can weigh you down, but they can also help you focus.

Rain (Tears)

A cloud in the sky can lead to rain. But tears are not just a singular cause-effect; rather, it is the grand accumulation of weight that becomes simply too heavy for a cloud to hold.

I remember the first time I heard my mother sing. She sang “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. I played the chords at the piano while she sang and played the melody with her right hand next to me. I was giving her a piano lesson, and I didn’t specifically ask her to sing, she just did it on her own. My mother brought me to tears because it was a rare joy to hear her shy, untrained voice sing without the least sense of self-consciousness. The song will never again be the same to me.

Rain is a fundamental process to the recycling of the vital element of water. Although rain is the losing of something, we need it to live.

Lightning (Shock)


Image: Elijah Hiett

Often before rain is the initial shock of lightning. The electricity of a storm is stunning—when it strikes, we are unable to do anything to counter its intensity. We can’t run towards, nor away, from lightning. Shock is the arrestation of movement, it is a primal reaction to first contact with something mysterious, powerful, and possibly dangerous.

The memory of a performance of a piece I wrote, called Accord, affected me deeply. At the first massive, crashing tone cluster that interrupts the sound of a tuning violin, I witnessed a gut reaction from an audience member in the front row. The listener’s arms, shoulders, and legs seized up, and the head pulled back as the neck tightened. The hands shot up reflexively towards the ears to cover them…

I immediately felt guilt and remorse. I was responsible for this lightning strike. I wrote this gesture in hopes that it would grab people’s attention—and I succeeded—but at what cost? As an emerging composer, I had often strived to grab attention as quickly as possible, and at any cost. It is the treasure hunt for the loudest, fastest, most terrific possible sound. (Or similarly, the softest, slowest one.)

But in this treasure hunt for the most shocking sound, I inadvertently flipped a sonic middle finger to the audience member. Did this terrifying and anxiety-inducing sound make this person into a fan of my music, or new music in general? It is doubtful.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously.

Shock is a powerful element, and it should be used wisely and cautiously. After seeing what my music had done to someone, I vowed to strive to genuinely affect listeners for the better, rather than to use shock as a ploy to garner attention at a most hollow, visceral level.

Storm (Anger)


Image: Michal Mancewicz

If lightning is the initial shock of potentially dangerous force, then the storm is the realization of that force. The storm is violent and intimidating. The storm is rain in excess.

Anger is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block.

But there is little for me to say about storms in and of themselves: I have never used anger as a motivator in listening to or playing music. I personally find within me very little creativity that is fueled by anger. For me, anger is not a profound and sustaining enough emotion to fulfill me expressively as an artist. It is a fleeting sensation that can be understood and referenced, but not used as a building block. Anger is real, but for me, it must ultimately lead to something proud, hopeful, and ecstatic. This is the art I seek. The glorious arrival at “The Great Gate of Kiev” after “Baba Yaga” in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The “Cheerful and Thankful Feelings After the Storm” in the final movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The way Nina Simone completes the second half of the song “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life.” Anger should not go unacknowledged, but it should also be overcome with something more hopeful, peaceful, and productive.

Tornado (Disorientation)

A tornado takes the land and blows it about. A tornado is disorienting, but it can also create bliss.

I, in fact, take pleasure when I am unable to identify the key center, the meter, or the exact instrumentation of a piece of music: Since my career in music relies upon my ability to identify the aspects of music as quickly and efficiently as possible, the moments where I simply do not know give me great joy.

On one occasion, I saw this same joy in a six-year-old student who was having trouble identifying the note A on the keyboard. The student, whom I will call Lance, started on C and counted out loud up the C major scale. “C, D, E, F, G…” And when Lance reached G, he would accidentally go on to “H” and then “I” and then “J.” I stopped him just before the note E became an “L” and told him that the notes on the keyboard reset at “G,” that the next note after “G” is “A.” Perhaps I explained it poorly the first time, because when Lance tried again, he made the same exact mistake, and again, I corrected him. I wanted to let him try as many times as he needed to get it right, but Lance would get it wrong over and over again, always going from “G” to “H” to “I” to “J.” After about 15 minutes of this, I became nervous that Lance would become frustrated with his failures. But he did not. Instead, he grew happier with each try. There was something comforting to his realizing that there were such mysteries that enchant the keyboard of the piano, that after “G” some “magical riddle” occurs, leaving him in a state of wonder. Eventually, I’m sure Lance will learn to not be disoriented by the challenge of moving from “G” back to “A.” And when he does, I hope he finds a new mystery from which to achieve bliss.

Clear Skies (Innocent Love)


Image: Crawford Ifland

I know now that the color blue in the sky is a refraction of the sun’s rays on the dust in our atmosphere. A clear day is really not clear at all—it never was. But I still have the memory of thinking how open and free the world is on a clear day.

The version of Western music that I learned, both academically and casually, was rooted in the glorification of great men, and in my youth, I fell to this template’s allure. I idolized the music of Great Men, and truly, with all my heart, believed they were better-than-human: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Prokofiev, Morton Feldman. But, upon closer examination, Bach sounded like a neglectful husband, Mozart seemed like a dysfunctional man-child, Chopin seemed like a caustic friend; Schumann seemed mentally ill, Wagner seemed anti-semitic, and Prokofiev seemed unnecessarily mean-spirited. And, based on some recent allegations, Morton Feldman seemed to be a sexual predator. Evidence shows that all of them were people, for better or worse.

While not a note of their music has changed, the innocent love I once had for these brilliant musical minds can never be regained. My personal overcast—clouds saturated with the knowledge and wisdom of life—have now permanently shrouded the music, re-painting the images of these fallen heroes into a murkier, more realistic, shade of humanity. It is sobering to realize the skies are no longer clear, and that they perhaps never were.

Certainly, Lance can be a lesson to us: While knowledge is power, there is still great bliss in not knowing. Ignorant, innocent love is indeed powerful. But ignorance and innocence are meant to be lost. My perspective on my innocent love is so different from the emotion as I remember it. Now, my past is viewed with the special lens a more informed perspective affords. But my pure feelings of love in the past were important, and they still travel with me.

Innocent love is a type of love you can only have once, and I am thankful for the formative memories it gave me.

The Sun (Sustaining Love)

I love the sun. The warmth of the sun is essential, and we must always acknowledge this. No matter the weather, we rely on the warmth of the sun to survive. The sun is a sustaining love.

Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

My sustaining loves in music are only a handful of composers: J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, Schumann, and just individual pieces of Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and a few others. Contemporary music sustains me in a different way: primarily, it fulfills my personal need for adventure.

As I grow out of innocent love, I am starting to really see the true loves for who they are. Some innocent loves are not sustainable—a bright street light is no star. But, many of the musical loves that sustain me now were once innocent loves too: Not all innocent love is ignorant.

The sun is the mightiest source of inspiration. No matter the weather, we can always say, “Thank goodness for the sun.” And thank goodness for emotions. And thank goodness for music.

Rain (Tears) continued

rain with doll

Image: Rhendi Rukmana

Briefly revisiting the rain, I would like to highlight some of the musical moments in my life that have brought me to tears—a necessary physical overload of emotion.

There are so many more that have faded with time. But, at least the ones I remember can be recorded. There is a beautiful, sustaining love that runs through all of these memories—perhaps this is why I remember them, and perhaps this is why they made me cry.

  • The first time I ever heard an orchestra live: An open rehearsal of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
  • The funeral service for my childhood friend, Shumie, who committed suicide. I do remember music, but I don’t remember what it was.
  • I was taking a piano lesson with my teacher in grad school, and had just broken up with my significant other.
  • I was in a practice room, playing a section of Jerome Kitzke’s Sunflower Sutra. It was the section titled “Canticle for Mary.”
  • After finishing the first run-through of my debut album, Rounded Binary.
  • The first time I heard my mother sing, singing “Across the Universe” by The Beatles.
  • Later, in private, after playing for my fiancee’s mother who was dying of cancer. We played and sang “Let It Be” by The Beatles.

…I have just said the unspeakable. I have shared my deepest emotions with a general public. Does this make you uncomfortable? Why? Are we, as a culture of humans, unable to plainly and unapologetically articulate our emotions with one another? Within the arts, the domain charged with expressing the beauty in humanity, why is this such a challenge? What is this barrier, and why is it there?


still lake

Image: Dmitry Ermakov

How and why were the sun and the stars in the sky created; how and why are emotions and music what they are? One cannot answer this without asking a more fundamental question about the origin and purpose of human existence. According to Aristotle, “the soul” is “one of the hardest things to gain any conviction about.”[7] Charles Darwin felt that in studying human expression, “close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”[8] To Oscar Wilde, “The final mystery is oneself.”[9] The list of brilliant people who were baffled by their own self is long…

The further I discuss this, the more I am baffled by the mystery of emotion, and by humanity itself. There are really no words: while experientially known, these subjects are uniquely ungraspable through discourse. So then, we must be content with beauty that is imprecise—the beauty of weather, the beauty of emotion, and the beauty of the whole of humanity—and humbly appreciate that music can in some ways express it.

1. The Emotions, by Robert Plutchik.

2. Confessions, by Saint Augustine.

3. The World in Six Songs, by Daniel Levitin.

4. In Empty Words, John Cage writes, “Many composers no longer make musical structures.  Instead they set processes going.  A structure is like a piece of furniture, whereas a process is like the weather.  In the case of a table, the beginning and end of the whole and each of its parts are known.  In the case of weather, though we notice changes in it, we have no clear knowledge of its beginning or ending.  At a given moment, we are where we are.  The now moment.”

5. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed writes, “Emotions don’t make the world go round. But they do in some sense go round.”

6. The Emotions.

7. In De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle writes, “In general, and in all ways, it is one of the hardest of things to gain any conviction about the soul.”

8. In The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin writes, “The study of Expression is difficult […] When we witness any deep emotion, our sympathy is so strongly excited, that close observation is forgotten or rendered almost impossible.”

9. De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde.

Positive Power: Develop the Growth Mindset of Success

Independent Thinking

It’s hard being a professional composer or performer! The field is flooded with talent, traditional opportunities are highly competitive, and the career path is not clear. Many changes in the music industry, technology, and the way that audiences interact with and access music have made it harder for musicians to be noticed and create sustainable careers. On the other hand, the brave new world of technology and social media, along with more creative ways to make, perform, and disseminate music and interact with new audiences, have opened up opportunities for the entrepreneurial artist.

Given the competitive nature and complexity of today’s musical landscape, it’s no wonder that musicians feel intense pressure to excel and often worry how to make it.

You are taught to go for perfection, and you inevitably feel judged on the quality of your work. However, you probably judge yourself more harshly than any music critic or panelist or audience member would, which can give rise to self-doubt and a lack of self-confidence—exacerbating the perception of the need to be “perfect.”

This creates a lot of stress that can take its toll over the long term. Yet today’s artists can benefit from a life-changing concept from positive psychology on how to deal with these pressures as they make their way in the world: the growth mindset.

What’s on your minds?

Let’s first examine what’s on the minds of the many musicians with whom I have the privilege of working when they begin to doubt themselves and think that they have to be perfect and outdo the competition.

“I am going to die at this performance because I just don’t have what it takes.”

“Every time I write for a new instrument, I feel hopeless because it will never be as good as it needs to be.”

“I totally blew that competition. I’m just a loser.”

“I’ve got to be better than everyone else in order to succeed.”

“If only the ensemble had played my piece better, we would have gotten good reviews. Now my career is going nowhere.”

Which of these sounds familiar to you?

Do you notice all those harsh judgments, permeated with an underlying fear of failure, despite your training and your talent? These thoughts create a lot of stress that can wear you down over time.

Happily, you are not doomed by these thoughts because they are only perceptions and not the truth.

In fact, you have the ability to change those thoughts and adopt a new mindset to approach challenges in the spirit of growth and experimentation, as opposed to perfectionism and fear of failure: the growth mindset of success.

The Growth Mindset of Success

The growth mindset is the brainchild of Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University whose research on the mindset of success is documented in her eminently readable book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

According to Dr. Dweck, your success turns on how you view your talent and intelligence:

Growth Mindset

The growth mindset stems from a belief that your talent and intelligence are the starting point and that success comes as a result of effort, experimentation, learning, and persistence. Those with a growth mindset are more resilient, work harder, embrace collaboration with others, and achieve greater success than those with a fixed mindset because they are motivated by the desire to grow and learn. You reach out to others for help. You examine the strategies that work and keep building on them. You discard the strategies that don’t work. And you keep the faith, no matter what!

Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset believe that you are either born with talent and intelligence or you are not, which means you cannot change how talented or smart you are. As a result, you are afraid to take risks and rock the boat because you might make a mistake—which would prove that you really are not talented. Those with the fixed mindset are locked into perfectionism. They tend to play it safe and avoid experimentation. They also shy away from asking others for help, which they perceive as sign of weakness and further proof of a lack of talent and intelligence.

The fascinating conclusion of Dr. Dweck’s research is that those with a fixed mindset are less “successful” than those with a growth mindset. And with some work, you can overcome those fixed-mindset thoughts and develop the growth mindset with a four-step process.

Young plant

How to Develop the Growth Mindset in Four Steps

Step 1. Become Aware of Your Fixed-Mindset Thoughts

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge that we all have fixed-mindset thoughts. The key is to recognize when the fixed mindset arises because that is the first step in a four-step process of change:

Musicians encounter the fixed mindset in many different situations:

  • Writing a new piece
  • In competitions and auditions
  • On stage in performance
  • Teaching
  • Alone in the practice room
  • Comparing yourself to other professionals whom you perceive to be “better” than you
  • Procrastinating for fear of not being good enough
  • Networking and having to meet new people

Pay close attention to the situations that trigger your fixed-mindset thoughts. Write them down or make a record of them over the next week so that you know exactly when to expect these negative thoughts. Notice the words that crop up in your mind that represent your fixed mindset, such as:

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I’ll never make it.
  • This is way too hard.
  • I give up.

Step 2. Affirm Your Choice to Change

Once you become aware of the situations that trigger the fixed mindset along with your fixed mindset thoughts, the next step is to convince yourself that you have the power to change.

Weigh the Evidence

One strategy is to look for evidence that supports and negates your fixed-mindset thought.

Suppose you have just left a difficult rehearsal and are thinking, “I just don’t have what it takes to make it. I’m such a loser.”

What evidence supports this thought?

  • I did not play as well as I wanted.
  • I didn’t win the last competition that I entered.

How about the evidence that negates this thought?

  • One tough rehearsal does not doom me to failure.
  • After a rough rehearsal, I work really hard and I don’t give up.
  • I am committed to figuring out a better way.
  • I played beautifully at my last recital.
  • I enjoy a challenge.

By doing this exercise, you are challenging that initial fixed-mindset thought and reaffirming your commitment to overcoming your obstacles and working hard towards creating success. This is the growth mindset at work!

Document your successes

Another exercise that affirms the growth mindset is a success journal where you document your successes and outline the process you used to create that success. Not only is the list a great reminder that you have in fact experienced success, but it also shows that success comes about through hard work, focus, persistence, learning from mistakes, and resilience.

Step 3. Answer with a Growth-Mindset Voice

The third step in adopting the growth mindset is to answer your fixed-mindset thought with a growth-mindset thought:

What can you say in response to the fixed-mindset thought?

  • I’ve done it before and I can do it again.
  • I am committed to handling this situation.
  • What can I learn from this?
  • What will I do next time?

You can find the right words from your success journal.

Another technique is to imagine what you are like at your best. Think about an actual experience of optimal performance, such as your last wonderful musical performance, the terrific piece you wrote last month, or a heavenly improvisation session. What are you like in this situation? Write down the words that describe you at your best and use those words to replace your fixed-mindset thoughts.

Step 4. Take a Growth-Mindset Action

The fourth step in changing from a fixed to a growth mindset is to take an action that reaffirms your commitment to growth. What are some actions that you can take?

  • When you hit a snag, keep going and don’t give up.
  • Explore a new way of overcoming your challenges and come up with new and better strategies.
  • Clear your mind by taking a break and doing something that restores your energy—such as exercise, a coffee break, or a phone call with a friend.
  • Reach out to colleagues and mentors for suggestions on how to improve.

The process of change takes practice. The good news for musicians is that you all know the process of practicing for improvement! So use those same skills to practice replacing the voice of the fixed mindset with the words of the growth mindset.

Rainbow Colored Toy

How Musicians Can Use the Growth Mindset to Overcome Challenges to Success

Let’s examine how other musicians have used the growth mindset to overcome many of the common mental challenges to being successful.

  1. Music Performance

Music performance is filled with opportunities for self-doubt and the fixed mindset. How can you use the growth mindset to overcome the fear of not being good enough and the perceived need to be perfect?

Often, it involves identifying the specific challenge and coming up with a new approach.

One musician, who was thoroughly discouraged by mistakes he made during an orchestra rehearsal, realized he was setting unrealistic expectations for himself with the following self-talk:

“I should be better than this. I don’t deserve to be playing principal with an orchestra of this caliber.”

While his fixed mindset caused him to doubt his talent, he reached out to a friend who had more experience as a principal and learned what it took to be a confident performer, thereby changing his entire approach. This led him to be very satisfied with his performance at the final concert.

Another musician was able to overcome her fear of “messing up” by adopting a growth strategy of being “upfront about my lack of experience coupled with being ready to learn something new,” finding that this “has always led to positive results.”

Another musician used the growth mindset to stop thinking of herself as not good enough:

“I can respond to the voice that paralyzes or frightens me with the voice of the growth mindset, by…access[ing my] best self, or thinking of ways a challenging situation can help me grow.”

  1. Auditions and Competitions

Auditions and competitions can easily trigger a fixed mindset with the inevitable comparisons to others. The growth mindset can help to change one’s approach to these stressful situations. A musician who successfully learned how to adopt a growth mindset shared how much more “good” energy he felt with a growth mindset, which helped to attract many more people to his world than with a fixed mindset. He also reframed the word “impossible” as “simply a word and not a state of being” which enabled him to clear his mind about competition.

Instead he perceived himself as follows: “I’m possible. No matter how the rest of the auditions pan out the remainder of the year, I know that going into my work and life with a growth mindset really opens my eyes to so many more ideas and opportunities than I see in a fixed mindset.”

  1. Career progress and success

Where you stand in your career is another area that is ripe for fixed-mindset thoughts. It is easy to look to other musicians whom you perceive to be farther along in their careers and feel that you “should” be at a certain point. This is understandable but not helpful! In fact, an old boss of mine used to say, “There is nothing more misleading than the score at half-time.”

So think about where you stand now, where you want to go in your career, and what you have to do now in order to get there. If you think of music as a life-long journey, you can instead believe that you are not there “yet” and, with hard work and persistence, you can learn what it takes to achieve the success you are aiming for. This is another manifestation of the growth mindset that Dr. Carol Dweck has spoken about in her TED Talk entitled “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve. ”

  1. Learning from others and being open to their suggestions

The fixed mindset tells you that asking others for help is a sign of weakness and proof that you lack talent. This type of thinking can inhibit you from reaching out to colleagues, friends, mentors, or teachers and locks you into using the same unhelpful strategies. That is one reason that those with the fixed mindset tend to peter out and not achieve success in the long run.

Instead, using the growth mindset can encourage you to seek help from others, play for and show your work to your colleagues, and embrace the collaborative process since you are able to hear suggestions as learning experiences—as opposed to feeling that others are judging you and that you are simply not good enough.

  1. Networking and Public Speaking

Today’s musicians need to reach out to others by creating larger networks of support, as well as speaking to audiences during and around performances. Both of these situations easily lend themselves to fixed-mindset thinking.

Many musicians I know are afraid of networking since they think that they have to “sell themselves.” With that concept of networking in mind, they understandably avoid these situations, particularly if they think that they are not worthy. Yet I think of networking as developing a network of mutually supportive business professionals over the long-term without expecting immediate results. Networking is also an opportunity to learn from others. The growth mindset can help you to reframe networking so that you can approach other professionals.

Another area that gives rise to a lot of fear is public speaking. Many musicians tell me that their discomfort with public speaking stems from anxieties about being judged, not having anything to say, and feeling inadequate to address an audience. However, public speaking is increasingly important in today’s music world as a way of engaging audiences and bringing new people into our orbit. One of my musician students was able to overcome his fear of public speaking by thinking of it as “jumping into a cold pool. Things will always feel more comfortable once the jump is made, but it is taking the first step that is the hardest. The only way to get better, as with many things in life, is to do just do it and learn from my mistakes to grow.”

  1. Thinking big and taking action

I encourage musicians to articulate big dreams like creating one’s own ensemble, going on a world tour, or writing for orchestra. Thinking big can be scary when you perceive the vision as impossible to achieve: a classic fixed-mindset thought. With the growth mindset, you can overcome feeling overwhelmed by breaking down big goals into smaller shorter-term goals and concentrating on taking steps that you can achieve now towards that big goal. This will enable you to experience small successes on which you can build as you work on your long-term goals.

In my experience, musicians with the fixed mindset tend to be single-minded in their goals. Someone with a growth mindset is much more flexible and positive about taking steps, regardless of size, in order to achieve an end goal gradually, being more realistic about the process, and allowing himself the freedom to thrive.

Indeed, one of my students found that while she was excited about her big goals, it was the tangible actions that reaffirmed her commitment to growth:

“The very act of breaking a goal down and taking action is antithetical to the fixed mindset. SMART goals are tangible recognition that eventual achievement comes through a process, rather than a sudden windfall, and that we must persevere and take actions step-by-step, rather than expecting ourselves to be immediately capable of something difficult.”

  1. Being flexible and dealing with the unpredictable

Things do not always go as planned and the growth mindset can help you to stay positive and deal with the last-minute changes that inevitably crop up.

For example, what happens when your plans for a rehearsal are upset by last-minute substitutions? The fixed mindset would slow down the music making and instill stress in the other players for fear that the rehearsal won’t be perfect. Yet a growth mindset can help you to keep a cool head, remain open-minded, and trust your substitutions and improvisations in order to roll with the punches and make great music.

Moreover, the growth mindset enables you to accept that things do not always go as planned and that even when one’s expectations are not met, there is always room for improvement. This lesson applies to schoolwork, performances, compositions, working towards one’s musical career goals, and nurturing personal and professional relationships. You are able see life in a more positive light, to realize the potential for growth, and to accept what is out of one’s control.

The same spirit of acceptance and growth can come in handy for those who experience injuries and other setbacks. Using the growth mindset can help you to reframe this experience and be grateful that you can still teach or write music and spend time advancing your career and developing new skills.

The musical life is fraught with challenges that can create a great deal of mental anguish. Yet, by changing your approach and adopting the growth mindset, you can embrace a process to deal with and overcome the obstacles that you may encounter in your career to create something of value to yourself and to society at large.


Astrid Baumgardner

Astrid Baumgardner
Photo by Adrian Kinloch

Astrid Baumgardner, JD, PCC, a professional life coach and lawyer, has the privilege of working with supremely talented world-class early-stage musical artists at the Yale School of Music, where she heads the Office of Career Strategies and teaches career entrepreneurship. Baumgardner is also president and founder of her coaching company, Astrid Baumgardner Coaching + Training, where she coaches musicians and creative business professionals. Baumgardner guest lectures at conservatories, leadership academies, and universities and writes a popular blog on career entrepreneurship. Read more about her work here.


Janice Giteck: Music in Mind

A conversation at Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, Washington: January 31, 2012—7:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Sometimes a composer’s personality can speak volumes about the music she or he writes. Tranquility mixed with pointed curiosity fits both the outward persona of Janice Giteck as well as the character of her work. Her compositions, which focus on chamber music but also include orchestral works and film scores, combine the rigor of Western European musical training with a meld of Buddhist, Hasidic, Javanese, and African influences. Though born in New York, her music clearly fits within the “West Coast” tradition, both because of its sonic nod towards Pacific Rim cultures as well as its sense of spaciousness.

Giteck began moving west as a teenager when her family relocated to Arizona, and she kept traveling in that direction until settling in Seattle, where she has been a professor at Cornish College of the Arts since 1979. From 1962 to 1969 she studied with Darius Milhaud both at Mills College and the Aspen Institute, then, with the support of a grant from the French government, she went to France to study with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. While it might have seemed unusual for a young woman to study composition at that time, she points out that the gender ratio hasn’t really changed that much over the years. “There were, I think three women in the class to about twenty men,” Giteck recalls. “And that ratio stayed the same, no matter what, all the way through school, up to today when I’m teaching.”

Giteck’s constant inquisitiveness—directed both inward and towards the outside world—has led to numerous compositions that grapple with social issues and dramatically affected her life path. Om Shanti for chamber ensemble with soprano, which is dedicated to people living with AIDS, was composed after a three-year period of compositional silence; a silence which led Giteck to study psychology (resulting in a master’s degree and work with patients in a mental hospital), and brought to her musical consciousness an emphasis on the link between mental well-being and music-making. She has also scored seven feature-length documentary films that address social issues, including Emiko Omori’s Rabbit in the Moon and Pat Ferrero’s Hopi, Songs of the Fourth World; her composition Ishi for the Seattle Chamber Players relates the life story of the last Yahi Indian, who became a much-loved figure in San Francisco.

Whether through writing music, discovering what her students think is important to learn in 2012, improvising with fellow musicians, or even waiting through a time of compositional silence, Giteck seems to find her greatest inspiration in the energy of the present moment. “I just have to wait to see what is it that’s going to emerge,” she explains. “And I’m not going to push it. I’m going to see.”

Alexandra Gardner: We’re here at Cornish College of the Arts, where you’ve taught for many years. You’ve taught more than a generation of students. Do you feel that you have a particular message to impart to students? For instance, things they should strive to learn or understand when they are composing?

Janice Giteck: I’ve been teaching about 35 years, if I count UC Berkeley and Cal State Hayward before I moved here from California. So that’s really more like two generations of composers just about, which is just unbelievable when I think about it. I feel that the sincerity I hear in students’ work is very compelling, and these days there’s such a wonderful urgency about including what is current. Students 20 years ago or so were still trying to really get the classical infusion or transmission into themselves. But now technology has changed our lives completely. Young composers are working at a computer a lot of the time. They can hear immediately what they’ve composed. We all know this is nothing new. So what I try to do is to see how their values are shifting. What they value as being important to know. In a way, I’m letting the students lead me. And that’s actually been the way I’ve always taught. What do you need to know to be able to communicate what you want to communicate? There are still all the basics of theory and harmony. There are some students here who come primarily as electronic music composers, and it’s like pulling teeth to have them become interested in classical harmony. But I think it’s good to have a foundation in what the Western lineage has been. I remember when Jim Tenney came here as a guest years ago, and he was sitting in a theory class, and he said that he thought it was only necessary to study 100 years back in a music school: that if you had 100 years back, that should be adequate for you to have a sense of where things came from (of course, there’d be specialty classes in early music or whatever). And I’ve taken that to heart somewhat. You have to keep going with the times. I like to point out to students what things I think work really well, and things that don’t work well. There was a Bang on a Can concert I went to in New York that was all chamber music, but it was all mic-ed. This was at Symphony Space. And there was a nine-foot grand piano on the stage, and I thought, this is ridiculous, to mic this. Particularly since that piece did not ask for the instruments to be amplified. I’ll give an example like that to students and say, “What do you think about it? Why would you choose to mic an instrument, or not mic an instrument?” Trying to bring those kind of contemporary ideas into the sound of things.

AG: Speaking of teachers, you studied with two of the 20th century’s greatest French composers; Milhaud and Messiaen. What were your experiences like with them, and what do you feel you learned from them that has been particularly important for you?

JG: Well, I feel really, really fortunate. I met Milhaud when I was 16. I went to Aspen in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I met Darius Milhaud and he always had a lot going on in his house—many guests and visitors all the time. His classes that he taught were in his house as well. Students were there, kind of in the milieu of whatever was going on. A lot of different types of composers would come through as guests in Aspen. I was getting an exposure to Berio and Britten, Messiaen and Persichetti, and I could just go on. Krenek.

There were, I think three women in the class to about twenty men. And that ratio stayed the same, no matter what, all the way through school, up to today when I’m teaching. It’s pretty much the same still. So that’s been really interesting. However, Milhaud in particular, but Messiaen as well, were very pro-feminist. Very pro-women being strong, creative, passionate musicians. After the years in Aspen, I went to Mills and studied with Milhaud there. And that’s a women’s college, and he had me in his graduate level class from the time I was a freshman. So that was pretty amazing. Again, I was very young in comparison to the other students. But I learned so much by being around him for seven years, all together. To compose what is truly my own. Not to try to sound like other people. To study really hard, but then put it all aside and just write what’s my own. That’s something I’ve internalized as a teacher. Study really hard, and then put it all aside and just write what’s you. With Messiaen, I was only at the Paris Conservatory for one year, and it was very dramatic. There was a class full of French students, and three foreigners, and I was one of the foreigners. Again, I think there were only three women in the class. We had the likes of Xenakis come and talk to us about the LP set of all his music that had just come out. Messaien emphasized rigor—to be very rigorous—but he would be the first person to toss away, you know, 12-tone to a tee. He couldn’t even be pinned down to being a serialist composer, even though it was his early work that changed so much for the composers after him. So, I liked this kind of fresh, non-dogmatic approach to things. And there was also a lot of playfulness. Milhaud had one of those little Legion of Honor buttons that he wore all the time. Messiaen had three different levels, and he wore them all the time. He’d wear these very formal suits, but he’d wear these big flowery shirts, with the lapel open.

AG: Your work incorporates quite a few different types of music. Gamelan, African drumming rhythms—all sorts of different voices appear in your work. How did you come to those and start incorporating them into your compositions?

JG: The very first time I heard gamelan was at a concert of Debussy preludes. Jeanne Stark—a Belgian pianist—brought a small group of people and gamelan instruments into the concert hall. This was at the Museum of Art in San Francisco—this big, cavernous room. For the first 40 minutes of the concert, they just played traditional Javanese gamelan music.

Then they put everything on these carts and wheeled it out, and she sat down and played Debussy preludes. I had never heard a gamelan before in my life and it was like whoa. I had read about this in history books, but I had never heard this connection. And then I had a chance to play in a gamelan in the Bay area at a summer program that the city of Berkeley would run. It’s called Cazadero Music and Arts Program out in the redwood forest. Incredible place. We had the Berkeley Gamelan there every summer. So I started learning gamelan with Daniel Schmidt, who was the director then. He’s also an instrument builder. And then of course, with Lou Harrison being in the Bay area, I would hear concerts of his music and became very enamored by his work. He came up to Seattle in ’79, and the first thing that we did was we built an aluminum gamelan here, à la Lou Harrison, with Daniel Schmidt helping a bunch of faculty build it in the night hours after the furniture shop from the design department was locked and closed. It was the first set of instruments for Gamelan Pacifica. And then one of our students, Jarrad Powell, got very, very interested in gamelan. He graduated from here, went to Mills, studied with Lou Harrison, then went to Indonesia and had a gamelan designed and built, which we now have here. It’s beautiful. So I’ve had gamelan music in my life for over 30 years now.

There was also African percussion at the Cazadero Music and Arts Program, first introduced by Paul Dresher—traditional Ewe music from West Africa. My former husband and I were asked to come here and re-vamp the whole music department at Cornish in 1979, so Paul came with us, and he started some African percussion classes. Then we had a West African master drummer, Obo Addy. I just hung around Obo Addy as much as I could and I would play in his ensembles. It was the greatest way to learn. It wasn’t out of a book. He would teach you the rhythm on your shoulder, and stay there with you until you got it into your body. I feel so lucky to have had those kinds of introductions to the music.

AG: Do you feel that there is a “West Coast” style of composition? When I think of West Coast composers, I think of Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, names like that. I’m interested to know whether you feel that there is a school of musical thought that is very specific to the West.

JG: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, I was born in New York; I lived there until I was 13. I studied classical everything. We’d go to concerts at Carnegie Hall. I studied piano, and then we moved to Arizona. The first study I had that was more advanced was in Aspen, which was directed towards Juilliard summer school, so to speak—a European, East Coast way of thinking. When I went to Mills, it was kind of the beginning of that feeling of, well, there really is something unusual in the San Francisco area. And then I would say over the years, I really identified more and more with Pacific Rim and Asian philosophy, certainly in terms of Buddhist practice and the kind of values that one is exposed to so immediately and readily on the West Coast—particularly the Northwest. I became quite close with Lou Harrison on a personal level, and he was always challenging me to be feeling where is it that I’m identifying with, because he also had a very rigorous European training although his heart was in Chinese music from the time he was a little boy. I would say that the spaciousness and the less competitive environment is true of the West Coast. I don’t know that it’s as cutthroat.

Maybe I’m just romantic about it, but there might be a little more space for more kinds of people stylistically on the West Coast. It’s something that the music faculty at Cornish feels very strongly about; to just let people blossom wherever they’re going and that any style is fine. We’ve had students who are doing hip hop and taking on the marketplace. And we have students who are classical pianists teaching little kids piano. Lots of string quartets are getting written here. Every style under the sun. I say that I lean more towards being west coast, but I was so trained with the values of European music, especially studying with Milhaud and Messiaen.

AG: Early in your musical career you wrote the piece TREE for the San Francisco Symphony, but it seems that since then you have preferred to focus on writing music for smaller forces. Is that correct?

JG: I think that I’ve always felt more excited about the kind of intimacies of chamber music than writing for a really big ensemble. I also feel that when I’m working on a piece, I burn so hot that it feels like it could kind of burn me out, you know. I don’t think that it would be that good. I don’t have bad health. I have excellent health. I just feel that working more delicately is where I’ve found my excitement. And some of that is living on the West Coast. I live in the most amazing place. I live on Penn Cove, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. My house is literally right on the water’s edge. And this area of Whidbey Island was inhabited by the Lower Skagit Indians 15,000 years ago. It comes out of the last Ice Age. It’s very exquisite and kind of magical. And the tempo of being there has a huge influence on me.

AG: But you have written some long-form chamber music. Breathing Songs from a Turning Sky is a substantial ten-movement work, and more recently you wrote Ishi for the Seattle Chamber Players, an evening-length work which also has a film component, as well as some theatrics and audience participation. Can you talk a little about Ishi for those who don’t know who he was?

JG: Ishi was the last member of the Yahi tribe of northern California Indians that had been around for between 4,000 and 6,000 years. We don’t really know. He was literally the last person of that tribe and that language. They had been roaming around the foothills of Mount Lassen for many, many years. They spent decades in hiding because they were being hunted down by gold miners. Ishi lived with this small band of people, and he was their doctor, their surgeon, and their spiritual leader. One by one, they all died off, including his mother and his sister, and he left Mount Lassen and made the choice to come into Oroville, which is a little tiny town at the foot of the mountain. He chose to go to try to live, even though he was surrendering to white people in the town. There are photographs from that very day. And this was exactly 100 years ago this year. This is the centennial—in 1912 Ishi stumbled into Oroville. What he did in the next five years was so amazing. He became close friends with Alfred Kroeber, who was an anthropologist at University of California, and one of the first anthropologists to begin to see natives as completely human. Alfred Kroeber took him in, and Ishi decided to go with him and live in the anthropology museum and tell them everything he could possibly tell them through an interpreter who knew the language of the next tribe over. So there was some linkage of the languages. And he became a very beloved and famous person in San Francisco.

Ishi had such forgiveness in him. He became friendly with a surgeon at the University of California medical school. He would go on the rounds with this surgeon to visit patients who were in recovery from surgery. He would chant and sing to them.

AG: Wow.

JG: It was very important to sing to people when they were healing.

AG: That’s amazing.

JG: Yeah, and the doctor would be glad for him to join him.

I recently had a performance of this piece at the Other Minds Festival and when I was in a panel just before the performance, I asked if anybody knew about Ishi. At least 200 people out of at least 350 people raised their hands. So they knew. And afterwards, a few different people came up to me and told me their Ishi stories, including Bob Shumaker, who is an audio engineer. He told me that his stepfather had known Ishi when his stepfather was a little boy. And Ishi would play baseball with the children on the street, because he wanted to learn baseball. So I mean, these stories were still coming down about who this Ishi was who would sit out in front of the museum and make arrowheads for children out of obsidian because he was just so interested in people. He never wore shoes, even to the San Francisco Opera. He went barefoot. He just felt that it was unsafe to go anywhere wearing shoes. So I incorporate that into my piece as one of the few theatrical gestures. The violinist takes off his shoes, rolls up his pants, and walks around the stage and into the audience playing his violin.

Emiko Omori, a filmmaker from San Francisco, and I went up to where Ishi lived his 40 years on Mount Lassen. We went there in February, and it was completely covered with snow, except for Deer Creek, which is where he lived. We filmed for a few days, and Emiko put together a little film that is at the end of the chamber music piece.

AG: Speaking of films, haven’t you’ve scored several over the years?

JG: Yeah, I have enjoyed very much working on this collaborative approach to making something. And with really extraordinary filmmakers. They’ve all been documentaries—I’ve scored seven feature-length documentaries, mostly with folks in the Bay area. I don’t know how we’ve done it, but I’ve lived up here and worked, you know, flying stuff back and forth, and then eventually sending things via computer. Then going to a recording studio up here and having people fly here, back and forth. It’s worked out pretty well. The thing that’s so wonderful about it is that it’s completely different than writing a piece from scratch. If I am invested or interested in the subject of the documentary, I can just pour my heart into it and give everything that I can give as a composer to some purpose, or cause. They’re mostly social issue pieces. One is Rabbit in the Moon, which was a 90-minute documentary made for PBS about the Japanese-American internment during World War II. That was an amazing project working with Emiko Omori, the same filmmaker I mentioned earlier. It was really her personal family story because she was in one of the camps as a little child. It was the political story and the cultural story that was going on amongst Japanese-Americans, all layered together. She trusted me to be the sound component to tell that story, so that’s pretty thrilling.

AG: In everything that you’ve been talking about, the common thread seems to be that your mission is for music, in one way or another, to provide some sort of healing experience.

JG: For me, making music is like a channel, or a language that’s different than words. And it’s very immediate; and it’s very, very personal; and it can connect something that’s deep inside of me outward in an effort to connect, an effort to speak. Music can be healing in a lot of different ways. I see the young rockers and jazzers here at Cornish who are just banging away on the drums, and they just feel so fantastic after they’ve been playing together like that. It’s not meditative or gentle. No, their hearts are racing. I would say that’s healing, in that moment. Music has been used for healing all sorts of neurological problems. There’s the Oliver Sacks book Musicophilia. I mean, it’s just amazing, the things that he’s putting together for masses of people to know about. Babies listening to music in utero and having an immediate association with music of that nature once they’re born. It’s just amazing. It’s a channel. I don’t know that it’s a language. I think it’s a pre-verbal communication.

AG: In addition to your musical training, you have a master’s in psychology, right? That’s a pretty big switch from serious composer life.

JG: Immediately after I wrote Tree, which was a piece commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony, I got a commission to write a piece for viola and orchestra with the Mid-Columbia Symphony Orchestra in eastern Washington. And about halfway through writing that piece, I didn’t have any ideas! It was like this idiot savant had lost the savant part, or something just turned off. I had a copyist (in those days we had copyists). She would come to my house and sit in my dining room, and I would be sitting at the piano, and she’d say, “Janice, I need the next page for the clarinet part.” Or, “I need the next four measures, could you…?” It’s like I literally depended on her ego structure, psychologically speaking, to get me through that piece. It was a complete disaster, as far as I was concerned. And I took the piece, and I put it on a shelf, never to be played again. After that piece, I stopped writing for three years. Completely. Nothing. Zero. And I thought it was over. I thought, I don’t have anything to say in this language anymore. So I decided that I was very interested in getting into therapy and studying my mind more. And I thought, O.K., I’ll go and do that in a very systematic way, as well as going into therapy. So I did. I went and studied psychology for three years and came out of that with a master’s with an emphasis on working with music as a potential link between well-being and communication and music-making. I continued to teach at Cornish, but I also worked part-time for about six years at Seattle Mental Health Institute with very mentally ill folks, developing music programs and working one-on-one with clients and a music group. I was just trying to find out, well, what is the common denominator for all of us humans on this earth. What is it in music? What is it as a communication? How can music help to bridge different people? And so I was studying my own mental health as well as working with these people. I also started playing in a group with three other musician-composers. Two of them had been students of mine, and we would meet once a week, and we would improvise with no form. We wouldn’t talk; we’d play together for about two hours, and that was it. I loved it. It had nothing to do with writing down notes. It was absolutely expressive, and I could practice following people as well as leading people, which I had already been pretty good at as a teacher. But I found the beginning of a whole fresh way of teaching, and of noticing myself. Then after three years, the Seattle Movement Therapy Institute, which had just lost their director to AIDS, wanted a piece from me that could be used for AIDS benefits that was in honor of him. So I wrote Om Shanti, and it flew out of me in about two or three weeks. It’s a five-movement chamber music piece with soprano, and it was very fresh for me. I didn’t think about it much. It just came out, and then I had another like 20-year run after that piece. And now, I’ve been in a silence again for a few years. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. But it’s very powerful to surrender to it, and see it as part of how life is. It’s not easy. But it’s very powerful.

AG: That’s very interesting. It’s probably healthy to have periods like that where you’re not writing anything, or rather, that you’re not worrying about writing anything.

JG: I crave that silence. I’ve just been asked to write a string quartet by an ensemble in this area, and I would love to. I love string quartets. It’s probably one of my favorite all-time ensemble sounds. It’s just the simplicity and purity of it. I just have to wait to see what is it that’s going to emerge. And I’m not going to push it. I’m going to see.

AG: So you said maybe.

JG: We’re talking about it. I’m also working on a book—it’s a book about composing and about learning composing and about teaching composing. There’s a lot to it already, so I think there will be a book there, after 35 years of teaching. I’ve been encouraged by some of my colleagues to do this book; there’s nothing out there, practically. It’s an interesting time. I have no interest whatsoever in pushing my career out at this point. And I don’t have a feeling of fading, or like something’s over per se; it just feels more spacious.

AG: You have such a different take on existence as a composer than so many people. Trying to figure out what’s going on inside your head seems to have had a positive effect.

JG: Thanks. I’m still trying to figure things out: What am I doing? What is music? Is music the notes that you write on a piece of paper? Or is music the sound that’s made in the present moment connecting with an audience, or with another person? It’s when it’s happening, is what I’m coming to know more. What is a composer? Are we missing something by composing in isolation and then handing it over? Where do we get our juice from? You know, each day when we sit down to work? Where’s that coming from? Are we making music? I don’t know if we’re making music or we’re making something that will then be translated into somebody making music. I don’t know! These are big questions.