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Tiffany Chang conductor 


Here are some of my favorite posts:

What's your mission? - I examined mission statements from 71 U.S. orchestras

Empathy in relationships - we know empathy is hard, and we should also know what it is not

Why don't we talk about it? - how organizations may encourage performers to be advocates

Note: New and existing posts will be hosted at

Below you'll only find archived posts from before June 24, 2021.


Thinking for ourselves

Posted by Tiffany Chang on 3 June, 2021 at 8:15

When musicians sit in a large ensemble rehearsal, we often wait to be told what to do next, how to play something, or what we need to do to fix problems. Overtime, we become out of practice in thinking for ourselves, and we are afraid and uncomfortable in making decisions. In fact, this mode of operation begins way before the moment we begin our professional lives.


Throughout our musical education, we gain an abundance of skills and relevant concepts such as those from music theory and history. But we don't always keep practicing how to use them to generate our own points of view on the music or how we perform it. Maybe we were taught for a few months on exactly how to do that in the context of a course, but it is not honed year by year, day by day. We don't develop the habit of using that knowledge to solve problems or make interesting discoveries about the tasks at hand. Instead, the reality becomes that we regurgitate information to obtain a grade or to complete a degree, only to soon forget the information. This process does not motivate us to understand why we are learning it, the purpose of (sometimes complex) processes, nor the implications of it on performance.

I have personally witnessed this in tutoring music theory at the doctoral level for over a decade. Musicians are not well-practiced at thinking for themselves and rarely see the reason behind the tasks they are obliged to complete. However, when the task is seen as a process of discovery and asking "why" questions, suddenly it becomes an interesting activity that is full of purpose, both informing or challenging decisions they can make themselves about their own music making. I'm always shocked at how simply articulating the purpose of the exercise transforms the musician's mindset and makes the task so much more impactful and sometimes even enjoyable.


The students have convinced themselves that what they're doing is worthwhile through being asked questions. People are often the best people to convince themselves if that option is available.


Adam Grant talks about this important point in his new book Think Again (more here). He says, "By asking questions, rather than thinking for the audience, we invite them to join us as a partner and think for themselves." Now, this was in the context of debates, but I think it is applicable in many other situations as well.


Why is this so difficult within the context of academic training for musicians?


I think it's because we don't first unlock a perspective in the musician that positions purpose front and center as the key motivator. Why are they being asked to learn something? How does it challenge their own preconceptions about the music? How does it make them a more creative performer? How does it give them more ownership in their creative work?


Also, I see that, even when musicians are given an extraordinary music theory education with purpose in their undergraduate years, the purpose mindset deteriorates quickly due to lack of application. And when they reach their doctoral studies, the mindset is mostly non-existent. And there is even less hope for those who did not start off so strongly.

This typical rapid deterioration (or simply lack) of purpose in music theory is simply a microcosm of how our general training and education easily results in an industry of professional musicians who are not conditioned to think for themselves. We wait for someone else (like the conductor, their teacher, or other authority figure) to do the thinking and then tell us the path forward. When we are in school, perhaps that's how we learn, but it naturally extends into the professional scene.


This mindset contributes to an industry culture that puts purpose in the back seat and focuses instead on doing things "right" in the approving eyes of authority.


Professionally, we are trained to do what we're told to so we can keep our jobs and maintain our standing. It is a safe process and maximizes efficiency since we know it makes the giant machine work. We don't want to do anything wrong to jeopardize that condition, so we become less inclined to take risks and speak up, even when we know deep down something is awry. We are comfortable allowing a leader to make decisions - sometimes because we can say ultimately that we are not responsible for those decisions should anything go wrong. Other times, it's simply because we don't know we have the capacity to do so.


What if we felt like we had a higher stake in these decisions should they go wrong? What if organizations can help artists feel like it is part of their job to make decisions, rather than just contributing skills and time?

We are not always taught the relevance and application of the concepts and skills we learn; or if we were taught, we forget easily in the hustle and bustle of professional work. So we don't think to use them when we encounter artistic problems to solve or decisions to make, which is every single time we pick up our instruments.


I have noticed that when I am the most inspiring and impactful in my work with large ensembles, it is always a result of 1) achieving self-sufficiency in artists to think for themselves and make decisions and 2) giving them permission to have a stake in the purpose that is collectively ours--not just mine.


These are not simply educational tactics that only should occur in academia. But they are life tactics that ensure we have professionals in any field who feel fulfilled in their lives.


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