A Different Form of Bravery

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as brave. We are not the kinds of heroes found in movies, wartime, or a burning building rescue. Yet one must become the hero of his own story. The reason is simple: there is no one else to do the job. If you are a supporting actor in the movie of your life, audition for a better part.

The clock never stops and opportunities, inevitably, diminish with age. Time still offers chances to change, to try, to dare, but we are captured by long-standing routines. One might say we have traveled the same rut for too long, the furrow deepening with each step. To get out we must climb a wall of earth with strength thought lost.

By 65, the age of my friend Keith Miller, some are already retired. But Keith had at least one more hurdle, one waiting for him over 40 years. Such youthful aspirations are patient, sitting quietly in the back of life’s class, hoping for attention, never raising a hand.

Long ago Keith attended a conservatory and took classes in conducting. He even conducted a chamber group a bit back then, more recently a stint leading a community band, no strings. Keith can’t be called a professional musician, though he has taught piano. The insurance company at which he works as a top-tier technical support analyst is not a wellspring of conductors.

Nevertheless, he had the nerve to apply to the International Masterclasses Berlin, where he would reside for six days in March; and, if he survived, lead the Berlin Sinfonietta in one movement of a romantic masterpiece. Keith was one of 11 students from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina and the USA;  some working conductors with their own ensembles. Almost all were at least 30 years younger than my friend.

But, this is Keith’s story and he needs to tell it:

Packing my luggage for Berlin, I carried expectations, too. Not only from years of listening, but by studying the scores in the months before the masterclass: three symphonies by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.

This was, after all, my inauguration into the world of orchestral conducting. Sleep medication was the only way to calm my bedtime energy. Most of the anticipation came from the unknown, all that is not in the musical score:

How might the maestro react to my lack of experience? How would I fit, being the oldest student? What of the orchestra’s cooperation and opinion? Would I make good music?

The first rehearsal generated the natural nervousness, heart-palpitations too, but also an internal reminder, “I can do this.” Maestro Shambadal’s steely eyes focused on me. The maestro, Principal Conductor of the Berlin Symphony, was born in Israel and studied with many “greats” including Giulini, Markevitch and Celibidache.

After a few deep breaths I began Schumann’s 4th Symphony. Quickly came a loud clap. The orchestra stopped. Maestro yelled from the back of the room, “It begins on the 3rd beat!” I made the correction and got through ¾ of the first movement before my time was up. A few other stoppages occurred for matters of technique and interpretation. I reminded myself I’d come for just such instruction.

I realized I needed to improve. My desire for the maestro’s approval quickened. The ensemble’s response to my leadership lacked enthusiasm and I knew it.

Three more rehearsals followed and group evaluations, as well, before the concert at which we would all perform. We reviewed videos of the 11 conductors, mine included.

Ugh! My posture was terrible. I looked like a bent old man. Maestro alluded to the same thing. I worked on straightening up, without which I couldn’t communicate command and authority. Here, perhaps, was the explanation for my initial failure to elicit what I wanted from the musicians.

I was selected to conduct the second movement of Schubert’s 8th Symphony at the concert. I marked the top of every page of my score with three words:

POSTURE. TEMPO. RELAX.

Keith worked with an experienced orchestra, many of the musicians retired members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Symphony and regional orchestras, along with younger instrumentalists.

Hundreds of years of accumulated experience face a newbie. Some such ensembles take pride in being able to size up a conductor in minutes, and tear him down in less time. Or ignore him and give “their” version of the piece. Still, each player has a job to do: taking the conductor’s vision as achieved in rehearsal, and making the black notes on white paper sing. Keith learned the conductor’s job, too:

His score holds all the notes, every instrumental line on the same page: dizzying to see, much less read while everything is happening in front of him. There is no opportunity to search the lines, the musicians’ faces, and be the director, too. Without an instrument, armed only with certainty, the knowledge of everyone’s role, and his ability to persuade and inspire, he must make something old into something new.

Concert time at last.

Striding up to the podium I was confident and enthusiastic. I brought along a week’s education.

I led with warmth, lyricism, and the dark drama there in the score. The players were spot on: tempo, dynamics and music-making.

What was experience like? The most exhilarating of my life.

I turned and bowed to the audience. Smiles all around. When I asked the orchestra to stand, I saw many smiles among them, as well. I shook the first violinist’s hand and received one word enthusiastically delivered: “Bravo!” The first cellist gave me a hearty thumbs-up.

My mind was captured by one idea.

“I want to do this again and again!”

The previous conductor and I gave each other a big hug. Later, an audience member said the maestro was watching me with full attention and nodding (not nodding off!), as if to say “very good!” After the concert, he congratulated everyone.

Returning to my hotel after a celebratory dinner, I sat at the edge of the bed and cried. All of the emotion and memories, the anticipation and fulfillment, overtook me. Once composed, I began to pack for the trip home.

Courage takes many forms. Sometimes it is simply making the music that is in you, waiting to be made. Taking a risk, not asking permission.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.

Here is a man who made his music:


In the Land of Those Who Dare Not Speak: A New Year’s Parable

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Imagine you stand in a courtyard, four doors equidistant from you. One leads — you hope — to some version of material prosperity: stacks of crisp greenbacks, luxury, titles, accomplishments. Are they more than you need or what you desperately need?

Behind door number two resides jealousy. Here is the personal storehouse of unfulfilled wishes. A worker stands with a brush. He paints everything with the green of envy. No objects inhabit the place, only the ideas with which you fill your head, catalogued for your review: the kind of marriage of this one, the beauty of that one, the genius and happiness of another. To enter you must speak the language of complaint.

A third portal stands in the shadows: the door of the undeserving. Those who step through believe they lack the right to speak of suffering. They’ve been told their life is good. All their externals are properly arranged. They present the world an outward show of seeming to be what is expected. Acquaintances recognize little else, but the soul knows a deeper truth. Here is a library of unexpressed grief, pages beyond counting. The books are sealed and unread. Like all libraries, no sound is permitted. The residents of this prison open their mouths as if to talk, turn around, expect someone to judge them ungrateful for what they have, and leave the pain unspoken. Theirs is the green of nausea, the self-imposed invalidation of a corked bottle filled with tears not meant to stay inside.

Beyond the final door a barren landscape stretches to the horizon. Everything is brown and gray, like a snowless, unformed winter’s day. You spy something new: tinges of green — a few mini-shoots, the color of possibilities. What could grow there? The things you can’t see, not yet, but just might increase if offered a chance — by you and circumstance.

You recognize something shiny among the shoots: the large shard of a broken mirror. The silvered glass looks back at you. And then you realize you are a thing that might grow, enhance. Still, this place is the hardest, least sure.

Four doors. Which will you choose? Or will you wait, decide not, hesitate?

The photo is call 1green doors by psyberartist. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Eleven Steps to Becoming the Most Interesting Person in the World

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“He is the most interesting man in the world.” We see him in the Dos Equis beer commercials, surrounded by manly men and beautiful women. He arm wrestles brawny brutes, sits at an easel painting an uncaged rhinoceros, and weathers rough seas. Each ad ends with the tag line, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” The closing maxim has a double meaning: be thirsty for beer and for life. The connection between his adventurous history and his beer allows us to live vicariously by drinking the same brew, thereby borrowing some of his charisma, good looks, and self-confidence; or so the Dos Equis marketing department must believe.

Jonathan Goldsmith is the actor who convincingly inhabits this “interesting” role. Lots of people want the character’s magnetism, but lack an idea of how get it. Yet, in one commercial he tells us what is required: “It’s never too early to start beefing up your obituary.”

How can you make yourself a more interesting person? The two lines I mentioned are key: stay thirsty for life and beef up your résumé (a more optimistic word than obituary), not by work alone but by living full-out.

What might you become? Start with being interesting to yourself. Here are the 11 suggestions promised in the title:

1. Find something about which you want to learn more:

  • If your subject is Beyoncé, become an expert on her life and art.
  • If your concern is yourself, do a genealogy, enter psychoanalysis, visit your old neighborhood, and learn the history of your parents and grandparents, if possible by talking with them, their friends, and relatives.
  • If your focus is  life, justice, beauty, or truth, read philosophy and enroll in a course taught be an excellent professor who uses the Socratic method.

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2. Take on challenges about which you are hesitant. Risk. Strive for something worthwhile. Even if you fail, you will acquire some good stories (and you will have some failure). Learn how to present the tales to others by watching those who do or by joining a story telling group.

3. Strike cliches from your vocabulary. Never say the word “awesome” again. You don’t need big words, but learn to use the simple ones as needed. Very few people express themselves with precision. You will automatically become interesting if you do. Conversation is not a race to be clever, but the art of clarity in oral communication.

4. Read newspapers, whether online or the print variety. Learn what is going on in the political and social world and be capable of forming well-reasoned opinions without imitating a fulminating pundit. Think critically about the information you gather or what passes for information and is actually biased, incomplete, incorrect, or all three.

5. Come alive to the world around you. The trees are not only beautiful, but named. So are the flowers and the clouds. Gaze at the buildings. Friedrich von Schelling wrote, “Architecture is music in space, as (if) it were a frozen music.” Such soaring beauties await your appreciation. Don’t be afraid to proclaim them.

6. Notice people. We are not all the same. From dress to attitude to movement to language — observe and listen. Test your intuitions, as Dan Ariely emphasizes in this TED talk; don’t assume your worldview is correct. By understanding why humans (including yourself) think and act as they do, you will have much worthwhile to say. First, however, recognize that emotion often leads thought, not the other way around. Attempts to persuade people with ideas and reasons frequently fail because the audience is emotionally tied to the views that preceded their rationalizations.

7. You must eat, so sample and learn about different cuisines. Better still if you cook them.

8. Hang around with exciting, wise, and soulful personalities. There is much you can learn from them.

9. Reduce time watching TV, tweeting, surfing social media sites, and sending the world your image. All of this is routine and risks overexposure. The public attempt to prove your uniqueness makes you one of the crowd. Moreover, you’re not likely to do some of the things I’ve mentioned if your virtual existence takes over your free time.

10. In conversation, learn to ask questions and to find what is engaging about the lives of others. Get under the surface gradually, if permitted. Everyone has a story to tell. They will be grateful for your attention. Be prepared, however, for some to rebuff you.

11. Travel if you can, but don’t return from, say, Germany, thinking the most interesting part was drinking beer. (I was once given exactly this answer to my question,  “What made the biggest impression on your visit to Deutschland?”).

Having talked with thousands of people in my clinical psychology practice, and many outside the office, most of them were interesting to me if I bothered to make the effort to get to know them. A psychologist is permitted (at least in session) to open the dark closets, step downstairs into the psyche and examine the foundation. Men and women want to be understood, but are afraid to be known. James Baldwin said, we trap ourselves by wearing

…the masks we fear that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

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You will find other online guides to making yourself sparkle, but few if any such as the one above. Yes, some of these steps demand work, others only an opening of your eyes, listening with intensity, touching things and people, tasting life, and breathing in aromas both foul and fair. Thought and courage will also be required. Goethe wrote:

Talent develops in quiet,
Character in the torrent of the world.

Insecurity might prevent you from becoming more interesting. These steps can also make you more secure. The irony is that once you become more secure, you will care little, if at all, whether others think you are interesting. In the self-knowledge of your own value, whether others agree or not, you will achieve an amazing freedom — one setting you apart from timid souls and making you even more admirable and captivating.

Now back to the title. I promised you eleven steps to becoming the most interesting person on the planet. Ah, dear reader, it is not possible, for men at least. Jonathan Goldsmith’s Dos Equis persona* is beyond our reach. As for the ladies, the position is open. Go for it!

*If you’d like to find out more about what Jonathan Goldsmith is really like, take a look at this. He is actually quite interesting:

The second image is Beyonce Knowles, taken by Tony Duran, Parkwood Pictures Entertainment, LLC. The final photo is Le Escalier de Montmartre, 1936, by George Brassai.