A few months ago I was able to conduct maskless in front of a maskless orchestra. This week, with the Cincinnati Symphony, I’ve donned my mask again, as have the strings and percussion sections. I can’t see everyone’s face again – nor can they see mine. The little bit of normalcy I was finally able to experience at work has yet again been taken away.

It felt like we were collectively on the right track, moving towards a future with some sense of certainty, only to be thrust back to where that hopeful horizon again seems a distant blur. And to have that bit of expectation, of hope, yanked away again is not simply frustrating, but disillusioning.

I think we’re all battling that sense of fatigue; hope is energizing, and the loss of hope feels as much a physiological let down as it is an emotional one. And I know that I’ve found it increasingly difficult not to be pulled back into the defensive crouch in which I spent a great deal of the last 18 months. Which has led me to ponder, how do I move forward? How do I make progress when the world seems to be regressing?

A wonderful mindfulness teacher once told me that fostering feelings about what should or should not be happening keeps us from accepting things as they are. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this a lot the last few weeks, as I’ve been lost in my “shoulds” – we should be in a better state, we should be moving towards higher vaccination numbers, there shouldn’t be a record number of Covid hospitalizations, my friends in the medical field shouldn’t be thrust back into the frantic despair of the beginning of this pandemic.

Yet here we are.

At one point I felt that letting go of shoulds/shouldn’ts meant I was giving up on a better future. Accepting the present as it is doesn’t feel aspirational – it’s hard not to think of it abandoning the possibility of improvement. But I’ve realized that I was approaching it the wrong way.

The same teacher told me that every moment is a moment of evolution, and I think everything is contingent on this truth. Because accepting our present as it is doesn’t imply a static state; it simply means that we are moving through the present, moment by passing moment, and moving to all of the upcoming moments that hold the possibility of change.

The present may be challenging, but the only way to move forward to accept it as it is, because it’s this acceptance that allows us to move forward. When we are grasping at our “shoulds”, we are stuck in the sense that our lives betraying us. We are static in this constantly frustrated state. And that’s a painful – and exhausting – state in which to be.

I’m exhausted of my exhaustion, and so I’ve decided to focus on the things immediately at hand; planning for tomorrow’s rehearsal. Feeding Pinkerton. Spending a few minutes stretching because I never seem to stretch enough, and I have 10 minutes now, right now, in this present. And feeling connected to this continuous cascade of moments slows me down enough to let go of my anger towards the world, to accept that regardless of the choices that have brought us to this point we are still at this point, and that we still need to live through today.

And so today, after a long day of work, I feel tired, but not exhausted. I feel that I’ve at least shifted the needle from my neural groove of my frustration, and that I’m ready for a different tune.

Musical Mindfulness: A harmonious practice, session 1


Music has often been used as a backdrop to a mindfulness practice; this series uses it as the sole focus. When we open our ears to each sound, each note, as it leads to the next, we’re able to slow our thoughts and bring us back into ourselves and to the beauty of each moment.

Join me in a mindfulness practice as we explore the gorgeous sonorities of the cello and focus on a selection by J.S. Bach. 

Movie magic

Last week I did something that I hadn’t done since February of 2020; I conducted a live-to-film concert. (ie, a movie shown with a live orchestra playing the entire soundtrack. For those of you who have never been, I can’t recommend it enough – it adds immeasurably to the movie experience!)

Live-to-film is my specialty as a conductor, and if 20-21 were a normal performance season, I would most likely have spent 10-12 weeks on these kinds of shows. They are my bread and butter. I can’t express to you how much I’ve missed doing them.

I have over 30 films in my repertoire!

While I really enjoy these concerts as a performer, what brings me true gratification is seeing audience members in the concert hall (or in this case an outdoor amphitheater) who have had little or no previous exposure to live orchestral music. The whole orchestra experience is foreign, and they aren’t entirely sure what to expect. But invariably, when we start to play, people are absolutely thrilled by the glorious sounds emanating from the stage.

And the audience that night was thrilled. The movie was Toy Story, with an absolute delight of a score by Randy Newman. And as I glimpsed the elated faces as the orchestra and I faced the applause, I was struck how much I missed creating moments of joy for others.

Humans are communal creatures, yet 21st century culture has us spending less and less time gathering in person – I often say that religion, sports and music are the last communal activities left to us. And of course the social isolation of the pandemic has exacerbated this separation from each other. We need to be together to thrive.

I’m often told “oh it must be so wonderful to do something you love”, and I don’t deny that making music is deeply fulfilling for myself, personally! But it is also an act of service, because our charge as musicians is to craft moving and meaningful experiences for our audiences. Live music provides the space for celebration, for contemplation, for illumination, and creating this space is both the most essential function and the greatest satisfaction of us artists.

These last 18 months have been an extraordinary challenge on so many levels, but losing these moments of joy and reflection and connection has been by far the most crushing. And to witness this possibility again last week – it’s impossible to express how exhilarating it was for everyone present, both onstage and in the amphitheater. The evening was clear and cool, the film tugged at our hearts, the music was full of life, the energy was palpable. We were together, and for those two hours, everything was right with the world.

Musical Mindfulness

Hi friends, and sorry for the spotty posting – real life has indeed become busier and made it a bit more challenging to keep up with virtual life!

That being said, as we all attempt to transition to more in-person activities under the shadow of the delta variant, we’re continuing to experience that same sense of stress and uncertainty that has plagued us (pun intended) for the last 18 months. I’ve been working on ways to support our collective mindfulness and mental health, and I’m delighted to announce the first episode in a YouTube series I’ve been meaning to create for months.

Musical Mindfulness uses music not as a backdrop to a mindfulness practice, but as the focus. As musicians we talk a lot about flow state – a sense of being hyper-present as music continuously unfurls. It’s wonderful when it happens, because of the sense of both grounding and freedom. Musical Mindfulness is an attempt to create a similar experience as we listen to music, by being aware of each moment as we encounter it, and each sound as we hear it.

Check it out below, and send me your comments as I continue to develop this idea!

Daring dairy

I was filming an interview a few days back and a questions was posed about the tension between divulging personal struggles and maintaining an image as a public person. Did I ever feel pressure to present a “pasteurized” version of myself?

I rather loved that notion of personality pasteurization – a “process of partial sterilization making the product safe for consumption and improving its keeping quality.” What a perfect description.

What does it mean for any of us to be “safe for consumption”? That we fit a certain mold, that we maintain a sense of decorum, that we keep the more complex and controversial elements of ourselves out of the public eye?

And what do we mean when we talk about safety? Avoiding any possibility of offense? Negating challenging emotions? Keeping ourselves contained so we don’t spill over into someone else’s psychic space?

For many years it was difficult for me to discuss my mental health challenges. To be fair, part of that was because I was often too far into depression to be able to have any sort of objective view of myself. But a lot of it hinged around wanting to appear strong and controlled. Depression felt like a weakness, a flaw.

Although it took me longer than I would have liked, in the last few years I’ve fully accept that acknowledging every part of myself – even those parts that felt challenging, fragile, less than perfect – was critical in feeling like a complete, integrated human being. The shift was in approaching everything with neutrality, of not attaching any judgment or value. Mental illness is not a failing on my part, simply a reality, something that exists in me, something that I live with, something with which I’ve made my peace.

And so it’s become very straightforward for me to discuss the inner workings of my mind, in all of its intricacy. It doesn’t make me better or worse, or stronger or weaker. Instead, it’s utterly liberating, and I can’t recommend it enough. So my invitation for you today: dare to be unpasteurized.

Our bodies, ourselves

A few weeks back I was with a familiar orchestra in a familiar hall, a place in which I have spent so much time that many of the ushers know me by name. One early evening, before the doors were open, I was walking the corridors around the hall where ushers were stacking program books and preparing for the audience to arrive (side note – it gives me such immense pleasure to say that – that the audience is arriving – for me it’s a tangible indication that the live music industry is coming back!).

An usher approached, an older man, and his face lit up when he recognized me. Coming right up to me, he asked, “How is your pregnancy going? I hear you were expecting. You don’t look pregnant though.”

There is so much here to process that I’m not sure where to begin, and for a moment I was frozen, uncertain as how to even respond to these comments. First of all, my childbearing years are well behind me and a pregnancy would be a freak of nature or a miracle of modern science. Second of all, what the fuck?

As it was, I told him that I wasn’t expecting, and asked him where he heard this “information”; he indicated that a rumor had been passed around the front of house staff.

To say that women’s bodies are constantly objectified is a statement of the obvious, and I wish this topic would stop cropping up in my professional life. As a public figure, I understand that I give up some of my privacy, and just by the act of standing onstage or posting pictures or attending events or being on widely distributed videos, I’m set up for a certain amount of scrutiny.

But I think that broaching the topic of possible pregnancy totally crosses the line. First of all, that is a private matter for any woman, and none of everyone’s business. My friends with kids tell horror stories about people in elevators wanting to touch their pregnancy bumps, as if a fertile woman somehow belongs to everyone. Second, it is a direct comment on not only fertility but also appearance, and if someone asks if one is pregnant when one is not, one can only wonder if they might have put on a little lockdown weight (I did not, but even if I did, it is absolutely no-one’s business).

The corollary to the pregnancy query is the truly awful “You look great, did you lose weight?”. First of all, unless one was morbidly obese and weight loss presented a tangible improvement in health, this question it totally inappropriate. At best, it’s a backhanded compliment that implies that one didn’t look good before. In truth, it’s a passive-aggressive insult.

Then there is the generic “You’re a beautiful woman” (acceptable from a significant other but not from a stranger). I realize that many view this as a compliment, or a statement of fact. What could possibly be wrong with telling someone they’re attractive? Let me explain. Commenting on a woman’s face or body, indicates that one is judging a woman by her face and body. It says that the face and body are things to be gazed upon and are appropriate topics for commentary. It tells us that those things that have nothing to do with a woman’s intelligence or compassion or talent or power are worthy of discussion. Commenting on beauty is meaningless – you’re basically saying that the genetic material one was born with has yielded a countenance and entity that is somehow requiring praise. We didn’t choose that genetic material. That had absolutely nothing to do with us, who we actually are.

Well, I take some of that beauty-talk back. I think it’s perfectly fine to comment on the individual choices a woman makes about her appearance. “What a fabulous outfit, I love that you added those statement bracelets”, “Your makeup is fire! How do you get the color of that lipstick so saturated?”, “Did you change your hair color? It looks more red. It’s beautiful”, “Those are amazing heels!” (I get that a lot).

These are choices women make about how they present themselves, how they express themselves, how they have developed their sense of style. If you like it, by all means appreciate the fashion choices or the new haircut. It’s an acknowledgement of those individual choices, it’s what a woman does and not what she is.

We live in a visual society that is obsessed with appearance and a beauty and fitness and diet industry that prey on women’s insecurities about their bodies, an insecurity built from scrutiny, objectification and the impossible beauty standards of airbrushed and photoshopped perfection. We don’t want to be known, to be ogled, to be judged by our bodies. They are merely the vessels that contain the passionate and bright and funny and loving and brilliant humans that we are. A comment about our attributes and accomplishments is always welcome. Please leave our bodies to ourselves.

In your court

Tennis star Naomi Osaka has made news these last few days for her refusal to take part in mandatory press conferences at the French Open, a decision which ultimately led her to bow out of the tournament. Post-match interviews are a requirement for players, and she cited her mental health as the reason for skipping them, leading to fines and eventually to her withdrawal.

Of course, she was castigated by those who assume that accessibility is the price of fame and fortune, and this commodification of athletes is exactly what creates the immense pressure that can be so damaging to them. And people too often equate physical strength and seeming psychological fortitude on the court/mat/playing field with immunity from mental health issues. We want our heroes to be heroes, when they are simply humans who can do extraordinary things.

I was delighted to see, however, the level of support she’s garnered, and for the larger dialogue that has been prompted by Osaka’s stance. And it’s a courageous stance, signaling not just to fellow athletes but to all of us that we are ultimately responsible for looking after our well-being.

It’s not an easy responsibility to take, made all the more remarkable that Osaka is 23 – it took me decades into adulthood to be truly able to understand my own mental health needs and to actively advocate for them. It’s a skill that wasn’t a part of my formative years, and a discussion that has only in the last few years been a part of an open national discourse.

Which is not to say those skills can’t be learned! For many of us struggling with our mental health, taking a stand for ourselves often feels too overwhelming – particularly if we are too depressed or anxious to have the bandwidth to think about our depression or anxiety. But centering and the active pursuit of self-knowledge can put us in a place to be able observe ourselves and the sensations we’re experiencing. And this knowledge can help us to make decisions – I need help, I need to step back, I need to step forward, I need create some joy, I need to protect myself from those activities that cause me psychological harm.

The hardest lessons I’ve learned during my own mental health journey have been about my own agency. I’d been in such a bad place for such a long time that I no longer felt that it was a fundamental right to be able to thrive. But through therapy and my own exploration I’ve been able to reach a point where I feel invested in my own wellness, and to act in kind.

In Osaka’s case, it was to remove herself from the media circus of post-match press conferences. For me it was to recommit myself to those things that support me – proper nutrition, sleep, movement, mindfulness and relationships; and to reassess those things that didn’t – addictive behavior, self-blame, psychologically toxic environments, people who dismissed the severity of my illness.

While we may not be able to make ourselves OK, we are able to set ourselves up for a fighting chance to be OK. And for me, believing this is the first and most fundamental step towards wellness is an affirmation of my own agency over my mental health. I believe in my ability to be well, to thrive, to find joy in life. Osaka’s story was a timely reminder that I have this right, and this power. And that the ball is always in my court.