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Transcript: A Little Bit of Genius Episode 5 with Dr Joseph Polisi

EPISODE 5: DR JOSEPH POLISI

 

00:00:08 Angelina: Hi there and welcome to this episode of A Little Bit of Genius, a podcast brought to you by Nord Anglia students. My name is Angelina.

00:00:16 Alex: And I'm Alex. We have a fantastic episode in store for you today with the wonderful Dr Joseph Polisi, former president of the Juilliard School. Welcome Dr Polisi.

00:00:32 Dr Polisi: Here I am. Just tell me a little bit about each one of you, I'm just curious.

00:00:36 Angelina: As you know my name is Angelina and I actually love singing, it's my passion. I want to become a singer when I'm older.

00:00:42 Alex: And I'm Alex. I'm also interested in music. I love listening to classical music as well which is not so common in our year.

00:00:52 Angelina: So, our podcast is all about creativity, so we wanted to present you with the quote on this topic. The quote goes, “an essential aspect of creativity is not being afraid to fail.” What do you think about that?

00:01:05 Dr Polisi: I think that could be a negative component of what creativity is about it. It wouldn't be the first thing I would say, although I understand what he's saying. In other words, that in order to develop new work you really have to take chances, and you have to go to the edge of what already exists and then create something new. And sometimes, of course, that new work will not be successful, whether it's a work of music or a piece of choreography or a play or even a visual work of art. But I think there are much larger parameters to creativity, especially the development of experiences that have never been experienced before. And I'm a musician, I'm a bassoonist, and I think at Juilliard the vast majority of our music students at least, we have dance and drama as well, are reproducers of what has been already developed by composers. So, in other words, as a bassoonist if I am told that I have to play principal bassoon in a performance of the Beethoven seventh symphony, I'm not exactly sure that I'm as creative certainly as Beethoven was, more and more I'm really replicating what Beethoven wanted. Now within that context there's a good deal of creativity, and nuance, and perfecting sound, and following the conductor etc, but I think there is a difference between pure creativity and, for many musicians, actually recreating what the composer or the creator has developed himself or herself.

00:02:51 Alex: So, if I'm not wrong I think your dad also plays the bassoon right?

00:02:55 Dr Polisi: He did, he's no longer alive.

00:02:58 Alex: I'm sorry for that. Did he teach you to play the bassoon or who taught you to play the bassoon?

00:03:05 Dr Polisi: Yes, my father was my first teacher, you know, on bassoon. I wanted to play the cello and in New York City at the time, where I grew up, there were music classes so in seventh grade I started playing the cello. And then my music teacher asked if my name Polisi was related to the principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic, and I said “oh yes” very proudly, and he called up my father without me knowing and said “would you teach your son bassoon?” My father said “sure,” so I was transferred to the winds and brass class and I started playing the bassoon and I had to drop the cello.

00:03:41 Alex: *Laughter* But you enjoy playing the bassoon right?

00:03:43 Dr Polisi: I did. I first started out playing piano and that was not an instrument that I felt comfortable with. I think within musical instruments, just as you would say that you were interested in singing, I think there's a correspondence with how one makes music and I felt very comfortable playing bassoon and didn't feel very comfortable playing the piano.

00:04:05 Angelina: So, I actually play an instrument, the violin, and I recently have been beginning to forget a bit. So when it comes to certain instruments you need to be consistent and did you feel like when it came to school and catching up with practicing the instrument, was there ever a lot of pressure where you had to choose between the academics and practice? Or what do you think?

00:04:32 Dr Polisi: Yes, there was pressure, and there's a famous quote from Jascha Heifetz who was a very well-known violinist in the 20th century, and he said, “the first day I don't practice I notice it, the second day I don't practice my colleagues notice it, and the third day I don't practice the audience notices it,” so practice is an absolutely essential part of being a musician. It's both physical and psychological or mental. But for my career actually, I was a good bassoonist, probably better than most in my high school grades and things like that, but I wanted also to explore other things. And so, I asked my father should I go to Julliard where he taught, or Curtis where he graduated from. And he asked me a very important question. He said, “is the only thing you want to do is play the bassoon?” and I said, “gee I don't know,” and he said, “well then don't, you can't go to those two places because that's really going to be your focus.” So, I actually went undergraduate and I was a political science major, and then got a master's degree in international relations. And then realized that I deeply did want to play the bassoon, and so that's where I continued my studies at Yale and got my doctorate there and had a professional career.

00:05:50 Alex: I used to play the piano as well and my piano teacher always told me like if you want a master an instrument you have to play at least for 10,000 hours.

00:06:00 Alex: Yeah, well that's the old precept that was put out by Malcolm Gladwell, ‘whatever you do you have to do it for 10,000 hours’. I don't buy in to that at all. In my experiences I've seen excessive practice much more hurt students than help them. They have physical problems and they have other issues, so I think one has to intelligently practice, just like one has to intelligently study. You can't keep pounding away and counting the hours and think that they’re quality hours. It's the old story, the economic terms of the pattern of diminished returns – so that if you put in three hours of study it'll be a certain quality, if you put in nine hours it'll be another type of quality.

00:06:48 Angelina: So speaking of studying, I wanted to ask you do you feel as if the idea of music or music is incorporated enough in school or do you think that it's often overlooked by more important things like math or science?

00:07:04 Dr Polisi: Well I think that in general it is overlooked, especially in the United States. I think the program that we've developed with Nord Anglia that perhaps you've experienced, I hope, is one where musical study and dance and drama, as well the performing arts, are integrated into the academic program. Therefore many of the experiences that you get from music, whether it's an analysis, looking at detail, a sense of communication, a sense of cooperation and coordination with others, are also useful things that you would find in math or the sciences or literature. It is pretty much the case that someone who is a very proficient and active musician, for example, often is successful in academics as well. And that's the idea behind the Nord Anglia Juilliard programme. I don't know if you've experienced it at all – have you?

00:07:57 Alex: Definitely – we have a lot of productions that we do and we've had people from Juilliard come and play certain instruments and help people. I think they recently added a dance club as well. They're really trying to incorporate it as much as they can and I think that's a very important aspect that I do agree with you is overlooked. It is very important. So speaking of that, how do you think music can make people more creative or more intelligent?

00:08:24 Dr Polisi: Well I'm not going to claim that studying a Mozart Sonata is going to improve your calculus grades, but I will say that the experience of music in all of its comprehensive qualities, from the discipline of practice to the accuracy of pitch and rhythm, and understanding of repertoire and interpretation, are all analytical skills that easily transfer to other topics. I'll give you one example; there was a very, very fine undergraduate violinist at Julliard who came to see me one day and said that he loved violin, but he really wanted to be a lawyer. To make a long story short, he did become a lawyer but during his law school days, and then afterwards when he was in a law firm, many of his colleagues often commented on his ability to focus, his ability to develop ideas quickly and his determination. They said where did you get it from and he said, “practicing the violin, that’s easy.” It's the same story. So, whether he applies himself to the law or to Brahms, it's the same type of intellectual discipline, if you will, that one needs. There are intuitive artists out there who do everything based on just how it feels, but they're not many. Most of the music that is made these days is made with great deal of thought and a great deal of discipline and effort.

00:09:50 Alex: As a musician, do you have any ideas or thoughts about anything that you would want to change in the music industry nowadays?

00:09:57 Dr Polisi: I mean obviously pop music, and perhaps to some degree American pop music, has had a tremendous force on global society. So that you know American artists, pop artists, who have made recordings and go on tour to various countries etc and it's not only a very powerful influence on social media, but in everything you do. The classical arts are not as involved in your education or in your world. Now, I'm a realist and I understand why the reasons are; that it's perhaps more interesting to listen to a pop singer than it is to listen to Chopin, but I do think that at the same time there has to be a great respect for this type of music. Just like there's a great respect for great literature, great science and great mathematics, there has to be that inherent respect. And I know the United States best, I think in our public-school system in the United States there is a disregard for that type of music, dance and drama that should be studied more seriously and isn’t. You've heard of the skills of STEM but you know, STEAM, the addition of arts, I think is an important element to round out the young person.

00:11:18 Angelina: Let's get back to things, to the more personal aspect. So, how old were you when you realised that you were very interested in the bassoon? Or how old were you when you started that first time, like it was in your hands and you were learning?

00:11:30 Dr Polisi: I was in the beginning of seventh grade, so I guess I must have been around 11 years old.

00:11:37 Angelina: Do you think that learning the bassoon from a young age was helpful to you or do you think that it wouldn't have mattered what age you started at?

00:11:45 Dr Polisi: It depends on the instrument. For example, if you're going to start on piano or violin seriously, I mean where you want to become a professional musician, 11 or 12 years old is pretty late. Now for the bassoon that's another story, because it's a large instrument and you have to physically be able to wrap your hands around it in order to hit all the keys and the exposed hole, so it's a little bit different. And also, quite honestly, the repertoire is very different – bassoon obviously doesn't have the repertoire of a violin, or a piano, or a cello for that matter; we don't have the Beethoven string quartets. We do play in orchestra and that's very probably the most important part of being a bassoonist, but for many years I performed as a solo bassoonist doing chamber music and sonatas and enjoyed that very much. So, there is a repertoire out there, but it's not the great repertoire that we all know.

00:12:47 Angelina: So, we've been talking about the instrument itself, but now let's get into the performance bit. Do you ever have stage fright or anxiety before performing? I know I can say that as a singer, when I go up, my hands start sweating and I start shaking, and I bet when you're playing an actual instrument that's not your voice that must be hard because it can mess with the playing. What do you think about that and how do you deal with that kind of anxiety?

00:13:14 Dr Polisi: I think any professional musician, or amateur musician for that matter, when they're playing in public will have a certain level of anxiety or nervousness. For me it was interesting – if I was preparing, let's say, for a major recital I would get really, really nervous about a week beforehand and then things would calm down, and eventually I really had to say to myself, “look, you've prepared as well as you can, you have to just get out there and do it.” And I think the one time I remember being nervous at an actual performance that I can recall, and I mean really nervous, was at the beginning of the Rite of Spring, which is a work by Stravinsky, and begins with a famous bassoon solo. And you know I think I knew a little bit too much about music history. If I had not known that it was one of the great works of the 20th century or any of its history I might not have gotten nervous, but I started thinking you know backwards a little bit. But it worked out ok.

00:14:21 Angelina: Good, good!

00:14:22 Alex: So, do you have any memorable moments for your performances and the other performances that you just remember really well?

00:14:30 Dr Polisi: Oh sure, yeah. I mean there are many within orchestras; playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which has a lot of exposed bassoon parts throughout the movement, with a very exceptional conductor – his name was Otto-Verner Muller and he was a really first class conductor – and I felt that the orchestra and my playing all had meshed in a way that really made the experience extraordinary. I remember one year after the tragedy of 9/11 as an orchestra, the Juilliard Orchestra came together to play a memorial concert one year later of the Mozart Requiem and I was playing principle bassoon. There were faculty members in with the students and the entire audience, it was a thousand people, were given the scores to the Requiem and they sang the choral part. And it wasn’t a perfect performance, that wasn't the idea, it was that the community could come together and raise our voices and our instruments for a common cause, and it was incredibly therapeutic and very moving. And you know, many new works that I premiered – the first time that an audience heard it and that the composer heard it – was always a special thing, so yes, many fond memories.

00:15:53 Alex: So, music can also be a way for communication, right?

00:15:57 Dr Polisi: Without communication, then it's not music. That's the thing I tell Juilliard students all the time. All of you who have been accepted to Juilliard have extraordinary technique, there's no question about that, but Juilliard or the arts are not about technique. Technique is only the vehicle through which you go to artistry and artistry means communication with your audience. So if you get all the notes right and you don't touch people, you are not an artist, you are not doing something artistically and there's a wonderful faculty member, actually in drama, who always said every artist should go out on stage with the idea that he or she will change the audience for the better through their performance. And that's a very high goal, it's a high bar, but that's the way it should be.

00:16:47 Angelina: Do you view the voice as an instrument?

00:16:50 Dr Polisi: Well the voice is the ultimate instrument. It is the instrument that we're all born with, and some have greater ability than others, but in fact every other instrument, whether it's a piano or a violin or a bassoon or cello, often thinks in terms of what the voice would sound like in those areas; when to breathe, when to be expressive, you know, so the voice is the ultimate instrument. And that's why opera is probably, when it's done well, the ultimate art form.

00:17:25 Interlude: You're listening to A Little Bit of Genius. If you like this podcast don't forget to subscribe and show us some love on social media. Tune into our next episode to find out what it takes to be a Marvel and DC comic book illustrator, with Billy Tan. (Billy’s voice) “Being a comic book artist I think it's an artist unlike many other artists, because you need to learn to draw basically everything.”

00:17:50 Angelina: So, what advice would you give to musicians or upcoming singers that would maybe want to go to Juilliard?

00:17:58 Dr Polisi: Well of course, you know, every instrument is a different process. The voice is perhaps, in some ways, the most complicated because your voice does not really mature until around 16, 17, 18, so before that time you don't want to have intense formal training. You could have a lot of singing, you can have in choruses, you could have some relaxed voice lessons, but primarily you should be focusing on your musical skills; learning to play the piano, understanding how music theory works a little bit like that, and then when you get into the last year of high school or so, that's when you can begin to test the voice a little bit. But you can't press the voice. I mean these are two vocal folds that are so sensitive and you can hurt them if you start taking on repertoire that's too heavy. I mean there are all sorts of cases on TV of these talent searches and they have ten-year-old little girls singing Grand Opera and everybody's applauding and saying this is so great, but it's insanity because they're just hurting their voices; so you have to be very careful. On the other hand, piano and violin, cello, the string instruments, you could start, and you could start working intensively, but just not so much that you hurt yourself either physically or mentally. There has to always be joy in the experience. If you lose the joy you won't be a communicative artist.

00:19:36 Alex: Let's say, because for lots of young people especially, if they want to pursue a musical career, they have to practice a lot, so when they practice a lot sometimes they might feel bored or just feel a bit dull, so what should they do when they feel that?

00:19:54 Dr Polisi: They should stop! *laughter* They should take a break; they should take a break and rethink things. They say it's just like studying mathematics or writing a term paper, and at a certain point there's the law of diminishing returns – that you can't expect the quality of practice in hour number one to be the same if you keep doing it in hour number 9 which would be wrong. So, take breaks, think intelligently, practice intelligently. If you were a weightlifter and you kept lifting weights until you couldn't feel your arms anymore, somebody would tell you right off the bat you're doing this wrong. But that happens an awful lot and music people think well, if I put in 3 hours it'll be good, if I put in 6 hours it'll be better, if I put in 9 hours it'll be the best. Well that's not the case. You know scales can be boring and you have to do it, to the extent that you're focused on it so that when you're doing it, it's 100% scales. Etudes can be boring, same story.

00:21:00 Angelina: So speaking of not being overworked, sometimes some individuals may be pressured by their parents who make them practice excessively. So, what do you recommend for parents to do to really help their children and help them flourish?

00:21:16 Dr Polisi: Well, there are two levels. There's the level of the child who, for whatever reasons, shows

prodigious talent on his or her instrument. So at a very young age, at five or six or seven, they’re playing works that that an adult would be able to play and there you have to decide how much focus you want the child to have and how much time they should spend on it. I continue to feel that for a child to grow into a young adult, a functioning young adult, they have to have broad positive experiences in life, not just 10 hours in a practice room. Then there's the other side, the second category of very talented young people, and I see a lot of these young people, who are really good on French horn or trumpet or violin but are also very intellectually curious, and decide that instead of going to Juilliard or Curtis or conservatory like that, they want to go to Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Stanford and they want to be a musician within that context. They may eventually decide that they want to get a graduate degree in music but they also may decide that they want to be a physician or in finance etc, so I think you have to follow your personal feelings and your intensity and try to understand what your mind, and what your body, is saying to you.

00:22:36 Angelina: I'm not sure if you've heard this quote before, but I think it goes, “music is the language that everyone speaks.” Do you think that through music we, as a global world, can link and have more things in common?

00:22:53 Dr Polisi: I believe in what you said deeply because the reason that we have started a branch campus in Tianjin, China, southeast of Beijing is exactly for the reason you said. It's to try to be on the ground in China and work with Chinese musicians and musicians from all around East Asia and share ideas and values and beliefs about what we believe music can do for individuals. Already I think we've had some impact because chamber music performance in China is not as active as perhaps other parts of the world yet, and we have been focusing on that, and as a result we've been getting fantastic audiences, large audiences wherever we play. Our faculty from the school is playing in chamber groups and this is very gratifying to me.

00:23:48 Alex: You've told us a few reasons why you came to China, but was there another reason why you specifically picked China and not another country?

00:23:57 Dr Polisi: At Juilliard, over the past, I would say, after World War Two the largest single international population came from South Korea. That has changed now, and now the largest single international population comes from Greater China. But it was my thought that if we were to create a branch campus with the idea that we would be a global institution – Juilliard was always an international institution, about 30 percent of its students came from outside the United States – but we weren't a global institution. The difference, as far as I'm concerned, is that we didn't reach out to the world, we expected the world to reach out to us, so by this gesture of creating a branch campus we're doing exactly that.

00:24:42 Alex: Okay, so coming back to music again, what is the proudest achievement from your time as president of Juilliard?

00:24:50 Dr Polisi: You know I'm asked that question quite frequently actually. I don't have a precise answer. I was honoured to be president for 34 years, so that is actually a very long time. I guess my proudest achievement is that I believe I was able to advance the institution. When I took over in 1984, well before you were even born, it was already a great school and I just hope I was able to make it better. The endowment grew significantly during my time and that's certainly something I'm very proud of, but I mean I think I'm most proud of the students. I mean just spectacular talent, just spectacular, and every year they get better. I don't know how that's possible but it's just overwhelming talent.

00:25:43 Alex: So how would you describe what it's like to attend Juilliard?

00:32:30 Dr Polisi: Well attending Juilliard is, I think, an intense experience. We try to make it as joyful as possible. One of the big pluses of Juilliard is its focus and one of the biggest problems is its focus. Many times we have to go back to a point we were making earlier, we have to tell students to stop – to say no, it's not good for them it's not good for them physically, it's not good for them psychologically. [We tell them] to get out there; you're living in New York City, you're not living in a cornfield someplace, take advantage of New York – go to a concert, go to a play, go to Broadway, go to a Yankee game, you know, just go out there and be a young person and enjoy yourself. That's the important thing; to really make sure you have an environment where you see the growth of not only the complete performing artist, but the complete young human being.

00:26:40 Angelina: Speaking of living your life and not only focusing on practicing, how do you recommend that Juilliard students, or any student that is pursuing the career of becoming a musician, balance this out?

00:26:53 Dr Polisi: Well look, at the end of the day, my goal for every Julliard student and graduate is for them to be a happy person. Now this may sound simplistic but being a happy person says a lot. In other words, it says that as an individual you are at peace with yourself, as an artist you feel you're accomplishing what you want to accomplish, as an artist what you're doing gives you satisfaction, contentment and pleasure. It's also simplistic in some ways, but it's also fundamental. You need to have good health. You mentioned before that you're a singer and you know your body is your instrument, and so that instrument has to be healthy, not just your vocal chords, but your entire body. So I'm a big advocate for exercise; intelligent exercise, a good diet, no smoking, I don't like anybody to smoke because we're investigating in you, and every time I see a student I know – I don't but in if I don't know them – but if I know them and they know me, I say “I've got an investment in you and I don't want to shorten that investment to 45 years” you know?

00:28:01 Alex: Yeah, absolutely agree that happiness and joy is just so important in one's life. So, what piece did you always enjoy playing? Do you have a favourite piece?

00:28:12 Dr Polisi: *laughter* Well Mozart only wrote one bassoon concerto, as far as we know, and so I've always enjoyed playing the Mozart bassoon concerto. But I love doing chamber music and there's so much chamber music for bassoon with woodwind quintets or piano. And then of course in orchestra the Beethoven symphonies are fantastic to play – the Beethoven fourth is particularly challenging – Brahms, Mozart, Heiden, Stravinsky of course, so fantastic to play, Shostakovic.

00:28:46 Alex: So, I know you have lots of artists who you really like, but can you pick one artist, one composer, or one artist who you love the most?

00:28:55 Dr Polisi: Well I don't know if I love them most, but I suppose the composer that I could keep going back to all the time as Mahler. Mahler wrote nine and a half symphonies. It's just something very deep that I never get enough of, so I always enjoy going back to them.

00:29:13 Angelina: From what I've been hearing you seem like a very positive person. What do you see this as, I'm pretty sure you've heard of it, it's the cup of water; some people see it as half-full and some people see it as half-empty, or maybe realists like you just see it as a cup of water, what do you think about it?

00:29:32 Dr Polisi: Look there are there are enormous challenges in life and you're just beginning your journey, but essentially you have to deal with all those challenges, and they will be there. There's no human life that is not challenged in some way or another, and the only thing you can do is pick yourself up and keep going, and be positive about the things that you do experience and being grateful for what you have for the moment. I do think that, in terms of the professions, those people who undertake something where they feel they are helping others is extremely fulfilling.

00:30:11 Angelina: So, I have one last question to finish this off, and you were talking about yourself being a health advocate in the way that you don't like the idea of smoking, keeping your body healthy and such. So, looking at it as more of a global issue, what do you think about the way that our generation is treating our earth?

00:30:34 Dr Polisi: Your generation or my generation? *chuckles* Let me answer that, because I know your generation, as it should, wants immediate action on global climate issues. And that's what it should be, because we are together, whether we like it or not, and the pollution that's generated in Beijing or in Chicago is moved all over the world. We're seeing the consequences of climate change already in so many ways – strange, intense storms at different times, hotter climates, colder climates, the melting of the Antarctic and the Arctic ice plate – so this is already happening and it should be everybody's goal, and it can be everybody's goal. So, I just say that you both of you and all your colleagues, are the future. You're the ones that it could determine the future, and you have to be persistent and speak up and learn. But you're the ones that are going to make the difference.

00:31:38 Angelina: Dr Polisi it has been really great to speak with you. Thank you again so much for sharing your thoughts as our guest. And before we sign off, we wanted to say thanks to everyone for listening.

00:31:48 Dr Polisi: Thanks very much, was a pleasure talking with you - your questions were excellent, and I hope I answered them adequately.

00:31:56 Alex: Thank you so much.

00:31:57 Dr Polisi: Best of luck. Thanks a lot.

00:31:59 Angelina: We hope you've enjoyed this episode and if you want a little bit more genius subscribe to this podcast.

00:32:05 Alex: This podcast was brought to you by Nord Anglia education students. If you want to learn more about Nord Anglia Education, you can visit us online at www.nordangliaeducation.com.

We'll be back again soon so thanks again for listening and have a great day. Goodbye!

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