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?

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.

Possible Setback In Push To Eliminate Unpaid Internships

Just before Christmas Non-Profit Quarterly called attention to a situation of some concern. Recently the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned an administrative law judge’s ruling and determined that employees were not protected when they advocated for non-employees.

In this particular case, it was employees of Amnesty International  signing a petition supporting paying unpaid interns who were determined to lack protections. However, as the article points out, this ruling would be equally applicable to other categorized as non-employees.

Molly Lee Kaban, an attorney with Harrison Bridgett in San Francisco, who observes that “other types of nonemployees, such as gig workers and other independent contractors, will not be able to rely on support from employees within an organization to advocate on their behalf. Uber employees, for example, can potentially be disciplined or terminated for advocating on behalf of nonemployee drivers who want to be classified as employees. This could lessen the pressure on employers to make changes.”

In the non-profit arts this might translate to a lack of protection for orchestra musicians who were advocating for better pay for substitute musicians who were classified as independent contractors. Similar to the Amnesty International case, employees of an arts organization advocating that interns be paid could likewise run into problems with their employers.  Obviously, labor law is not my area of expertise. There may be other rules and contract agreements that would forestall concerns about reprisals.

The are shades of gray and nuance to the rules. The NLRB’s basis for overturning the administrative law judge’s decision was based on the board’s interpretation of Amnesty International executive director’s comments as expressions of concern where the judge’s view was there were implications of reprisals.

Even if independent contractors do have more of a basis for being considered employees because they are paid, this ruling undermines the effort to eliminate the use of unpaid interns in both the for- and non-profit world.

As the National Law Review article on the case notes, trends are indicating potential barriers to graduate students, among others, efforts to unionize as well:

The NLRB has been signaling a hesitancy to impose obligations on employers outside the traditional employment context. It has proposed exempting paid undergraduate and graduate students from the NLRA, for example. Over the last several years, as employers are forced by the low employment rate to increase their use of nonemployees, unions have increased their efforts to expand the NLRA’s reach by organizing non-traditional workers, including temporary campaign workers and graduate students.

Send this to a friend