President's Notebook

President's Notebook

My View from South Hill

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Posted by Thomas Rochon at 6:07PM   |  5 comments
The IC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Jeff Meyer

One of the most common but nonetheless valuable messages we give our students is: “Get out of your comfort zone.” It is especially important for new students to hear this, because the only way to fully take advantage of an Ithaca College education is to sample the enormous breadth of experiences that are available. There are a wide variety of courses to be taken, student clubs and activities to get involved in, friends to meet, perspectives to encounter. The college years are a period of remarkable growth for most young adults, and time spent out of one’s comfort zone is a significant factor in producing that growth.

If it is good for our students to get out of their comfort zones, then it is surely good for the rest of us to do so as well.   Speaking for myself, I have tended to assume, a bit smugly, that I get out of my comfort zone on a routine basis. After all, I am fortunate enough to have a job in which no two days are the same, and most days bring at least one unprecedented challenge, problem or activity. Heck, I became a first time father last year in my mid-fifties – how’s that for shaking things up?


But, if we are honest about it, we must recognize that it is not so easy to get out of your comfort zone when you are older. With greater experience in life, even new challenges can be tackled based on one’s existing body of skills and memories. Our comfort zones get wider as time goes on. That is a major benefit of growing older, but it also reduces our ability to experience the growth opportunities that come from trying something genuinely new and perhaps even scary.   


I know this because yesterday I went very far out of my comfort zone. I served as the narrator of Abraham Lincoln’s words during a performance by the Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. In accepting this invitation to read, I did not fully realize how delicate the timing of the words to the music would be: speak a phrase in perfect time to the violins and cellos, the oboes and clarinets, the trumpets and the tubas. Pause for a clash of cymbals. Begin the next phrase in sync with the flutes. Finish just before the final crescendo. Mess up that timing, and the incredibly precise work of the IC Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Jeff Meyer would be diminished. 


I can read music in the very basic sense of being able – more or less – to blend in with the congregation on a church hymn that I haven’t heard before. But reading a symphonic score with this level of facility and precision is way over my head. The only thing that would have been further out of my comfort zone would have been to sing Lincoln’s words instead of narrating them. That would have put everyone out of their comfort zones!


So what did I learn from this experience?


  • I was reminded of what it is like to know you are committed to doing something, but to be entirely unsure whether you will be able do it without falling on your face. It was nerve wracking, but also a really good, humbling experience to have.
  • Getting lots of practice would have been a logical response to being in this situation. But I was so nervous about the performance that practicing made me nervous too. Being out of my comfort zone brought out my inner procrastinator. It is much easier to practice things you are already good at.
  • Sitting within four feet of the conductor on the stage during a performance is an astounding experience. The movements of the conductor – seemingly so languid when viewed from the back of the hall – are in fact athletic and even aggressive. The podium shook slightly as Jeff Meyer let us know what he wanted. The music itself has a vibrancy and a differentiation of instrumentation from that spot on the stage that I do not remember hearing from the audience. I will never again attend a concert in quite the same way as I did prior to this experience.
  • In the end, I was not as fully in sync with the orchestra as I should have been. And yet, I have the satisfaction of having attempted something that was difficult for me, of having worked at it for a few weeks (albeit less than I should have), and of having done much better than I feared I might. Applause earned for that effort was somehow sweeter than applause earned for activities in which I am experienced and in which I perform much better.

Above all, I learned that it is easier to tell others to get out of their comfort zone than it is to do so yourself. When the class of 2014 arrives on campus in just a few months, I will (as I always do) urge them to maximize their experience by getting out of their comfort zones. But I will do so with the humility of a fellow learner, and with a much greater understanding of the magnitude of what I am asking. I will also have a deeper appreciation for the ability of our students to incorporate new experiences into their daily lives, and to learn from them. 


By far, junior year has been all about stepping out of my comfort zone, getting prepared for the "real world." Whether I'm giving violin lessons to my five very different elementary-age students or getting in front of the Symphony Orchestra for my conducting final exams, I'm reminded of how far I still have to go. But at every attempt, I'm amazed at what I can do, the skills and knowledge I'm cultivating. It's always more than I thought possible.

Taking on new things becomes a habit, an inspirational cycle. Thank you, President Rochon, for being a part of our inspiring concert last night. And thank you for reminding us of the humility we all must have as we add to our repertoire of experiences...for each one is a blessing.

It was a pleasure to have a few minutes to chat with you prior to the concert on Sunday evening. You did a great job of reading the narrative to the Lincoln Portrait and it was so nice to see you on the stage with our amazing Symphony Orchestra. As my 28 years of working at Ithaca College come to a close very soon, I have been privileged to work with the School of Music faculty and students for the past for 24 years. Your participation with the Orchestra made the concert very special.

I really liked this post because I am an advocate of stepping out of one's comfort zone. I make it a practice to take a class in the community every year. I have learned about birds at the Cornell Ornithology Lab and flowers at the Plantations. I've also learned to knit, sew, and do many other activities. One of my favorite stories, however, is of taking an adult swim class at the local YMCA. When I had gotten good enough to do a few laps, my teacher urged me to swim at least a couple of times a week to improve my form and gain speed. On his advice, I went one day to practice. I started out in the "medium" speed lane, and by the end, I'd been asked to move to the very slowest lane. Worse, a lifeguard stopped me when I finished a lap and said, quite seriously, "Excuse me, Mame, do you always swim that way?" I was, apparently, that bad. I have had many similar experiences, but this one often comes to mind when I am faced with a student learning how to conjugate a verb or trying, earnestly, to understand a difficult literary passage in Spanish. Kudos to you, Tom, for sharing your experience with us. I think that as scholars and teachers, it is important to remember that we are--or should be--always in the process of learning. It is this type of learning that instills in us the kind of humility we all need to be better scholars and teachers.

I was there as well. An amazing piece. An amazing performance. Excellent reflective words of wisdom.

good for you, it is important that the young adults coming through their college experience learn and know that we all strive for a particular ideal, yet its not up to us to say we made this ideal understandable, it is up to those we communicate with to let us know if we have struck a chord.

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