Lately I’ve been thinking about something that happened to me in my early 20s, a pivotal day when I had an emotional reaction unlike any before or since. The experience has remained vivid to me all these years, but only recently has it snapped into place among my thoughts about behavior. It’s a human corollary to “you don’t need to worry about reinforcing your dog’s fear.” I underwent an intense, long period of extended respondent behavior followed by something that would be a huge reinforcer for operant behavior. Did my respondent behavior get reinforced?
Here’s the story.
i finished my master’s in music when I was 21 and was already working professionally. I played the harpsichord, and although I gave solo performances now and then, I specialized in the improvised “accompaniment” of the Baroque period: basso continuo. This meant that I got to play in ensembles from duos up to full orchestras, including opera orchestras.
I got my big break when the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, of which I was a member, was hired as a group to accompany a Baroque opera at U.C. Berkeley under the direction of Alan Curtis. Actually, the orchestra was first hired as orchestra-minus-Eileen. Since Alan was a harpsichordist himself, he usually conducted from the keyboard, a common practice in the Baroque period. I was super frustrated about this—I should be there with my colleagues!
Then everything changed. Alan injured his arm and it was in a sling. This painful and inconvenient experience for him was a boon to me. He couldn’t play, only conduct. Suddenly, I was hired as well. This turned out to be a turning point in my career and a setup for all that was to come.
Alan Curtis was an internationally famous scholar of early music, performer, and conductor. He was a creative genius and the driving force behind getting luscious, forgotten pieces of music performed in the world again. Alan practiced inclusive casting before anyone else even talked about it, hiring singers of color for lead roles with no concern for the familial relationships of the characters. He also ignored gender and hired by voice. He brought flare and emotion to every aria with his unique interpretations of the music. Unique, but never gratuitously flashy. You always had the feeling that he had figured out exactly what the composer intended.
I loved playing continuo in the opera orchestra. There was a little gang of us “pluckers”: harpsichordists, lutenists, a theorbo usually. Once in a while a Baroque guitar. Sometimes a keyboardist would double on the organ. We created improvised accompaniment to the written-out parts the rest of the orchestra had, working closely with the cellos, bassoons, and basses, with whom we shared the bass line.
During the opera recitatives, the parts where a character sings in a more speaking style, often only the cello and the harpsichord play, with the harpsichordist providing flourishes and arpeggios to help portray the story told by the lyrics.
My particular musical talents lie with ensemble playing. I have the intuition and anticipation of a born accompanist (my sister got those genes, too), and I adored playing in that performance.
Alan encouraged me during rehearsals and performances, and even complimented me now and then, so I figured I was doing OK. But after the last performance, in front of a large group of people, he complimented me mightily on my continuo playing. He said that I was one of the top three harpsichord continuo players he knew in the world. As I salvaging my composure, in his professorial way, he made some constructive suggestions of things I could work on to get even better. I was 25 years old.
Playing in Europe
A few months later, Alan telephoned me to ask whether I would be interested in joining his opera orchestra in Europe, Il Complesso Barocco. He was conducting operas in Innsbruck, Austria, and in Amsterdam over a period of several weeks. I stammered yes, and he said the pay would be about $500 per week and the orchestra would pay airfare, but not accommodations.
In those days, a third party could buy your plane tickets, so you would call endlessly to check the status of your tickets, then show up at the airport hoping that the paperwork had been filed and payment made.
Happily, he hired two friends of mine as well, so I had travel companions. Somehow we got our plane tickets coordinated. One of my friends spoke both fluent German and Dutch—what a relief. I spoke passable German, but I knew only one word of Dutch: lekker, in its several meanings. That I made this first trip with friends was crucial to my feeling able to do this thing at all and influenced the trajectory that followed. They buffered the culture shock of my not only being in a foreign country, but working there. I jumped into an already ticking, familiar machine of music performance, but also had these weird moments of completely alien experiences. But my friends were my touchstone.
Our flight, which originated in San Francisco, had excruciating delays from rain at La Guardia, and turned into a red-eye. After landing in Hamburg, we boarded a train and got a compartment to ourselves. Exhausted from the marathon flight and attendant stress, we folded out the seats, made beds, and went to sleep. We woke up to the sun streaming through the windows of the cozy compartment and the magnificent sight of the Alps. One of the sweetest memories of my life.
I couldn’t have asked for a more magical setting for my first gig abroad. Innsbruck is both heavenly and intense, notched into a small valley and with an alarming, freezing river plunging through the center of town. My friends had been there before and knew the good sights and restaurants. They were vegetarian, so I learned the different ways to ask for “no meat” in German. On a day off, we took a funicular up to the top of an Alp, had lunch, then walked all the way back down, which turned out to have drastic consequences on our leg muscles for the next week.
Alan’s European rehearsals were an experience unto themselves. They moved fast, as he gave instructions to musicians from at least four countries in their native languages, seamlessly switching back and forth. His mind was so sharp. I learned to count bar numbers quickly in several languages! I understood a lot of what he said in German and Italian because of his American accent. I went to all the full orchestral rehearsals, and I was also the rehearsal accompanist when Alan worked with singers. Another round of “keep up with a rehearsal that’s mostly in a foreign language.”
After we finished that set of performances, my friends and I took another lovely trek by train to Amsterdam, staying a day each at Nuremberg and Köln to go to museums. I learned the tricks of getting around on the trains, changing money, and finding cheap pensions to stay in. (The tourist offices in the train stations provided paper maps and brochures about the town’s amenities.)
Amsterdam was great fun as well. I spent many mornings in the Rijksmuseum, looking at Rembrandts and other masterworks. We rehearsed and performed in nearby Scheveningen, and learned that saying the name of this town was a test to detect German spies in World War II because only the Dutch can pronounce it correctly. As musicians, we got obsessed and practiced it a lot and judged each other’s pronunciation. We thought we did it pretty well, but the Dutch orchestra members laughed.
The only bad part of the trip was that I caught a very nasty, feverish cold. I couldn’t sleep many nights as I sat up with excruciating sinuses. I had to serial-suck cough drops for the three-hour performances so as not to cough in the orchestra pit. Even that part was worth it, though.
This trip was wonderful in so many ways, but perhaps the most important was that it built my confidence for the challenges that came later.
Traveling to Italy
My next gig with Alan was in Italy, at the Teatro Olimpico by the famed architect Palladio in Vicenza in the northern part of the country. He put together an orchestra with some members of Il Complesso Barocco and some players from a young people’s orchestra in Venice. But it didn’t include my friends this time.
This trip was hexed from the start. Alan directed me to call a woman named Betti Marinelli at the opera company in Venice to arrange my travel and negotiate (negotiate? me?) my pay. Overseas calls were a big hassle then, and I had an eight-hour time difference to contend with. So this had me getting up at 3 AM, trembling with nerves, my voice tense and hoarse from shyness, calling an office where I might or might not find an English-speaking person, and using my limited Italian to find Ms. Marinelli. Betti spoke good English, thankfully, but it was hard to reach her, hard to hear her, and I never quite knew what to do next or what we had just agreed on. Besides the phone and language difficulties, I got the sense that the politics of the opera company changed every day. Ms. Marinelli disappeared for days at a time and the next people I spoke to would tell me the opposite of what she had. Why had I listened to her—she was gone now! I didn’t understand how much or how they were going to pay me. Whenever I called the airline, they had no record of my reservation.
The opera bureaucracy felt like this huge, lumbering ship that moved at an inexorable pace, but had vying political groups fighting to steer it. One day, the ship was sailing east, then the next day, without warning, I’d find it had laboriously turned southwest overnight and I’d have to start all over again with whatever issue I had been trying to work out.
But the hardest thing of all was that Alan didn’t need my friends for this production. I would be on my own. A different Eileen went on this trip. Confident enough to go (barely), but basically scared shitless. Frustrated and very anxious, I showed up at the airport at the right time, and there it was in the system: my ticket. I got on the plane with a prayer, both because I hated flying and because I didn’t know what to expect when I reached my destination. I discovered two singers on the plane whom Alan had also hired, so I had some people to hang out with in a limited way. After landing in Venice, we found our way together to Vicenza.
When traveling with my friends earlier, I had learned the necessary habits for a traveling musician who doesn’t have accommodations arranged ahead of time. You show up, awkwardly, in the rehearsal space, sometimes while a rehearsal is in progress, with luggage in hand. Accommodations would depend on wherever the hell you would rehearse, and you had to find it first. So that’s what we did.
Upon arrival, there were administrative problems with everything, but worst, our pay. They didn’t have the down payment ready. The rehearsal times and places changed unpredictably and without notice. Some cast members were missing, others were double cast. One of the American singers who had a major role was so pissed that she turned around and flew home on her own dime. The other one stayed until he was dismissed a couple days later because someone liked the other singer hired for the role better. But after endless piles of paperwork, then appointments where often no one from the opera company showed up, the rest of us got enough money to live on through the rehearsals and performance until we got our final and main payment.
Vicenza is a typical European combination of old and new, and I was in the mostly old part with narrow, winding, hard-to-walk-on cobblestone streets. I could walk to a famous town square, the Piazza dei Signori, and just on the other side of it were some great, inexpensive restaurants. I walked everywhere, including to my performances, when I wore a long black dress with black Chinese cloth flats underneath. They looked like slippers and were all the fad in Berkeley at the time. I was a true dork. I carried my tuning forks, tuning hammer, and my bulging binder with the score and my complicated system of colored paper clips to help me get back and forth for repeats and skips in the music.
Playing in the Teatro Olimpico, with its marvelous acoustics, was a matchless experience. The interior of the Renaissance theater is constructed of wood and plaster with very little absorptive material anywhere. The acoustics are both live and balanced. Playing in that environment taught me how to do my job as a continuo player better. And I fell in with the continuo section, hanging out with the cellist, a very young, funny Italian woman who promptly teased me about my “dress” shoes, and the lutenist and theorbist, both American guys who lived in Europe. Also, I chatted with the lonesome hammered dulcimer player, who played in one haunting aria in the whole opera. He was the only German in the group and thanked me warmly for speaking to him in that language. We had the particular fun of a bunch of young people who only partly understood each other, but joked and horsed around as we fractured each other’s languages.
I remember one such fracture. There was a line in the opera that went, “Il mio cuore rimbomba.” This translates to “My heart thunders” or “My heart rumbles.” Typical opera language, right? But I couldn’t parse the words; I heard, “Il mio corrimbomba.” So I asked my new Italian friend what a “corrimbomba” was. She whooped with laughter. I had invented a new word! Henceforward, our continuo gang went around singing little songs about corrimbombas. Musician humor.
There was also the time, out by myself, when I bravely asked a woman at a food truck, in Italian, the name of a savory-looking pastry. She looked at me drily and said, “Pizza.” Oh.
Outside of rehearsals, I mostly did things on my own, staying in a pension where the owners spoke no English and going to grocery and sundry stores and restaurants where the situation was the same. But everyone was friendly and good-hearted with my two-semesters-of-college Italian. There is an American army base in Vicenza, and in the 1980s, the Italians still considered any American a great friend because of our country’s actions in World War II (even though the U.S. and the British bombed Vicenza). And the older Italians in the orchestra adored me for speaking to them in my bad Italian. The horn player would parade me around, saying, “See, she understands!” That was only fractionally true.
I was holding my own, but anyone who has spent time in a new country can guess my stress level. Everything was different, and I only understood a small slice of what went on around me. I was (am) both introverted and shy and all the people-y stuff would have been exhausting even without the culture shock. And for every rehearsal and performance, I had to get there ahead of the rest of the orchestra to tune the 120 strings of the harpsichord. This was part of my job and took about a half an hour under good conditions. It was a mechanical task; I’d done it so many times that I didn’t even have to think about it. But before rehearsals I often had to play the game of “find the harpsichord” first, and before the performances I had to tune at the same time as someone vacuumed the whole, echoing teatro. I could do it, but it exhausted my ears before the opera ever started. Then I’d play the three-hour opera, try to find something to eat near midnight, go back to my little room, and get some sleep. I’d get woken up pre-dawn by the weird little scooter garbage trucks made for the ancient, narrow streets, and do it all the next day.
Besides the culture shock, just playing a three-hour performance where the whole audience can hear you improvise creates so much stress that you try not to think about it. I didn’t have a written out part; I played from a score but mostly the bass line. Musically, anything could happen.
We played the last performance, and I went out with most of the orchestra to a restaurant where my fellow players carried on so loudly that we almost got bounced. I even had some wine, which I had not done during the entire trip because I needed all my faculties all the time. Turns out I still needed them.
The Last Day
So the performances were over, and my last day in Italy was an administrative one. More hidden people to find, more papers to sign. More bureaucracy, more frustration, more chaos. Going up and down the stairs in the modern office building next to the Renaissance theater. As I got ready to sign final paperwork for my paycheck, I did the currency conversion in my head and I was dumbfounded to realize that the amount was about half of what the company had promised me. It had to be a mistake. But no. The woman (maybe la Betti—I’m not sure) explained, after my question, that the amount was correct—they had deducted Italian income taxes. I protested, but she held firm. It was the rules.
I broke. No one had told me about the taxes—or at least I didn’t think so. I couldn’t even be sure whether they had or not, and that endless ambiguity was part of the problem. I started to cry. All the days of stress and frustration and culture shock had piled up and now it all poured out. I. Couldn’t. Stop. Crying. Here I sat in some busy office, sobbing, because it was all too much.
Betti (we’ll assume it was she) spoke to me kindly, but also chided me, saying it was my fault for not knowing about the taxes. It didn’t matter. I was stuck in cry mode. I couldn’t even talk. My embarrassment was epic, but I couldn’t do anything about my condition. I wasn’t crying to “get what I wanted.” That possibility didn’t seem to be on the table, and manipulative crying is not in my normal behavior palette anyway.
But guess what happened? While I sat there and cried, there were some hushed, hurried conversations. Betti left, returned, and said they would pay me the full amount. I was relieved—but that didn’t stop the crying. Removing the last straw didn’t make the rest disappear. Betti said they could skip the deduction only this once (imagine her shaking her finger at me), that the next time they would have to take out taxes. But along with the finger shaking came some true warmth and hugs.
I had calmed down, but I still couldn’t stop the tears. So a staff person from the opera walked me to the bank, where I, with my puffy face, received my full pay in cash from a very curious teller. They then walked me partway back to my pension, made sure I could go the rest of the way myself, and took off, obviously relieved to ditch me. When I got back to my place, I waved hastily at the owner at her desk and rushed up the stairs to my room. I finished crying at some point. I had leaked tears for about 90 minutes.
Now, so many years later that, I see these events through the lens of behavior analysis for the first time. I cried, which resulted in my being given several hundred dollars that I would not have otherwise received. And money is a powerful reinforcer.
Questions 1 and 2: Did receiving money reinforce the tears? The next time I had to negotiate something, did I cry?
No. These tears were respondent behavior. They were not subject to reinforcement. I couldn’t even stop them, much less start them at will. (Operant crying, crying behavior driven by reinforcement, is a real thing, but not what happened here.)
The function of my tears was not to get more money. I’m not sure how to describe the function of crying, but I surmise it provides some kind of emotional release. This article describes respondent crying as self-soothing.
But respondent crying can be operantly mimicked. As humans, we can cognitively note the success of the tears in changing someone else’s behavior and fake or induce crying in the future. We can seek a stimulus that prompts the respondent behavior of tears, whether it is a spray of onion juice or thinking of something sad. Or we can fake weeping without tears. But for me, the experience was extremely humiliating. I’m not a big crier, not then and not now. And virtually never in public. I never want to repeat that experience again. Thank god the respondent behavior of creating tears doesn’t normally get reinforced.
The brew of emotions that overtook me that day and caused me to cry was not centered on fear, not exactly. But it was a cousin to fear, and, as with fear, my feelings and some responses were not under my volitional control. I’ll always be thinking of that day now when I hear concerns about “reinforcing fear.” There’s some nuance to the question, just as there is related to tears. But the broad majority of people who bring up concerns about reinforcing fear in their dogs by giving them food or comfort have nothing to worry about.
But, backing up to my story, what behavior might have gotten reinforced by that almost-lost-then-retrieved chunk of money? Even during those arduous weeks, there were other mega reinforcers, too. I got a trip to Europe with traveling expenses paid. I got to play music in a great orchestra inside a 16th-century historical monument. I had fun with new musician friends. And I got praise and recognition for playing, which is right up there with money in terms of reinforcement for most musicians.
Question 3: When Alan called me a few months later and asked me if I wanted to play the opera again in France, what do you think I said?
Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson
Special thanks to Bridger Watson, who helped me interleave my “normal” expository voice with the memoir style and content of this piece. It’s much improved because of her help!
The Giustino opera poster photo is copyright Eileen Anderson. All other photos are from Wikimedia Commons. Credits are as follows: