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Julie Jaffee Nagel: Music, Mind, and Mystery

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Unraveling mysteries is at the heart of everything Julie Jaffee Nagel (B.M. ’65, M.M. ’66, piano) does. Whether demonstrating how Donizetti’s music traces Lucia’s gradual descent into madness in Lucia di Lammermoor (a scholarly paper that netted her two awards and will appear in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association) or counseling a young musician faced with several career choices, Nagel, 64, a psychologist and psychoanalyst with a private practice in Ann Arbor, Mich., draws from her hybrid experiences and training in both music and mental health to help others explore what lies beneath life’s surface.

Julie Jaffee Nagel

Julie Jaffe Nagel with Cadenza.

(Photo by Louis Nagel)

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Nagel was confronted with a few mysteries of her own while at Juilliard. Her parents had divorced when she was a toddler, and her father—an Olympic gold-medal champion in speed-skating—remarried and never acknowledged having a daughter. Though he lived in New York and had dinner with her once, even accepting an invitation to come to her concert the following week, he never showed up or had any other contact with her. She also struggled with the stage fright that had been her “big companion” long before she got to Juilliard, only to worsen at school. Growing up in Newport News, Va., Nagel says, “the only people who played super-well were the people I heard on recordings. I didn’t know ‘real’ people like the ones I would be meeting and sitting next to in class, some of them professionals already!”

Though her childhood dream of being a soloist faded in the glare of her unrelenting performance anxiety, Nagel did not abandon music. Becoming certified in education, she taught music in the public schools, as well as private lessons. She married Louis Nagel, whom she had met when both were students of Josef Raieff at Juilliard, and the couple took over a private piano studio on Long Island while also giving occasional duo-piano concerts. They relocated to Ann Arbor in 1969, when Louis was offered a position as professor of piano at the University of Michigan after earning his doctorate at Juilliard.

Reading magazines while snowbound when a blizzard canceled one of their concerts, Julie Nagel happened upon an article about a University of Michigan professor conducting research on test-taking anxiety. He knew nothing about musicians and stage fright, but invited Nagel to observe some classes and even join him in some lab work—and she was hooked. Signing up for a course in neuropsychology to test her mettle, she became fascinated with brain function and “how society interacts with the person, and the person with society,” she says. Going for an M.S.W. just to “do some counseling with people,” she wound up diving deeper and deeper into an M.A. in psychology, then a Ph.D. in psychology and social work (all from the University of Michigan, where she now supervises psychiatry residents). In 2003 she graduated as a psychoanalyst from the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute, and is now on the faculty there.

Not surprisingly, Nagel’s doctoral dissertation examined the factors behind career choice in music. “I think I was writing my autobiography,” she admits, adding, “What leads people to leave a career after they’ve had a pretty high level of commitment and training is often related to how that career choice was made in the first place.” For those who have never examined any other options since childhood, she points out, a derailment can provoke a crisis. It’s important to look inside oneself and “try to understand these needs for love and approval, fears of disapproval, fears of people leaving you, issues with competition, rejection—all the things that a music career is made of, both internally and externally. You bring all that with you on stage; you don’t just take the notes and the piece, and get your fingers to do it.”

Even those with unwavering commitment need a wider vision than was encouraged when Nagel was a student. “It was just ‘you go, you do it; you’re good, and something will happen,” she says of the performing artist’s expectations back then. She firmly believes that students need to be made aware, early on, of all the elements involved in a performing career (“the traveling, the management, the politics”) as well as the importance of the artist’s role within society—something she’s eager for the government and politicians to acknowledge. “I know you’ve got to talk about the economy and the war; they’re huge,” she says. “But what the arts can provide in terms of meaning and emotion and quality of life, you just can’t get anywhere else.”

Nagel speaks about performance anxiety to a wide variety of audiences, from figure skaters to real estate agents; writes on topics combining musical and psychological analysis (such as how Mozart’s A-minor Piano Sonata, K. 310, reflects the turmoil of the year the composer’s mother became ill and died while traveling with her son in Paris—a subject she also covers in presentations with her husband at the piano); and draws inspiration from “seeing my daughter as a mother” and watching her two little granddaughters grow up—“like having a second chance at my own childhood,” she says.

Crediting Juilliard with fostering her “way of thinking, of analyzing, of probing and asking questions,” Nagel calls the School her “launching pad—and I had no idea how far it would launch me, and how it would prepare me for every thing I’ve done ever since and continue to do.”

 

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