A Turning Point story from Gateway Study of Leadership

The School of Social Sciences Gateway Study of Leadership fellows are interviewing the Shepherd School faculty as part of an ongoing project of six years that explores the personal career journeys of professors and their thoughts on school-specific research questions. One of the major areas of research this year is the role of practice in developing expertise, a topic that emerged from collaboration with Dr. Fred Oswald and his colleagues Dr. Brooke Macnamara and Dr. Zach Hambrick at Science of Expertise collaborative research center at Michigan State University.

The fellows have already gathered dozens of one-on-one interviews, which will be analyzed in detail over the next few months to produce a research paper and poster presentation. In addition, the faculty have shared powerful personal stories during the interviews, discussing the challenges and specific moments that have shaped their personal perspectives and career outlooks. The fellows will compile these anecdotes and share some of them in GSL’s online book Turning Points at year-end. One such response this year, from the Professor of Piano Jon Kimura Parker captured everyone’s attention when Natalie Wingfield, the student who interviewed him right before class, shared it with the group.

Professor Kimura Parker granted us permission to share his story of the special moment in his life that became a turning point in his career.

There are probably a number of special moments to remember, but I would say the most significant of them was in 1995 for me. I was still living in New York. That was a sort of time when I was out of school, performing a lot, travelling the world a lot.  In 1995 there was a war in Bosnia, and there was a peace accord in Dayton, Ohio. They worked out details of a peace agreement called Dayton Accords which was signed mid December of 1995 in Paris, France. That's part of the back-story.


There was a man that I had met once, Steve Johnson, who was on the board of an orchestra that I played with somewhere, and I'd talked to him at a reception. He was the vice president of an American relief organization based in Connecticut called AmeriCares. He called me up a couple of days before Christmas and he reintroduced himself and told me about AmeriCares, one of these amazing organizations with really low overhead that accepts donations and does good things all around the world and in the United States. They spend very little on publicity so they're sort of less well known, but they're really effective. He said they had gone into Bosnia 35 times during the war delivering food, medicine, and clothing. Now that the peace treaty had been signed, the Sarajevo Philharmonic, an orchestra that had disbanded for a couple of years because of the war, had announced they were going to play a New Year’s eve concert to celebrate the new peace treaty.  AmeriCares was doing an airlift to Sarajevo over New Year's Eve, and so they apparently contacted the orchestra and said, "we would like to bring in as a symbolic gesture, a soloist for your concert", and he said to me, then, "and we think you'd be the perfect guy." I was 35 years old, I was single, and I didn't have any particular reason to say no, except it sounded vaguely terrifying, but he said "we're good at being safe." So, I agreed, I mean, I thought about it for two days, and I agreed.


A couple of days after Christmas, we flew over.  It was exciting for me, because I'm not a daredevil person at all, C-130 military transport planes and all this stuff. We arrived in Sarajevo. We were taken to the hotel, and I suddenly remember that I'd never even shown my passport, 'cause I mean we just kind of went in to a private airport and, everything was chaotic. We had a rehearsal, than I played a Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto with the Sarajevo Philharmonic on New Year's Eve.


After the concert, a very elderly lady, Bosnian woman, came back stage, and she was looking for me. She didn't speak any English, so she found our translator.  The official translator came over with her and said, "She wants to tell you something." And I said, "What?" and this lady said "during the slow movement of the concerto" (and this is a very, very beautiful nocturne like slow movement, incredibly atmospheric and contemplative in a special sort of way. It was one of Beethoven's most beautiful moments) and she said, during that movement, she realized that a couple of minutes had gone by and she had actually realized that she had not been thinking about the war, like it had actually gone out of her head. And she just wanted me to know, and just thank me, and that was it. I was just sort of stunned, and it took me literally a couple of days to process that, but I thought that really is why I would want to be a musician.


It's not that I would want to be technically the best player there ever was. I mean I always want to improve myself, I always want to aspire to that high standard, but that isn't at the end of the day why anybody should be a musician. You should be a musician because it affects people very directly. People have emotional responses to music that they don't actually always understand. And that was a turning point, because at that point I was going through a state of analysis and self-criticism and like "am I really good enough to be doing this?" and all that. And it just didn't seem relevant anymore. It just didn't matter. I thought that's not the point. If I'm so lucky that I have a chance to play a concert and people are actually going to have a response like that, then obviously that's a special circumstance, but that's why I'm doing what I'm doing, and that became a very big turning point, without question.

To add a comparative scope to the research project, a small group of Gateway Study of Leadership fellows are heading to Montreal, Canada on November 9 to team up with students from McGill University Schulich School of Music. They will conduct faculty interviews there together and utilize the data with the data from the Shepherd School of Music. Stay tuned for a joint Turning Points book featuring excerpts from both music schools in May.