Last weekend I was a judge in a viola competition at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. The annual competition was hosted by the Fine Arts Club of Pasadena. The Pasadena Fine Arts Club is entering its 101st year of supporting up and coming artists, both visual and in the performing arts areas. Each year a particular discipline is selected for the competition, and this year was the viola.
Naturally it was an honor to be selected to judge the competition of college violists, and help select which violist received the financial prize of first place. Thing is, the experience was more than one of service… it had a few unexpected aspects that were both nostalgic reflections and present reminders of what it is to be a musician and artist. I had waves of emotions and ideas that I had not reflected upon in some time, and these thoughts have stayed with me all week.
As I watched these contestants, at first a sentimentality washed over me because I was hearing a repertoire of music that I had played in my youth. At first everything was adorable – their nerves, the stiffness of some and the overambitious intensity of others. But then as more and more contestants performed, my thoughts refined, the nostalgia wore off, and I was observing and contemplating what it takes to truly become one with your instrument and your craft.
It is something that takes years. Many, many years of training, practicing, and work. I am still on this journey towards mastery, and I have been playing the viola since I was 8-years-old. But I realized that I could classify so much of this journey in four words: Technique, Skill, Confidence and Emotion. And it was with this perspective and criteria that I juried this group of up and coming violists.
This is the easiest to understand and one of the hardest parts of the journey, because it is the daunting uphill walk up the mountain. And when the instrument is a viola, there is so much technique to learn. Holding the instrument and getting a quality sound out of it is far from the end of this aspect of the journey. There are countless bowing techniques that take years to learn, there are so many positions to learn on the instrument with the left hand that plays the notes, and we do not have frets like guitars so this is only learned through discipline. There is pizzicato (plucking the string with your fingers), there is vibrato and the many kinds of vibrato that evokes different sounds and emotions. Differentiating the ranges of volume, tones, sounds, harmonics, textures… what makes string instruments so beautiful is that they can create an abundant, mind-blowing range of sounds that pull the emotions from our souls.
I remember when I was fifteen years old, and the moment I had realized what reverence I had for this complicated instrument that had gained my commitment. It was my first year in the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra. I was sitting second chair under the conductor Jahja Ling and was studying with violists of the Cleveland Orchestra. I had thought at this point, I had learned most of the techniques available to me as a violist, and now my journey was mostly about refinement of skills. But no. Even then, after so many years of orchestral and private study, I was learning techniques, and I realized that learning techniques was a never ending journey.
Now, I like to invent techniques on the viola. See… it really is never ending! And it’s an amazing, wonderous thing that should keep every musician in awe.
Onward to skill, something that will make any artist completely humble. You may know a zillion techniques, but how good are you at them? Are you good at every one of them? Have you mastered them all? No?? OK, go back to practicing, because this is serious. You may be an encyclopedia of techniques, but what good are they if your skill level is not at a level of mastery?
Disclaimer: I am not a master of all techniques, far from it. This is why I need to practice just as often as everyone else does. In fact, I’m just as guilty as so many musicians out there who don’t practice as often as we could and should! (Writing this blog is a fantastic reminder to up the ante on my practice time too. #accountabilty)
OK this one is important. And all of you have seen the scale of this as you’ve watched performers, and this was in my face at the viola competition. Confidence is a big deal, and it cannot be faked. You may be the most skilled violist (i.e. artist) in the Milky Way, but without confidence you can make the experience of watching you play be tense and awkward. And I saw this at the competition. Nerves can undermine all of your hard work, and very quickly.
Granted, it is not an easy thing to perform in front of others, especially adults who are sitting only a few feet away from you, there to JUDGE YOU. And it’s not easy to play for a room, a theater, a crowd of people. Kudos to anyone who has the guts to do it in the first place. And nerves are a part of the process and journey. But that said, you need to work those kinks out and get confident.
Where does confidence come from?
Experience, for one. The more auditions, recitals, competitions and gigs you do, the easier it becomes. The earlier you start, the better off you are. I love performing and whenever people have asked my why I’m so comfortable in front of a crowd, sometimes the reason I give them is that I started giving concerts when I was 9-years-old. Doing my thing in front of a crowd is part the identity I have forged. To me, performance is simply connection.
Confidence also comes from practicing and being outrageously familiar with the work that you want to present, whether you created that work or you are playing someone else’s work.
Hear me loud and clear — confidence will define so much of your success. And I’m talking about genuine confidence, the humble and effortless kind that comes from the heart and soul, not from the mind and ego. Know thy self, know why you are up there and believe in your talent. Audiences are smarter than you think and feel what you are going through more than you may realize. Show them who you are and be graceful in all that you do. You can even make mistakes in front of a crowd, and if you have that genuine, humble confidence, those mistakes end up being no big deal. Believe it.
This is my favorite piece, I have saved the best for last. Have you ever heard the expression about how one should learn all the skill and technique available to you so well so that you can forget that you know any of it? Well, this is true. Because what happens once you learn your instrument so well that it becomes an extension of you, and once you know your music so well that you aren’t thinking about the next note in your head, you suddenly become free to bear your soul through the nuance of
It’s the most magical thing. This is when playing music starts to feel like a dream, where you and your audience can begin to travel those magical dimensions and worlds that only music and art can provide.
And what a gift. Musicians have the ability to gesture all of life with such subtle delicacy and limitless strength through sound. We create these waves and tones that mysteriously have the ability to bend time and heal all wounds. Music does not judge, music can hold every emotion that was ever felt in the history of humanity. It is sacred, an honor, a triumphant gift given to us.
And it is only after we climb up that mountain of learning technique, becoming skillful at our craft and confident in our abilities and ourselves that musicians create the conditions to lose ourselves in the music.
It is why I play. It was what brings me to my knees and confront the gods time and time again.
Musicians, do not neglect your gift. And I promise you I won’t neglect mine. So let’s go practice, yes?
Thank you again to the Fine Arts Club of Pasadena for inviting me to be a judge of the viola competition this year and allow me to not only support and encourage young violists, but seed the inspiration to articulate why I do what I do, and why I love the viola so very much.
I’m excited to announce that I will be performing at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in San Francisco on Tuesday, November 11th as part of The Girl Effect Accelerator. I will also be speaking at this event about something very dear to my heart.
The Girl Effect Accelerator represents the first program of its kind: an international accelerator dedicated exclusively to scaling up ventures that are measurably benefiting girls in poverty. Created in partnership by the Nike Foundation and the Unreasonable Group, this program will align 10 ventures with world-class mentorship, strategic financing, and access to a global network of support to further empower these 10 companies who have the ability to help adolescent women rise out of poverty.
My contribution will be at the capstone event that will close out this accelerator. 1,000 people will convene at the Palace of Fine Arts, and the program will include presentations by the 10 ventures and entrepreneurs. In addition to my musical performances, I will be speaking about something very personal — the courageous journey of my mother, who grew up in a third world country and achieved her goal to have a daughter who could triumph over the kind of oppression she faced, receive an education and achieve the opportunity to follow her dreams. One of my mother’s biggest life goals was to have a daughter who could show the world what was possible when a girl was fully encouraged and empowered, and I am so honored to have the opportunity to speak about this in conjunction with The Girl Effect movement.
Regular admission tickets are $60, but my friends and fans are being an offered a special 25% discount off tickets. Use the code “christen_friend” in the link below to receive the special discount.
Date: Tuesday, November 11th
Location: Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco
To learn more about The Girl Effect and The Girl Effect Accelerator, please watch the video below and visit
We hope you can join us to learn more about what is being done to reduce poverty and empower young women around the world.
I will be giving a performance in Seattle in November, and acclaimed visual artist Chris Jordan and I will unite our creative forces for good once again! On Sunday, November 16th, Chris and I will both present at the annual Teen Talking Circles fundraiser.
Teen Talking Circles works with youth to educate, inspire and empower positive self-expression and social action for a just and sustainable world. Chris Jordan is an award-winning artist and is best known for his large scale works depicting mass consumption and waste, particularly garbage.
After Chris Jordan’s presentation about his new feature film “Midway” Message From the Gyre” — where he will discuss the emotional journey of creating this project over the past several years and the grief, beauty and love this project has revealed to him — I will do a special performance of original music.
If you would like more information on the event please email email@example.com.
Date: Sunday, November 16th
Location: Seattle, WA
Last week I attended the Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco, and was unexpectedly a featured attendee in the “SOCAP Stories” series. When I was asked about my favorite aspect of the conference, I told them I most enjoyed reconnecting with a community that I care about and support. I loved seeing so many friends and colleagues, learning about positive work that people are doing and share the latest about my projects.
I’ve attended several SOCAP conferences in the past, and always learn more and more about business models, finance, platforms and projects and find ways to apply the newfound knowledge to my work. I heard a lot of wisdom too, and what I found most inspiring were the nuggets of wisdom from a panel with Konda Mason of Impact Hub Oakland. The panel was called ‘The Heart of the Entrepreneur.’
Beyond having basic needs met (clean water, food, shelter, etc.), people feel wellness when they experience four things: community, life purpose, connectedness to nature, and generosity.
I love the last one of generosity. When we give first, we feel joy and satisfaction. Your generosity can change the tone of everything around you. When you give first, others follow. If you take first, they will follow your lead. Of course you don’t want to have others take advantage of your generosity, and that is fine… but give first and you’ll see the conditions and opportunities around you change very quickly.
The key to our health as a society and ecology is the depth to which we understand our interdependence. Our ecosystems, our financial markets, our food, our health, our whole way of being is interdependent. My actions have ripples that affect your world, and your actions have ripples that affect mine and everything else as well. That makes you a pretty powerful person.
In order to be a successful leader in this interdependent world, there are three qualities of understanding that a leader must have — a deep knowledge of suffering, of altruism, and of courage. One must look directly at suffering with true empathy, and have the courage to do what is right for the bigger picture.
Because as Gandhi said so well, “Earth provides enough to satisfy everyman’s need but not enough for any man’s greed.”
Huzzuh! Even if you already knew all that I just shared, it’s a nice touchstone, isn’t it? Thanks for the reminders, the education, and the amazing week, SOCAP. It was a blast.
I just returned from two weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was my fourth time there, and though this is one of the first times I was not giving concerts while there, I had an incredible and wickedly busy time nonetheless.
And I have pictures. Lots of pictures. You can see the majority of them on my Facebook album page of the trip.
But also, here are some highlights:
To some, it may have looked like a shack. But to Sylvia, it was wealth and dreams coming true. She spent her whole life making clay pottery, and we were there to learn about her work. She showed us how to work the raw, wet mud with our feet, and graciously let us play with her granddaughter as we learned how the pottery baked and hardened in the earth. Her family supplied is with unfinished mugs and statues so that we could design the details into the soft clay, while feeding us traditional food and drink. Her passion was eternal, her triumph well deserved – for she is the first Oaxacan indigenous women to have her work exhibited by MoMA in New York City.
In the end we purchased many vases and statues and were washed over in gratitude for sharing her home and her work. Of all the memories of this trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, this day was one of the most authentic, precious and kind. Learn more about Sylvia and the 1050° Ceramics Collective here.
Right after I demolished the piñata at a party at Impact Hub Oaxaca, a heavy rainstorm poured over the celebration unexpectedly. What did everyone do at that moment? They did not run, they did not hide. Hell no! Instead they danced in the rain for hours. It was one of my favorite magical moments of this trip.
Besides the many amazing dance parties, one of my favorite aspects of the trip is all of the amazing street art I came across. My favorite series is below, and I have no idea who the artist is… wish I knew.
There was so much street art, that the trip actually infused my passion for the form. Here’s more images by known and unknown (to me) artists. The first images are by Swoon, I recognize her. And the UniWolfCheetah is by my friend Diana Garcia.
If anyone can tell me the names of any of the artists who created this work, please let me know.
There’s a lot more beauty to see from the Oaxaca trip, but it’s too much to post here. Feel free to check out the album on Facebook to see the color and glory of Oaxaca de Juarez, Mexico.