The Bosnian A'tudes: An Interview with Jessica Goldbaum

Age: 26

From: Boca Raton, FL

Instrument: Bassoon

Job Position: 2nd Bassoon, Sarajevska Filharmonija 

Favorite BrewCoffee with milk, no sugar

Carrie Rexroat: How did you get started in music?

Jessica Goldbaum: One of my older sisters chose band, so when I went to middle school I wanted to do what she did and play saxophone. There were too many saxophonists so I played clarinet for a year. Then I was given the choice to either be in the top band and play clarinet, or switch instruments and be in the intermediate band. I switched because I just thought I would be so cool if I played saxophone. I did the whole saxophone thing and later decided to switch to bassoon.

CR:When did you switch?

JG: Well, my high school saxophone teacher was like, “Jessica, if you go down the classical saxophone path you will be in school for the rest of your life. You should probably pick up the oboe or the bassoon if you want to perform a lot.” One of my best friends at the time played the bassoon and I thought it would be cool to sit with her in a section. I ended up spending my first two years of undergrad as a classical saxophone major, then switching schools in my junior year to focus on the bassoon.

CR: What drove you to pursue music as a career?

JG: What really drove me to go into music was the one-on-one time I had with my teachers. I wanted to connect with a teacher who could guide me in meaningful ways through music.

CR: What teachers have had a lot of impact on your life?

JG: All of them, but in different ways. I went through a lot of different teachers because I switched so much. My saxophone teacher in high school, Mr. Forte, was very meaningful to me. He had this huge mustache and a great love for puns. I loved his sense of humor and the way he taught. He was so there for me and I really loved him. He introduced me to Michael Ellert, who was my first bassoon teacher. He’s very much an artist, and bassoon is truly a reflection of his art. I still talk to him. My teacher at Rice, Ben Kamins, teaches in such a way that everything comes down to a truth about how things work. It’s such a systematized approach for the bassoon world. I’m definitely close to Mr. Kamins; he’s a pseudo father to me and I love him a lot. All of my teachers made an impact on me, some of them more painful than positive, but I think that’s just because I wanted my teacher to be a superhero. When I was younger I didn’t realize that they were people.

CR: What’s one thing you love most about the bassoon?

JG: I love the way it feels to play the bassoon, the feeling of putting air through it. There are so many opportunities. I love playing in the Baroque style because I can inflect within phrases and bend pitches in a way that reminds me a lot of when I was doing jazz. In the classical style, bassoon playing is very light and up and there’s a very particular style of bassooney articulation that’s fun. Then I get these lyrical lines in Brahms that have so much depth and meaning. To play a bassoon and use vibrato, there’s nothing like the way it feels. Then I also get stuff by Stravinsky and get to play on a reed that’s just really nasty and buzzy and bright and disgusting, and I get to hack away while I play, just oinking on a bassoon. I get to explore so many different things about music through playing the bassoon in a way that I didn’t get to on saxophone. Bassoon can be a big pain in the ass, but when you put air through it it’s pretty cool.

CR: What’s something you might have changed about your process to becoming a professional musician? What would you say to yourself back then?

JG: That’s a hard one. I’d say to not back away from fear, to not push it further down and away, but to instead get into it. Fear is there for a reason, and the only way to grow is to kind of go through it even though it can be pretty painful. It ends up being more painful if you ignore it.

CR: Since we’re talking about fear right now, do you have a definition of what ‘fear’ is?

JG: I think fear is an addiction, it’s an epidemic-- especially in the way that it’s handled not only in our community of music, but in general. I think in a way that fear is the absence of love. It’s a splitting off from yourself and thus the universe. Fear in general represents a distrust of the universe and manifests in the stress of the self. I know that it should be embraced.

CR: How have you been working to embrace fear and grow from it?

JG: I think the growth process goes up and down. It’s not linear, it cannot really be measured. Mr. Kamins has this thing he calls “the banana of life” that was titled by George Sakakeeny, who teaches bassoon at Oberlin. The words that I use in relation to Mr. Kamins’s banana is that the growth process is a combination of ups and downs. An upward trend cannot exist without a downward trend, so out of downward movement comes upward movement. They can’t exist without each other, it’s just the way it works. People fight the downward feelings, but being in a downward movement implies that something is coming to the surface that implies change. The more we fight the downward movement, the more we become stagnant, and when we stagnate and push against this force, it starts perpetuating more of a downward trend. When that happens, the creative process becomes incredibly constricting, scary; you start feeling hopeless, you start feeling like the world is out to get you. You start equating survival with an illusion of success. You distrust yourself and you distrust life. So we need to instead acknowledge our pain, to feel scared, to feel worried, to feel distrustful, and to accept that these things exist within us. Then we must understand what these feelings represent in order to gain insight and break the downward trend. There are three different levels of understanding: what we think exists, what actually exists, and what could exist. The first level is made up of illusory fears. Often times on this level, our beliefs are not aligned with reality, and I really do think that they manifest from our negative intentions. But talking about those negative intentions helps us to realize how absolutely ridiculous they can be. Getting through the first stage of understanding is usually the hardest, but the second and third stages usually follow pretty easily. The first one happens to involve a lot of painful illusions that are scary and hard to confront, but we have to do it.

CR: I’ve never really thought about before, this sort of illusion vs. reality in relation to fear and anxiety. So what are some of the things that you’ve done to teach yourself the difference between illusion and reality when it comes to your fears?

JG: A majority of my time in school I didn’t feel like an adult. I approached life in many ways like a child does. I still do. My fear just brewed inside of me to the point where I needed to get out, and getting out was coming here to Bosnia. But what I do now when I feel tense, when I feel closed off from other people and my surroundings, when I feel anxious or doubtful, is remind myself that those symptoms are indicators that I am not in truth. Nothing that is in truth can breed pain. Error is pain, and truth is happiness, I really do think that. There are so many different stages that we go through in our lives and, in a way, you can connect it to the life and death principle. When we go from one stage in our lives to the next, something dies. Something has to die in order for us to grow and move and change, and with that comes an inevitable sadness. That’s the downward movement. But I approach this downward movement from the perspective that it’s a self-initiated test to see what I’m ready for. This pain is not something that the world is doing to me, it’s not out to annihilate me and make me feel awful. This isn’t anything that anyone else is doing to me. My circumstances are all self-perpetuated, and I created everything I have in my life. There’s a reason why it exists the way it does. When I don’t feel OK, I know that’s an indicator to take a look at myself and steer it towards an upward trend. Once I get there I’m going to go down again because that’s the way it works, but each time I go up I’m much more enlightened and capable of just being genuine and honest. Related to music, that type of approach increases creativity. My creative output has been growing like crazy.

CR: So every time that you embrace fear you develop coping mechanisms and ways in which to deal with it the next time, because you’re right, it is inevitable, it will happen again. Would you say that it gets easier every time to see what’s true and what’s not?

JG: It depends on how much I am split off from my logical mind and how much pain I’m feeling in that moment. How much fear and distrust I have.

CR: So it depends on if you’ve dealt with something similar before?

JG: I think so, yeah. Any illusory beliefs that I’ve held and worked through have enabled me to grow in a way that brought me closer to friends, closer to music, closer to being genuine. There are still things in my life that are freaking me out, but I couldn’t get to the things that are currently freaking me out without working through the stuff I was dealing with months ago. Working through those layers of pain enabled me to tackle the ones that are deeper in my psyche and more complex. This might sound kind of contradictory because yes, I understand the process of getting through pain, I’ve done it before and believe in my ability to do it again, but my defenses that perpetuate fear are more painful on the deeper layers.

CR: I don’t think it’s necessarily contradictory. It makes sense because if you feel like you’re up against a wall and trying to break it down, the more painful it gets and you get tired the more you do it.

JG: Yes. But, the joy that comes from working through that wall is so life affirming and such an influx of energy that it’s worth it in the end. It’s just so painful at times to do it.

CR: Yeah. That relates back to this child vs. adult concept you’re talking about too because things for a child that are life destroying, like not getting a certain toy or whatever, as an adult that’s nothing to deal with. The things we deal with the longer we go through life are more difficult, but you’re right, dealing with those things make it worth it once you can overcome them. The joy you find in solving that problem it gets more and more enjoyable.

JG: Yes, and the best part is that it’ll never stop happening. That’s kind of what we do by being alive. It’s interesting though because I still think that there’s a part of myself that is very immature. When I notice myself thinking, “give me this now!” from people and the world, when I demand it without wanting to give anything in return, I know that that’s my inner child saying something that is not appropriate for my experience as I am right now. It’s an area of my personality where I’m underdeveloped and less-evolved. For example, say someone in the wind section isn’t treating me the way that I want to be treated. Subconsciously my inner child is saying, “love me the way that I want you to love me!”. But that’s not fair. People have free will! So all I can do is tell myself that to demand that is not fair. It’s selfish, it’s greedy, it’s taking from life without giving back to it. I’ve realized that giving is receiving, and the more I give to people from a very genuine place without demanding from them, the more they give back to me. They give so much more than they ever would if I had let my inner child demand them to respect me, to love me and treat me exactly the way that I wanted them to.

CR: I totally agree. It’s not, “if I do this, then I get this”, that’s not why you do it, it’s just wanting to connect to people. That’s what I’m hoping to do with this project. This is how I feel like I move forward with my own life, and I want to try to help people move forward with me. So I relate to you in that way, that if I give of myself it makes life a whole lot more enjoyable to live.

JG: Especially if it’s genuine, nothing bad can come from that. People can see through something that’s half-assed, and they will give that right back to you. If you are superficial with yourself, it follows suit that you cultivate an illusion that people are superficial, requiring you to protect yourself from them by acting superficial. It’s a cycle that perpetuates and breeds more and more error, more and more of the pain I was referring to.

CR: That’s another thing. I’ve started to talk to people who aren’t necessarily related to our industry. I’ve only talked to one person who’s not a musician so far, but his first initial answer when I asked “what’s your opinion of musicians in general” was that musicians seem superficial. He actually said that we don’t seem like people because we have a bad habit of reacting to each other in negative ways. As a musician it hurt to hear, but if there’s any truth to that we have to start to change that. That’s why we need to have genuine conversations with each other to really get to know each other, to show each other that we are in fact people. Relating back to what you were saying about life vs. death, we basically have to kill this perception that our industry is superficial so we can move forward, become stronger and more inclusive. Without trying to connect to people, we really hurt ourselves, our industry, and society in general because it feeds into the illusionary things we think about ourselves and our field, that we’re worthless, gasping for air, unstable, the world is against us, we’re not appreciated the way we want, etc. As you said, if we hope to move to the next level, we need to move past our pain and stop feeling immediately defensive towards our fears and doubts. Only by doing that can we realize how real it is that individually and collectively we are capable of infinite greatness.

JG: I totally agree.

CR: I really appreciate you talking about all of this.

JG: Absolutely. I want to talk about something else too that relates to how we treat ourselves and each other. I’ve been trying to be aware of where my thoughts go and to realize when I am being self-deprecating. I can be so mean to myself, and I notice so many other people being so mean to themselves too. I just think, “why do we do that?” If I said this out loud to another person it would be awful.

CR: I agree, we tend to be incredibly critical of ourselves. In a lot of ways that can be a good thing, but it can just as easily be damaging as it can be progressive. If you get stuck in talking to yourself like that all the time it’s essentially abuse. If I said to you the things I sometimes say to myself, that would classify as verbal abuse.

JG: It would be nasty. But until recently I didn’t even notice that I was doing it so often. The habit was so much a part of me.

CR: Just out of curiosity, where do you think that comes from?

JG: I think that maybe it comes from childhood experiences that were really, really painful for me to feel. Child-me felt labeled “bad” and “stupid”, so I started re-enacting scenarios in my imagination with a “Super Jessica” who could do no wrong, whose hair always looked perfect, who always said the right thing at the right time, who everyone loved. I wanted to be a “good” girl, and for some really weird reason I decided that in order to be this “good” girl, I had to sacrifice things that brought me pleasure-- otherwise I would be greedy, obnoxious, selfish. I would be a “bad” girl. When I got older I started comparing myself to other people, and doing that led me to place a value judgement not only on them but on myself. Of course I could never live up to this “Super Jessica” image so it perpetuated a cycle of always feeling like a failure. Instead of living life, I re-enacted disappointing experiences in my imagination and transformed them with the aid of “Super Jessica”, gaining a sort of pleasure that fails in comparison to actual living. I could never be what other people wanted me to be even though I was trying so hard. So maybe in every bothersome situation that’s happening currently or will happen in the future, onto it I place unresolved childhood pain. If you think about it, we are all childlike when we first start music school because that’s where we’re beginning in our careers, learning skills and ways to go through life. But there can be so much negativity involved, so much anxiety. I remember the first thing that Mr. Kamins said to me in my first lesson. He said, “Jessica, you approach the bassoon, and life for that matter, from a place of fear.” That blew my mind. He pointed me to that place in myself that was causing the disturbance. I had created a shell around myself, and it took me until my Masters degree to notice that. Now I’m working really hard to shed that shell, but it’s intricate. All of these thoughts that went into this “Super Me” are knotted and tangled, and it’s this dark blob and it is painful to untangle, but that’s what I have to do now.

CR: So would you say that even if people find a great teacher who points those things out to them, that students also have to take it upon themselves to acknowledge that there may be a problem and be as dedicated to solving it as they do learning an etude or an excerpt?

JG: Yes, students need to fulfill their end of the mutual venture. A teacher can only do so much, so yes, you have to take the responsibility to say, “I am not going to snowball into this negative approach to life.” If you’re so stuck thinking that the world is out to destroy you, having a teacher is a way to move, but if you don’t have that, if you withdraw from life out of fear and spend a lot of time alone by yourself, the first step is acknowledging that approach. If you want a teacher and put that out into the universe, eventually one will come. But that can only happen if you take responsibility in asking for help.

CR: Yeah. Well, I’m really sorry that you seem to have experienced so much pain in your life. I hope that from you studying and trying to work through it that things will become easier for you.

JG: Well, like I said before that’s the banana of life, so I’ll keep experiencing pain. But luckily the nature of human growth is not circular. That would mean that we’re forever stuck in a cycle, a pattern, and that it self perpetuates and keeps going around and around with no growth whatsoever. I think the real nature of human growth is a spiral. We are going around and around, but it’s moving forward, it’s moving up. Sure, you go back to certain things, but like we talked about before you never really start at the same place, it’s always from a more enlightened perspective, from higher up. So it’s a spiral.

CR: Oh man, that just blew my mind. I love that. I really enjoy talking about this

JG: I’m so happy to say this out loud, because what I do every day is I literally read about it for two hours and write stuff down, but I don’t ever talk about it.

CR: Well, thank you for sharing. So, going back to some other questions for consistency sake, is dealing with all this stuff that we just talked about been your greatest struggle in life so far?

JG: Yes. It is THE struggle, it is life.

CR: OK. So, how would you define the word ‘vulnerability’?

JG: When I feel vulnerable, I’m placing people’s opinions and perceptions of me above my own. When I’m vulnerable, I feel that way because I’m reaching out for something that must come from within. I just want the world to give me something without doing the work.

CR: Perception is a very interesting thing, especially in our industry.

JG: Yes, and perception and vulnerability also relate to pride. Egocentric pride is the inevitable result of humiliation, not humility. This whole sense of ego in thinking, “I am better than others, I will annihilate them to get what I want” is only going to perpetuate humiliation. When things are so distorted within communities or within a certain person, the pleasure-principle has nothing else to attach itself to but the negative distortion. It’s so sad that communities sometimes get so stuck in the negativity, not even realizing that it exists. We miss out on how much greater we can feel, how much more joy we can feel, if we just sorted through all the negativity. True pleasure, true joy is still there, it’s just all nasty and distorted.

CR: I like all of this. I think because we’re in this unique situation and are in Bosnia I think it’s important to ask you about it. So why did you decide to come here?

JG: I needed to get away. I was scared. I viewed the music business as a superpower whose greatest power was annihilation and that no matter what I did, I would never conquer it. I felt like I would never be able to exist in that system without being trampled. I felt like nothing I did was good enough on the bassoon, I felt like I could never succeed in an audition even though people told me that I sounded great; I couldn’t take it in. I was just so scared of being out of school and in the world, which doesn’t make sense because I’m out in the world, literally in Bosnia *laughter* but I needed to get away from the defense systems that I built back home. I needed to get away from literally everything that was part of my life because I was...dying. I didn’t know what to do so I just broke free and moved here.

CR: Oh wow, I didn’t know that. Has being here helped with that?

JG: I don’t know if I’ve said this to you, but when we first moved here I was in a bad place. The orchestra and the culture here is so difficult for me to relate to that I started blaming it for all of my pain. This kind of culminated around December when we were wearing face-masks outside to breathe in the heavy smog. I felt completely trapped and pissed off at everyone, everything, at the f*cking AIR, walking through the streets. I would get mad at people for getting in my way, like how dare they walk in front of me on a sidewalk. Then I had my breakdown. I’ve made a lot of realizations here, but that breakdown was the most significant one because it caused me to make the most change. I shifted my approach, and ever since I started do that, people in the section are playing better, people who don’t really speak English in the orchestra who I’ve never talked to before start conversations, my playing has improved, and more. It’s all because I stopped pointing a finger at the world. I was being selfish, I was being accusatory, I was being straight up mean and hiding it from myself and others. My shift in approach has felt more joyful and pleasurable than all of the momentary pleasures experienced through pointing a finger at the world and finding scapegoats for my pain. That has been the biggest thing I’ve done here, so yes it has helped.  

CR: Yeah, it’s hard to know what we’re going to take away from this experience until we’re away from it, but what do you feel that the most positive thing that will come out from doing this will be?

JG: I’m gonna learn how to be nicer to myself. Bosnia is a nation of people who are healing from war and genocide, and they are in a lot of pain. So I feel fortunate to be able to see how people handle pain collectively, notice how it manifests on different levels, and recognize it on a smaller scale in myself. I’m learning what one person can do by not perpetuating painful illusions, by not succumbing to the heavy. What I can do with my individual conscious can do so much for the group consciousness. It’s unreal. And talking like we are will bring people’s individual consciousness together. I really do hope that it positively influences the group consciousness of our field.

CR: Yes! Exactly. In more of a tangible way in relation to school, what if anything, would you have changed about your educational experiences?

JG: I wish they taught me more about how to file taxes as a musician. I’m upset that I wasn’t taught that. I mean, I was told by Mr. Kamins that the real education begins after graduation and I didn’t get it then, but now I do.

CR: Was there anything that you enjoyed about music school?

JG: I’ve always loved having mentors, and music school really sets that up. I think music school works well for some people, but for me it represents a stage in my life where I was killing myself off, dehumanizing myself.

CR: I’m sorry to hear that. One of my last questions relates to the whole notion behind the word ‘success’. How would you define it?

JG: I used to think that success is something that only some people could have, that in order to get it I would have to trample over other people, that I would have to be better than someone else and literally take that success away from them. Since realizing the error in that, I’ve come to think that the only way to succeed in the current system of auditions is to not give one fuck about it. To hold my own council, to play the way I play, and to do it genuinely. Human beings are so complex and we are so multi-layered that there is no way to compare one person to the next. Yes we have to do the work and refine our skills, but we cannot compare ourselves. Human beings cannot be measured. But I think success for me truly means being genuine with myself, not blaming others for how I feel in circumstances, and doing the work because I want to and because it feels good. I will not let the ends become the means, and as long as I am OK with my process no matter what happens, that’s all that matters. The details of it are insignificant.

CR: Great. So to kind of wrap it up interview wise, in a very brief statement, what would your best advice be?

JG: There’s a drag queen on Ru Paul’s Drag Race *laughter*...

CR-...I love where this is going already *laughter*...

JG:...named Latrice Royale. She said something so good that when I heard it I started crying. I wrote it down on an index card and I put it in my bassoon case. She said, “I want people to realize that it’s OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to fall down. Get up! Look sickening, and make them EAT IT!” It was really the force of those words and her experience that resonated with me. Pain is not a punishment, it’s not bad. It’s part of life.

CR: Awesome! Do you have any hobbies?

JG: I go on walks, I mean I have to because we live in Bosnia *laughter* but I really enjoy painting pottery. I’ve been knitting here but I don’t necessarily enjoy it *laughter* I spend a lot of time afraid of life, so I guess my current hobby is figuring out why that is. Reading these lectures is what’s keeping me going, reading “The Pathwork Lectures” by Eva Pierrakos.

CR: Do you have any favorite music moments?

JG: I had to sit through an hour long lecture on the Rite of Spring before playing principal on it, and bolted backstage through the rain to get my bassoon and brain in check. I slipped and fell flat on my ass on the way and just laid there in shock getting rained on. I was fine, but I immediately had to play Rite of Spring with one pained asscheek on the seat *laughter* but it was the best I’ve ever played the opening solo because I was more worried about my body. It put things in perspective, I guess.

CR: So talking about all of this stuff brings up a lot of things, so is there one final thing you wanted to talk about, or just leave it as it is?

JG: I guess the one thing I’d like to say is that I’m interested to see what I’ll think of this in a year and a half, where I was, what I was learning.

CR: Definitely. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about this. I really appreciate your honesty and being open with me.

JG: Thank you for talking!