When we think of mastery, we are thinking of a vertical kind of learning, a perfecting of skills, making them effortless, transparent, almost “second nature.” We are pursuing excellence in a very precisely defined, predetermined set of activities. Our hours and hours of repetition in the practice room shaping our vowels, refining our fingering, clarifying our bodyline are all geared to produce a kind of consistency, predictability, and control. We imagine a kind of pinnacle to which we aspire. This requires a process which psychologists call “routinized learning.
When we think of building life skills as artists, however, we are thinking in a very different way. We need to acquire a kind of breadth of knowledge and of experience. We need to be highly adaptive, to be able to negotiate chaos and change and uncertainty. We have to become intimately knowledgeable about ourselves, the world we live in, and the people who live in it with us. We are dependent on our ability to connect with and influence our environment. This learning process involves a lot of “guided exploration.”
These two modes of thinking and learning are both important, and actually involve different underlying mechanisms and even different regions of the brain. However, Juilliard has traditionally been very heavy on the former mode and pretty light on the latter. One of the most frequent concerns I encounter in my conversations with members of the Juilliard community is that too many of our students are limited in their awareness and experience of the world around them. This certainly does not bode well for young people entering the rapidly and constantly changing world of the arts, a world where the right answers are far less important than the right questions, where it is becoming increasingly possible if not necessary to define and create one’s own unique road to success as the well-trod paths become increasingly congested.
Fortunately, since President Polisi launched the Mentoring program in 2003, we have had a very powerful tool to begin achieving a better balance, powerful but subtle. It is subtle for the very good reason that its intention is not to be a separate and unique program, but to help strengthen and develop a mentoring culture within the entire school. It provides a center for the support and promotion of the many types of guided exploration that take place throughout Juilliard. It does this by carefully matching initiates with a trained mentor from another discipline. This ensures the idea that this exploration is going to be focused on something outside the parameters of the immediate goals of technical mastery. It also encourages the idea of mutuality, where both participants are involved in the two-way exchange of knowledge and experience. Mentees are initiated into the life and work of a professional artist with the artist as a guide. Mentors are brought up to date with the world of their mentees and details of their art. They attend events together, meet for coffee or dinner to discuss topics of choice. They explore the treasures of New York City and its rich community of fellow artists. The program sponsors town hall meetings to discuss crucial topics of concern for the entire Juilliard community. A context is created in which the initiate begins to redefine the meaning of her choices, a context where she can see herself as a member of increasingly broader subsets, as a fellow artist, as a fellow citizen, as a fellow human being.
The program has grown steadily since its inception. It is something that may appeal only to a certain few, but there are now nearly 90 participants and another dozen in Professional Mentoring, the project-based version open to students after their second year. The range of activities is constantly expanding and we are seeing strong signs of the program’s effect on other areas within the school. Most importantly, we are seeing very engaged artists participating in the world around them and in their own development and loving every minute of it.
So, how’s this for an answer? Find a mentor!