I was in the third grade and it was during my first weeks of learning to play the violin. I remember it was one of the earliest songs in the method book, and I was so excited to see I would actually be playing a song I’d heard of before.
They called it “Twinkle Twinkle.” Filled with delicious hope, I played the notes written on the page, but “DDAA / AAD- / DDAA / AAD- / etc.“ was a befuddlingly disappointing melody that was most definitely not twinkly.
So what did I do? I figured out how to use the fingers of my left hand to make the other notes. And I played the whole song. I figured it out by myself.
But I told no one.
You see, I was waiting for permission. I didn’t want to be the one to jump ahead, to do what no one had told me to.
Can you guess what happened? Not long after that lesson I witnessed one of my schoolmates at the piano, teachers huddled around her, plinking out the theme from the movie, “Love Story.” There were ooh’s and ahh’s, comments at how talented she was to have figured out all those notes by herself, and I quietly kicked myself for not daring to show what I had achieved.
I remained afraid to take a step without being asked to. From the earliest years I was taught to be a good girl, to study hard, practice my violin, not make mistakes, get top grades, be humble. I learned my lessons well.
Fast-forward umpteen years.
I had just finished playing a show at The Blue Note, a show where the bandleader created loose structures and relied on his musicians to improvise and flow with him to create an entertaining and theatrical show. The stage was filled mostly with men: two guitarists, a keyboard player, the vocal bassist, the drummer and the leader of the band. And on stage left were three women: tenor saxophone, trumpet and violin. Despite the hearty applause and cheers, at the end of the night I felt underutilized and a little bit angry. By the end of the gig I didn’t feel I'd had my feature moment and wasn't called enough to add to the mix.
We weary musicians were packing up our gear when I noticed a woman coming to the stage to talk to us. Let’s call her Connie, the mother of an NYU music student, and out for the night with a girlfriend. Her motherly instincts and feminism made it imperative she speak her mind and she told us what she’d observed.
The guys, they feel something and they jump right in. The women, you're all waiting, waiting, for the leader to give you the signal to come in. The men just jump. The women wait. I know you're really talented, and we are longing and needing you to share with us what you have. You'll see it on the videotape. You need to be more like the guys. Jump in more.
This annoyed me because I knew Connie was right. And obviously, this was not the first time I felt this way. But how could I get past my default setting of waiting for permission?
Fortunately I was in Circe’s Circle
at the time, and I received a great suggestion for moving away from that default setting by trying on its opposite, by stretching in the other direction. My assignment was to experiment for a week with the opposite, to let myself try on the role of “the woman who always jumps in.” I was to jump in as many places as I possibly could, letting myself risk being seen as aggressive, impolite, a show-off, or whatever other associations I had with jumping in. Just to see what happens, see how it feels…
I did. And I haven’t looked back.
Oh yes, I still feel at times those hesitancies to offer up an idea, to start a new riff, to suggest a different approach to some problem, to be the one to call first – but it has gotten a lot better. Because now when I feel that internal squelching sensation I recognize it as “waiting for permission” and I now know there’s a more satisfying choice I can make. I’ve learned from that week-long experiment that when I put my ideas out there they are almost always appreciated. Even if the idea ultimately doesn’t work out, I now consistently feel glad that I put it out there.
In truth, I had felt that night like the guys had been overplaying. They played too much stuff, weren’t sensitive to the context, didn’t leave room for others, took another solo when it seemed like the song’s ending was right there. I didn’t want to be like them, but I had erred on the other side.
Whenever I think of this lesson, I wish I could thank that NYU mom. What she said that night made a huge impact on me. The lesson is clear: You may be on a crowded stage but there are people out there hungry for your gifts. Do not wait for permission. Jump in. Try being the kind of person who always jumps in.
Put it out there because only then can it be seen, responded to, appreciated. Put it out there because if you hold your expression inside, you are squashing your self into a small container, teaching yourself to be okay with Not Being the Real You. If you hold back there is nothing for the people who are longing to hear it to be nourished by. Like Connie we are waiting for you to shine. There won’t be a signal. Give yourself the permission.
Helen Yee is an improvising violinist, multi-instrumentalist and composer. Currently violinist for the eclectic string trio, Trio Tritticali she also performs on yangqin with Music From China. She considers the practice of improvisation in all its forms a profound teacher in art and in life.