This is part 2 of a two part series, interviewing cellist Barbara Bogatin of the San Francisco Symphony on her long road to winning her SFS audition, as well as the intersection of meditation, brain science, and music in her life.
K: So back to your timeline- it’s the late 1980’s, you’re back in NYC after Milwaukee; what was the road to winning your job your job in the San Francisco Symphony, with a newborn child no less?
B: The thing about the timeline is that I feel like I won this job in the last possible window that I really had to prepare for auditions. Children take so much time of your time, life, energy, and focus, and I knew that time was running out for me. I took auditions all throughout those 15 years in NY, with different degrees of preparation and different degrees of success. I was coaching with people a lot in preparation for auditions, not just cellists, but anyone with good insights. I did lots of mock auditions and was getting closer to the clarity of my own process of how to prepare, how to mentally prepare on the day of the audition, and of course the meditation helped a lot, mental focus, clarity, and staying neutral, and staying in my own little world in auditions, not engaging with other people, not engaging with the whole scene that there can be of chaos, nerves, and chitter chatter. I tried to stay in my cocoon as much as I possibly could. So what happened in SF is that I auditioned for a third chair position, I was principal in NJ and had been principal at Milwaukee, and felt comfortable doing principal type auditions, and I was one of two people that qualified for that audition (meaning I was a finalist). So the other person was already in the section, and the conductor at that time, Herbert Bloomstedt, decided to give the section player the assistant position, which would vacate the section position, but based on the way the contract was at that time, he couldn’t just award me that position, and she had a two year tenure process in her position as assistant, so they offered me a two year section position on a temporary basis. So at that point, I took another leave from the NJ symphony, after already doing that before for Milwaukee, (which you can’t do, probably because of me), and went out west. My husband was in graduate school, and we knew the move might be just for two years, and during that time, I got pregnant with my son- I was 40, and I wasn’t going to wait any more to have a child. The way the SFS contract was written meant they couldn’t just give me the position, so I had to take the audition again in the following year, by which time my son was 8 months old, and I just stayed home to practice and take care of the baby. My husband also took a leave from graduate school to take care of us, and I knew that if I didn’t get this job, that was it, I’d be back to New Jersey, and there would never again be a time when I could practice enough to take auditions again. I’d have a full time job and a baby, and that’s that. So that’s what we did for 8 months: focus, rest, take care of the baby, practice, tape myself, and directed my efforts on the audition. I knew that my time was up for auditioning, and I just assumed I’d be in New Jersey, but I did win, and it was goodbye New Jersey.
K: Which is totally amazing from the standpoint that being pregnant is incredibly taxing physically and the early months afterwards are so time consuming in terms of energy and sleep depletion. You super womaned it as far as I’m concerned.
B: I couldn’t have done it without my husband taking the time off. We had a difficult baby- he was premature, had some digestive issues, so those first 3-4 months, he slept very little. I’d be up half the night with the baby, then he’d take the baby in the morning, then after a nap, I’d start practicing by noon, and alternate practice with care taking all day long. I couldn’t have done it without him- it was a very unique situation. We just figured we’d stick it out for that brief period. Somehow we made it work- it’s possible.
K: I think it’s pretty amazing regardless. Here’s a question I found interesting- your husband is in a very disparate field, was he initially interested in music? How did your relation evolve so that he was supportive of you and you reciprocally?
B: Part of it is him- he’s just interested in everything in his heart and mind, and he grew up listening to classical music and was at Harvard with Yo Yo Ma, and interestingly I had been at Juilliard with him, so we have both known him for 40 plus years. Cliff has always been interested in music, and been interested in many different things. He didn’t start out doing meditation research, but looking at different aspects of brain research, sensory awareness and autism. His meditation practice and his dialogues with the Dalai Lamaled him to receive a grant to do research on monks in solitude above Dharamsala, and they did brain wave research on these advanced contemplatives, and trying to understand what is going on their brains while they’re meditating, which they didn’t initially understand, but they had a great time there. They realized that there were many cross cultural issues, and that they needed to do work with meditators int he US, and create a well designed study. He’s been at UC Davis, and created something called the Shamatha project, which tested people’s brains during a three month meditation retreat in Colorado, and this was about a decade ago, so they’re still analyzing data and writing papers from that project.
Q: It’s amazing that you managed to be supportive of each others’ work- I feel like that’s a big hurdle that many musicians face if they date or marry non musicians.
A: It’s funny- for me, I had dated many musicians before, but I was interested in dating non musicians, because I wanted someone that didn’t have the narrow focus of musicians, and I loved being part of his world and he loved being part of mine. He came to concerts, enjoyed learning about music- I think it’s more of who were just are and we’re both interested in learning more about the world. We’ve gone on music tours together, I’ve attended his conferences, and it’s really nice when we’re able to work together.
Q: So back to your Ted video- I was very impressed by your resilience in regards to auditions. Taking over 50 auditions before you won this SFS job- that’s truly amazing. how did you do that?
A: It truthfully wasn’t all failures, otherwise I surely would have quit. During that time, I was having success as well, and some of them were big successes, other things that I auditioned for were smaller, like asst. principal of ABT, and I had some success with some of the freelance endeavors in NY. I was doing well with early music performance, so in addition to the “failures” of auditions, my career was moving up. It wasn’t like it was just failure- 50 failures was over 15 years, so 3-5 auditions a year, and for me, making finals was a huge success. Sometimes, I had enough good feedback to feel like I was doing well. Having been on both sides of the fence now, I see that if you make it to the finals of an audition, you’re essentially good enough for the job, and it becomes a question of preference; what does that committee want on that day. Sometimes it’s just chance- who is the most outspoken person on the committee who happens to like candidate X. There’s so many variables beyond your control- how the committee feels, how your instrument sounds in the hall, etc. But for me, it wasn’t all rejections- little ups and down, peaks and valleys. Subbing in the NY Phil and the Met was definitely a success. Some of them were still devastating though, and I would come home and cry for days, and I would feel like I was done and would never get anywhere. We all go through periods like that, whether it’s personal or professional. Part of what really helped me was this practice of gratitude, and really appreciating in a deep way all that one has to be grateful for- that was a huge help for the disappointments and rejections. That’s something I always try to stay in touch for, especially before an audition, focusing on the gratitude I had for everything in my life already. Just showing up to an audition is sometimes a huge accomplishment as well all know. Getting in touch with peace and gratitude for what there is in my life to be grateful for is what helped me at my darkest times. Once I had a little bit of success in NY as a freelancer, that was comforting- I had something to go back to. My darkest time though was in Milwaukee, where I had been acting principal, and they had an audition for assistant principal, second chair, and I auditioned for it while my husband was in Wisconsin, and I didn’t win it. I had thought it was the perfect job, and I felt like if they weren’t going to hire me after knowing me and working with me, then there’s no hope for me anywhere. There goes the house, family, marriage, and the white picket fence, at least that’s what I thought. And somehow I got the strength to carry on and give in to not knowing and I kept trying to make things work. How did I manage that resilience? I don’t know, really.
K: That’s ok.
B: Maybe that’s just part of my makeup of who I am. I was able to get through it and get back on track.
K: How did the workshop, Buddha, the Brain, and Bach, evolve with Sylvia?
B: Part of my husband’s brain research was at Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado, and he wanted to do a shorter study and ended up doing it at Spirit Rock, which is 20 minutes from our house. He and his team tested people before and after a one month retreat, and he needed to test some controls who were also meditators. He ended up doing to the weekly classes to try to recruit control subjects, and he had met Sylvia, and asked if he could show up and recruit, so he tried doing that, and ended up doing that several weeks in a row. They had been a little bit friends from conferences, but they got to be really good friends, and everyone wanted to know about his research, and then one day, she wasn’t feeling well, she asked him to just teach the class. So he did, and they had a great time, and have become close friends. She’s an incredibly bright, open minded thinker, full of common sense, humor, and has been involved with meditation with 40-50 years. They had a terrific rapport and they began teaching together, and a few years ago, there was a benefit for Spirit Rock and she asked if he would speak about the brain, and then he asked if I would want to play something. Cliff then asked if I would talk too, since I had ideas about meditation and cello practice, and so I started writing my ideas down. I always knew there was a writer inside me, so out of that came the first article I wrote for Strings Magazine, The Buddha, the Brain, and Bach. Then Cliff and I met with Sylvia to integrate these things together, and we came up with the title and did our first day long event at Spirit Rock in 2012. It just sort of evolved from things we had been talking about, and from things I had been thinking about for the last 30 years. It was really fun to do this project and we’ve continued to work together, and developed the material more thoroughly. When we did our first Esalen workshop, we had much more time to fill, and for Sylvia and Cliff, it was easy for them to just keep talking, but for me, I had to really think about what I was going to say. I knew there had to be other musicians who used contemplative practices as well, and I ended up interviewing 5 or 6 different musicians about their practice, and some people sought me out. Julie Landsman (former principal French horn of the Met), for example, came to me because I was doing the workshop with Sylvia, and we’ve become very close since in discussing meditation and music. She uses meditation concepts in a very unique way in her performance and her way of approaching aspects of teaching and performance, as I’m sure you have as well.
K: Absolutely-it’s really helped so many different aspects of awareness, and perspective, both of the body and the mind. It’s also helped me to see that there are so many factors you can’t control in auditions and performances- you can prepare your absolute best and nothing can happen, and you can prepare ok and advance. You know nothing about what’s going on with the committee members or the position or the leaders, and you can’t base your success entirely on the outcome of the audition.
B: Totally. I’ve been on panels when we’ve had fantastic finalists, and all have been qualified for the position, and a fluke of factors will determine who the winner is. Nothing those finalists could do would change the outcome of the audition. It’s so good to go into the audition process knowing that- I always tell people to care about the things you can control, because there are so many things you can’t. The only thing you can control is your preparation and your mental focus when the time comes, so that’s what you work on. Whatever you have to get yourself in the best performance state is what to focus on- that’s the thing you can control. I’m also a huge believer in many mock auditions- the more you do, the less intimidating the actual audition is.
K: Thank you so much- I agree. Thank you for all of your insights, and I look forward to talk to you again!