Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Personal statement

I submitted an application today for a new endowed scholarship at HLS for students with an interest in entertainment law. I was pretty pleased with how the personal statement came out, particularly because I wrote it in a few hours, mostly during class, and in one draft (plus a quick review by Britt...thanks, Britt). Because I won't be posting anything for a while now, I thought it'd be worth putting up. But if you're a regular reader of this blog, some of the language should look familiar to you:

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I am a terrible musician.

This is not for lack of practice; nor am I simply someone who fell into playing the wrong instrument - a virtuoso pianist trapped in the body of a terrible bassist. Even having identified that instrument that I can play best, I am just no good at it.

Many personal statements involve accounts of how an individual's talents or interests were born in the home. By the same token, my complete lack of musical talent was born in the home. My parents, political refugees from the Soviet Union, took a decidedly practical bent to my upbringing and education. Although they recognized the value of the arts and brought me to museums and classical music concerts regularly, they were engineers by nature and by trade, and felt that my time was better spent learning "5 times 5" than Beethoven's Fifth. At age seven, when my progress in piano lessons proved notably slower than my independent studies of math and science, my parents were all too happy to indulge my frustrated demand to quit. They were raising a doctor, not an artist.

Where my parents seemed to concede defeat, however, my sister refused. Eight years my senior and a devotee of 80s culture - for a time, complete with "Like a Virgin"-era bangles and headbands - she took it upon herself to train me in the pop culture essentials. Even if I was unfamiliar with a given song, I was expected to identify, without delay, the voices of the Cure's Robert Smith, Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan, the Smiths' Morrissey, and U2's Bono. Weekends involved John Hughes film screenings. In 1991, I was asked to learn and perform for her and her friends MC Hammer's distinctive "Hammer Dance" (though I suspect this was more for their amusement than for my own cultural edification).

By high school, I was ready to return to my parents and request another attempt at a musical instrument. Following in the proud path of generations of glamour-enamored adolescent males, I requested a guitar and lessons for my fourteenth birthday. I embraced the instrument, and bonded with my instructor. One week into my group lessons, I was at the head of the class in playing scales. After two weeks, I could play a stirring electric version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." When my pre-paid group lessons came to an end, I dipped into my own modest savings to hire my instructor for additional private lessons.

But as we advanced from picking to chords, I found that the same chubby and generally undextrous fingers that had thwarted my earlier attempt to learn the piano were stifling my progress. For weeks, I struggled to form my fingers into chords without blunting the guitar's other strings. My relationship with the instrument was deeply bipolar. Our love affair was torrid, our fights earth-rending. In frustration, I would rock out my version of "When the Saints" and relive my glory days at the head of the class. When the high passed, I would return to chords, feeling guilty, as though I had cheated somehow. After a few months of this, my instructor informed me that he would be leaving for graduate school soon. Betrayed, I rejected his instrument. The problem is not me, I declared. The problem is the guitar. The solution was obvious: the bass. I would play the bass. I had shown such promise when all I had to do was pick, and with the bass, I would never have to do anything else!

But where my relationship with the guitar had been fiery and passionate, my time with the bass would prove simply stagnant. I progressed to a certain point, and then no further. I could simulate the musical stylings of the technically infantile power-punk bands that dominated the musical scene of the day, but no more. Every day, I attempted to challenge myself anew, but as the days passed, the challenges had taken me nowhere. My fingers were slow to form calluses, my hearing too blunt to learn by ear. While my struggles with the guitar had generated screams and tears, I came to regard my bass with a mixture of boredom and stubbornness. When I packed up my parents' car to move into my freshman dorm at the University of Southern California, I thought long and hard about whether the bass would join me. It did.

Increasingly frustrated with my obvious lack of musical talent - an attempt to record my own singing voice on my computer to assess its quality proved so disastrous, no further mention of it shall be made here - I approached college by considering all of my classes and clubs in terms how they related to a single goal: becoming a doctor. Within a few weeks, however, I learned that the basement of my freshman dorm housed KSCR, the USC student radio station. As I scanned an internship application that a friend had picked up, I realized that, here at last, was my opportunity to reconcile my passion for music and art with my complete lack of talent. Maybe I couldn't write the music; maybe I couldn't play the music; but I could select the music. And as I realized that fact, a whole world was opened to me: a world where I could be more than just a listener, a world where I could be an active participant in music and art, even without an instrument in hand. I submitted my application that day. Then I went home and played my bass.

Over the next three years, I worked my way from intern to host to station Marketing Director. I programmed my own weekly radio shows, indulging all of my flights of fancy with reckless abandon - a show composed entirely of songs released when I was in eighth grade? Fantastic! At the same time, I wrote my way into a job as Music Columnist at the campus newspaper, the Daily Trojan. As my excitement for writing and social sciences and the arts grew, my interest in medicine waned. I waited months to drop the bombshell on my mother.

"Mom, I'm not going to be a doctor. I want to be a lawyer." She stifled her tears and asked if I could go to law school after I was done with medical school. I waited a few more weeks to strike the next blow.

"Mom, I want to be an entertainment lawyer. I think I'll major in either Music Industry or Cinema-Television Critical Studies." Through her tears, she asked if I was actively trying to kill her, or just doing so accidentally.

Although she negotiated me into majoring in the more academic-sounding International Relations (a program I genuinely loved and was able to supplement with classes in the famed USC cinema department), things otherwise went according to plan. I soon arrived at Harvard Law School, where I found no difficulty giving expression to my artistic passions. As a 1L, I joined a 2L friend in founding the HLS Audiophiles, a music appreciation organization that offered a totally non-academic forum for music fans to help their personal interests survive the rigors of law school. During my 2L year, I dove head-first into the HLS Drama Society, immersing myself in daily 4-hour rehearsals in preparation for my acting, dancing, and rapping debuts in the 2007 school parody, The Da Vinci Model Penal Code. But none of these pursuits so dramatically cemented my career path as the very first organization I joined on campus, the Recording Artists Project.

The Recording Artists Project is a student practice organization offering free entertainment law services for Boston-area musicians. By my second month in law school, I was drafting contracts that would determine all of the rights of an artist, producer, back-up vocalists, and session musicians who had created an album without a single written agreement. To me, it seemed unimaginable that ten people could walk into a room and make a record without ever signing a thing, but to our client, the thought had never even crossed his mind until long after the process was done. As I presented my work to the client and explained its significance, the natural relationship between us was incredibly clear. We needed each other. After the meeting, I went home and picked blithely on my bass.

A few entertainment-oriented law firms and a slew of intellectual property courses later, here I am. I want to contribute to the arts. At last, I really can contribute to the arts. And I happen to think I'm a pretty good lawyer.

But I am still a terrible musician.

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