Being An Artist

Seth Godin (whom I may or may not have mentioned before) is someone I consider to be a great role model and inspiration for me as a musician. Considering he is a business/marketing genius, you might consider that a little odd. What insight could he possible have to offer me, a musician?

The answer: A life-changing amount.

There are many reasons for this, but it is my hope you would check out his blog or one of his books and figure them for yourself. Today, there is a specific idea of his that has been on my mind.

He has a list of daily habits for artists, and one item is this: Learn something new without any apparent practical benefit.

This is a great idea! Obviously, we are privileged with access to a huge amount of information through the internet. So, it doesn’t take long to explore something we know nothing about. This is a convenient method for developing yourself as a well-rounded artist that can bring a variety of things into your work. However, a lot of what you gain through research and exploration on the internet is just factual knowledge, and is useful in a very specific way.

This became quite clear to me a couple months ago, because I decided to add some more lessons to my schedule. Not music lessons, but horseback riding lessons. These are two different things entirely, but there are some incredible connections I have made in regards to learning across the two disciplines. Since they both are designed to develop procedural knowledge (the understanding of how to perform a task) It is easy to bring some ideas from one into the other to facilitate the learning process.

In other words, I feel like I’m learning faster, getting less frustrated, and have more practice tools at my disposal. Not because the actual technique directly transfers, but the ideas behind them often do (in fact, I’ll probably post a couple of my favorites here soon). To some degree, the elements necessary for successful learning are the same across disciplines. The value of exploring an additional one or two disciplines is that the emphasis is different and the elements are presented in a different perspective.

The more angles you have to approach learning something, the better. It’s easy to think that there isn’t time for it amongst all our other responsibilities and music learning, but you don’t have to devote tons of time to it. And the time you do devote to it is worth it, especially if it is something that is pure fun.

If you are getting bored, experiencing burnout, or find yourself on a learning plateau, taking lessons in something else might be something to think about. It could be anything-dance, ice skating, etc. If you’ve ever wanted to try something, go ahead! There is a very good reason for you to do so.


Always Have Your Music With You

Also entitled, You Probably Shouldn’t Leave Your Sheet Music on the Stand at Home

Exciting things are happening, but, as frequently happens, they bring great stress with them. For me, that usually leads to an increase in absentmindedness (which is usually at pretty significant levels to begin with). From this comes the following tale:

A few days ago, I was scheduled for a solo performance during a class. I didn’t have the music very long, but I did everything in my power to prepare it. The night before, I made sure that I had my performance-day schedule ready and I went to bed early to get a good night’s sleep. What I did on performance day is not particularly important, but my accompanist’s arrival the hour before is when the day got interesting.

I went to warm up while waiting for a piano to be unlocked and discovered something terrible: My music was not in the stack with all my other music-the place I had kept it ever since I had received it.

This was a problem. However, I distinctly remembered packing my music so I went to check my other folders.


I found a friend to double check my music and folders.


I thought about doing it from memory, but after checking some things with my accompanist decided it would be a bad idea. So, with just under half and hour to go, off I went to get the piano part copied so I could cut and paste a part together. As I began to cut the cello part out, I realized there was no way for me to get the part assembled in time. Therefore, I once again enlisted some help.

With just a few minutes to spare, my accompanist and I raced back to the performance space so I could run through the part and adjust to the smaller notes, greater number of pages, and what I would soon discover was not the same exact part as my copy.

It ruined my carefully laid out plans. It was frustrating. It was stressful. Without the people that helped me put my new copy together, I wouldn’t have had any time to adjust to the part whatsoever.

But it was also ridiculous. And downright hilarious (now, not as much at the time). I’ve never smiled or laughed so much about a performance in my life. If you have ever had to piece together a part at the last minute, you might know the feeling.

I share this because it is an important reminder of some things:

1) Be Prepared: When you find yourself using an emergency part, knowing your piece like the back of your hand can save you. Why? Because the visual cues are almost certainly going to be different. It changes how you coordinate your eye movement with whatever else you are doing. And, as I found out, sometimes you have to make something up/correct notes as you go along. Even if you don’t plan on playing something memorized, knowing it just as well can be extremely helpful.

2) Just Go With It: If/when something like this happens, it is easy to fall apart in a complete state of panic. Fortunately, instead of doing that I just dealt with it. You have to do what must be done in a given situation. You might have to make tough calls. But, you also don’t want to make bad decisions (as performing from memory would have been in this case). Sometimes, you have to figure the course of action that is most likely to work and just do it and see what happens. Sure, it might not work. But, as I think I’ve mentioned before, it’s okay if something doesn’t turn out okay. Lesson learned for next time.

3) Have Fun: This one is so easy to forget. We mustn’t ever take ourselves too seriously. Fortunately, by the time I went onstage, I was beyond the point of being able to do so. As a result, I had more fun onstage than I think I ever have had before (definitely going to try to replicate this in the future-the feeling, not the pre-performance events). If I had tried to force myself to take things seriously, I would have been paralyzed by the need to process what had just happened. I would have been far too distracted and my performance would have been terrible.

Things like this are just a part of life. They are wonderful teaching moments, and usually lead to some good memories. I think if you have stories like this, you’re probably doing something right. You have to be putting yourself in situations that run these types of risks to grow.

But the Greatest of These Is Love

My apologies for my recent hiatus. This post has actually been in the works for a while now, but a series of unforeseen circumstances interfered with it actually happening.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about what I would rank as the #1 performance skill. I don’t know that I’ve settled on one, but the ability to focus is a top contender. Without it, most performances go awry (or at least not as well as the performer would like).

Developing the ability to focus is an important skill that generally requires practice of its own. There are many ways for us to develop this focus, but it recently occurred to me that there is one thing that seems to stand out when it comes to focus.

And that thing is love.

What do I mean? Well, research has suggested that students practicing a piece of their own choosing practice more effectively. But I think something else happens as well. I think it’s easier to focus in performance because performing a piece one has freely chosen to play naturally encourages more attention than something you didn’t choose and don’t feel as strongly about. The attention is unforced. Performing music one has selected for oneself taps in to what one loves about music.

The problem, of course, is that musicians have to play stuff they don’t wish to play all the time. Other people (e.g. conductors, teachers) are always making repertoire selections on their behalf. What this should mean is that the one making the selection and guiding it’s development should direct some efforts into teaching the musician(s) to love whatever the piece is. No, musicians won’t (and don’t have to) love everything they play, but they should always be able to appreciate what there is to love about a piece.

Love for not just what we do but also what we are playing is important in striving for the best performances we can give. Apathy and dislike are dangerous to performance. No matter who or what you are selecting repertoire for, don’t pick it if you can’t communicate what there is to love about it. If the performer doesn’t know what there is to love about the piece, they can’t express it and the performance will likely fail to live up to expectations. Nobody wants that.

It’s All In Your Head

Nerves get the best of musicians (and other performers) all the time. Dealing with performance anxiety is perhaps the single most frustrating issue for performers.

Which means “How do I get rid of performance anxiety?” is a hot topic of conversation in many musician circles. Anxiety is uncomfortable and distracting. It can cause performers to make mistakes and often seems impossible to control. Many consider it to be unhelpful and a barrier preventing musicians from reaching their full potential.

They come to the conclusion that the obvious solution to the problem is to get rid of it.

In accordance with this belief, musicians spend an inordinate amount of time trying to banish performance anxiety. Unfortunately, that is rather difficult (if not impossible) to do, which is what makes the issue so frustrating.

Perhaps there is a different solution: Don’t waste precious time trying to get rid of it.

Research has consistently found the response to anxiety more important than the presence of anxiety itself. In fact, the absence of performance anxiety is not associated with good performances. A little bit of performance anxiety is beneficial, with the precise level differing depending on the individual.

How a performer processes, or frames, performance anxiety is important. When it is perceived as beneficial (e.g. extra energy, excitement) rather than connected with worry or fear (e.g. thoughts of failure/mistakes), performance anxiety has a tendency to improve performance. The physiological response experienced in performance anxiety equips performers to meet the physical demands of performance. While it is possible to learn how to modify the physiological response to an optimal level,  the key seems to be preventing the mind from getting in the way.

And that is something performers can practice.

Knowledge Is Power

Or something like that.

But really, knowledge can be an invaluable tool not only in practicing, but also in reducing performance anxiety. The reason for this is that it brings objectivity into a highly subjective arena.

One could say that it reduces the emotional power of music issues. Rather than becoming unnecessarily frustrated or upset over a mistake, it allows us to step back and understand what went wrong. If we know what we did wrong, we know what to address so that it won’t happen again. It allows a mistake to be depersonalized (which should reduce self-pity and other unproductive responses).

If we understand the mechanisms behind a certain sound or technique, we can identify the weaknesses in our current technique and fix them.

If we know what must be done to develop skills, practice can become less about how far we have to go and more about what must be done at the moment.

If we know ourselves, we can determine what influences our ability to perform and how to address these things to maximize our performances.

Basically, knowledge surrounding all facets of our music and performance can promote focused practice and serve to aid in the development of a healthy mindset by mediating all the emotional highs and lows that come with being a musician. It can also encourage musical independence.

There is nothing wrong with hours upon hours of research and study on the variables that aren’t taught in most schools. In fact, it is a very good idea. There are incredible benefits to having such knowledge, which makes all those hours worth it.

The catch? Acting upon that knowledge is your responsibility. If you somehow knew everything there was to know, but failed to apply it, it would be fairly useless. Music requires application.

So, go learn something new. Then try it out.

Doing that might be new to you, but it’s not too hard to figure out. Like most worthwhile things, it just takes time.


PS: The book recommendations page might be a source of ideas as to where to start!


Promoting Certainty

Quite simply, in a field as subjective as music, there is a very small amount of things we can be certain of.

Is there a 100%  chance we’re going to hit that high note-that nothing could go wrong? No.

Is there a 100% chance we’re going to have a successful audition? No.

Is there a 100% chance our audience is going to relate to, or agree with, our interpretations? No.

The list could go on and on, and the problem with such uncertainty is that it makes us uncomfortable. It can contribute to anxiety, and it can cause us to avoid things. Instead of succumbing to this, a better route is to  minimize uncertainty and learn to let go of worry about that which cannot be controlled.

Generally, we automatically try to control what we can, and it’s fairly natural to do so. Also, cultivating the ability to let go of what we can’t do anything about helps us to do this because we sometimes (consciously or unconsciously) fail to do what is in our control, as it can serve as a good reason for failing to do or achieve something (also known as self-handicapping).

However, perhaps what we don’t think about enough is the importance of cultivating our environments as much as possible. This particularly relates to those in leadership or teacher positions.

If you control the environment another rehearses, plays, and/or performs in, you have a responsibility to make it the best environment possible. You can heavily influence the amount of certainty that those in your environment experience which will in turn influence their growth and the level of playing you get in return.

Obviously, you can’t control everything. In fact, there isn’t too much you can control. But that’s okay, because there is one thing you can control that rises above all others. If there is only one thing you can control make it this: Make it inescapably clear that it is okay to make mistakes of any kind, that it is okay to be vulnerable, and that it is okay to be at whatever musical level you are at. This is especially important in student groups that are highly diverse in musical backgrounds and abilities.

The reason this is important is because it cultivates a growth mindset and the habit of repeatedly trying. In any field, it is crucial to continue moving forward without hesitation. It greatly saddens me when I see students hide within themselves because they find themselves in a hostile environment. Or because they haven’t known what a safe environment is, which has hindered their ability to be open in performance.

Uncertainty is more than an individual issue, it’s a group issue. It’s about time we realized that.

The Flower

“Let’s see what nature teaches us every day as we walk past the flowers in our garden.  At what point is a flower perfect?

Is it perfect when it is nothing more than a seed in your hand waiting to be planted?  All that it will ever be is there in that moment.

Is it perfect when it first starts to germinate unseen under several inches of soil? This is when it displays the first signs of the miracle we call creation.

How about when it pokes its head through the surface and sees the face of the sun for the first time? All its energies have gone into reaching for this source of life; until this point, it has had nothing more than an inner voice telling it which way to grow.

What about when it begins to flower? This is when its individual properties start to be seen. The shape of the leaves, the number of blooms: all are unique to this one flower, even among the other flowers of the same species.

Or is it the stage of full bloom, the crescendo of all the energy and effort the flower expended to reach this point in its life? Let’s not forget its humble and quiet ending, when it returns to the soil from where it came.

At what point is the flower perfect?

I hope you already know the answer: It is always perfect. It is perfect at being wherever it is and at whatever stage of growth it is in at that moment. It is perfect at being a seed, when it is placed into the ground. At that moment in time, it is exactly what it is supposed to be: a seed. Just because it does not have brightly colored blooms doesn’t mean it is not a good flower seed. When it first sprouts through the ground, it is not imperfect because it displays only the color green.

At each stage of growth, from seed to full bloom and beyond, it is perfect at being a flower at that particular stage of a flower’s life. A flower must start as a seed, and it will not budge one millimeter toward its potential grandeur of full bloom without the nourishment of water, soil, sun, and also time. It takes time for all these elements to work together to produce the flower.

Do you think that a flower seed sits in the ground and says, ‘This is going to take forever. I have to push all this dirt out of my way just to get to the surface and see the sun. Every time it rains or somebody waters me, I’m soaking wet and surrounded by mud. When do I get to bloom? That’s when I’ll be happy; that’s when everybody will be impressed with me. I hope I’m an orchid and not some wildflower nobody notices. Orchids have it all…no, wait; I want to be an oak tree. They are bigger than anybody else in the forest and live longer, too.’?

As silly as the flower’s monologue might sound, it is exactly what we do, and we do it, as they say, every day and in every way…”

-Thomas M. Sterner, The Practicing Mind