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Monthly Archives: March 2013

“Is it rational—is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do?”
–Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signs

They manifest themselves in variations, as Tchaikovsky might enjoy, but there is a nasty, underlying theme—nerves. For some, the jitters are in their fingers, small trembles that only seem to worsen in any attempt to minimize. Some sweat, some are cold, most forget to breathe and I am an odd one—I sniffle.

Performance anxiety, or what is more commonly called “stage fright” and the process leading up to it, is an inevitable part of studying and working in music. In my experiences, there is only a scarce population of the musician’s world that claims to have zero anticipation in the moments preceding a performance. Fortunate folk. For the rest of us, performance anxiety can take over our minds and bodies for hours to days before the awaiting audience is in actual sight of us.

You’ll find these physical symptoms from any researcher in the topic, and at least one in any performer: increased heart rate, hyperventilation, dry mouth, muscle tension, fatigue, clamminess, need to eliminate bodily fluids, shakiness, knotted-up-butterflied-out stomach. (Driskill, Kaz) The way something as humanly emotional as musical performance can propel us into a primal frenzy of fight-or-flight reactions is a fascinating juxtaposition.

But performance anxiety is more than the signs. Its roots are viciously planted, one by one, into our states of mind. We shovel into our ideas of reality with every memory slip and missed note that makes us cringe, cover up the broken dirt with every private lesson that makes us want to cry. And like this, time turns little seeds into out-of-control weeds of self-doubt and fear, and sometimes even of self-loathing. They eat at our understanding of love for our instruments, our performances, and our very selves. These are the real monsters in the depths of our sleepless nights.

Being Okay With Your Being

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”
-John Green

In her TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, award-winning author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses the history of creativity and the twisting accomplished by Western thought. It had never been in my knowledge that in Ancient Greece, creativity did not come from human beings, but from divine apparitions called “daemons.” Later on in history, we meet the Renaissance period, a time for the rebirth of creativity. (Damerow) And although creativity was being reborn, humans became the sole, responsible creators. Creativity was no longer channeled through an external spirit, but through themselves as if they were one of the gods. I believe this lack of separation from our art is a sinister ally among all the monsters destroying us today for two reasons.

Reason one. In 2003, internationally celebrated pianist Lang Lang injured his hand and could not touch the piano for a month. He had spent the past sixteen years of his life in complete devotion to his instrument and on a perpetual rise to worldwide acclaim, never having to be apart from his first and true love. In his autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, he writes about his experience of separation:

“I had to remain active and engaged with the world around me or I’d go mad…But fairly quickly I began to enjoy myself, to panic less about the hours of practice I was missing, to immerse myself in the moment of whatever I was doing…all in all, the experience taught me a lot about myself. I discovered that I liked hanging out with friends, spending time alone reading, exploring the city, and watching movies and TV. I didn’t have to practice ten hours a day to stay sane…The piano is a beautiful thing, but during that month I learned that it isn’t the only beautiful thing. Friends are beautiful. Shakespeare is beautiful. A slam dunk is beautiful. Dick Doran introduced me to the songs of Frank Sinatra, and they were beautiful too…balance is what matters most.”

As a college music major, I have discovered that being in this intense field of study is considerably parallel to being in a serious, romantic relationship. Relationship experts, whether through experience or studies, will tell you that you cannot love and care for someone else if you do not first love and care for yourself. They will also tell you that a healthy relationship consists of “me time”, to continue to get to know yourself as an individual, distinct from the romantic entity that you and your significant other have established. A happy and healthy relationship depends largely on a sense of self-worth separate from, but supported by, the relationship. (Becker-Phelps)

Your instrument is more or less that “unruly participant” in a relationship, in superstar soprano Reneé Fleming’s words. Concert violinist Maxim Vengerov adds in an interview, “To choose an instrument is like to marry someone, to live with somebody. Even with a good instrument, sometimes you just cannot live with each other.” In agreement, I argue that it takes knowing yourself and enjoying life without your instrument to greater foster the brimming potential inside of you. And in that brimming potential is a brilliant performer, and most importantly, a compassionate self. I believe we are more than our instrument and our music—we are about love. And it so happens that music is one place where we invest our love, one outlet for channeling our love to those around us.

Reason two. In the inability to separate ourselves from our art, we have become unable to separate ourselves from the distorted idea of perfection. It is an unattainable societal commandment that nurtures itself into an unattainable personal demand. We forget that there is no such thing, and we most tragically forget to love ourselves in striving for the no such thing. And even if perfection were real, I imagine it’d be so relative to taste and interpretation that there would still be no way to win all the time. It is the fear of giving an imperfect performance—memory-wise and technique-wise mostly for me—that cripples the fluidity of my fingers and the strength of my focus, bringing me to this question. Why?

It is not the inevitable imperfection itself that holds us back, but the apprehension and the shame. We live in a society that expects its citizens to be perfect sons and daughters, perfect students, perfect lovers, even perfect strangers in the way we appear. Why should so many of us live in this anxious way? Every moment has become an opportunity for judgment in this wicked system of operation that has, without surprise, permeated the musician’s reality and corrupted the musician’s idea of performance.

In an interview with Tim Duquette, legendary pianist Abbey Simon reflects on this note. “The greatest disaster for artists was the tape machine, was the edited record, in the first place. Nobody will let you let out a record with a wrong note on it. The whole thing is unrealistic; logistically, it’s not possible for you to sit down and play a piece for a half hour, or at least it’s not possible for me, and not graze another note, not hit another note. If you listen to the recordings of Rachmaninov, of all the great artists who recorded on 78s in those dear old days, I mean, they hit masses of extra notes.”

Maybe if we begin to harness self-compassion, we can begin to find fearlessness in our performances and boldness in facing whatever its aftermath. Self-compassion is: “being kind and understanding towards oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them…This process also involves recognizing that being imperfect, making mistakes, and encountering life difficulties are part of the shared human experience–something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone. (Neff)

Let us love better through acceptance of our humanness and forgiveness of any contempt we bring when regarding our humanness. Spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass puts my argument more simply and beautifully in a single question: “How does who we think we are affect what we have to give?”

Back to the Practice Room

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection.”
-Toba Beta

While we let these ideas of self-compassion inspire our work, it is nonetheless essential to come back to the applicable practicalities of pre-performance preparation. In the practice room, we are capable of training ourselves in three facets: technique, mentality, and artistry. (Klickstein)

Renowned concert violinist Sarah Chang talks about the fundamentals: “My practicing routine has changed over the years. I think now I focus more on basics than I used to…I was taught never to neglect the basics from vibrato exercises to scales and arpeggios and études. And I’ve always kept that up. And especially now…I mean—it’s silly to say, but scales are great…I think to play a very simple scale—a scale in Mozart or Beethoven or Bach, that is the hardest thing. Because it’s the simplicity of it.”

How tempting it is to rush into a practice session without warming up—I suppose most of us would rather listen to ourselves play actual melodies than eight notes in step-wise motion over and over. In my several years of observation, it is my peers with a daily vow to scales and beat-up Hannon technique books that deliver with most ease. Scales and arpeggios, although possibly boring and tedious to practice, constitute musical patterns throughout the entirety of music literature.  It is vital to be able to play scales and arpeggios with accuracy in a controlled environment before we attempt to tackle them in our scores. In eight notes times four octaves or more, you train your hands to play in correct positions and fingerings, your fingers to move with clean articulation and growing speed, and your ear to hear different qualities.

I believe the ease that foundationally secured musicians play with derives from their usage of hard-earned technique to facilitate musicality. The more prepared we are to play our repertoire with proper technique, the more prepared we are for the performance of that repertoire. In this double-whammy preparation we can find confidence, a self-belief in one’s ability and capacity. And in the unavoidable cases of mishaps despite our devising, The Bulletproof Musician’s Blog explains confidence, as it should be known:
           “’Confidence is believing in your own ability, knowing what you have to do to win. My confidence was developed through preparation.’-Jack Nicklaus (golf)
‘I had complete confidence in my ability to carry out the game plan. I studied and accumulated knowledge of the game. I accomplished this in practice by practicing over and over again, hard work.’ -Johnny Unitas (football)
Notice how each of these athletes are saying essentially the same thing.
They all equate confidence with a belief in their inherent 
ability or capacity to perform at a high level–as opposed to their win/loss record alone. Realistically, they understand that they’re not going to hit every shot, make every pass, and win every race, and they don’t let these ups and downs affect their belief in their underlying ability.”

Now as we acquire confidence through basic practices, we find less of a distraction as we move into mental practice. This morning I had the chance to take a private lesson with former USC piano professor, James Bonn, where he told me something I hadn’t considered before. He compared practicing to chiseling in stone—it cannot be undone. Playing the music under tempo, stop in those hints of hesitation before you actually hit the wrong note, before you even have a chance to feel irritated that you hit the wrong note. Stop, think slow and thorough, then go for the correct note that is now at the tips of your peaceful fingers. Don’t get stuck, he said, be flexible and open, and I add here now, be patient in your maturing with a piece. An affair that takes time.

Yet, time is not the least as important as is focus. I could spend three hours on the piano bench with my fingers trekking across the keys in their muscle memory, my mind on irrelevant matters like trying to remember the name of my friend’s cat, or highly anticipating the tweeting alert of a text, hopefully saying something interesting. If such notions are preoccupying my present being, it will be mightily unmanageable to simultaneously assess and memorize the patterns, sections, rhythms, fingerings, phrases, dynamics, characters—everything in the music that solicits careful consideration and execution each time we convene with our instrument.

To focus takes being in the present moment. We achieve this by being acutely aware of the happenings of right now, every breath and every emotion, without any judgment. (Mead) We enter a zone where the outside world is forgotten, and we are altogether lost in whatever it is we are doing, reclaiming the power to create. Uncovering this magically productive place is not at all a facile project, and will have to include gentleness as we deal with our eager and wandering minds. But as we are on our way to procuring this special skill, we experience three things: increased enjoyment, reduced stress, and getting things done. Leo Babauta of ZenHabits offers a few lovely words to think about: “There are no worries. There is just experiencing.”

Now imagine calling every practice session an “experience”. As we work on knowing ourselves, we learn about the artist in us. What are the styles of music that bring out the best in you and what are the styles of music you want to bring yourself to?  I used to believe in music as a selfish pursuit, asking myself, “What can I do for music?” The amount of pressure in those six words brought me to invert my inquiry—“What can music do for me?” Encompassing myself and my audience in the “me” of that question, I recognize the experience aspect of being a performer. Let us choose repertoire that we can experience with fondness, in the practice room and on stage alike, over and over. In this way, we become artists with a conviction, a motivation to practice and perform.

What is Your Performance Philosophy?

“[Musicians] often believe that their work is part of an uplifting aspect of the human spirit. They feel that their own accomplishments were a way of offering the best of themselves to their fellow human beings.”
-Stewart Gordon

The time spent in music classes, ensemble rehearsals and individual practice sessions—what are the thousands of hours all for? Why do we embrace a lifestyle that entails so much time and labor without guarantee of much financial reward? Why perform at all? It is essential to know our personal responses to such questions, as USC piano professor Stewart Gordon writes in Mastering the Art of Performance: “To meet the often extreme demands of our performance goals, we need to think about what motivates us and drives our performance lives. This foundation can serve as a stabilizing force for long and arduous periods of preparation, as well as an anchor during the storm and stress of performance itself.”

In an interview with Dr. Janice Park, Chapman University piano professor, I ask her what her personal performance philosophy is.

“I truly think, as a performer, our job is to touch someone. Even just one person’s heart. Obviously we are doing it because we love it; no one has to twist our arm to make us sit there and practice for four, six hours at a time. So we know we love it, but what is the purpose of making this noise and sound for other people to hear? The goal is to transfer something through music. Someone’s brain and heart can work through what they hear in their ears to get healed with good, happy memories. They can cry, smile, just hearing music. We can touch inner emotions. I think that’s our purpose.”

Performance poet and actress Dzifa Benson shares in Philosophy Now,Performance can fundamentally be said to be a transformation of ideas and dreams and all those other little understood human impulses into outward action…Romantic aestheticians would have it that art, and by extension, performance, is a heightening of the common human activity of expressing emotions to the point where they are experienced and rendered lucid to the performer and audience in a way that is rarely seen in everyday life.”

These are the challenges and allures alike—to perform is to transcend everyday motion, to capture a moment in history and expose an entire spectrum of human emotion, to extend our soft hearts and hard work in all of our vulnerability. How beautiful it is to remember, beyond the uneasiness we experience, that our reasons for a life in music and performance exceed us. With this understanding and direction, I come closer to peace with my instrument, my performances, and myself.

On Our Way

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
-John Steinbeck

We now continue onwards with the constant journey of our musical progress. As we learn to blossom in self-compassion, maximal practice strategies, and inspirations for our studies and performances, let us put our restlessness to rest, pressing on with our minds not “in terms of success and failure but of effort and adventure.” (Holt)

Works Cited

A Conversation with Abbey Simon. Dir. Tim Duquette. Perf. Abbey Simon. 2011. Youtube.

Babauta, Leo. “A Simple Guide to Being Present for the Overworked and Overwhelmed.” Zen Habits. Personal Weblog, Leo Babauta, 5 Feb. 2008. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Becker-Phelps, Leslie. “Eight Signs of a Healthy Relationship”. The Art of Relationships. WebMD, 4 Apr. 2012. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Benson, Dzifa. “Performance Is The Thing.” Philosophy Now. Philosophy Now, 2006.Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Beta, Toba. Master of Stupidity. n.p., 2011. Web.

Chang, Sarah. Interview by Unknown. “Interview with Sarah Chang, Violinist”. Live From Lincoln Center, 3 Mar. 1998. 17 Mar. 2013.

Damerow, Harold E., Jose Marie Duvall, and Thomas J. Kehoe. Exploring Western Civilization to 1648: A Worktext for the Active Student. Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1997. Print.

Dass, Ram, and Paul Gorman. How Can I Help?. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Print.

Driskill, Kristina. Symptoms, Causes, and Coping Strategies for Performance Anxiety in Singers: A Synthesis of Research. Diss. West Virginia University, 2012. Ann Arbor: 3530413, 2012.

Fleming, Reneé. Interview by Christopher O’Riley. NPR: From the Top, 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2013.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. “Your Elusive Creative Genius”. Video. Ted.com. TED, Feb. 2009. 13 Mar. 2013.

Green, John. Paper Towns. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Gordon, Stewart. Mastering the Art of Performance. New York: Oxford, 2006. Print.

Holt, John. How Children Fail (Revised Edition). New York: Da Capo, 1964, 1982. Print.

Kageyama, Noa. “How to Start Believing in Yourself.” The Bulletproof Musician. Personal Weblog, Noa Kageyama, 29 June 2012. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Kaz. “A Discussion on Performance Anxiety”. Mostly Wind. n.p., n.d. 16 Mar. 2013

Klickstein, Gerald. “The 5 Facets of Performance.” The Musician’s Way. Personal Weblog, Gerald Klickstein, 9 Oct. 2011. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.

Lang, Lang. Journey of a Thousand Miles. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008. Print.

Mead, Jonathan. “How to Live in the Present.” Paid to Exist. Personal Weblog, Jonathan Mead, 18 Jan. 2013. 17 Mar. 2013.

Neff, K.D. “The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. Self and Identity (2003): 223-250. Web. 10 Mar. 2013.

Park, Janice. Personal Interview. 7 Mar. 2013.

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden. New York: Viking, 1952. Print

Vengerov, Maxim. Interview by Bruce Duffie. Chicago Symphony, 2001. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Author’s Purpose

Linda Zhou is a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance candidate at Chapman University. She has been a serious piano student for sixteen years, and a piano instructor for children and teens for three years. Her love for music has kept her performing and competing throughout California.

In this manifesto, she intertwines her interests in music performance and self-compassion with the hopes of inspiring self-love in herself and her peers. She explores what she believes as the roots of performance anxiety and the values it takes to overcome them. This work is meant mostly for her fellow peers, college music majors in the Western World who experience the frustrations of nervousness and are looking to actively and positively change that. However, the ideas presented are also applicable to those dealing with general performance anxiety and struggles with self-compassion.

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*Rough draft

“Is it rational—is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do?”
–Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signs

They manifest themselves in variations, as Tchaikovsky might enjoy, but there is a nasty, underlying theme—nerves. For some, the jitters are in their fingers, small trembles that only seem to worsen in any attempt to minimize. Some sweat, some are cold, most forget to breathe and I am an odd one—I sniffle.

Performance anxiety, or what is more commonly called “stage fright” and the process leading up to it, is an inevitable part of studying and working in music. In my experiences, there is only a scarce population of the musician’s world that claims to have zero anticipation in the moments preceding a performance. Fortunate folk. For the rest of us, performance anxiety can take over our minds and bodies for hours to days before the awaiting audience is in actual sight of us.

You’ll find these physical symptoms from any researcher in the topic, and at least one in any performer: increased heart rate, hyperventilation, dry mouth, muscle tension, fatigue, clamminess, need to eliminate bodily fluids, shakiness, knotted-up-butterflied-out stomach. (Driskill, Kaz) The way something as humanly emotional as musical performance can propel us into a primal frenzy of fight-or-flight reactions is a fascinating juxtaposition.

But performance anxiety is more than the signs. Its roots are viciously planted, one by one, into our states of mind. We shovel into our ideas of reality with every memory slip and missed note that makes us cringe, cover up the broken dirt with every private lesson that makes us want to cry. And like this, time turns little seeds into out-of-control weeds of self-doubt and fear, and sometimes even of self-loathing. They eat at our understanding of love for our instruments, our performances, and ourselves. These are the real monsters in the depths of our sleepless nights.

You Are Not God (And That’s Okay!)

“What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.”
-John Green

In her TED talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, award-winning author Elizabeth Gilbert discusses the history of creativity and the twisting accomplished by Western thought. It had never been in my knowledge that in Ancient Greece, creativity did not come from human beings, but from divine apparitions called “daemons.” Later on in history, we meet the Renaissance period, a time for the rebirth of creativity. (Damerow) And although creativity was being reborn, humans became the sole, responsible creators. Creativity was no longer channeled through an external spirit, but through themselves as if they were one of the gods. I believe this lack of separation from our art is a sinister ally among all the monsters destroying us today for two reasons.

Reason one. In 2003, internationally celebrated pianist Lang Lang injured his hand and could not touch the piano for a month. He had spent the past sixteen years of his life in complete devotion to his instrument and on a constant rise to worldwide acclaim, never having to be apart from his first and true love. In his autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles, he writes about his experience of separation:

“I had to remain active and engaged with the world around me or I’d go mad…But fairly quickly I began to enjoy myself, to panic less about the hours of practice I was missing, to immerse myself in the moment of whatever I was doing…all in all, the experience taught me a lot about myself. I discovered that I liked hanging out with friends, spending time alone reading, exploring the city, and watching movies and TV. I didn’t have to practice ten hours a day to stay sane…The piano is a beautiful thing, but during that month I learned that it isn’t the only beautiful thing. Friends are beautiful. Shakespeare is beautiful. A slam dunk is beautiful. Dick Doran introduced me to the songs of Frank Sinatra, and they were beautiful too…balance is what matters most.”

As a college music major, I have discovered that being in this intense field of study is considerably parallel to being in a serious, romantic relationship. Relationship experts, whether through experience or studies, will tell you that you cannot love and care for someone else if you do not first love and care for yourself. They will also tell you that a healthy relationship consists of “me time”, to continue to get to know yourself as an individual, distinct from the romantic entity that you and your significant other have established. A happy and healthy relationship depends largely on a sense of self-worth separate from, but supported by, the relationship. (Becker-Phelps)

Your instrument is more or less that “unruly participant” in a relationship, in superstar soprano Reneé Fleming’s words. Concert violinist Maxim Vengerov adds in an interview, “To choose an instrument is like to marry someone, to live with somebody. Even with a good instrument, sometimes you just cannot live with each other.” In agreement, I argue that it takes knowing yourself and enjoying life without your instrument to greater foster the brimming potential inside of you. And in that brimming potential is a brilliant performer, and most importantly, a compassionate self.

Reason two. In the inability to separate ourselves from our art, we have become unable to separate ourselves from the demand of perfection. It is an unattainable societal commandment that nurtures itself into an unattainable personal demand. We forget that there is no such thing, and we most tragically forget to love ourselves in striving for the no such thing. And even if perfection were real, I imagine it’d be so relative to taste and interpretation that there would still be no way to win all the time. It is the fear of giving an imperfect performance—memory-wise and technique-wise mostly for me—that cripples the fluidity of my fingers and the strength of my focus, bringing me to this question. Why?

Why do so many of us live in this anxiety of being imperfect? It is not the inevitable imperfection itself that holds us back, but the apprehension and the shame. Maybe if we begin to love ourselves better, we can also begin to find fearlessness in our performances and boldness in whatever its aftermath. Let us love better through acceptance of our humanness and forgiveness of any contempt we bring when regarding our humanness.

Spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass puts my argument more simply and beautifully in a single question: “How does who we think we are affect what we have to give?”

Back to the Practice Room

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice reduces the imperfection.”
-Toba Beta

While we let these ideas of self-compassion inspire our work, it is nonetheless essential to come back to the applicable practicalities of pre-performance preparation. In the practice room, we are capable of training ourselves in three facets: technique, mentality, and artistry. (Klickstein)

Renowned concert violinist Sarah Chang talks about the fundamentals: “My practicing routine has changed over the years. I think now I focus more on basics than I used to…I was taught never to neglect the basics from vibrato exercises to scales and arpeggios and études. And I’ve always kept that up. And especially now…I mean—it’s silly to say, but scales are great…I think to play a very simple scale—a scale in Mozart or Beethoven or Bach, that is the hardest thing. Because it’s the simplicity of it.”

How tempting it is to rush into a practice session without warming up—I suppose most of us would rather listen to ourselves play actual melodies than eight notes in step-wise motion over and over. In my several years of observation, it is my peers with a daily vow to scales and beat-up Hannon technique books that deliver with most ease. Scales and arpeggios, although possibly boring and tedious to practice, constitute musical patterns throughout the entirety of music literature.  It is vital to be able to play scales and arpeggios with accuracy in a controlled environment before we attempt to tackle them in our scores. In eight notes times four octaves or more, you train your hands to play in correct positions and fingerings, your fingers to move with clean articulation and growing speed, and your ear to hear different qualities.

I believe the ease that foundationally secured musicians play with derives from their usage of hard-earned technique to facilitate musicality. The more prepared we are to play our repertoire with proper technique, the more prepared we are for the performance of that repertoire. In this double-whammy preparation we can find confidence, a self-belief in one’s ability and capacity. And in the unavoidable cases of mishaps despite our devising, The Bulletproof Musician’s Blog explains confidence, as it should be known:
           “’Confidence is believing in your own ability, knowing what you have to do to win. My confidence was developed through preparation.’-Jack Nicklaus (golf)
‘I had complete confidence in my ability to carry out the game plan. I studied and accumulated knowledge of the game. I accomplished this in practice by practicing over and over again, hard work.’ -Johnny Unitas (football)
Notice how each of these athletes are saying essentially the same thing.
They all equate confidence with a belief in their inherent 
ability or capacity to perform at a high level–as opposed to their win/loss record alone. Realistically, they understand that they’re not going to hit every shot, make every pass, and win every race, and they don’t let these ups and downs affect their belief in their underlying ability.”

Now as we acquire confidence through basic practices, we find less of a distraction as we move into mental practice. This morning I had the chance to take a private lesson with former USC piano professor, James Bonn, where he told me something I hadn’t considered before. He compared practicing to chiseling in stone—it cannot be undone. Playing the music under tempo, stop in those hints of hesitation before you actually hit the wrong note, before you even have a chance to feel irritated that you hit the wrong note. Stop, think slow and thorough, then go for the correct note that is now at the tips of your peaceful fingers. Don’t get stuck, he said, be flexible and open, and I add here now, be patient in your maturing with a piece. An affair that takes time.

Yet, time is not the least as important as is focus. I could spend three hours on the piano bench with my fingers trekking across the keys in their muscle memory, my mind on irrelevant matters like trying to remember the name of my friend’s cat, or highly anticipating the tweeting alert of a text, hopefully saying something interesting. If such notions are preoccupying my present being, it will be mightily unmanageable to simultaneously assess and memorize the patterns, sections, rhythms, fingerings, phrases, dynamics, characters—everything in the music that solicits careful consideration and execution each time we convene with our instrument.

To focus takes being in the present moment. We achieve this by being acutely aware of the happenings of right now, every breath and every emotion, without any judgment. (Mead) We enter a zone where the outside world is forgotten, and we are altogether lost in whatever it is we are doing, reclaiming the power to create. Uncovering this magically productive place is not at all a facile project, and will have to include gentleness as we deal with our eager and wandering minds. But as we are on our way to procuring this special skill, we experience three things: increased enjoyment, reduced stress, and getting things done. Leo Babauta of ZenHabits offers a few lovely words to think about: “There are no worries. There is just experiencing.”

Now imagine calling every practice session an “experience”. As we work on knowing ourselves, we learn about the artist in us. What are the styles of music that bring out the best in you and what are the styles of music you want to bring yourself to?  I used to believe in music as a selfish pursuit, asking myself, “What can I do for music?” The amount of pressure in those six words brought me to invert my inquiry—“What can music do for me?” Encompassing myself and my audience in the “me” of that question, I recognize the experience aspect of being a performer. Let us choose repertoire that we can experience with fondness, in the practice room and on stage alike, over and over. In this way, we become artists with a conviction, a motivation to practice and perform.

What is Your Performance Philosophy?

“They often believe that their work is part of an uplifting aspect of the human spirit. They feel that their own accomplishments were a way of offering the best of themselves to their fellow human beings.”
-Stewart Gordon

The time spent in music classes, ensemble rehearsals and individual practice sessions—what are the thousands of hours all for? Why do we embrace a lifestyle that entails so much time and labor without guarantee of much financial reward? These are questions I asked Dr. Janice Park, a Chapman piano professor, in an interview.

“I truly think, as a performer, our job is to touch someone. Even just one person’s heart. Obviously we are doing it because we love it; no one has to twist our arm to make us sit there and practice for four, six hours at a time. So we know we love it, but what is the purpose of making this noise and sound for other people to hear? The goal is to transfer something through music. Someone’s brain and heart can work through what they hear in their ears to get healed with good, happy memories. They can cry, smile, just hearing music. We can touch inner emotions. I think that’s our purpose.”

Performance poet and actress Dzifa Benson shares in Philosophy Now,Performance can fundamentally be said to be a transformation of ideas and dreams and all those other little understood human impulses into outward action…Romantic aestheticians would have it that art, and by extension, performance, is a heightening of the common human activity of expressing emotions to the point where they are experienced and rendered lucid to the performer and audience in a way that is rarely seen in everyday life.”

These are the challenges and allures alike—to perform is to transcend everyday motion, to capture and expose the entire spectrum of human emotion, to extend our soft hearts and hard work in all of our vulnerability. How beautiful it is to remember, beyond the uneasiness we experience, that our reasons for a life in music and performance exceed us. With this understanding, I come closer to peace with my instrument, my performances, and myself.

On Our Way

We now continue onwards with the constant journey of our musical progress. As we find self-compassion, maximal practice strategies, and inspirations for our studies and performances, let us press on with our minds not “in terms of success and failure but of effort and adventure.” (Holt)

Works Cited

Babauta, Leo. “A Simple Guide to Being Present for the Overworked and Overwhelmed.” Zen Habits. Personal Weblog, Leo Babauta, 5 Feb. 2008. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Becker-Phelps, Leslie. “Eight Signs of a Healthy Relationship”. The Art of Relationships. WebMD, 4 Apr. 2012. Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Benson, Dzifa. “Performance Is The Thing.” Philosophy Now. Philosophy Now, 2006.Web. 17 Mar. 2013.

Beta, Toba. Master of Stupidity. n.p., 2011. Web.

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It’s 6:00 pm on a Thursday evening and Bertea Hall is buzzing with sounds of Bach and Ravel. Despite feeling a little under the weather, Dr. Janice Park has still made it from Los Angeles to her piano studio at Chapman University, where she is dedicated to teaching future performers and pedagogues. She is an active solo and collaborative performer throughout the Americas, as well as an active clinician and adjudicator for competitions and festivals. She holds her Doctorate of Musical Arts and Master of Music from University of Southern California, and her Bachelor of Music from Chapman University, where she was honored with the Distinguished Piano Performance award for four consecutive years. Tonight I have the privilege of sitting down with her for a few minutes to discuss performance anxiety and her ideas of coping and growing from it.

Zhou: When did you start playing piano?

Park: I guess 5 or 6 years old.

Zhou: Is that something you wanted to do yourself?

Park: Yes. I have an older sister who started piano first. She’d go to lessons and I’d keep looking at her playing, and just learned right hand and all the notes. Once she got to left hand, I couldn’t figure it out so I asked my mom to take me to lessons too.

Zhou: When did you start performing?

Park: Hm. I played small recitals when I was little, but it mainly started when I was in middle school. I went to a special performing arts middle school in Seoul, Korea. It was a nation-wide audition process with selective academic standards. Somehow I got in and since then I’ve been in that sort of Juilliard-prep type school. I had to do a school concert every semester, which was in front several hundred people.

Zhou: Do you have any particular performances in your life that stand out positively?

Park: I can’t think of one instance at this point. But now that you mention it, thank God I don’t have any really horrible ones either. That’s good! Well, I suppose my most significant one was my doctorate lecture recital because that one wasn’t just playing, because everyone knows I can play, but for me, the lecture was a milestone. I practiced a lot for speaking and all my ESL teachers came–the ones who taught me English when I came to America. They have always supported me and they even brought me my basic writing exercises from when I was still learning English. Also, my parents were there for the first time. You know, every time Dr. Fong (Chapman’s Piano Department Chair) performs, her parents are here and I think, “Wow!” But I never had that privilege. Ever since I was little, my parents were never at my performances and I never realized I missed it until they flew out from Korea to my doctorate recital.

Zhou: Do you feel like performing has been natural for you, or did you have to work on it a lot?

Park: Both. I’m sure we have some special calling, that’s why we’re doing this. We have some gift or talent in us, or else we wouldn’t choose this route. Even with the natural thing, you do have to work hard to be a good performer. When you’re scared, act like it’s nothing.

Zhou: What kind of advice do you have for preparing for a performance, even when you’re practicing alone?

Park: It’s not going to go away–the butterflies. Sometimes there’s things at the moment of the performance like sweating or dryness. For me, my mouth always gets dry and I want to drink water but then I don’t want to go to the bathroom, so now I routinely have a cough drop so I don’t get dry. And the usual stuff, I always prepare to be warm because I get cold easily and you know how difficult it is to play when your fingers are cold. But even with all of that, my fingers are still cold in the beginning so I just have to accept it. In the practice room, just do your very best every practice. Don’t just try to fill up the time, 2 hours, 4 hours doesn’t matter if your mind isn’t there. Try to focus and practice with the knowledge and tools you have. Practice in sections, splitting up voices, slowly, all kinds of stuff just in case. Even on performance day, it’s not going to be perfect but you have to just do your best.

Zhou: Even when we work our hardest, sometimes we have bad days or little failures. How should we deal with that?

Park: That’s what I call humbling experiences. Even when you practice so much and one note, one tiny note, goes wrong, it can make you so mad. We’re that kind of perfectionist. However, that one tiny note is a blessing. You could have skipped an entire section–or anything can happen. If we played every single time a hundred percent perfect, our heads and egos would be so big because we are human. We’re like that, so we need reminders to be humble. We’re never a hundred percent perfect, even the big people. I went to John Perry’s concert (famous pianist/professor at USC) a month ago and he made a mess of his Beethoven first movement. However, we know what he’s capable of and the rest of the movements were all good. It happens. That was his humbling moment. He’s human too.

Zhou: What is your experience working with students who aren’t natural performers? Can they be trained?

Park: If their heart is in the right place. If they truly love what they’re doing. If they have a special passion for classical music, there is a possibility. But the people just playing because their parents make them, then probably not. There’s always room for change though. That’s why the teacher’s role is really important, how much they have to motivate and guide them, giving them the right tools so they don’t struggle too much. Also, giving the right background information of the period of music, the composer, could help them to understand music better.

Zhou: Do you think the performance anxiety gets better or worse as you progress through life?

Park: Welcome to the real world–I think it gets worse. Because the thing is, when you’re young you don’t think about too much.

Zhou: Yeah, that’s true. I feel like when you’re older you’re more aware of everything.

Park: Yes, when you’re older there’s more pressure from yourself and pressure from others too. Once you accomplish something, people know you as so-and-so, a good pianist, and that alone is more pressure for you. They look up to you and always expect a good performance. In that aspect it never gets easier.

Zhou: Oh, that’s great. (sarcasm)

Park: Yeah, but that’s the fact. Why do you think people like Horowitz and Van Cliburn disappear from the concert scene? They all have anxiety. It’s common. I think it’s rare not to have it, but good for whoever if they don’t have it.

Zhou: I’m reading a book that Dr. Stewart Gordon (also a famous pianist/USC professor) wrote called Mastering the Art of Performance. He has a chapter about forging a performance philosophy–knowing and holding on to your motivations for performing. What is your personal performance philosophy?

Park: Hm. That’s a good question. I truly think, as a performer, our job is to touch someone. Even just one person’s heart. Obviously we are doing it because we love it; no one has to twist our arm to make us sit there and practice for four, six hours at a time. So we know we love it, but what is the purpose of making this noise and sound for other people to hear? The goal is to transferring something through music. Someone’s brain and heart can work through what they hear in their ears to get healed with good, happy memories. They can cry, smile, just hearing music. We can touch inner emotions. I think that’s our purpose.

Zhou: Thank you so much for your time and talking with me!

Park: Thank you!

“Embrace me…”

I’m singing in my head as I start playing the piano étude transcription of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”. I realize I’m not really listening though. My tense fingers and heightened heart rate make the opening few bars a blur. I’ve been playing this piece freely and fully for the past month or so in the practice rooms. But once in the presence of another person, it seems I can’t reach the place I was at during my lone practice sessions.

“Why do I get nervous if even one person is here, listening?”

I’ve taken a break from mental-singing to ask myself this. Is it the fear of another’s judgement? Playing the piece imperfectly? The chance that the hard work put in could invalidate itself with the slip of a note? Me being imperfect?

This is just a preview of the questions I have about performance anxiety. In my research project, I will recognize some of the reasons for this nervousness and how to deal with each of those reasons. I also want to cover dealing with performance anxiety as a whole. This blog post on The Bulletproof Musician challenges the idea of even trying to get rid of nervousness at all. I would like to explore solutions of accepting performance anxiety for what it is. Dr. Kageyama, author of blog posts on this website, is a Juilliard alumnus and faculty member, which gives him credible insight. This website has a couple other useful blog posts, including one about believing in yourself, which is an idea I hope I can also address during my research.

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From another leading music school, Gerald Kickstein at the Peabody Conservatory writes about securing memory as the basis of a strong performance. In my research, I’d also like to investigate the various techniques that can be used to secure memory. The Musician’s Way Blog is based on Kickstein’s book, The Musician’s Way. The book might be something to get into, because so far all of my sources are all blogs.

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These two faculty from impressive institutions will provide worthy information, but even better might be a personal account of the matter from one who has richly experienced the performance lifestyle, themselves. I will find and begin reading the highly-esteemed book, Arrau on Music Performance, by Joseph Horowitz. The book includes insight from not only the great Chiléan pianist, Claudio Arrau, but his fellow world-renowned colleagues, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Lorenz, and Sir Colon Davis.