We had the good fortune of connecting with John Thomas Dodson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi John Thomas, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
My relationship to risk has changed over time. Risk is, of course, related to our fears of failure, and so most of us avoid it if we can. But I began to notice that the best musicians I worked with weren’t avoiding risk, they were going toward it. They were leaning into the dangerous waters every chance they had. I began to realize that was those waters were where their genius was to be found. One day I asked one of them – a musician I really respect – “How did to come to be so at home with this level of constant risk?” He answered back, “I finally realized that I’ll never find what I’m seeking if I’m comfortably in the middle of the road. I realized that I had to get comfortable with the possibility that this passage might go terribly wrong, but it is the only way to play. Safety is protective, but it was also limiting my artistic expression. So now, I go to the cliff and lean into the wind and trust myself that I can meet what’s to be found there – hopefully without falling into the abyss.”
There’s another example of this that involves an organization taking on a culture of risk: A friend of mine told me this story about visiting an orchestra rehearsal in Europe. The orchestra was playing well, and suddenly there was a huge mistake played by the principal horn. Not a small thing – it was really noticeable to everyone in the room. She immediately looked in that direction, and what she saw astonished her. The principal, who had missed the passage, was fist-bumping his second horn. At break she went to a staff member and asked what that could possibly mean. “We’re trying to take ourselves to the next level,” he answered. “And, to do that we have to push ourselves beyond what we can currently do. It’s embarrassing when we fail, so the orchestra has committed to show visible support to anyone who was willing to risk being seen like this. That’s what you saw – validating the courage it took to test the edge of what might be possible, even if it didn’t succeed today.”
To me that’s a great example of why risk is so important. It’s how we move beyond your current capacities. It gets us to leave the middle of the road, and it can offer a path toward greatness.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I grew up in a family of musicians. My father had a beautiful tenor voice, my mother had perfect pitch and played piano and organ, my brother played trumpet, all of us studied piano, and we sang all the time. One of my favorite memories is of family trips when the whole car was filled with everyone singing together. It was just exhilarating to me.
Ironically, since music was everywhere I didn’t really think of it as a career choice – it was just part of living. Only in my teens did I begin to consider studying music in college, and then the die was cast. I became a student of the American composer Robert Jager, and I played trumpet in orchestras, bands, jazz and rock groups and chamber ensembles. I sang in choirs and studied other instruments to learn about how they worked and what was possible on them. Never did I dream that I was actually studying to become a conductor! Gradually though, I came to realize that the intersection of music and people was my most comfortable place, and as I look back on it from the perspective of a life in this field that makes a lot of sense. My father and grandfather were both ministers, and my brother also followed that path, so there was a spiritual dimension around me, but my way was clearly going to be different. I was lucky to find this profession because it brings together all of the threads that are most important to me.
Much later in my life I took up meditation and began to study the traditions associated with that practice. I was selected to study the traditions of Buddhism in the Himalayas through a National Endowment for the Humanities program at the College of the Holy Cross, and then later I began to attend silent retreats, learning about Vipassana, Tibetan practices and finally finding Zen. As I did that work I began to change as a conductor, and, of course, to express myself more authentically. As my work on the podium changed, my relationships changed. As my sense of time changed, my priorities changed. I had to open up space for this work and for the personal journey I had stumbled into, embraced as a path and then undertaken. I know that it didn’t make sense to some of the people around me who knew me only as a conductor, but it felt very honest from my side and I began to rearrange my life to allow for this path to open up more fully.
Some years later I began to work with others in the area of Mindfulness. That included sessions for musicians at conservatories and colleges, but it also involved sessions at Yoga centers, addiction treatment facilities, schools, private retreats and creative organizations. Sometimes I would work with individuals – ranging from outstanding musicians to business executives of large organizations. Sometimes there would be private retreats for international business leaders who took days away from their families and organizations to focus on their own lives. Whether it was with a concert pianist or with a roomful of C Level leaders, there were surprisingly analogous issues! It seems that the underlying concerns, hopes, fears, and anxieties all show up across the entire spectrum of high-level performers. I found that, as a conductor, I could address issues of leadership, collaboration, and creativity with all kinds of people. Honestly, I would have never expected any of that to come about, but it was an outgrowth of the practice.
I continue to study and learn from others. During the pandemic I took Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes online from UMASS Memorial and UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. Each of those was taught by colleagues of Jon Kabot-Zin who had created the program at UMASS decades ago. I felt so lucky to gain insights from them. And one of those teachers led me to a wonderful author and teacher in California who works with me online. We address everything from Zen koans to the teachings of Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen, to some of the evolving questions that come up in my life and practice.
The most surprising thing to me is how all of that work has impacted my creative life. Breaking away from the identities, patterns, self-created boundaries that defined me has led to a different kind of freedom. There’s a growing willingness to trust in the potentials hiding in this moment and to give up having to have a certain outcome guaranteed before I’m able to act. I can’t say it has been easy. Actually, words like “easy” and “hard” don’t apply. What I mean is that it involves a commitment and an ongoing effort. To wake up each day and once again decide to first sit still is an ongoing part of my practice. But so is remembering to observe what’s happening in the moments of the day, to see how I’m constructing reactions in my mind to things taking place around me, to notice how I’m attaching to something I like or pushing away from something I don’t. It’s endless practice now, and the cushion is just one part of it. Letting go of the old, habitual way lets me be free to play more and explore possibilities without all of the categories and reference points that used to be so important to me. There isn’t the old need for approval from outside, or even self-approval from inside. That leads me to different decisions, and even if they are confounding to others (and I know that they can be!), I’m happier with this way of living. If there were a musical metaphor for this, I would call it living as jazz. There’s structure, but also improvisation. It works itself out as you go along.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
It’s a great question, and we could answer it it so many ways. We could talk about the great restaurants, all the cultural and entertainment options, the local breweries and coffee shops…
But I think I want to answer this question with something that Colorado has in great abundance. Anytime I think of that state, what I think about is the beauty of nature. I think it might be fun to see an itinerary with the only phrase on it being, “To experience what is happening right here and right now.”
Last December, I remember getting up early and seeing the sun rise on the landscape. I’m not talking about the sun rising in the sky. That was taking place behind me. I mean the play of shadows on the shape of the mountain in front of me – how the light was swaying and dancing, how it was changing constantly, revealing the nooks and crannies and the gullies and valleys, pointing out a tree here or a waterfall there. Finally, how the mountain gradually exposed the summit and how the dawn light began to color the clouds with lavenders and pinks and grey greens, shades of yellow and orange until it turned into forms of white and the palette of the sky ceded everything to a continuum of blues.
As I replay that morning scene in my memory it answers this question: The best time ever, is this time right now. If I could give someone a gift that would really matter to me, it would be to draw attention to what is happening in this very moment. Of course, in Colorado, what is happening around us is particularly lovely. The streams, the lakes, the mountain ranges – they are so available and welcoming. Even the grayest winter day has its own beauty, if we’re awake it.
So, to answer your question, I might ask my friend to join me in experiencing Colorado through the portals of the senses: To explore how a sunrise looks different from a sunset, or to look at the outlines of things through the starkness of noon and at the same scene by the midnight moon. To listen to the wind or the gurgling of the stream. To take note the smell of the pines in the distance. To taste the purity of fresh snow. I might ask if we could use all of the senses of the body as a way of connecting to this particular place and time, and emptying the mind to allow it to watch without grasping or trying to hold anything in place.
Yes, I rather like that trip, and I would like to hope that someone else might like it too.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I want to dedicate this shoutout to the Longmont Symphony Orchestra, their music director, Elliot Moore, and their entire organization, led by their executive director, Catherine Beeson. When I was asked by the orchestra to cover for a concert at the last minute, absolutely everyone made me feel welcome and provided me with everything I could need to succeed. You can tell a lot about the culture of an organization at the moment they experience an emergency. Instead of panic there was planning. Instead of resentment there was a welcoming spirit, and instead of chaos there was order. Anyone can thrive when everything is just flowing along as expected, but when a challenge arises, it provides an opportunity to meet it with full attention, and, perhaps more importantly, to display character and professionalism. Such moments are less about averting disaster than about drawing out the best in ourselves. The members of this organization showed themselves in a very good light when they faced a challenging situation. Here’s a shoutout to the Longmont Symphony Orchestra!
Website: johnthomasdodson.com, mindfulnessforperformers.com, substanceofleadership.com, blueheronmindfulnessliving.com
All Photos by Roger Mastroianni