Pizza Brain, the Doc’s Take: I am the Conductor of Your Mind.

Now I’m supposed to unpack why I remind him of his grandmother. I will say this for the Maestro: he finds marvelously inventive ways to avoid looking at his Mommy issues.

See, the thing is, there are similarities between what the Maestro does and what I do. The two tasks– opera conducting and psychotherapy– couldn’t, on the surface, seem to have less in common. But when it comes down to it, we’re both in the position of having people in front of us– an orchestra and singers in front of him, a patient or couple or therapy group in front of me– and, while they all bring certain skills, strengths, and weaknesses to the table, they’re looking to us for guidance.

They’re not just looking to us for guidance, actually– they’re trusting us to guide them. It’s kind of a big deal, when you think about it.

Performers, especially those at the level conducted by the Maestro, have worked for years to hone their craft (no, really, just ask them). They put in hours and hours and invest thousands of dollars in lessons and rehearsal and practice. One of the main reasons why I switched, very early on in my college career, from pursuing a performing arts to degree to psychology was because I have no illusions about my inherent level of self-discipline. I have a lovely singing voice, a nice rich baritone, but I have nowhere near the level of commitment and/or masochism necessary to have anything resembling success on a measurable scale in the arts.

(Eh, in fairness, it should be noted that my interest in being a performer in the first place was basically predicated on the equation that if a dude like Billy Joel gets to marry supermodels because he can play the piano, that seemed like a reasonable game plan to me. I didn’t actually start out with a passion for the arts, or an overwhelming amount of inherent talent; I was driven by a passion for pretty girls and audiences who stand up at the end of your job and say “Yay!”)

And when you invest so much time, so much energy, so much emotion, so much money, into honing your craft, you’re then plugged into a production, like the opera I watched the Maestro conduct last weekend. You’re part of the ensemble, maybe an integral part, but  nonetheless a cog in a larger, constantly moving machine. You put the instrument that you’ve honed for so many years at the disposal of the larger endeavor– and in the hands of the conductor, who has assumed the responsibility of keeping all of those moving pieces working harmoniously. In a way, you’ve trusted the conductor with the thing you’ve spent most of your waking hours developing– your talent, your instrument.

And you have to trust him (or her; my choice of pronoun reflects the fact that I’m currently referring to the Maestro). You have to trust that he’s listening; that he’s familiar enough with the production, the score, and the orchestra that he knows what to do and when to do it in bringing all the threads together; you have to trust that he has enough of a working knowledge of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the performers to know how to best mold their efforts. You trust him to be competent; you trust him to make your best interests as a performer a priority; you trust him to know how to fit your particular contribution to the performance into juuuuuust the right sized and shaped hole so that you’re doing your job as best it can be done.

It’s kind of profound, when you think about it.

A lot of people assume that the conductor’s main responsibility is to the audience, to yank the best performance out of his ensemble for their enjoyment. I always somewhat assumed the opposite; that the primary responsibility of a conductor is to take care of his ensemble, that group of highly trained, highly skilled performers in front of him who have dedicated their lives and labor to mastering nuances of a craft that most non-performers can barely wrap their brains around. I know I can’t.

The same is true for psychotherapy, in a way. Particularly if hypnosis is involved.

A common feeling among new patients is that they come to therapy broken. Sapped. Helpless, at least over the particular set of problems with which they’re currently struggling. Most people, when they first show up in my office, don’t feel particularly skilled, particularly empowered, particularly whole. They certainly don’t feel like they’re experts in anything, their own lives in particular.

It’s not true, but it’s what they feel.

A big part of my job, then, is to start chipping away at that set of feelings, both explicitly and implicitly. The fact is, while people probably wouldn’t be in my office if they didn’t have a problem that momentarily felt unsolvable, they are actually somewhat like the Maestro’s musicians. They have strengths in addition to their momentary weaknesses. They have years of experience with themselves, and they know themselves very well, whether they’re consciously aware of this or not. They’ve invested thousands of hours in becoming uniquely, exactly who they are– which makes them the experts on who they are. And they bring all of this expertise, all of these strengths, all of this mastery (that, yes, is momentarily clouded by whatever issue they’re currently struggling with) to me– and they trust me with it.

As the orchestra trusts their conductor, the patient trusts their therapist to seek out, acknowledge, and effectively utilize whatever strengths and resources they bring to the table. The patient trusts the therapist to, like a conductor, listen carefully to things like pitch, timbre, rhythm, and to guide them in making adjustments when necessary. Just as an orchestra expects a conductor to be intimately familiar with musical convention and the piece currently being performed, a patient expects a therapist to know things about how the brain and mind work, about diagnostics, about how people get sick and how people get well.

In both cases, it’s a leap of faith, that necessarily involves the surrender of power.

Which is significant, because in our culture we don’t surrender power easily. Nor should we. “Power” is, by definition, the ability to act; by giving up some power to a conductor or a therapist, we’re necessarily saying “I trust you to control a subset of my actions for the duration of this performance/session.”

Which puts us face to face with the inescapable truth that, in order to turn in a really great performance, or in order to really make some progress in therapy, that momentary surrender of power to a competent, trusted guide, be they conductor or therapist, is an absolute necessity. There’s no way for an opera to be great if the violins have decided to follow their own meter. There’s no way for a patient to solve a problem with the same thoughts and behavior that failed to solve the problem in the first place.

No artistic greatness happens without a measure of meaningful, intelligent surrender. No great personal growth or therapeutic change happens without a measure of purposeful, intelligent surrender.

Wow. Got a little heady there for a sec. What was I going to write about, again?

Oh, yeah. We went to Pizza Brain.


What the Maestro’s trying to say, when he notes my inclination to draw people into conversation across various times and situations, is that when we sat down at Pizza Brain, I did what I normally do when meeting someone new: I picked their brain. Today, the lucky victim was a soprano, part of the cast of the production we’d gone to the coast to see. I’d love to say that this interpersonal habit was the result of some kind of extroversion-driven love I have for connecting with people; but, the more sobering truth is that, well, this is just, like, what I do. I literally don’t know how to do small talk. Maybe it’s the ADHD; but if we’re not talking deep, dark secrets, or at least heading down that road, I have a hard time keeping my brain involved in the conversation.

(For the record, said soprano was, and continues to be, a good sport about it. Most people tend to be, actually. They don’t like talking about the weather, either. Although I have had a subset of folks tell me later that they’re a little perturbed when walking away from a conversation with me, as they realize they’ve told me things that, say, only their priest and spouse know about them. This, as one might imagine, literally turns me on.)


Let’s see, the pizza. I got something (sans tomato sauce, god dammit, I truly need to read these pizza descriptions more carefully) with goat cheese and mushrooms, a palatable enough combination. This pizza was the kind of pizza that folded, and came with a layer of grease glistening on top. Fairly surprising, somewhat satisfying “crunch” as I bit down into it– I’d expected it to be a little softer, given the fold. Not unpleasant hint of herbs among the gooey cheese and (not unpleasantly) chewy mushrooms. Slices the size of a goddamn surfboard, which were a bit unwieldy, but not bad.


I like Philly. Things tend to go well when I’m there, knock on wood. My newly Catholic ladyfriend and I hit up the National Shrine of St. John Neumann (the resting place of St. John Neumann, the first American to be canonized– for reals, they have him reposing in full view in the traditional crystal casket, right beneath the altar of the shrine) for Mass the next day; found one of those restaurants where they specialize in all things grilled cheese (and where, I must say, my Randy “Macho Man” Savage t-shirt received an exceptionally warm welcome); and found one of those ice cream places where they’ll concoct any combination of soft serve you can imagine. Philly girls tend to be pretty; the Philly vibe was, as always, good. I’m looking forward going back in a few months to do the ODDysey half marathon.


Now I need to go do grandmotherly things to scratch the Maestro’s transferential itch.











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