“Can Your Friends Do This?”

Robin Williams: A Personal Reflection

When I was around 9 or 10 – maybe earlier, but I’m not sure – I began singing in my room. Ours was a singing family anyway, so it’s not surprising that I would do it as well, but back then I didn’t listen to a ton of popular music besides Michael Jackson.

Instead, I listened to and sang along mostly with tapes of Disney scores. I was one of the fortunate children who were alive, very young and impressionable during Disney’s wonderful string of animated successes The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. I enjoyed them all, but Aladdin was the absolute tops. Why?

Robin Williams was Genie.

Thinking about it now, it’s not really surprising that so much of what I love about singing was inspired by a singing actor rather than a “singer”. “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” were thrilling and hilarious. Listening now, I am still impressed by just how much variety he inserts into every word, and I still laugh and marvel. Beyond that, these songs just made me happy. I fantasized about singing them for people (my elementary school, honestly), even though I knew that I couldn’t single-handedly sing every part by myself.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wanted to be the Genie. Singing in my room, I parsed the words and tried to sing every line (why else would a ten year old learn “genuflect”?) I never thought of it as something I would do professionally, I just wanted to bring the joy that I felt to more people for its own sake. I’m sure there were plenty of other children who wanted the same.

Fast forward. On Saturday, several days before his death, my wife and I were discussing Disney, and we considered what Aladdin would have been without Robin Williams. More than any of the other famous voice actors Disney has employed (Lion King was especially full), Robin Williams thoroughly dominated Aladdin. The lyrics seemed tailored to his strengths, and it looked like a mutually reinforcing relationship existed between him and the writers. Aladdin without Robin Williams would have been something entirely different. I just can’t imagine it.

Continuing, we moved on to his standup and discussed how it was brilliant, but there was a sad and worrisome edge at times. It was like he was combatting invisible monsters with humor, and if he stopped they’d catch him. Or maybe he was afraid that everyone would stop loving him. Rebekah said she sometimes just wanted to stop him and say, “It’s ok, we like you,” but we knew that would have likely had little effect.

I’m sure the loving people in his life said just that and more, but sometimes it’s not enough. He probably knew that we all loved him and wanted the best for him, but that’s not a cure for depression and addiction. It is painful to think that someone who gave people so much joy – such immense influential profound joy – suffered so much inside, and we on the outside are so impotent in trying to help. It is one of the great unsettling ironies of life and should give us pause in many of our assumptions about the nature of success.

I was and am a fan, but I’m not going to go into the rest of his considerable work, because others can do it better. I’ll leave it at this: Robin Williams is one of the reasons I even pursued performing. If a performer could make an audience feel as good as he made me feel when I listened to Aladdin, then that’s what I wanted to do. Yes, there are valuable lessons to learn from his death, but I’d prefer that he were still here. He was such a gift to all of us, and I wish we could have returned that gift and filled him with the amount of collective joy that he gave us.

Thank you and farewell.

Eric Whitacre Singers in Koblenz

The  Rhein in Koblenz
My wife and I took the train down to Koblenz, Germany on Sunday to catch the Eric Whitacre Singers concert with Eric Whitacre conducting. My thoughts?

Totally cool. Totally totally cool.

Somehow in my choral studies at the University of Arizona I never had the chance to sing his works, even though his work was very much present in the minds of choral enthusiasts. Nevertheless, I’ve always enjoyed listening to it, and I’ve always appreciated his apparent efforts to blend concepts like dissonance with a certain amount of accessibility. You don’t need to be a theory expert to enjoy Eric Whitacre’s music, but musicians versed in theory enjoy it as well.

On Saturday, I saw this Tweet:

I asked my wife if we should go, and voilà. Off we went the next morning.

I’m not going to write a whole review of the concert, but I will call out a couple things. First, I appreciate the casual atmosphere but nevertheless meticulous nature of the concert. Besides the Eric Whitacre Singers themselves were a chorus of 200 amateurs who’d rehearsed the day before and were joining for a few numbers at the beginning and ending of the concert. They were totally solid. In addition, Mr. Whitacre always had enough interesting backstory to provide compelling illustrations for every piece and keep us entertained while the larger choir entered and exited.

Second, I love his arrangements of others’ pieces. Seriously; love is not too strong a verb. The Bach, Depeche Mode, and Nine Inch Nails arrangements manage to remain true to the sources while adding new dimensions to them. I’ve purchased and have been listening to his “Enjoy The Silence”
recording continuously since the concert. It’s haunting. Additionally, his description of the Bach sounding like a smeared painting was dead-on.

I’ll take any chance I can get to hear his “Hurt” arrangement. I’d heard bits of it online before, but it’s a special experience to hear it live. Being familiar with the NIN original and the Johnny Cash cover lends further context to this piece, which has always hit me in the gut. I’ve always loved the song, and Whitacre’s arrangement deepens that. Again: the arrangements don’t replace the originals but deepen them.

Third; what a terrific group of singers. It’s just wonderful watching such a well-oiled machine at work, especially when they’re singing music that requires such precision. Lots of colors, interesting phrasing, great dynamic range and whatever special sauce is required to make those ideas more than just musical concepts but emotional realities for an audience.

Besides the concert, Koblenz is a really cool town. Seeing two great rivers come together is humbling and inspiring and simply beautiful, and I snapped up photos greedily.

Great trip. As I’ve said, I still feel very “abroad”, and getting to visit places like this with my wife still feels lucky. Especially since we also got to see the Eric Whitacre Singers.

End of Season at Theater Dortmund

We’ve now reached the final performance of the 2013/14 season at Theater Dortmund. Tonight is Carmen, and then we’ll have about a month and a half to rest and catch up with the rest of our lives.

What was accomplished this season? Le nozze di FigaroDon CarloAnatevka, Tannhäuser, CarmenDer Graf von LuxemburgDie JahreszeitenCenerentolaAlexander Nevsky, Die Entführung aus dem Serail and several other concerts. Not to mention all of the other productions that the other departments do (theater, dance, orchestra, children’s theater). Not bad!

Many of my colleagues will travel abroad, but for this break I’m staying in Germany with my wife. After all: as an American, I still feel very much “abroad”. There are still plenty of interesting places near to us, which we haven’t yet explored.

It’s been a tremendous year, and I am so happy to have been a part of it. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Organ Mountains

Photo of Organ Mountains at sunset

Organ Mountains at sunset. Photo by Amy Bowman

The first time I drove to Las Cruces, I drove east out of Tucson on I-10. Anyone who’s made this trip knows that once you’re about an hour outside of Tucson past Texas Canyon, the ground levels out, and you are in a wide expanse of desert with very little in the way of human civilization.

Short mountain ranges speckle the horizon. The Sonoran Desert transitions into the Chihuahua Desert. The altitude gradually climbs. The empty physical space allows an empty mental space, and it can be incredibly relaxing if you’re not in a rush.

For a stressed and tired driver though, the desert between Lordsburg and Las Cruces can be maddeningly vast and repetitive. Yellow brown stretches in every direction for miles, and the distance to the various mountains masks the driver’s speed.

Nevertheless when I reached Las Cruces the first time, I knew it. The road dipped, the highway embankments rose upward, and then — boom —  there it was.

Las Cruces sits in a valley caused by the Rio Grande rift, and coming from the west, a driver descends into the city. If he arrives at night, he will be treated to the city twinkling under the desert sky. There’s farmland on the west beside the river, which gives the impression of an oasis, and then the city sits beyond that.

Organ Mountains in background, with Charlotte the dog

Organ Mountains in background, with Charlotte the dog. Photo by Ian Sidden.

Beyond the city are the Organ Mountains, and in that first glimpse, they shaped so much of what Las Cruces means to me. They tower over both the city and even the western side of the valley to such a degree that an approaching driver doesn’t realize the presence of the valley at all since the Organs are visible from a great distance. Their actual height is only apparent once in the valley.

The Organs are such a dominant feature, that they appear in many of my outdoor photos of Las Cruces quite by accident. The peaks rise out of the east in Las Cruces in what appear to be narrow bands as if some giant had drug its fingers through the rock at their creation. This feature makes their appearance unlike nearly any other of the so-called “sky island” mountain ranges of the American southwest and is a reason for the range’s name (resembling a pipe organ and all).

With their proximity to the city, the Organs are also a beloved recreation spot. My wife and I have been on numerous hikes within and in the vicinity of the Organs. We’ve listened to the coyotes howl in the foothills. We had some of our wedding photos taken with the Organs as the backdrop. Besides their stunning beauty, there are little bits of history tucked away against the rocks. Old settlements that have been abandoned are now places to visit and learn about the history of the area.

Soledad Canyon in Organ Mountain foothills

Soledad Canyon in Organ Mountain foothills. Photo by Ian Sidden

The Organs have recently been in the news due to President Obama’s declaration of them as a national monument. This will offer the area new protections to preserve its natural beauty and rich historical and scientific resources. Citing some of those resources:

The area is home to a high diversity of animal life, including deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain lions, peregrine falcons and other raptors as well as rare plants, some found nowhere else in the world, such as the Organ Mountains pincushion cactus. Hundreds of  archeologically and culturally significant sites are found within the new monument, including some limited Paleo-Indian artifacts, extensive rock art sites and the ruins of a ten room pueblo, among other ancient dwellings. More recent history is memorialized with Geronimo’s Cave, Billy the Kid’s Outlaw Rock, and sites related to early Spanish explorers. The Organ and Doña Ana Mountains are popular recreation areas, with multiple hiking trails, a popular campground, and opportunities for hunting, mountain biking, rock climbing, and other recreation.

Congratulations, Las Cruces and southern New Mexico. The Organs are a fundamental and wonderful part of the experience there, and I’m so happy that they’re getting national attention and protection they deserve.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect Meets Die Erkältung


You can listen to this story here


Part of being an artist is the willingness to look like a fool for just long enough to start looking brilliant.

Or so I’m telling myself.

Upon reflection, for much of the time that I’ve been singing, I have basically always thought that I was better than I was. That’s not to say that I was awful, but instead that I couldn’t accurately judge myself in the moment.

Thus I wriggle uncomfortably when I listen to past recordings or analyze much of my older work. Stuff that is obvious to me now clearly wasn’t obvious to me then.

Out of tune? Cringe.

Spread high notes? Moan.

No legato? Convulse.

More terrifying: I don’t know what I’m doing now that will horrify me in the future. It’s the artists’ version of the Dunning-Kruger effect: bad artists can’t know why they’re bad.

Or more kindly reformulated: growing artists can’t know now what they will know later. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even begin if we were viscerally aware of just how bad we are at the start, and this Effect is probably a blessing in disguise for this reason.

In my experience, the Effect is slightly different when learning a language, but it’s relevant regardless. On the one hand, I already speak one language well, and I know I speak the new one – German – comparatively badly. This is the case despite the enormous amount of work I’ve already put into learning it. No delusions there.

On the other hand, the task appears to grow larger as I learn more, which is in line with the Effect. Just how far I have to improve gets further away as I gain knowledge, and the depth of my unfamiliarity is more apparent with every new word and every idiom. It’s easy to forget just how much expertise I’ve gained in my first language compared to a second.

For example, phrasings that never struck me as particularly idiomatic in English are now simply wrong in German:

More beautiful. More and more. I’m cold. There is.

Chuck those wordings out the window, and be prepared to chuck more after that. Yes, one can find the same meanings, but it’s harder than simply looking at a German/English dictionary and finding the individual words. I am constantly surprised by what simply doesn’t translate, and the examples above are beginner stuff. The rabbit hole goes ever deeper.

Naturally, I would love to emerge butterfly-like from a cocoon of isolation speaking perfectly and wowing people with my incredible nuances of grammar and vocabulary, but “das geht nicht. I must speak now because I live in Germany, and there’s no time to wait for future perfection.

Thus I’ve had to accept that I will sound stupid some or even much of the time depending on context. Despite my best efforts, I will sometimes have a hard time communicating my needs or understanding others’ needs. Sometimes conversations will end abruptly due to my linguistic limits, and other conversations will simply feel vaguely unfinished.

This is compounded during cultural-difference-collisions. Some basic concepts just do not translate, and what’s required is a total rethinking of the world.

Take, for example, the common cold. Every country has their own understandings/superstitions of what a cold is, how one catches it and what to do about it that is unrelated to any of the actual facts about colds.[1] Germany is no exception.

Realizing that doesn’t mean that I grok those differences though. When people speak of becoming erkältet or having an Erkältung, they don’t always just mean the rhinovirus infection. Some people have told me that one can become erkältetjust from drinking cold water with ice or from the wind. Due to the multicultural nature of Europe and especially an opera house, a mixture of international opinions about colds is present alongside the German ones. Toss in the other words that have similar but not exactly the same meanings (Schnupfen for example), and you have a problem for a lil’ Ausländer like me.

Having had a cold recently, I went down to the local pharmacy to make my case for why I needed medicine. In Germany, most drugs are available only after convincing a pharmacist to sell them to you. This includes antihistamines and pain relievers, and the quantities are often quite small compared to those in the States. Turns out they don’t feel the need for buckets of pills for a family of four to stockpile through three winters and the Second Coming.

On the bike ride over, I practiced some words and phases I needed:

Husten. Erkältung. Ich erkältete mich. Und so weiter

I botched it almost as soon as I got to the counter. I inserted random verbs into the wrong places, apologized and tried again. The pharmacist, a smiling young Turkish woman, asked what other language I spoke. The way her look soured when I said “Englisch. Ich bin Amerikaner” revealed that my response was not the answer she’d been hoping for.

Continuing, I told her in German that I had a cold, was coughing and wanted something to help me sleep. Or at least I thought I had told her that. She suggested an expensive box of pills that was a general cold remedy under the theory that I could sleep better if I felt better. It was a fair enough concept, but I knew I didn’t want them as soon as I saw the big C on front, which signaled that these were a vitamin C placebo.

She must have seen me grimace and asked me to confirm if I wanted them or not.

“Do you have an antihistamine?” I prompted.

She looked incredulous. “Do you have an allergy?”

My visible surprise at this question was probably interpreted as not understanding the words. As far as I know, antihistamines are perfectly fine for colds if you want to feel drowsy and dry yourself up.[2]

I couldn’t summon the vocabulary to explain myself though. The absolute best that I could have done in German would be something like, “But anti-histamine is for cold also good. Then makes the nose less mucous, and I could sleep ok,” and I’m sure I would have messed up the declensions.

Actually, that might have been a passable explanation, but I instead only managed a sustained “Uhhhhhh.”

Sensing trouble, another pharmacist – who was also an Ausländer– came over and began peppering me with questions. I explained again. Cold. Cough. Can’t sleep.

She said, “Ah, Reizhusten.

I have since looked up this word, and I don’t quite understand the distinction between it and Husten, which is “cough”, or why this was a “Eureka!” moment for her.

She then began mentioning the word for “juice” (Saft), and I had no idea what she was getting at. She held up a box and explained this would ease the cough, but it was only for evenings, and I’d have to drink a lot of water.

This one clicked. Cough syrup equals cough juice. Good enough.

“Yes, that’s what I want.”

But instead of expressing relief, they both looked doubtful.

The second one explained further that it wouldn’t cure the bacterial infection but would only suppress the cough. Not actually having a bacterial infection, I was confused by this statement. Again, I’m sure this was interpreted as my not understanding the words themselves.

I began wondering if I had I managed to communicate to her that I had something much worse than a cold? Pneumonia perhaps? Could this entire conversation be because they thought I was dying and asking for advice on how to sleep through it?

The first pharmacist wanted me to consider the pills with the vitamin C again. Skeptical; I asked what actual drugs were in it. She didn’t answer and instead asked if I had a sore throat. No. Headache? No.

She set it aside, picked up the cough syrup, tossed it on the counter and told me the price in a defeated tone. It cost less than half of the vitamin C pills.

As I pulled out my wallet, I saw the second pharmacist squinting at me. She leaned on the counter and insisted again that I only take it at night and drink lots of water in a tone that suggested she was entrusting me with something dangerous and important. I said, “Ja,” nodded and paid. She tightened her lips and sighed through her nose while the other put the box and some free tissues in a cute little bag. I smiled and thanked them as gingerly as I could.

They stared after me as I left.

The day before, I had spoken to my wife’s German teacher on the subway. Our conversation had been entirely in German, and we had discussed Haydn. She’d seemed impressed and had complimented me, and my wife later reported that she had even mentioned to her class how normal I sounded. Armed with this, I had walked into the pharmacy feeling pretty stinkin’ good about my German progress.

But walking out, I didn’t know what to think. During the bike ride home, I turned it over in my head. I had reviewed words before I’d gone over, hadn’t I? Yes, I had, but I hadn’t known what I hadn’t known. How can I look up words before I know that I need them?

There it was. The Dunning-Kruger Effect for languages. I hadn’t known going in just how over my head I was. But I had been, and this was a pretty simple situation. With this thought the vast wilderness of future growth stretched before me, and a sense of dread dawned as I considered future embarrassments and future regrets over present clumsiness. Endless…

“This is the process!” I crowed to my neighbors and myself from my bicycle seat making a decision to not let it bother me. “This is what people do when they want to get better at things.” We look stupid until we don’t look stupid, and our teachers are often the unwitting people who have to deal with us while we wonder when everyone started seriously discussing juice.

Or so I’m telling myself.


[1] Consider that you never hear the phrase, “Wash your hands, you’ll catch cold.”

[2] Funnily enough, when I asked a doctor the next day for an antihistamine, he asked the same thing.

Background song “Overreacting” by Brad Sucks.