Cognitive Distortion

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For a while I couldn’t shake this feeling that everyone around me expected me to fail. Sure, we had teachers at Vanguard who always reminded us of the opposite “everyone in the audience wants you to do well,” but learning doesn’t happen from just being told things.

I don’t know, maybe I wasn’t confident. I remember after a performance… I was nervous, but it went fine… a man, an educator who taught students who got into the Conservatory (a place I always looked at as so distant and regal, a place in the echelons where I couldn’t possibly cross, but I wanted to try) went up to me after the performance and said, “it’s difficult to go up there and play in front of a bunch of percussionists… you did well,” with a small, solemn nod. I built a story in my head around it… because his students were so good, he probably expected me to be better than them, after all I was a college student and they were high schoolers… or perhaps I surprised them (his expectations) because I attended a tiny school and studied with a teacher he hadn’t heard of… and/or I didn’t meet them (his expectations), then he looked into himself and decided not to outwardly condescend me, it would be better to be nice, so he pretended. I had a story that everyone there was just waiting to judge me like he did. From the moment I stepped behind the instrument… a room full of men, seeing a woman as smaller, less likely to do well – I couldn’t possibly intimidate them. No, I saw myself as smaller. I saw myself as unlikely to do well… but I played a game which projected that on others. It wasn’t brief either, I had been playing that game in my head for years, playing against myself. Perhaps that was what motivated me at the time… 

A friend of mine was at the gig, we had just been on tour together a few weeks prior. I learned the piece I performed that night the summer after the tour; I learned it quickly and memorized it. He bought me a drink, a gin and tonic. He was a student at that Conservatory then – he said I was great and he was the only person I believed. Although I believed him at face value, I still saw that as his own opinion… an alternate reality that he could hold which I didn’t need to simultaneously believe. He didn’t know the piece, he didn’t know how many wrong notes I had played, only I knew. I was in on the secret all along, the secret of how much I sucked, and either all these men actually meant what they said, or they were being polite. I had no clue which was true, so I just drank.

I was blind to my own game.

Neither “Winning” Nor “Losing” Feels Good

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I’m consumed by the concept of self-worth. Its attachment to environmental factors, neurological factors, social factors… I’m trying so hard to get a grasp on the patterns in my own life that have affected my self-worth, admittedly to help myself, but also because others might relate, and understand themselves better. My head has been working its way into “wrapping” this concept, or perhaps into sorting it in geometrically pleasing boxes. So I figured I’d try translating it into words.

Competitions: the clearest example of winning and losing that I can think of in my own life. Here’s my competition experience:

  • International Percussion Competition at Northwestern (2016)
  • Musical Merit Foundation Scholarship Awards (2016)
  • Indiana PAS Chapter Marimba Competition (2017)
  • PAS/Armand Zildjian Scholarship (2014, 2016, 2017)
  • Italy PAS Vibraphone Competition (2017)
  • Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Percussion Prize (2018, 2019)
  • International Youth Percussion Competition St. Petersburg (application only, 2018)
  • Italy PAS Web Competition, Duo Category (2018)
  • Leamington Prize, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (2018 & 2019)
  • Town Hall Symphony Hall Prize, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (2018 & 2019)
  • ARD International Music Competition (application only, 2019)

Notice that I did not include which ones I won/lost, although you might already know this. I also excluded university/conservatory auditions, ensembles like the World Percussion Group, Santa Clara Vanguard, or any job requiring an audition, for the sake of brevity. These types of events have very similar winning/losing outcomes to competitions.

I’m trying to analyze whether my self-worth was affected by these competitions, and whether winning or losing impacted that. Of course, winning felt good when I had that fortune, as did placing and receiving positive feedback. But I am also remembering the amount of pressure and judgement that would run through my head in preparation for the competition. The singular focus of that event, consuming my sense of “meaning” and having the utmost importance in my life. I would place my entire self-worth, for weeks, even months, on a competition, regardless of whether life continued around that.

I submitted a tape to ARD but was not selected for the live competition. Of course this was upsetting, and made me feel bad about myself. But, more notably, in the time after I recorded and clicked “submit,” until I got the results, nothing I was doing impacted the selection. It was all I could think about. Thinking about that result consumed my life, despite the fact that nothing I was doing had anything to do with it*

It was the same on a smaller scale when it came to the Indiana PAS competition, in which I placed second. All I could think about for a few weeks leading up to it was perfecting the piece I was going to play. Even more tangibly, the day leading up to, and throughout my actual performance:

I spent that day meeting the other competitors, but really I was spending that time trying to assess them and judge how I would fare against them, based on the fragments of information I got from sitting in the hallway, talking to them, finding out what school they go to and who their teacher was. I am not ashamed to admit this, because they were doing the same to me. In the next minutes/hours, I obsessed about my warm up and performance times… waiting for the second I could get on a marimba, so I could show off my preparation skills,

(I once heard a rumor that Temple students used to play the Porgy & Bess excerpt insanely fast in the warm-up room, just to psych everyone else out, then go into the actual audition and play it normally. I would do the opposite, always practicing very slowly, hoping someone might hear how “mature” my practice habits are/were)

anxious for the actual performance… with an increasing level of anxiety proportionate to how close the performance time was… entering the room where the performance/competition took place, trying to appear confident and cordial in front of the judges, but subconsciously freaking out, all the way through the last note. It didn’t end there… after the last note began the waiting… spending the majority of my thoughts assessing myself, trying to decide for myself whether my performance was “good” or “the best.” I couldn’t stop those thoughts, despite them having absolutely no impact on my result, which was entirely in the hands of the judges.

All that’s left from that day is this picture:

Indiana Day of Percussion Marimba Competition, second prize, left to right: She-E Wu, Gloria Yehilevsky, Kevin Bobo, Brian Mason

The point in all this is: regardless of the result, whether pleasant or unwanted, the entire experience does not feel good. It is laced with judgement, over-analysis, and most of all, anxiety. It skews with one’s sense of self-worth, creating microcosms of diluted importance.

I want to be clear: at no point am I arguing that working hard is not valuable, or that having a goal and focusing on it causes unhappiness. I’m talking about the conversations that happen in one’s head, or at least in my head, surrounding a competition: negative self-talk, anxiety, blowing things out of proportion…

However, despite repeated experiences in this realm, having seen this trend in myself and others over and over again, having many conversations about how “competition is not about competing with others, it’s about competing with yourself,” and “competitions don’t matter, they’re for horses, not musicians,” and “I really don’t care about competitions, I only do it for the learning & experience,” despite the validity of those statements, we keep coming back to competitions… I’m done with school and pursuing a professional career as a musician, yet even a week ago I was thinking about entering an online competition.

Why do we keep repeating this cycle, when it doesn’t feel good?

Thanks to recent conversations, particularly with my friend and mentor Jason Huxtable, I’ve become aware of the difference between what we think others value in us, and what we individually value within ourselves. And perhaps, some neurons are not connecting. Perhaps my brain plays a trick on me: that,

despite intellectually knowing and understanding that I don’t need competitions to improve my sense of self-worth,


because my perceived sense of how others value me still depends on external accolades (competitions),

I’m unable to draw the connection of how these ultimately won’t help me. I keep coming back to them because I continue to believe that others will like me more, and view me as more valuable if I get into a better school, or win a competition, or a spot in an orchestra, but none of those things have anything to do with how I ultimately feel. Frankly, I know for myself that winning an orchestral job will not make me happy. (For you, perhaps having a freelance career like mine will not make you happy, and an orchestral job will, I’m not saying it’s the same for everybody.) However, I keep trying to check these boxes in search of increased happiness and self-worth, when checking those boxes has nothing to do with that.

According to political and cultural commentator David Brooks (New York Times), there are two types of virtues: resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Thankfully, our culture is slowly moving in a direction favoring eulogy virtues, but we’ve been focused on resume virtues for a long time, and perhaps this is why my thinking, and self-worth, have been so skewed.

This all goes back to the fundamental ideas: “music is about the process, not the product,” or any other of the thousands of similar quotes…

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Never give it.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

Yet, despite these messages being sent our way, reappearing in our lives over and over again, there is a difference between intellectually understanding something and actively subscribing to it. When you subscribe to the idea, you begin acting and thinking in a way that reflects it. So perhaps…

Growing up is enrolling in these ideas.

Maturing is actually living these truths.

Wisdom is not just believing these things but adopting them into one’s daily life.

*not getting into ARD had little impact on my life and career as a professional musician, despite it consuming my concept of “meaning” and “purpose” for several months.

Feeling Not Thinking

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You may have heard or read my view that music is communication. Now I’m going to dig deeper. I go so far to argue that this form of communication is separate from language. We have this lovely claim that we share wide and far that music is a language, and it is a nice idea: it creates this idea of a universal community around music. But I don’t believe that’s the whole truth.

I argue against language because the more I learn about language itself, the more I learn how it separates us. I listened to a program on NPR about how Yiddish was used to create barriers: in a family, the parents didn’t want their children to learn or speak the language at all, and would use it to talk amongst each other about the things they wanted to keep secret, such as money. This idea was introduced to me months earlier and I couldn’t shake it. The philosopher and musician Jonathan Day often plainly states that language exists to keep secrets. The story of the Tower of Babel also references this.

Music communicates without these barriers. Notation and Western theory are a separate issue. Minor scales only make us think sad due to familiarity in culture: we need to remember the completely varying tonalities used throughout the world: quarter tones in Middle Eastern melodies, the widespread tuning system on Gamelan… rhythmic values having very different meanings: our mathematical organizations are not stronger in effect than Indian rhythmic cycles, just different. What is universal is that it has historically been a part of human life, regardless of culture. In Iraq, music was largely banned during the war, yet the people were aware of the negative effects of that and wanted it back.

I fundamentally believe that music has a communicative power stronger than language. That’s why I wouldn’t call it a language. There is a lot I’ve said in music that I simply cannot say in words. This is why I compose. These realizations drew me to the possibility of a project using the power of this communication: a keyboard-centered program on mental health.

Feeling Not Thinking will combine interpretations and improvisations on Bach’s Cello Suite IV in Eb Major (existing recordings of the Prélude and Gigue) with contemporary works related to topics of mental health. The spotlight piece being Alicia Jane Turner’s brand-new work for marimba and fixed electronics: Splinter, delivered last week. Other works that will cycle through the program include Samn Johnson’s it comes in waves, Stephanie Orlando’s 2 from big, 1 from small – a percussion solo with live electronics for pill bottles, Dave Maric’s Sense & Innocence, Guusje Ingen Housz’s Knock Knock, and Mirage pour Marimba by Yasuo Sueyoshi.

Why mental health?

I’ve suffered my own fair share of problems, and see it happening everywhere around me. I’ve cried at things, not knowing why, and feel inspired to create an environment where listeners can engage personally, with what’s going on in their life. I interpret the music my way, and the listeners can open up and feel the music in their way.

In other words: the individual’s experience with mental health varies drastically from an occasional nudge in one’s thinking to violent actions and harm elicited from significant imbalances and trauma. We are not consciously aware of many of these pathways of thought: perspectives consistently defined by our past, the critic based on only the beliefs and knowledge we have been exposed to, and even physical responses to mental stimuli. When we’re not fully aware of what we’re thinking (according to cognitive neuroscientists, we are only conscious of about 5% of our brain activity), it is certainly challenging to communicate our emotions through language alone. Perception, listening habits, interpretation, and the limitation of vocabulary factor into these communicative barriers. Music is an alternative, powerful medium for communicating these complex thoughts.

Sounds great. So what’s next?

Well to be transparent, aside from practicing, I haven’t worked it all out.

Here’s what I know: I have a couple performances over the coming months where I will be digging into the Bach improvisations. I’ve been exploring a few approaches, namely a harmonic/theoretical one, and a completely intuitive, almost spiritual one. I’ll be trying these in front of audiences to learn more about what approaches are most effective – my interest is in emotional effect.

The first is Emanation on February 16, 7:30 PM at Century Mallet. Chicago, come out!

Another is the Indiana Day of Percussion on April 4 where I will present this program paired with my Guided Improvisation clinic.

Here’s what I’m working on: I’m speaking with University professors, High School directors, and venue directors in nailing down dates for a tour, and a few one-offs. This is moving in the right direction, but I’m not in a position to make any public announcements. I’ve also submitted to a few festivals.

I recently got some sound advice about picking a project and sticking with it. Freelance life is full of one-offs, and the quality of a one-off is naturally not going to be as high as something developed, rehearsed and lived with over a long time. This is the program I’m committing to: certainly through the end of 2020, and perhaps into 2021 – although at this stage I don’t have ideas on what opportunities I would pursue after 2020.

Here’s what I haven’t done: I want to work on this program alongside a Psychologist and add a research component to it – to either validate the parts of these claims that are true, or determine whether they are measurable at all. People’s tastes and personalities differ vastly in response to music. I don’t have any contact with a psychologist right now.

I want to make this program a benefit, citing a recent article on icareifyoulisten, “Art for Art’s Sake: Steps to Prevent Tone Deaf Social Justice Concerts.” Music for a cause is great but doesn’t do anything on its own (besides raise awareness), without a call for action. I’ve mentioned this idea once, but haven’t taken any action or done the research: I want to engage and collaborate with mental health organizations – particularly local ones in each location I perform – and enroll them in this concept. A portion of the profit from these performances will go to them, and this will help make audiences aware of these organizations, encouraging involvement. Collaborating with organizations could bring audiences unfamiliar to contemporary classical music, or even the marimba, to the performances, and I hope to meet these people and learn about their experience.

If you are interested in hosting this program at a school, venue, concert series, etc. and/or have an idea to contribute to it, please do not hesitate to send me a note at:

That’s the current state of Feeling Not Thinking. I just shared that without having it all worked out. Bold.

Same Language, Different People

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When you go study in another country, it’s respectable to learn the styles and traditions of their culture. In England, that’s the orchestral world: but my primary career interests aren’t centered in orchestral playing. As a craft it’s something I respect highly: a level of technical excellence and musicality we all strive for in our practice. However, my personal career goals don’t involve a full-time job in an orchestra. So, I didn’t immerse myself in it.

What’s the point? This made me quite foreign.

So why did I go there? The connection came through my mentors and friends: Tim and Jason of Maraca2. Once I met the Head of Percussion, that sealed the deal: Aidy Spillett is the most brilliant percussionist, and fantastic person, you may not have heard of. I from Aidy that in Birmingham, you could do anything and everything. For example: the training in Afro-Cuban styles was incredible. You didn’t just learn to play, you really dug into the styles and had to immerse yourself in listening, transcription and context to do well.

Orchestral music was the same. It was never enough to play the excerpts. With a list of over a hundred excerpts, and a very busy schedule outside orchestral practice, it’s nearly impossible to ascertain that knowledge at a deep level over just 7 or 8 months. That’s why a passing mark (grade) is only 50. The equivalent of an A (called a “first,” or “first-class”) is 70. We didn’t all get 70s. It didn’t matter if the teacher/examiner knew you and believed in you and understood your work ethic. The mark you got on the day was a direct reflection of your playing that day. It made you work damn hard. The 60s are good. Students should feel confident if they’re averaging in the 60s and above. After working my butt off for a 64 I learned how much more devotion I had to put in to break the 70s… it’s not a ploy to force us to work harder, it’s an honest reflection of where we’re at.

A few points stood out to me in the variations in approach between the US and the UK. If you have a few more minutes:

Individual-Focused Learning Environment

There was a significant emphasis on confidence and in individual learning. If you wanted to do anything, and do it well, you had to do a huge portion of the work with little guidance. We got information on how exams would be marked, but had to determine our own topics, programming, and really go the extra mile in thoughtfulness, research, and aesthetic decisions. If we wanted help it was available, but we had to take the initiative to seek it out. We usually asked out peers for feedback, I still do it a lot. This really built strength of character and work ethic.

Studio Community

PAS has a very small following in the UK. Mostly because they don’t need it – we rely on a lot of business and market funding in the US, and most European countries have great governmental support. I have mixed feelings about PAS and have been fairly vocal about them, but one thing I admire is what an exceptional community it is. If you join your local running club, you get fit, learn new local routes, and make new friends. Joining PAS has the equivalent effect for a percussionist. Conservatoires would put on their own days of percussion independently of the PAS UK/Ireland chapter. Consequently, there was a general lack of interest in joining the organization. That’s fair enough: it doesn’t have the same benefits as in the US, unless you have a reason (and funds) to fly to PASIC.

The studio (department) did not follow the same etiquettes many do in the US. There was no rule requiring us to help each other move gear. However, in contrast to my previous experience, there were SO many concerts amongst all of us, in widespread locations, that it would have been impossible to keep up. On the down side, it went so far as when you had “your own thing,” people occasionally didn’t even get up off the sofa to roll a timpano down the corridor. When it came to attending each others’ concerts, we usually went to the big ones, but it was totally up to the individual.

British Terms…

They’re CLASH cymbals, and the E in crotales isn’t pronounced (this one’s correct). Natural sticking is called “hand to hand,” although I’m still unsure whether that means purely alternated sticking regardless of rhythm, or the same way we define it. A storage room was called a “store,” e.g. the percussion store. Regular stores are shops. Here’s what was the biggest kicker for me:

In my first Symphony Orchestra rehearsal, the conductor began discussing how to interpret a particular semi-quaver in the bar… four crochets in a bar, eight quavers, sixteen semi-quavers, thirty-two demi-semi-quavers, sixty-four hemi-semi… Yes. It’s real. I thought it was only in old textbooks, a forgotten language, blissfully unaware that another English-speaking country could speak about music in an entirely different language. So I had to learn it, which took a lot of conscious effort, pausing every time before I spoke about a rhythm. It’s not easy to have to rewire, even for a small change. However, it’s nice being able to switch between both now.

Fast Music-Learning & Excellent Sight-Reading Required

Brits are amazing orchestral musicians. They learn music fast, they rehearse very little, and the level is very high. I was always blown away by how perfect the CBSO was.

The same was expected of the students. We rehearsed for projects as they came up – e.g. you’d have orchestra for two weeks leading up to the concert, otherwise not at all. Music was thrown at us in large quantities and constantly… truly pushing our limits.

Drinking Culture: Work Hard, Play Hard

It would be very odd to come across a European Conservatoire without a bar. We even had our own brew, “Conservatoire Ale” by Wye Valley Brewing, on tap. As exciting as a brand new building with five state-of-the-art performance venues was, I don’t remember being more excited about anything as I was about us having our own beer. With the lower drinking age, we went out a lot with everybody, teachers and underclassmen alike. There were regulations about our tutors adding us as friends on Facebook, but they could buy us beer – I’d like to take a moment now to thank these people publicly and dearly.

Musicians Make Art, Not Science, and the culture values it

Supporting the arts is embedded in the culture, although funding is always scarce or difficult to come by, the government and community do support it. This made Conservatoire life particularly glamorous; the Royal status gave us access to extra funding, and we’d get an occasionally lush donation. Student life benefitted: we didn’t need to set up our own chairs and stands for rehearsal. Sheet music and copies were always provided, and the library bought our scores – including solos, so long as they were being used within our course.

With this budget, it felt like there were few restrictions: bass chimes for Janáček? Done. Two octaves of boobams for the chamber orchestra? Hired. Recording projects? Students in the Technology Department were available for projects, and it benefited everyone involved, including the use of top professional quality resources.

Lessons were about music, rarely technique. Sound guided everything, first and foremost. I noticed that timing was not as metronomical, but often more musically communicative – particularly in orchestral playing. I loved the majority of my lessons because of how deep we dove into the music.

I’ll leave with the above thoughts… although a lot, that’s not all of it. Again, this is a reflection of my experience, and mine alone. Some of these differences may be closer to distinctions between music in University and music in a Conservatory, yet they were noticeable nonetheless.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, any at all. Comment below.

Pave the Way

When you see an icon the image connects you to all it encompasses. Coco Chanel is an woman who paved the way for an incredible number of people: defining class, fashion, beauty at a standard which anyone can appreciate. We think of her when we see her brand, a brand that contains an enormous scope, yet of such quality that no person would question.

Look deeper: her life was not perfect – she fought stereotypes, oppressors… she must have turned a blind eye in numerous uncomfortable situations. She worked. Success does not come without it. Yet now, we see her simple, timeless design, the visual que of a reign. In an incredibly populated industry, Chanel remains; she always will.

I wonder how she may have used her craft to help others. Clearly, she inspired so many young women, created a space for creative work which did not exist before her, yet I wonder whether she spent her days thinking about how she could give back all she’s earned, and searching for ways to do it. Still, there is no chance she could have achieved what she did without strong self-interest.

As I worked with Sam to put together my own brand; a platform to encompass all I do as a musician, we settled on a visual which represents the many sides of music-making, the potential for growth within a career, and a search for integrity through all I do.

The design is infinite, always ready to grow and contract: a metaphor for time, the space in which all music exists. We worry about the future of live music, yet it simply never will falter because of its placement in time: there is no feeling that replaces being present. Music communicates this more than any art form. It is an entirely different thing to experience a performance live than it is to hear or see a recording. Those fortunate enough to experience music live understand and always yearn for that experience. Curiosity drives people, and the constant development of music challenges that curiosity.

Who and what I am is diverse; everything I do defines me. The design for this brand shows the simplicity of experiencing as one individual and allows a potential for growth and variety that suits my diverse interests, as Chanel’s logo always has and will. Everything I do and will continue to do is a representation of myself; and if I hope to give back one day, then I will always aim to share with the world an honest representation of myself.

So many have paved the way for us already. This is just me, which is all I can offer. My brand is my definition of what I think is most important in life and in music. I aim to be and strive to be “communicating through music.”