Life’s Lessons

I recently received a beautiful piece of art which was done by the teenage daughter of one of my dear friends. A number of years ago, she wrote an essay about the unfairness of timed tests since she had trouble completing the tests on time. Given enough time, she did brilliantly. Apparently, she spent a very long time creating this particular piece, and it turned out to be one of her great strengths that she could stay with a project until it was completed.

I was reminded of my great difficulties in reading music; I was never able to sight-read anything (although I was an extremely good faker), but I could stay with anything that I had to do for however much time it took to memorize and internalize. For many years, I considered this an extreme disadvantage, BUT, on reflection, ultimately I believe it was an advantage because it forced me to play my strengths which were the ability to memorize quickly and play the cello pretty well and not waste a lot of time trying to become a good sight-reader. I can say that there were times in my life when I did try to become a good sight-reader, but, being handicapped with dyslexia, this was never going to happen.

Two of my first encounters with the horror of confronting very difficult music that I was contracted to play for the American Ballet Theatre and the Harkness Ballet were solos and other unpleasant chromatic passages in Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and André Jolivet’s Ariadne. It took me eight hours to get through the Schoenberg, and I thought, “What an idiot I am to have to spend so much time.” But, 20 years later, I still knew most of it by memory. With the Jolivet, which had a truly wicked cello solo, however long it took me to get it interval by interval, I nailed it every time it came up without exception.

It seems to me that, unconsciously, I was following the dictates of most good managers: “Play your strengths, and downplay your weaknesses.”

Another rule of good management is to avoid professional mountain sickness. Mountain sickness involves lack of oxygen at high altitudes. In business, this translates to being put in a position that you can’t handle. Mountain climbers establish base camps and gradually work their way up to the summit so their bodies can adjust to decreasing amounts of oxygen. Throughout my career, I avoided situations where I would be required to be a good sight-reader, even when I was in my prime when I was offered the principal cello position in a major orchestra. I had the good sense to avoid being put on the spot with programs that changed every week. For me, every week would have been a timed test.

The third premise of good management is illustrated by fable of The Frog and the Scorpion. In this fable, the scorpion wants to cross the pond, but can’t swim. He asks the frog to transport him over the pond to the other side. The frog says, “Why would I want to do that when I know that you’re going to sting me and kill me?” The scorpion says, “Why would I do that, since we would both drown?” The frog agrees to take him across the pond, but when they get into the middle, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog says, “Why did you do that? Now we are both going to drown.” The scorpion replies, “I can’t help it; it’s my nature.”

Many times, I’ve watched colleagues act aggressively and unethically; I had the good sense to avoid any dealings with these people unless it was absolutely necessary, in which case, I had my eyes open and could anticipate how they would come at me. I developed a life rule: if they can screw you, they will screw you. Not necessarily right away, but if the opportunity presents itself, don’t be surprised when it happens.

These three rules made it possible for me to have a successful career and not crash and burn in the middle due to some avoidable oversight. At this point in my life, I still can’t sight-read, but I don’t have to, and the rest of my career is documented and recorded to my satisfaction.