How Did a Scientist Become Principal Timpanist of the MET Orchestra?

Because I did. I was senior scientist at a nanotechnology company in Chicago for 10 years, and now I’m a tenured member of the great MET Orchestra.

But something about this unusual path seems to have stoked some creative legends. I consistently get variations of the following: “I heard you were like some scientist guy, and then one day you won the audition for one of the most competitive timpani positions in the world even though you’d never studied music.”

Ummmm…. WHAT?! Yeah RIGHT. I’m also 8 feet tall, kill men by the hundreds, and shoot blue force-lightning from my fingertips.

I mean, I get it. Mine is a rather uncommon story. But nevertheless, let me dispel those myths right now:

  • I DID study music, percussion, and timpani for many, many gruelling years.
  • I did NOT just waltz into this incredibly competitive audition and win it on a lark. That is pure fantasy.

The truth is this: the incredible privilege I enjoy as principal timpanist with the MET Orchestra is just the “successful tip” of my massive iceberg of failure.

SO. MUCH. FAILURE.

And that’s part of what I’d like to explore with this blog.

So…HEY WORLD! This is my inaugural blog post, nice to meet you! Admittedly, it took a little while to get this out there. I can sympathize with Brahms and his “first symphony dilemma”; I confess to being a little intimidated by the already-great music blogging generated by the likes of Rob, Billy, Weston, Jeremy, Will, Doug, Nate, Scott, Drew, Holly, Bill, Ethan, Don, Jeff, et al….

There’s also the fact that I’m only wrapping up my 4th season at the Metropolitan Opera. The scientist in me remains awed by the high-powered international microscope that is the Met: our Live in HD simulcasts and international radio broadcasts routinely reach hundreds of thousands of people. That exposure can be…intense. So for these first few seasons, I wanted to stay exclusively focused on priority #1 — performing great opera at the highest possible level.

But teaching is a joy, and a passion. Nearly everyone I know cites that teaching makes them better players, and keeps them sharper. And the more I’ve gotten out to do it, the more I’ve been encouraged to share my unorthodox tale. Because while my individual route may have been unconventional, I believe it contains broadly applicable lessons for anyone serious about pursuing music…or, really, pursuing anything at a high level. So here goes….

In one way, I think of myself as a tenacious loser. I mean, the Met was my 28th audition. Prior to that, the auditions I lost included Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Fort Worth (twice), Virginia, National Arts Centre, Fort Wayne, San Diego (twice), Calgary (twice), Pittsburgh, Oregon, Dallas, Bergen, SPCO, NSO, Seoul, Oslo, Grand Rapids, Tucson, and Cincinnati. But it’s not just me: I think it’s safe to say that most orchestral players you meet will have lost more auditions than they’ve won. If you’re gonna stick with music for any length of time, you’ll have to find a way to deal with being a loser. I opted for “tenacious loser.” And the way I coped with it? The way I prevented it from crushing my soul? I reframed it all as constructive growth.

Because put another way, those preceding 27 auditions weren’t total failures. I eventually figured out how to lose constructively. Failure is a perception, and a loaded concept. That vast icy submerged mass wasn’t really failure — it was constructive growth. I became firmly committed to viewing each audition as an opportunity for improvement and refinement. Just saying “I lost that audition” defines the experience too narrowly. How did you lose? Did you advance? Were you runner up? Did you demonstrate improvement over the last time? Did you play your best? Those things matter. In fact, I came to believe that’s ALL that matters.

So yes, I have a B.A. in physics, and an M.S. in electrical engineering. I did not attend a conservatory, nor do I hold a graduate degree in music. Now I’m principal timpanist of the MET Orchestra. How did I do that?

I attribute it to two main things — two major changes I made roughly ten years ago:

First, I decided I wasn’t going to have any attachment to an outcome.

Second, instead of chasing specific outcomes, I embraced a process of continual refinement. That became the only real goal. Any concrete outcomes, milestones, or achievements would just be natural byproducts of that process, that obsession with continuous refinement.

I cannot overemphasize how important that was for me. Practically. Tangibly. Emotionally. Psychologically. Spiritually. Those two things made all the difference.

Detaching myself from the outcomes freed me from the suffering that can so easily attach itself like a parasite to the process of auditioning. It gave me confidence and poise. It made me feel at ease. My efforts did not have an expiration date. I would hear a lot of folks at the bar afterward muttering “I don’t know how long I can keep this up….” That’s rough. I know what that feels like. My answer back then? “I am supporting myself and paying the bills; I have a fulfilling life in Chicago; I am performing music freelancing and I am absolutely dedicated to my process of continual refinement; I will do this for as long as it takes.”

Auditions are strange and complex animals, a topic I’ll explore in future posts. But if nothing else, it should be obvious that there are at least some parts of that process over which you have no control. And when you think about it, attaching yourself and your life’s happiness to an outcome you cannot fully control is insane.

We all do this to some extent. We’re only human. But the point is we don’t have to. It can be different.

Here’s how it can be different: focus on process. My process of continual refinement was defined according to the tenets of “Deliberate Practice.” I’ll explore this concept extensively in future posts, but for now, think of “Deliberate Practice” as “practice with extreme methodical rigor.” Basically, I worked really hard, smartly and efficiently, for a very long time.

And now I get to drum for a living, and I couldn’t be happier.   

 

 

[UPDATE: This post was featured as part of a June 17th, 2017 interview with Melissa Block on NPR Weekend Edition! Listen to our conversation here:]

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