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The Art of Failure and Resilience: Speaking to Cellist Barbara Bogatin Part 1

This past week, I had a fantastic phone chat with San Francisco Symphony cellist Barbara Bogatin, who captured my attention with a workshop called "The Buddha, The Brain, and Bach," offered in Northern California in conjunction with her husband Clifford Saron (Neuroscientist) and meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein.  From there, I saw her fantastic Ted talk, "The Art of Failure," and I knew I needed to talk to her.  Here is part one of our hour plus interview.

K: What’s your general background first and foremost as a cellist?
B: I I grew up in the Bay Area and was a very serious cellist- played in youth orchestra, did local competitions, recitals, and then I left home for New York City at 17 to go to Juilliard.  I was no longer a big fish in a small pond anymore, but was in this big sea of great players.  Next door to my teacher’s studio at the exact same time Saturday mornings, there was a young boy having lessons- this was Yo-Yo Ma.  With talent like that around, you can feel pretty small.  I wasn’t one of the big fish at Juilliard, but I struggled- I worked hard, I had a string quartet my last two years, and we thought we’d make it big after Juilliard, and that’s what I imagined I would always do.  I always wanted to just play in a string quartet and shortly after we graduated, we began to have a little bit of success, and then the group broke up for a variety of reasons, as quartets often do.  So then I sort of fell into freelancing- I was living in New York, playing in all of the many different things there are to do there: Broadway Shows, children’s concerts, community orchestras, ballet companies, and sort of worked my way up the food chain in freelancing.  So I freelanced for about 15 years after Juilliard, and I worked my way up so that I was subbing in the New York Phil, the Met, and I got principal cellist of the New Jersey symphony which was a pretty part time job then, and I was essentially trying to build a career for myself.  And I was also doing a lot of different things to promote my own growth as a person and a player- I was seeking audition coaching, went to masterclasses, and I did personal development things like Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique to human potential things, self actualization work, the forum, gestalt synergy—- I was trying everything.  I always got something out of all the things I was trying, as well as all of the different people I was coaching with.  I was just trying to synthesize everything to find out what worked for me, what improved me and my well-being and my performing.  At the time, I was dating a guy that was very into meditation, and he wanted to do a meditation retreat with me, so I went along with it, mostly out of curiosity, and I trusted him.  So this brings us to full circle- this was the mid-80’s, and this was the guy that I ended up marrying.  

K: From my perspective, that’s a pretty spectacular date,  but I can see why 31 years ago, that might have been a little unusual.
B: He had been doing meditation for a while, and so we went to the Insight Meditation Society, (IMS), in Barre, MA, which was one of the main centers for Buddhist meditation at the time, and I did a 10 day retreat there with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein.  (Note: Which is also very spectacular because they’re eminent Western teachers to start meditation with)  They’re some of the biggest well-known Western teachers in the last 40 years, and the instructions were vaguely familiar to me.  The guidance you receive at the beginning of a retreat is to be connected with your body, be aware of your breath, stay focused on internal sensations, and when thoughts come, bring the awareness back to the breath, while listening deeply to sounds around you.  The walking meditation was also very familiar: being very aware of the movements and the most minute shifts of body awareness and leg motion and arm motion, and really the richness of the internal world.   I realized it was so much like practicing cello- what we think about when we practice, when we move our arms and become aware of the internal sensations of tension and release.  All the motions that we make with our arms and hands, the mental preparation that we must have, and the intentions of playing really arises in the mind.  So practice felt very related to meditation practice, and one has really been helped by the other.

K: By that time were you already in Milwaukee or New Jersey, or were you primarily freelancing? B: Well, actually I could say yes to all of those things.  NJ Symphony was part-time then, they had a 17 week season, and you were also freelancing.   I took a leave of absence for two years to be acting principal of the Milwaukee Symphony, which was a temporary position.  At my first retreat, I had been in Milwaukee at that time, and my now husband, his laboratory had moved to Madison, which is why I had been particularly interested in the Milwaukee job at that time.

K: Quick time out- was Madison the center that it is now for contemplative practice and neuroscience in the 1980’s?  Was Richard Davidson there yet?
B: As a matter of fact, my husband worked with Richie Davidson- he was at SUNY purchase and my husband came to work with him at his lab, and was his second in command there at SUNY Purchase, which was how I met him in Manhattan.  So I’ve known Richie since the early 1980’s.  In fact, my husband is there right now for a conference in Madison.


K: This is the conference with the Dalai Lama, right?
B: Yes- exactly.  I think they’re all having dinner tonight.
K: Wow- I’m so jealous.
B:  So Richie’s lab moved to UWM and moved his whole lab to Madison, and at that point, we had been dating for several years, and we wanted to continue the relationship, so I was very aware of any job that opened up possibly in the midwest, and then when principal of Milwaukee came up, I got the temp job when he was at Madison.  Then after that, I came back to NJ symphony and freelanced, and then my husband Cliff decided to go to grad school in the Bronx, and he moved back to NY as well.  But he stayed in touch with Richie and the center for healthy minds, and the center has really developed in the last 10 years, and it was Richie that got him involved in the Mind and Life Institute 25 years ago with the Dalai Lama, which also sponsors meetings in India.  So Cliff has been at meetings with the Dalai Lama since 1990, and it just so happens that in 2009, Cliff was a presenter at one of those meetings in Dharamsala, and we took the whole family, and that was an incredible experience.

K: I can’t even imagine- that sounds pretty spectacular. Once you started integrating meditation into your life in the mid 1980’s, did you notice an immediate difference in the way you practiced, performed and auditioned in a way that other modalities didn’t?

B: Yes.  I think it was a few things that were immediate and a few things were very gradual.  Like one of the things was Cliff told me was that when I used to practice in NY, he’d hear constant swearing and cuss words coming out, which isn’t my usual way of speaking, but it was when I practiced.  After the meditation retreat, no more swearing.  So that was immediate- this whole concept of neutral, non-judgmental awareness that they talk about, (which does not mean that everything is ok), hit home.  You have to be very discerning, or in Buddhism, it's the idea of discriminating wisdom, which is a great term.  That’s what you need when your practicing- discriminating wisdom to know what's going on.  And neutral awareness: critical of the sound, not the self, which I still say to my students all the time.  That’s helped so much with teaching and performing.  Students often get very frustrated with themselves, and can be destructive, that voice of “I’ve practiced this a million times, why can’t I do it? What’s wrong with me?”  It’s where it is, and you start wherever you are today.  It’s different every day every time you come to the cello, or at least it is for me.  Then this idea of taking away the judgment, saying “I was flat this time, now this I was sharp, this time there was a scratch- what can I do differently?” rather than taking everything so very personally.  It’s caused me to really ask how we practice and what the process of practicing really is. Four years ago, Cliff and I began collaborating with meditation teacher, Sylvia Boorstein on the workshop we call the Buddha, the brain, and Bach, which we just did at Spirit Rock in Marin County, CA.  In doing these workshops, I’ve really thought more specifically about the intersection of meditation practice and cello practice, for instance the idea of slowing down the process and evaluating into four components which is what I think most people do.
Observation
Analysis
Correction/alteration
Repetition of the new way
The observation is also awareness, asking "what am I doing right now?", and its very closely related to analysis, and the more you can really observe objectively, the easier it is to analyze. When you move to analysis, ask "what can I do to improve this or solve this problem," then you make a specific change, and if that solves the problem then you repeat with awareness each time until it’s intuitive.  The meditation practice has made that much more available to me.  We do this practice feedback loop without even thinking- listen, change, repeat, that’s a continuous practice loop that takes a few seconds.


End of part 1!  I didn't want to make the blog posts too long, since my transcript was 4700 words, so stay tuned for the next segment!