A visit with an old friend

September 17, 2009

Last night I sat down at the piano in my studio for the first time in a long time. My mom likes to remind me that I studied piano for more years than I did violin, and it contributed as much if not more to my overall music appreciation. She’s right (grumble). But I never found that same connection to teaching piano or the community of playing piano as I did with violin.

I had two different piano teachers in my life. Both of them are now deceased. Mr. Leviton started me at age 3 and took me through age 13 or so. And then the last three years of high school I moved on to Dr. Isaak, at Northwestern University. He was the one who thought I was absolutely NUTS for not continuing to study music in college. He said I was already at the level of a typical Master’s Degree student at Northwestern! I simply ignored this, or dismissed it as the rantings of someone as lunatic as you must need to be in order to become a professor of piano.

In retrospect, I missed out on some great learning by not being open to him at the time. Read the rest of this entry »

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Follow Your Bliss

August 23, 2009

Vines with landscape

In northern California, they say there are two seasons – brown and green. Summer is brown and winter is green. This refers to the dryness of our summer months, when the foothills around the Bay turn wheat-colored and stay that way until the rain comes in January and February.

I visited Napa Valley earlier this month – one of the brown ones – inspired by the visit of my violin teacher who has known me since I was four years old. We went on the guided tour of Robert Mondavi Winery. As we stood in the 85-degree sun of the vineyard, my teacher asked our tour guide how often the irrigation pipes were used to water the plants. We all assumed that there was an elaborate watering system to maintain such lush green leaves on the vines surrounding us.

We were wrong.

The tour guide explained that the vines are deliberately stressed, and not given supplemental water during the dry season, because the growers have found that the more the vine struggles, the deeper its roots must go, and the more complex flavor is produced in the grapes, resulting in better wine. So prized are those roots that often the heartiest of the “rootstocks” (as they are called) are grafted onto newer fruit-bearing branches, to help enhance the hardiness of a harvest.

It surprised us all to hear this, especially as we strode into the dusty soil that supported the growth of endless rows of green-leafed grapevines. Who would have thought that good grape cultivation actually meant withholding water from the vines?

Rows of grapes

We were invited to taste some of the grapes. I braced myself to wince at the sourness. But they tasted amazingly good! I and the rest of the tour group each helped ourselves to a small handful of grapes before moving onto the fermentation room.

That story about the most resilient – and resourceful – vines producing the most complex and therefore valuable grapes stayed with me. I thought about it again today as I took a hike in the dry landscape of an open space preserve near my home, walking on dusty trails and surrounded by waist-high prairie grasses that were the color of straw. I noticed a tree, living there in the same parched landscape, somehow managing to have all of its branches teeming with blooms of bright green, shiny leaves. This was one thriving tree in the midst of a whole lot of dried out deadness.

Somehow, I thought, that tree must have dug deeper with its roots to find the water for all those leaves to grow out here. It must be like one of those resilient grapevines.

This got me thinking about the concept of bliss. I had always heard that famous phrase, coined by Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss.” I thought it was one of those woo-woo spiritual mantras spread by people who were promoting “the good life”, which I took to mean, do whatever pleases you in the moment, and most likely it won’t be work. Read the rest of this entry »


Child Whisperer

August 19, 2009

I have to share this incredibly insightful post from Pam Slim, entitled “Valuable Coaching Advice Straight From The Horse’s Mouth (And Nose)”. In it, she talks about how her experience at a horse whisperer workshop taught her valuable lessons about her own parenting behaviors.

I started my violin school five years ago, knowing that I would have to start by recruiting the right parents – get their commitment, spend time educating them, and then hope for their long-term buy-in to a philosophy that extends well beyond the boundaries of violin training. What I couldn’t fully articulate back then but am realizing now is that I’m really teaching a way of being. It’s an awareness of the self as the gateway to deep, long-lasting learning. And mainly I’ve been focusing on developing this within each child. After all, that’s why we’re all gathered together – for the sake of the children.

But what I’m beginning to learn is that, in order for the child to learn optimally in this environment, there is an element of openness and awareness of themselves that the parents have to develop as well. This has been the harder problem to address. I’ve never told parents upfront that they are required to be coachable. Once I’ve screened and accepted the parents, it’s easy for me to become totally absorbed in my direct work with the child that I forget to specifically address the parent’s relationship to the child. I’ve used the excuse that it’s “not my place” to comment on parenting style, just to try to work with what is there, and do my best to “work around it” by ignoring the parent’s behaviors when they’re not helping the process. It’s been my habit to avoid the difficult situation of calling out a self-defeating behavior in a parent when it comes up, because I feel ill-equipped to do the necessary work of changing an adult’s patterns of instinctual behavior – especially something as primal as parenting. Read the rest of this entry »


Dr. Chu’s Shoes – Part Two

August 10, 2009

I wrote a blog post in 2006 entitled “Dr. Chu’s Shoes”. I hadn’t read the post recently, but I thought about it this past week when I put on high heels for the first time since May. My teacher was visiting, and out of habit I felt the need to dress up a little extra nicely in her presence. She was the same as always – meticulous hair, makeup, suits, and high-heeled shoes every time she emerged from her hotel room. By now she has had at least three foot surgeries as a result of her high-heeled shoe habit, and she can physically no longer wear flats. But she looks amazing!

Well, much to my surprise, I found that I was almost unable to walk after about three hours of wearing high heels one day this week. I limped my way to the car at lunchtime, and took my foot out of my shoe at every opportunity I had for the rest of the day. My right foot was crying out to me, refusing to comply with the shoe that I had worn many times before in the past, with no apparent problems.

“YOU stopped wearing high heels??” my teacher asked, in disbelief. “You ALWAYS wear high heels!”

I explained that I had stopped wearing them starting in June, and never started again until that day this week.

“Why do you think it hurts now?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t know, but maybe it’s just shows how well the body adapts to pain. You get used to it after awhile, and then you think that’s normal, or the way it should be.”

“Yup,” she said. “I’ve just gotten used to it, three surgeries later. They keep cutting off the bone, and it just keeps growing back. And I go to the foot doctor every few months to get more treatments, and she just says to me, ‘Keep wearing your high heels!'”

So what did my high-heeled shoes really symbolize? And what shoes will I wear now that I can barely walk in those same high-heeled shoes I used to wear faithfully every day? I still have a deep commitment to dressing neatly and respectfully when I get in front of a group to teach. I’m very aware of the effect of the visual image I project when standing in front of a child. But maybe now, having journeyed through adapting to pain, to numbness, and back into feeling again, I have gained the wisdom to respect my own well-being at the same time.


Letter to Parents

August 5, 2009

NOTE: I’m sharing this letter, originally addressed to the parents in The Music Within Us program, publicly here, because it represents my deepest commitment to the service I hope to offer in this life. May you all find the courage to ask life’s most important questions: WHO are you? And HOW do you choose to be?

Dear Parents:

I’m writing as I begin to invite each of you to join me for the sixth year of our co-creation of The Music Within Us program. I have known some of you for all of the past five years, when you were just several “important strangers” who have now become something like family to me – people I feel a certain responsibility towards, people I long to do right by. Others I have just begun to know, through your first steps on this path of discovery with your children. Each of you – through your expression of who you are and how you interact with your children – has a creative role in the emergence of The Music Within Us.

I feel it necessary to share some thoughts with you before the start of the new school year in just a few weeks. I also want to give you the opportunity to reflect on my words, and the meaning behind my words, before we enter into this mutual commitment together again.

When I first started The Music Within Us in 2004, I hoped to share the parts of myself that had been cultivated through the unique experience of my time with Mrs. Betty Haag-Kuhnke, in the suburbs of Chicago. I began a process of revisiting and rediscovering, through the practice of teaching, the art form that had been so central to my early childhood development. I relished the process of remembering all the details of how music is made, step by step, on the violin. Then I watched the magic of bringing just two young violinists together, making the sounds of a song in unison. I’ve witnessed the expansion of the numbers of students and of their combined sound. I’ve marveled at the tenderness of the fingers and hands that can draw out these sounds from such a foreign, unwieldy instrument as this wooden curved box with a long neck, and a horsehair bow. Read the rest of this entry »


Have you found your tribe?

August 3, 2009

Here are some excerpts from Seth Godin’s recent book called Tribes (pp. 66-69, emphasis added):

Imagine two classrooms with similar teachers. One has fifteen students, the other, thirty-two. Which group gets a better education?

All other things being equal, the smaller class will always do better. The teacher has more time to spend customizing the lesson to each student. She has fewer students, hence fewer disruptions as well.

Now, flip the experiment around. What if the fifteen students are begrudgingly taking the course as a requirement for graduation, while the thirty-two had to apply to be admitted and are excited to be there.

No contest.

Tribes are increasingly voluntary. No one is forced to work for your firm or attend your services. People have a choice of which music to listen to and which movies to watch.

So great leaders don’t try to please everyone. Great leaders don’t water down their message in order to make the tribe a bit bigger….

You’re not going to be able to grow your career or your business or feed the tribe by going after most people. Most people are really good at ignoring new trends or great employees or big ideas.

You can worry about most people all day, but I promise you that they’re not worried about you. They can’t hear you, regardless of how hard you yell.

Almost all the growth that’s available to you exists when you aren’t like most people and when you work hard to appeal to folks who aren’t most people.

Godin presents a vivid new vision for leadership in the current age of global connection, and asks us to think – really think – about the need for people who are passionate about something to mobilize groups of others who share that passion. “Leadership is not management,” says Godin. “Leaders have followers. Managers have employees. Managers make widgets. Leaders make change. Change? Change is frightening, and to many people who would be leaders, it seems more of a threat than a promise. That’s too bad, because the future belongs to our leaders, regardless of where they work or what they do.

So, if you’re a leader of a tribe, are you focused on the power of your message, or flailing around trying to tailor that message so that “everyone” gets it?

And, if you’re in a tribe that just doesn’t fit your passion, are you fighting it? Or are you freeing yourself to either lead your own tribe or find a leader that you can genuinely follow?

Godin also gave a TED talk on this subject:


Keep listening

July 13, 2009

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Steven, lives in Shanghai. He may or may not be able to read this blog, depending on whether or not it’s a day when the Chinese government decides to block access to all blogs, YouTube, and foreign news media. I wonder what it must be like to get up each morning, and, as many of us casually look out the window to see what the weather might be, have to check how small the government has decided to make you that day.

Thankfully, we have skype. Steven and I chat at least once a week, using text. Neither of us has wondered whether those messages are being reviewed for future censorship by the Chinese government. Maybe we should.

Steven is an entrepreneur. He is tackling the daunting task of trying to identify a business idea, secure funding, and launch it in a country where every single interaction he has is brand new. He is so clearly a foreigner. He is learning the language, studying it each day, taking lessons with a private tutor, going to a speaking practice group of foreign-born students. It is frustrating! He says it has made him feel so humble and inadequate at times to be struggling with the kinds of words that any five-year-old in China is fluent in. It has whittled him down to the core to have to learn the basic building blocks of how to “get by” in a new language and culture.

He grew up with me in Libertyville, and frankly, he was someone I thought of as a “pretty boy” – he played tennis, had blond hair, wore pink Polo shirts, drove an Audi in high school, and just seemed to me to be on the other side of that invisible social line. He was one of the “cool” people. We really only became friends as adults, after I saw him at our tenth high school reunion and heard that he was living in San Francisco. I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s cool! He MADE it out there!” I wanted to know how he did it, what brought him there. It was that part of me longing for examples and stories of how people broke out of the known and followed a dream. All I remember him telling me that night in 2003 was that after college, he was working in Tennessee, hearing about all the cool stuff happening in Silicon Valley, and decided to pick up and move there to get in on the action. He got into a dot com, which was acquired, and rode the crest of the wave all the way to the bottom. And he looked happy, relaxed, still loving life. Read the rest of this entry »