Daydreaming The Way To Better Performance

Tyler Cowen shared a link on his Marginal Revolution blog about Hillary Hahn discussing daydreaming as a form of practice. The link went to blog post by Bill Benzon featuring a video of an interview with Hahn. Benzon transcribes the relevant portion of the interview, but I listened/watched the whole thing.

Hahn talks the challenges of touring, including difficulties practicing for the next tour; reading between the lines on Yelp reviews to find decent coffee in a new city; and her “Ice Princess” nickname which seems to be more about scrutiny of her facial expression and range of motion when performing.

But as Benzon says, the real prize comes around 55:54 when she discusses daydreaming and playfulness when she practices. As someone who has come out of the theatre acting tradition, I was intrigued when she talked about being honest to the moment rather than executing a rigid conception of the music. While this is considered important in acting, my perception has been this isn’t valued in classical music.

In theater, if an actor says “I’m sorry” more defiantly today than they did yesterday, as the person performing opposite them, the way you move and deliver your next line has to be an authentic response to that .  Hahn says when she is doing master classes and she sees a student is clearly censoring their playing because they think it would be improper to do otherwise, she says she talks to them about it. She says when she has low energy during a performance, she doesn’t try to pump herself up, but uses that and plays a little more mellow so that when she reaches a point in a piece where the energy starts to increase, the audience is even more aware of the palpable change.

What classical musicians might think of all this I don’t know,  but as someone from the outside it runs contrary to my conception of the philosophy and practice of classical music and begins to align more with what I know of the process of theatre, dance and visual artists.

Around 1:22.00 in the video she does a demonstration of what she means by daydreaming during practice. It isn’t so much daydreaming in the woolgathering sense as it is paying close attention to what one is doing and playing with different options to imagine what might happen during a performance. (The following comes much closer to the 1 hour mark, but expresses her approach)

I reverse the assumptions that I have. I just neutralize everything and then I’m…Kind of letting my mind wander. I’m thinking about what is going on with the orchestra. Waiting for something to occur to me. I think people don’t ever think that happens in practice.

For a lot of people, I think practice is about being more accurate, improving your playing, being more expressive, being more this or that. But for me, yes, there’s that, but… Those are the tools to get to the point where you can let your mind wander and get ideas.

During her demonstration of her practice process, she verbalizes what she is thinking:

“…so right there I heard the violin kicked into a certain resonance and I was really listening for that and that felt like it had a certain tone quality that I like.

And that feels good so it gave me a little bit of inspiration…


Perhaps I can take that further…how far can I go?…how long can I hold it?…can I get away with that?…I imagine the conductor is looking at me like…” (makes ‘get on with it’ hand motions)

She talks about how having this bit of fun helps her feel creative, cleanse her system of instincts she has and find answers to questions she has about the music. Earlier in the interview, in a bit that Benzon transcribed, she seems to indicate this approach also helps keep her nimble enough to practice with unfamiliar musicians on short notice:

I’m always trying to trigger in mind into new phrasing ideas, so I don’t get stuck and so that when I’m working with other people, I don’t have a lot of rehearsal time and I need to present a unified concert. So, when I’m working with other people, how can I play it in a way that’s authentic to me, but really coincides with what they’re doing and brings out a better version of the music than we could arrive at ourselves separately.

As I said, for musicians this may all be familiar equipment in a potential toolbox, but as an outsider I found it helped make unfamiliar material more relatable.

Donate For The Tote Bag

I don’t know how I missed it on, but Non-Profit Quarterly recently pointed out an article the site about the effectiveness of swag in non-profit fundraising.

The TL:DR version is, other than instances when it reinforces your identity (i.e. NPR or New Yorker tote bags), it isn’t really effective in terms of raising more than the cost of the gift and processing. This is especially true in regard to the unsolicited gifts like mailing labels and Christmas cards some charities send you around the holidays in the hopes you will feel guilty enough to donate.

For the more detailed version: There are definitely times when those gifts can actually increase donations because they are tied to people’s identity:

Simran Sethi, a journalist who hops between North Carolina, Mexico, and Italy, told me she nudged up her donation from $50 to $75 once just to get the WNYC tote bag. “I just wanted to show my NPR pride!” she says. Lindsay Diamond, who works for the University of Colorado Boulder, admitted to ponying up more so she could snag a Tiny Desk Concerts hoodie.

…. Like Sethi, people may want them to show off their contribution or affiliation, or perhaps connect with other like-minded folks. Donation levels that feature increasingly valuable gifts do indeed promote “bump-up spending,” Yarrow says. “Even when we’re donating, we consider value pricing.”

I feel like I just read a conversation on Twitter this week where people were questioning whether an organization was saying they were committed to spending $8 million a year to raise $20 million (or something similar). If any readers saw that exchange, point me to it. (My recollection was that it was in regard to Boston Symphony, but I can’t find any such article so don’t quote me on that.) But practices like that are pertinent to this conversation.

But a bad design of the donor reward scheme can be problematic:

A man from Chicago — name redacted to protect the guilty — for instance, confessed to donating a dollar to NPR just for the socks. “It was a gift-of-any-size campaign, and I knew I was probably costing them money,” he says. (He redeemed himself by shelling out later on.)

For some donors, there may be a perception that the non-profit is wasting money on swag they could be spending on their cause:

If donors do end up contributing, they may chip in less than they can afford because the premium casts a pall over the organization’s financial efficacy. Or they might knock the charity off their lists entirely. Younger donors, especially, are becoming more strategic with their largesse.

Research bears this out. A 2012 study by Yale psychologists found that the offer of a gift reduced feelings of altruism regardless of whether the gift was “desirable or undesirable, the charity was familiar or unfamiliar, or the gift was more or less valuable.” The authors attributed this to a “crowding-out effect,” one that may create ambiguity about the donor’s perhaps-less-than-unselfish motivations for giving.

There was a mention in both the Vox and NPQ pieces that often the calculus being used is the long term value of a donor versus what you spend today on a gift for them. In other words, you may lose $5 sending them a donor premium today, but if they give $1000 over the next five years, it is worthwhile.

A 2018 study posted on The Conversation looked into that assumption:

Fans of using premiums to raise money for causes believe that they are worth it even if they simply get donors in the door but do not raise more money than giving them away costs charities. That’s because, at least theoretically, they can form a habit of giving. But some researchers have found that donors who are lured into giving by donor premiums are unlikely to give again when asked without an incentive.

What should nonprofits and donors take away from our study? We conducted this experiment with just one organization, but the preponderance of the evidence from our work and the findings of others suggests that unconditional premiums are not worth it.

Most interesting to me was a personal observation made by Niduk D’Souza at the end of her NPQ that donor rewards are used regardless of their efficacy due to the way development offices are evaluated:

However, it is this fundraiser’s experience that the metric most often measured, and presumably without coincidence, is one that is most easily aligned with nonprofit budgets and often a fundraiser’s own job performance metrics: how many donors were brought in this quarter, this year, by your portfolio, and how much did your portfolio raise, or is it worth, overall?

So, is it any wonder why nonprofits continue to give away crap?

Social Class & Wealth And The Pursuit Of Creative Careers

It appears that concerns about how social class and wealth limit access to creative careers may be a hot topic of discussion in England these days. Via is a The Stage piece by Lyn Gardner addressing how the issue impacts theater professionals and via a Twitter post by Arts Emergency was an article about the same situation with journalism in England.

The latter article talks about a mentoring program called PressPad which provides people pursuing journalism careers two important assets- a place to live and a mentor from the industry. It appears these things are rolled together, with the young person living with their host mentor in London which is definitely not a cheap place to live. One person interviewed for the story decided to pursue journalism in South America because the cost of living was so high in London. PressPad also provides other networking and support services.

As has been mentioned numerous times before in regard to creative careers, the article cites one of the most important factors contributing to whether people are able to pursue a journalism career as coming from a social/financial background where family resources and connections allow you to pursue a career while receiving little to no pay and working unpredictable schedules.

Additionally, one of PressPad underlying goals is

“…trying to change the culture of the journalism community: “We have some really high-profile hosts – some topic editors and senior journalists in our industry. Where else would they meet a 19 year old, working-class white girl who has been on free school meals? They wouldn’t! The real thing is- it’s a two way street.”

On the theatre side, Lyn Gardner opens her article noting,

Just before Christmas, Arts Council England announced that from next year regularly funded organisations will be required to report not just on the gender, ethnicity, age and disability representation of workforces but also on the socio-economic backgrounds of employees.

Part of the motivation for this was the recognition that only 10% of theatre directors were from working class backgrounds. I recall seeing similar statistics about actors. There is push to reduce auditioning fees for training programs as well.

I had seen some implications that there might be penalties if organizations could not demonstrate representation among these categories, but it was never clear what this might be. It also wasn’t clear if there would be a standard set to ensure representation in jobs of higher authority and responsibility and not just custodial, secretarial and food services employees.

Presumably, there would be if the goal is to provide more opportunities to working class individuals, but I haven’t received a clear picture of what those standards might be.  I get the sense from Lyn Gardner’s writing that despite welcoming the new focus on improving the environment for working class individuals, as with the journalism program, she feels a larger cultural shift is required.

If we don’t reinvent drama training to reflect the different needs of students from much more diverse backgrounds – and that includes those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds – it’s like holding the door open so that they can get in the room, then blaming them when they leave quickly because they feel uncomfortable or can’t afford to stay.

When you change the intake of an institution – whether a training school or a theatre – if you don’t also change the culture, then it is not real change. Just as more diverse casting on our theatres’ stages is only virtue-signalling if it doesn’t extend beyond the wings into the entire building.

There are strong imperatives to hold the doors wide open, not least because if you widen the creative pool you immediately boost the creative possibilities. A huge advantage of bringing people from diverse backgrounds into theatre and training establishments is that they bring a new perspective, questioning rather than accepting the way things are done.

My perception is that in the U.S. we are having similar conversations about how large a factor family wealth and social expectations contribute to the success of people pursuing creative careers, but there is a lack of institutional mandate from governmental entities on the state or federal level. At this time I can’t recall any major, influential funders embracing something along these lines as a central policy initiative.

The Artist Is In Residence In More Places Than You Think

So Drew McManus must be reading my mind, or at least my reading list. Yesterday I was reading an ArtsNet piece about an artist-in-residence program with the Philadelphia district attorney’s office that went on to mention other artist-in-residence programs sponsored by different governmental entities.

It reminded me of some of Drew’s past posts about how the bands of the various branches of the U.S. military were one of the many ways the government supports arts and culture outside the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts.

What should happen today but Drew made a post about cultural diplomacy citing his past posts about military bands. I figured it was a sign that I should draw attention to the ArtsNet piece.

The main part of the article was about the Philadelphia district attorney’s artist-in-residence program which has the goal of stimulating conversations about criminal justice practices in the city.

The goal of the program is more in line with social practice art: to initiate conversations about the need for criminal justice reform, with an artist as moderator and interlocutor. “My presence in the prosecutor’s office sends a message to district attorneys, a powerful symbol of hope and redemption,” Hough said in an interview with Artnet News.

Through the program, prosecutors, victims and survivors of crime, and former convicted criminals will all take part in workshops, seminars, and other initiatives


Hough’s work at the district attorney’s office will involve more than just conversations and workshops. He plans to create a series of three-minute videos—“like a long-form commercial”—based on feedback from participants in the workshops and seminars, incorporating drawings he’ll make of those who took part. These videos will be shown at the district attorney’s office, on social media, and at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.

Some of the other artist-in-residence programs sponsored by governmental entities sound pretty interesting. I knew about the U.S. State Department’s cultural exchange program, but had no idea about some of these others. Makes me want to keep my eyes open for interesting opportunities.

The National Park Service brings in one artist at a time for a period of between two and five weeks. Residents are required to donate a piece of art that represents their stay to the Park Service’s collection, and they also may be asked to present a talk for park visitors.

“I just loved it,” said Kim Henkel, a metal sculptor in Denver, Colorado, who had been a resident at Mt. Rushmore, the Grand Canyon (“I was in a beautiful apartment overlooking the south rim”), and the Petrified Forest…

The US Military has more than just bands:

All five branches of the US Military also bring in artists—known as “combat” artists—for short-term (usually, a week or two at most) residencies on military bases or other locations where soldiers are stationed. The work they make on site is donated by the artists to the collections maintained by the respective branches.

…Military artists-in-residence are not told what or how to paint; they are not asked to be propagandists. Some of the artworks made in the past have focused on scenes that aren’t heroic or dramatic, including bored soldiers drifting off to sleep.

Many artists take part in these military programs just for the thrill of it. William Phillips, an artist in Ashland, Oregon whose specialty is aviation art, lights up when he talks about visiting an Air Force base, especially when describing taking a ride in a fighter jet: “Every time you get into a high-performance aircraft, you face danger. It’s not like sitting in my studio. And, when you put on that flight suit…”

US State Department’s program is actually more extensive than I was aware:

The US Department of State has its own residency program for artists too, called Arts Envoy…. Maxx Moses, a 57-year-old muralist and street artist living in San Diego, worked for a week in the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 2011. …Moses led a team of 10 local artists in creating a series of murals on the theme of combating the AIDS epidemic. “Most of the artists had never worked with spray paint before or created in front of a live audience,” he said.

And perhaps the most unexpected program of all, the NYC Department of Sanitation:

And of course, perhaps the longest-running and most fabled artist-in-residence is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who creates what she calls “maintenance art.” Since 1977, Ukeles has been the unsalaried artist-in-residence of the New York City Department of Sanitation. Among her artworks are a choreographed ballet of backhoes titled Romeo and Juliet and Touch Sanitation, an endurance performance that involved shaking hands with all 8,500 workers in the sanitation department while saying, simply, “thank you.”

Apropos to Drew’s post, you might have noted that a good number of these residencies are focused on using the soft-power influence of arts and culture to change perceptions and relationships where formal rules, processes, educational efforts, appeals to rational thinking, etc have fallen short.

You will likely also notice that in most instances, there isn’t a lot of payment involved, just food and shelter. Hopefully that might change if programs like the one in Philadelphia is perceived to have value.

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