Tiffany Chang

conductor

Blog

A place for me to share my thoughts and reflections on my work. This is more like a public journal rather than "advice" entries. I admit that I don't have it all figured out. But maybe by writing things down, I can begin to work them out.

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Self-Advocacy

Posted by tiffanychang on August 21, 2020 at 9:50 AM

I was never good at self-advocacy or self-promotion. I found even the thought of doing so very uncomfortable and completely against my nature. It would take so much effort to just say, "hey, here's something I did" and share it with the world. I felt like I had to put the absolute best work out there, and 99% of my work just doesn't cut it (in my opinion). If I didn't think it was worthwhile myself, why would anyone else think so and be interested?

 

Maybe because it was such an unnatural thing for me to do, I was always frustrated to see others do it with such ease. Everything I would write/produce/showcase online, I struggled with and overthought. At the end of the day, I didn't even know why I was doing it and it was giving me so much unwarranted stress. I wanted to be stressed about other "important" things.

 

Here are some things I learned and realized:

 

-If I don't advocate for myself, nobody else is going to do it.

-If I don't believe in myself, who else would believe in me.

-It is never going to be perfect. It is better for something to be out there than never shared.

 

I feel like the last 6 years or so has been a waste of time because I was stubbornly holding on to the unrealistic idea that if I did good work, the universe would make sure that I'd get what I deserve. Well, that is not what life is really like. OK, so my last 6 years were not wasted, and I'm grateful to have been lifted by others' trust and confidence in me. I read somewhere recently that you can't build your confidence alone - it's something that is generated through others' interaction with you. That's a very interesting perspective. I can't work on my confidence by myself, it requires interacting with others. I actually don't enjoy socializing, so no wonder I've not had the chance to gain that confidence.


Once I realized that, I saw now there were so many lost opportunities when I could have done something. Nobody would want to live with that regret, and I don't intend to.

 

I also realized that it was super important for me to connect with why I was doing this very challenging work of marketing myself. Yes, I need to have an online presence, but who am I doing it for--and why was I doing it?? Does it make me feel better? Does it help get me opportunities? How is it contributing anything to the world? That I still need to work out.


Interestingly, I had no problem doing an excellent job advocating my ensemble. It seemed like that it provided me with a front to do what is necessary under the radar. Why can't I be proud of myself? I've always wondered about that.

 

Values and Fulfillment

Posted by tiffanychang on July 24, 2020 at 4:15 PM

I've recently been thinking a lot about values. I went through a self-guided process of clarifying and giving meaning to my values (inspired by a class with Rich Diviney, former Navy SEAL Officer). I explored how these values inform my work and how to make them actionable. I reflected on how fulfilled I feel right now in my life and how these values play a part in that. It was a worthwhile journey of self-discovery. I'd like to share what happened.


- Clarifying and giving meaning to values -

Step 1: I got this giant list of just under 150 values. I went ahead and checked every single value that spoke to me in a profound way. I ended up with about 25 words, so I kept narrowing them down - my goal was to get it down to under 5. I realized that some of these values were actually related and fell under the umbrella of a "main" value. Here's how I ended up organizing these values, in turn revealing what my 5 main values were (in no particular order):

- Excellence - Mastery, Knowledge, Competence
- Integrity - Hard Work, Responsibility, Accountability, Honor, Honesty, Clarity, Humility
- Ethics - Fairness
- Career - Success, Achievement, Ambition
- Leadership - Courage, Impact, Loyalty, Empowerment, Vision

Step 2: I proceeded to try to answer the question, "What do these values mean to you?" What I learned is that every person can contextualize a value in very personal ways. How I define a value can be very different than how someone else defines it. So here were my attempts at defining these values, weaving in as many of the "secondary" values in Step 1 as appropriate: 

- Excellence - possessing the highest mastery and knowledge possible in the field, being absolutely competent in the work I do, always doing my best work
- Integrity - always working hard, being responsible and accountable for my work and others' time, doing honorable work that I can be proud of, being honest about the quality of my work
- Ethics - being fair as much as possible, giving credit where it is due, encouraging accountable behavior in the world (by expecting it and modeling it)
- Career - spending the majority of my time conducting, holding significant conducting positions in first-rate conservatories and professional organizations, being versatile and proficient in many conducting areas, holding the ambition that I can always do better, being seen as a leader
- Leadership - having impact on and inspiring how others think and behave, having courage to go first and to take risks, being loyal to one's ideals, empowering others to do their best, having a vision for a better future, being humble and grateful, working with maximum transparency and clarity

Step 3: Then, I attempted to answer the question, "How will others see you behave when you are living these values?" Many of the responses are a repetition of Step 2, but they're reframed to be actionable and to hold myself accountable:

- Excellence - I continually work on myself as an artist. I always do my best work and back it up with skill and knowledge.
- Integrity - I always work hard and take responsibility for my work. I always be honest and do what I say I would. I am so prepared that I never waste anyone's time. I always do work that I feel I could be proud of.
- Ethics - I strive to be fair in how I treat others and how I run my organizations. I establish a culture that encourages others to value fairness and accountability. I model those behaviors and expect it.
- Career - It will never feel like I've gotten where I want to be: I am always striving for the next level up in my work. I am fluent in conducting diverse scenarios. I am busy working on different projects and with different organizations all the time.
- Leadership - My ideas and actions change how others think and act, thus inspiring a vision I have for a better future in musical fulfillment. I have the courage to go first (and start something) and to take risks. I remain loyal and stay true to my ideals. I empower the group to do their best and feel purposeful in their work. I am reflective and humble and grateful. Everything I do and say has maximum transparency and clarity.

- Visiting fulfillment for a bit -

After going through this exercise, I decided to go deeper and explore job satisfaction and feelings of fulfilment in the music industry.


I often read in dismay that fewer and fewer of the world’s population are feeling fulfilled by the work they do. We in the arts agree that we are lucky to love what we do for a living. Yet, we also contribute to the statistic since loving what we do does not necessarily always lead to feeling fulfilled by our work. People don't actually realize that they do not feel fulfilled. I have been in too many situations where I see musicians complain about their gigs and having to go to rehearsal, treat it like a job they clock-in and clock-out, and don't always feel excited to perform. I think the key word for the last one is always. I realized that it's not simply doing what you love that makes you feel fulfilled, but the the context in which you do it that ultimately seals the deal—such a simple but profound distinction.


I'm on a mission to revolutionize the orchestral workplace so everyone feels absolutely fulfilled.


So, how do you help musicians feel truly fulfilled? I think it is building a culture of trust, empowerment, and belonging: if you feel trusted to take musical risks knowing we have each other's backs, empowered to do purposeful and individualized work, and feel a sense of belonging to a group that share the same values and goals. It's just like in any other industry.


- Now, going back to values -

I finally asked myself: why do I currently feel unfulfilled by my work? what aspects of my work are misaligned with my values? what do I need to do to rectify and improve that?


This is how I decided to evaluate. I took each of my values and rated how I feel they are currently represented in my work. How satisfied am I with the degree in which I live each value? Here are my ratings on a scale of 1 (least) to 10 (most) and some reflections: 

- Excellence [6] - I hold myself at the highest (sometimes impossibile) standards, and I'm not able to do my best artistic work in my current positions. As a result, I do not feel fulfilled. And not being able to do my best work makes me feel terrible about myself - and I don't improve.
- Integrity [9] - I take pride in working extremely hard and doing what I say I'll do. I consistently take responsibility for my work and over-prepare for everything. I am always bettering myself so that the quality and consistency of my work remains high. This is something I have completely control over - how I show up. This is also cited frequently as what others see strongly in me.
- Ethics [8] - This has always been central to the way I handle things in my work and how I interact with others. I feel like this should be a no-brainer 10, but I've assigned it an 8 because I remain confused about the gray areas. My insistence on being fair in this way may make others feel like I'm inflexible and inconsiderate. But from my end, what I feel is that I'm staying loyal to the rest of the group that has demonstrated a commitment to that responsibility. (That's an interesting thought - I just thought of that as I was writing this. Maybe it's a perception issue?). 
- Career [4] - I'll always be grateful for jobs that allow me to conduct. I'm thrilled to be working at the top institutions in the country so early in my career. However, I think my work has been too isolated within academia and what's missing is work with high-level professional organizations. I have realized that I cannot be in a position that is only teaching. I want to be working in places that allow me to do the highest level work and to conduct. Right now, that is not the case, and I want to change that.
- Leadership [8.5] - I feel like I'm doing pretty well as a leader. I feel like my behavior and ideas have changed culture in multiple organizations - the behavior and thoughts of others - in a positive way. My musicians have certainly been inspired to do better work. Generally, the musicians I work with (professional and amateurs) feel greatly empowered and alive when we make music. That's a very strong foundation to begin with and results in much better and deeper work. I will never be the best leader I want to be, so my score will always be around a 8 - like, forever. 

So it turns out that I feel the least fulfilled by my (lack of) career and excellence. Well, I've got some work to do! 


Also, all those other 120 or so values I didn't even select from the start - why are they not on my values list? Maybe I should run this exercise with those and see what happens? I guess that's why everyone's different. 


Thanks for reading till the end - this was really two posts in one!

 

Leadership

Posted by tiffanychang on June 25, 2020 at 2:20 PM

Since I began studying conducting as an undergraduate, I’ve been obsessed with leadership. I feel like I am programmed as a human being to be a leader – I always felt like leadership tasks were easy. I didn’t need to think very much about how to design a journey that would get us from point A to B, while keeping in mind that there is C, D, etc, all the way to Z. It seemed natural for me to consider the holistic experience and to take care of the details that made the journey meaningful every step of the way. Lesson planning was also always easy for me. I was able to think empathetically toward my students, and I’ve noticed that that ability is what made it so easy and made me effective as a teacher (and I’d like to argue as a conductor). It’s so important that people feel like a leader understands and can relate to them.


As I organically slipped into leadership roles, I realized that it was not so for some individuals – and that they had to work hard at it. I started wondering why it all came to me so naturally. I think I’m still trying to figure it out, but I count myself lucky that I have these innate qualities. Perhaps it is because I have it, I feel even more curious about what is it that makes leadership work.


My journey to discovering leadership has been actually defined by those who write and speak about business leadership—particularly the work of Simon Sinek. I have been a huge and loyal fan for years. His profound ideas speak to me in such a deep way, and I continue to be amazed at how these leadership models initially meant for business leaders fit extremely well to my (actually anyone’s) work as a leader in front of musicians.


Simon Sinek’s first book Start with Why explores how it is important to understand an organization’s “why.” What idea inspires you to do the work that you do and gives you purpose? He advocates for starting with a strong “why” and allowing it to set the tone for an organization’s work. It creates a deep sense of community (a “tribe”) where everyone shares the same values, promoting comradery and loyalty to each other (instead of rivalry and competition)—making the company stronger and more successful. It was also interesting for me to consider that not everyone will share your “why,” and so it is crucial to an organization’s development to understand that not everyone is a good fit for you. That concept alone has changed my world in considering 1) how I want to design my ensemble's culture, 2) evaluating the organizations that I work with, and 3) why I have continued or discontinued my work with them.


Simon also speaks much about how important it is for a leader to create an environment where everyone feels safe to take risks so that their best work emerges. We can all think of conductors or teachers whose styles do not naturally promote active risk-taking. I think the result is uninspired, “careful” music-making. I’ve realized that that is key to empowering an orchestra to own the music. Every single musician should feel important, fulfilled, and full contributors to the music. In fact, when the leader is able to let go, that's when things start to get interesting.


Simon's second book Leaders Eat Last and his most recent The Infinite Game are also incredibly relevant, and I highly recommend them. It is amazing that everything Simon says ends up being goals I have for orchestras I work with. These thoughts have been percolating for years, and it’s still foggy at times. I look forward to the day that I can articulate effectively how Simon’s work is absolutely relevant for leadership in the arts. For the moment, I’m grateful that Simon inspires me to be a leader every single day.



Labels

Posted by tiffanychang on May 11, 2020 at 10:20 AM

It never seems like I am good enough. All artists hold that sentiment toward themselves, but I also battle the industry’s label of my being just a “school orchestra teacher” based on the profile of my work. When I was a student, one of my majors was music ed; and the vast majority of my conducting career has been associated with college programs. I do not regret any of those decisions, but when my career is put in that context, the work I do never seems to be worthy of a conductor who is a professional and an artist. I am really frustrated by the label of “teacher” because it is limiting (“just” a teacher) and insinuates a lower bar from what I expect from myself and those I work with.


Being confined to that label also constantly made me question if I was good enough at my craft to work at the highest level. Maybe my expectations of myself were not high enough? I hoped that my growing artistic integrity would allow me to be taken seriously as a conductor, but the “teacher” label never changed. Every time I’d have an interaction where I realize the label remained unchanged, a piece of my confidence chips away and I become less convinced that I was worthy of being a conductor. I still have that experience every week—with colleagues, students, and strangers. Over many years, my confidence crumbled, and the only way I could rebuild it was to keep putting integrity in my work, so that I know that I am worthy of what I am. I’ve learned slowly that that this vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, but an opportunity for growth and true understanding of how I operate as a person.


I find that breaking the label is a much more difficult glass ceiling (than for example being a woman in the profession). In fact, I didn’t even know that that was the issue I was struggling with, so I wasn’t addressing it. Bottom line is: I want to be seen as a conductor. And, I don’t want to lose my teacher identity. I want to be both, as one enforces the integrity of the other. I really believe that it is possible to co-exist in the “professional” and “school” platforms as a conductor who is an artist and teacher. I realized that I need to live and lead in this mindset so that everyone I work with can be the most fulfilled in their music-making. I need to break free of those labels myself. 

My experiences over the last six months gave me permission to do that, and I’m so grateful. It was also publically announced today that I’ve received a 2020 Solti Foundation U.S. Career Assistance Award. I’m truly honored, but I’m most thrilled about the potential for it to help recalibrate my “label.” I know there are many other artists out there experiencing the same sentiments of career-identity-crisis. So, at the same time, I am heartened for them to know that sometimes people do see you for the artist that you are beyond the “resume label.” I believe that everyone can be deeply fulfilled by engaging with music at a high level of integrity. I will inspire that wherever I go with whoever I work with.

Disappointments

Posted by tiffanychang on April 6, 2020 at 12:05 AM

Every year, April fills me with dread because it’s my birthday month, an annual occasion when I get to remind myself how disappointed I am for not having achieved certain goals I’ve set out in my life. I never feel like I am where I want to be in my career, and I get further and further “behind” my personal goals as I get older. I know this is quite normal for artists but I think with COVID-19 this year and without the artistic activities that help me steer personal progress, it will be particularly challenging for me. In March, my busiest month this year got derailed significantly with cancelled events, and things didn’t go as I had hoped in the events that did happen. I’ve spent the last few weeks reflection on those disappointments.


I often think I’m still doing exactly the same things as I was X number of years ago or I’m not improving my artistic situations enough (or worse, the artistic quality I’m working with has dropped). These are single-minded thoughts and unfair statements to assign to my life—simply because they are not true, but I still have them almost every day. 


Getting better as an artist is most important to me. The nature of my work is that I lead people to create art, so in order for the art to get better, I must not only be better as a leader myself, but I must strive to collaborate with artists that inspire me to be better and with whom I can create the highest level of music-making.


So I’m always evaluating: am I achieving that goal with what I’m doing now? Am I happy with where I am in my jobs? Am I happy with the commuting? Am I happy at making something out of nothing at Oberlin? Am I happy teaching the same thing for the past 7 years at Berklee? And ultimately: am I doing the right things to further my career to a point where I would be happy? I think the fact that I am asking those questions means that the default answer is “no” to all of the above – even if I probably don’t mean it for all. They are pointed leading questions asked in a way where the desired answer subconsciously is no. That’s bad, no? Interestingly, I’ve read that in negotiations, you want to ask questions that are geared toward “no” since it gives a sense of a “call to action” that inspires, well, action. And maybe that’s what keeps me going, is always wanting to do something about my “unhappy” state of being. Maybe my own question-asking actually helps me move forward?


I am not particularly thrilled with my life now (and maybe I never will be and that’s ok), but I am also not dissatisfied by it. I’m in this weird gray area, in a sort of limbo where it’s difficult to find what is that next step. I’m confused by this state of being. And if I’m using external feedback as a metric for success, it’s confusing too. (What are metrics for success anyway?) I’ve been told many times that I am too good for opportunities; I’ve been told just as many times that I am not good enough for other opportunities. So I end up being wanted by nobody – or so it feels – and I have no idea how I got here. That is all disappointing.


I haven’t exactly figured out how to deal with these sentiments and nip them in the bud before I go into a downward spiral, but I often tell myself that I should be grateful that 1) each year of my artistic life looks different with new opportunities and 2) I have artistic experiences that others would love to have. I have learned to trust that I will have new opportunities each year, even though life is very uncertain as a freelance artist because you don’t know if you’ll have it until it comes. I have learned to notice my life is different now than it was before - and I'm thankful for it. Being grateful is key, and ultimately, I always believe in that genuinely even if it takes me a while to get there.


Also, if I allow myself to get lost in my work, study, and vision, life is instantly full of meaning, purpose, and worth the challenges.

Back to flying

Posted by tiffanychang on January 31, 2020 at 9:30 PM

This is the calm before the storm. In a few days, I resume my weekly commute between MA and OH. People always are surprised that I take a plane to get from one work to another. I have been doing so for almost three years, and actually, quite a lot of musicians (and non-musicians, like consultants) do this, and have been doing so a for much longer time.

We all agree it’s not as glamorous as it seems. It’s a lot of suitcases, having two sets of everything while maintaining two places of residence. If I forgot something I need in Boston, too bad! Planning meticulously our travel and work itinerary. For example, next week I get off the plane and go straight to class. I’ve prepared all my class materials in December when I was last at Oberlin. I knew I simply wouldn’t have time to do it after getting off the plane.

In 2019, I was away 118 days. I know my regular airports super well – like how long it would take for me to get to certain gates, where the TSA precheck lines and (nice) bathrooms are, and which food places are open at midnight (because I had to spend the night at the airport one day a week for a year). I can recite the flight schedules between BOS and CLE by heart, by airline. Some TSA agents know me by name.

In December, I had to miss my first rehearsal ever due to a weather-related travel debacle. Considering I’ve been flying weekly for 3 years and this is the only rehearsal I’ve not made, it’s a pretty good track record. However, the terrible feeling resulting from that unfortunate day still reminds me of how quickly things can turn from manageable to impossible.

This March, my travel will be taken to a new level. Within the span of 3 weeks, I’ll be going through three states in the US and internationally to Dubai. A few of those days I’ll be cutting things close and flying in and going to dress rehearsals. I’m grateful for the busy schedule, but I’m also anxious about making it all happen. I can only hope that the weather cooperates – my weather karma should be fully replenished after that experience in December!

A compelling collaboration

Posted by tiffanychang on December 24, 2019 at 9:20 AM

I recently had a concert experience that is staying on my mind for an unusually long time. While I confess that I ruminate and obsess more than I should (especially for the most miniscule imperfections), I typically get over a performance (miracles or disasters) within a week or so; and I move on to my next projects.


This one, however, has lingered and continues to occupy attention in my mind—along with all the feelings that came with it. I need it to go away so I can focus on what’s coming up next. So, I wondered if I could write it away...


First, there is no doubt that this was a wonderful, positive performance experience and a definite highlight of my year. It was one of the most invigorating and smooth concerto collaborations I’ve had in a very long time.


So, why it’s still on my mind? Shouldn’t the buzz have worn off after several days? Definitely within a week. Was it such a rare positive experience that I subconsciously want to savor it as long as I could? Or is there something deeper to reflect upon?


I suspect that I can’t get over this because it prompted all these questions that I had no idea how to answer. It made me confused and doubtful in such a weird way.


Why was it so easy to collaborate with these soloists and why did it feel so real?


It was definitely not because we had copious amount of rehearsal time together. In fact, many circumstances went against us. 1) I was kicking myself for not having set up more than 15 minutes of “rehearsal” time right before our first time with orchestra. I dropped the ball and didn’t organize things sooner. Yet, the first rehearsal went smoothly and was productive. It was easy to react to the soloists even though I was hearing them play for the first time (I’d never allow myself to hear the soloist play a passage for the first time at a rehearsal – it’s so unprofessional, but alas it happened). 2) Then, due to travel complications, I was devastated to have missed our second orchestra rehearsal together—that’s another story altogether. I’ve lost another 45-minute opportunity to hear them play the concerto again. I got super stressed about how I was not going to do well and let them down. 3) So, I arrived at our dress rehearsal, and the last time I heard the soloists was over a week ago in our first rehearsal. Feeling wiped-out tired and still flustered with adrenaline from my recent 14-hour travel debacle, I was not able to bring my A-game. It was clear that this rehearsal felt like the one I was supposed to have had the day before (the one I missed). I felt terrible and at such a loss to how I was going to fully support my soloists in concert barely having spent time with them exploring things musically. I didn't want to just get through it. I wanted it to be meaningful for all parties involved.


I think we spent a total of 2 hours in rehearsal, 40 minutes in dress, and then 20 minutes in concert. That was only 3 hours in total, from hand-shaking hello to embracing goodbye, yet I could not have been more wrong about what to expect from this collaboration - it turned out to be the most musically connected and moving experience I’ve had recently with a soloist and it was so easy to collaborate. They were amazing and it was exhilarating to share the stage with them. It felt like true chamber music, like I was playing just another instrument. It felt good that we made music together.


As I ruminated over this for days, I just couldn’t let myself feel good about something, so doubt set in:


So, effective and deep collaboration is not only a result of hours spent in rehearsal?? What's that special sauce?


Again, that initial question surfaced – why was it so easy to collaborate with them? Followed by a long train of other questions – why didn’t we need to have rehearsed for a long time to feel this comfortable with each other? I didn’t know either of my soloists very well personally. Was the piece just easy? No, but no piece is easy. Why didn’t we need to talk about the tricky transitions or about how we were going to shape things and pacing; how did it just work out at the end? Was it because we were all listening and so connected? Did we just share a similar interpretation so it made it smooth? Or was it because they gave up trying to do their interpretation and ended up just giving in to me? Were they just such great artists that they could be flexible and still make the music make sense? They’ve played it a lot and rehearsed a bunch together, so that must be it? Wait, did I ruin their concerto?!?


On a larger scale, is this what true collaboration feels like? Does this happen all the time with musicians at that level? Are they used to this? Did it feel as specially connected to them as it did to me? Maybe it was just another day for them, and here I am ruminating. 


There were clearly issues that made the performance imperfect (the wrong notes, the annoying recurring mistakes in the orchestra, all the ways I could’ve been better artistically as a conductor, etc), but why was I not obsessing about them like I usually do? I mean, I did feel bad about them and still do, but the overall joy of how the performance felt overcame all those little imperfections. How come for this performance, I can be perfectly OK with letting go of those imperfections and feel good about the performance? (I never feel good about any performance!) Was it actually a good performance, or is my perception distorted because I had such terrible travel in the immediate days right before that I wasn’t expecting anything great?


Wow. I had so. many. questions. And I don’t have answers.


Perhaps this is the magical thing about collaboration. You can’t pinpoint the exact “thing” that makes the relationship work. At the same time, the strong feeling of connection was unmistakably there. I’m realizing that I have to trust that feeling and to seek it always—whenever I make music with anyone.


Asking these questions made me realize that I need to seek out people who collaborate at this level. I need to surround myself with these musicians in order for me to feel fulfilled with music-making that makes me feel, and for me to grow as a musician. I need to also embrace those imperfections that allow me to take risks and have meaningful, connected performances. I need to always be in the moment, with the music, touching the music deeply. I'm sure there will be other such compelling collaborations with other musicians in the future. And I have to recognize it when I feel it.


I am so fortunate to have had the pleasure of collaborating with these artists in this performance. I was certainly not worthy of it or its impact. But, this is that spark that I needed to motivate my work again. I think that is what made this so special; and it was truly a gift – I will never forget that.


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