What more can I do? This question can be incredibly beneficial, or extremely deadly, according to the individual. For perfectionists, it's torture. When I was young, I was a perfectionist. As I've grown older, I've mellowed out a little, but I've still tried to keep the intensity of focus I had when I was younger. To give you an idea of what a psycho I was, my mom would ask me at the end of the day, "Did you do your 2 and a half hours of practicing?" (that was the standard starting at 12 years old) and I would say "Yeah, I did it." Then she would say, "Did you do your best?".....NOOOOO! I hated that question. "Well, I don't know Mom. No, I guess I didn't, because I could always do better!" She would just roll her eyes and say, "Oh my goodness, you need to lighten up and have some fun!" My mom and I continue to have a great relationship to this day, and I attribute a lot of my success to the perspective she always helps me keep amidst this crazy career as a musician. I remember I was preparing to play the last movement of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with orchestra when I was 15 (in hindsight, it was a very smart move on my teacher's part, because I feel so much more comfortable with it now, but back then, it was pretty overwhelming) and I was really stressing out, saying, "What if I'm not with the orchestra? What if I screw up? What should I do?" My mom would respond, "Well, at least you'll look nice in that tux and be the cutest kid on stage. That's all that really matters, right?" She had a great way of lightening the pressures of performing that can really ruin you if you're not careful. I see lots of "tiger" moms (or is it "dragon" moms? Maybe I'm thinking of theCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon movie) and I just think, "Those poor kids aren't ever going to have a life! They might be the best at what they do, but who cares if they are that talented if they aren't enjoying their studies and having a good time in life?"
I think every person has potential to do great things, and self-belief is the first step to achieving anything. If you don't believe in yourself, if you don't have a vision that extends more than a few days or weeks, then you can't make any big plans for your future. Sure, living in the moment is the best way to live, but you can also plan for the future in the moment, planning wonderful things to not only benefit your life and your family, but also extending your reach to as many people as possible.
Being an artist, I'm always very intrigued by what other people do aside from piano. Sure, I'm inspired by the great pianists, teachers and composers throughout the past few centuries, but I think being 100% focused on any one thing in life is an enormous mistake. When we broaden our horizons, we become better at what we do. I recently came across a YouTube channel that one of my friends posted, called DevinSuperTramp. This kid is AMAZING at videography. Even though his videos are about people just having a wildly good time, like making a rope swing off of one of the arches at Zion's National Park, cliff-diving in Hawaii, or filming the world's best Yo-Yo"er", he is able to capture things with such elegance with his camera that I love just turning it on and watching if I'm feeling a little stale or uninspired in my practice. It's not that I want to be a videographer at all. It's his art form - motion picture - that inspires me, and makes me want to be better at what I do.
Would my life be fine if I hadn't found this kid's work (I say "kid" because he is really young - he's probably early 20's if I had to guess)? Of course it would, because I wouldn't know any better. But is my life even better because of this kid's videos? I would have to say yes. They aren't LIFE-ALTERING videos or anything like that, but they are really fun to watch, and they give me ideas for possible music videos I'd like to shoot in the future. So, how did the improvement in my life occur because of hisvideos? It all started back with Devin, one day probably saying something like, "What more can I do? I know, I want to be the best at what I do. I want to shoot the most beautiful videos possible. I want to work like a dog to capture every detail with such immaculate precision that my viewers will appreciate it and find beauty like they may not have seen before." Does everyone love this kid? Does everyone know who he is? No way. But I like his work, and I know who he is, and you know what? He makes me want to be better at shooting my videos on piano teaching on YouTube. He makes me want to make more beautiful shots when I record my performances, because the beauty and magic is in the details. His videos inspire me to be better and more creative at what I do. In essence, watching a random kid's video on the internet that one of my friends posted one day made me say to myself, "What more can I do?"
I feel very blessed to be a pianist, but I often feel even more blessed to be a teacher. Many students from YouTube who I've never met email me with their questions and express appreciation for the videos I post. I'm always flattered and humbled when they do this, but the thing that gets me really excited is when they tell me the videos have changed something within them, and they tell me what they're going to go out and do now that they've been inspired by a particular video. Every person that emails me is better at something than me. Maybe it's skateboarding, maybe it's video games, maybe it's violin, maybe it's math...who knows? But I know that every person who emails me is my equal, and that we each have strengths that can benefit one another. In this, we can learn from each other. When I can inspire someone to be better at what they do because of what I do, just like Devin's videos and work ethic inspired me, I've "paid it forward." That seed of inspiration that Devin received from whatever source he attained it was planted in him, and it grew, and bore fruit and a seed was planted in my mind, and it grew and bore fruit, and some of the students who have seen my videos have had the same thing happen to them. Where does it all begin? Who was Devin inspired by, and who inspired that guy/girl, and who inspired them, and so on? It all starts in the mind of one individual. It all starts with a seed of creativity and inspiration. We have unlimited to potential to extend our reach, and it all starts with one simple question - "What more can I do?"
I have an awful habit - when I write, I can be a little preachy. I think language is one of the great mediums through which humans communicate, and I've always enjoyed writing since I was young. I think language can be really beautiful when the words are carefully chosen, and it can be yet another art form for us to express ourselves. However, I give anyone reading these posts free reign to tell me to cool it if I become too philosophical, too deep, or if I sound like I'm giving a sermon rather than writing a "Piano Doctors" blog post (wow, did that just sound as lame as I think it did? Might need to rethink that title...)
I've been taking a class on opera in the 19th and 20th centuries this semester. I know so little about opera, and many of my teachers talk about it as the epitome of all art forms. It combines voice, orchestra, dance, acting, staging, and many other elements that are quite different from a solo piano concert. So, I decided to give it a go. It has been quite interesting, and I really like my teacher. She goes into underlying themes and deeper meanings that are not immediately evident upon viewing the opera, and makes overarching themes that help musicians in all fields of study. Having said this, I always dread the tests, because all of the singers in the class are like, "Oh yeah, when I sung this part, ______(fill in the blank with a "I'm such a deep thinker"-type sentence)," and I'm sitting here thinking, "Wait, what's the name of this thing again?" I've never been good at preparing far in advance, so my short-term memory has had to become razor-sharp over my years of study, in regards to homework and tests. Last night at around 5 p.m., the thought occurred "Okay Josh, you have a little less than twelve hours to study all of the underlying themes of 6 major operas (Parsifal, Pelléas et Melisande, Salome, Tosca, Wozzeck, and The Rake's Progress) and listen to about 10 hours of selections...nice work." So I set off to studying. I'd give myself small breaks to send Lindsey texts, and you know, watch an episode of "Friends". I managed to get through everything by about 2 a.m., then got up at 7 a.m. to study for another couple of hours before the test.
The test didn't turn out to be too bad, but a thought occurred to me during the test - just a few hours ago, less than one day ago, you had forgotten all of this stuff, and here you are, writing about all of it, talking of the deep musical meaning behind some of the greatest works of all time. What the heck? As humans, I believe deadlines are great motivators, because even though they can stress us out, they push us to be better, to finish things. I find myself so often thinking, "Man, when school is out, it's going to be so nice to_____." But today during the test, I actually enjoyed what I was writing about. All of the stuff I had been dreading fascinates me. Why am I such a complainer? I know it will make me a better musician. This led to further thought after my test was done, making me think "Why should I ever complain about learning anything?"
A few nights back, I was watching a few crazy documentaries on YouTube about foreign countries, one in particular being about Liberia. Wow, I am so lucky to have grown up in America. The thing that struck me more than anything was that every native was commenting about how poor the education systems were, and how that leads to higher crime rate, higher unemployment rate, and an overall demoralization of society, both sexually and mentally. The kids that are lucky enough to go to school love it, and cherish every moment. They have a purpose. They have a vision for their future, and they are no longer strictly in "survival" mode.
What I'm getting at here is that every chance to learn should be seized with great zeal and be considered a great opportunity for self-improvement. We can find joy in just about anything when we put our minds to it.
I'd love to make this blog more a place of discussion in my "anti-sermon" endeavor. What are some experiences you've had that have made you come to the realization of finding joy in the journey? What are some obstacles you are trying to overcome? In this last election, one of my greatest friends, and an individual I respect more than almost anyone, told me this, "Josh, even though we share differences in opinion about our political views, I still respect what everyone has to say, and I think deep and thoughtful discussion - even when both parties disagree with each other - is one of the best learning environments there is." Thank you for the great wisdom Zsolt Bognar (everyone should go check out his stuff on YouTube, as well as his writing...he is incredible). I look forward to hearing all of your comments. Thank you for your support :)
Two days ago I received one of the most incredible pieces of advice on the concept of learning that I've ever received in my life, from any teacher on any subject.
"You have to find every element of what you are studying to be completely fascinating.....not just interesting, but really, really fascinating! You have to enter a whole different world. When you do this, it's as if your mind just opens up and you pour the information in, and it stays there forever, or at least for a really long time. It's not short term. Every time I sit down at the piano I try to enter this mode of thinking, this mindset, where I'm making this connection, and that connection, and this connection, and that, and this, and that, and this, and that...making as many connections between as many elements of the piece as I can think of."
My teacher here at the University of Michigan, Logan Skelton, is one of the most inspiring individuals I've ever met in the way he thinks about things. He has this crazy ability to organize things in such cogent and coherent ways. Whenever I used to have trouble in a passage, I used to think, "Okay, I just need to work on this. I need to practice it differently." Throughout my studies with him this year, I have learned the value of thinking about it differently, not just practicing it more, or practicing it differently. Almost all problems are mental, and that is where they should be fixed - in the mind. If something isn't working, don't just drill it over, and over, and over, and over. Go back to the drawing board and think "Could I organize this passage in my mind in a fundamentally different way? How am I thinking about it right now that is causing so many problems? Where is the flaw?" Many times, being a great diagnostician in your studies is the biggest battle. For most doctors, they see a set of symptoms, and they prescribe a type of drug or treatment to cure the patient. But in my mind, the greatest doctors are the ones who are great diagnosticians (okay, maybe I've watched a little too much House in the past!). When something doesn't work they don't keep trying the same treatment or slight variations of the same treatment. They go back to square one and take a whole new approach.
I think this is a valuable lesson that can permeate into all aspects of life, including school, work, and relationships. When something we are doing isn't working, when we are bored, when we are discouraged, when we are tired of doing what we are doing, we as humans have a tendency to blame others or our surroundings. However, others and our surroundings are usually not the problem, except in cases of abuse and other extreme circumstances. I'm not saying that things aren't going to be tough, but rather than getting angry and frustrated about something, discouraged, or beaten down, it's beneficial to step away from the problem completely and find a different approach. I served a mission for my church, and as the main leader of our mission always said, "Adjust in battle." Not only should we adjust in battle, but we should adjust to make every element of what we are going to change completely and utterly fascinating. There is so much beauty that surrounds us every day, even in a very corrupt and conflicted world. When we can dig in and find the inner beauty of every element of every activity we are doing, problems and setbacks dissolve in the enzymes of motivation, productivity, inspiration, revelation, and well-being.
Rachmaninoff Etudes Tableaux, Op.39....here I come!
I like weird people. Some of the most fascinating individuals I have encountered are among the strangest people on the planet, and I love them for it. When I say "weird" I don't necessarily mean socially awkward people, the people who leave long gaps of silence before they respond to you, or the ones who just smile back at you when you ask them a question. I'm also referring to brilliant individuals who are so brilliant that they just can't be classified as normal. I'm referring to the people who have such off-the-wall ideas that your first reaction is either, "okay....?", "huh...?" or "Wow, he/she is nuts." Welcome to my new post - Pencils, Tigers, and Other Stuff, meriting one, two, AND/(or) three of those previously mentioned reactions. I'm very weird (minus the aforementioned brilliance).
What I have to say here is actually inspiration from one of my greatest heroes, both as a pianist and as an individual. I met her when I was nine years old. I was on my way to my audition to determine whether I would be accepted into her piano studio. She was the head of the University of Utah piano department. Yeah...she's kind of a big deal. I panicked in the car ride there, trying to remember everything I'd learned about music up to that point, because I desperately wanted to study with her. My heart sank as we turned onto her street - what were those long, curved lines above the music? Slurs? Oh man, I definitely wasn't going to pass this audition. Fortunately, she must have seen some ray of hope, because she accepted me into her studio, and thus started a journey from which I would never turn back. Susan Duehlmeier is one of the most amazing individuals and teachers I've ever met. And, she's very weird - not in the sense that she's not fun to talk to or that she dresses weird, or anything like that (she's very articulate, and classy). She's weird in the sense that she can learn and memorize a concerto overnight, run the piano department at the University, have a position in her church that is extremely demanding, teach tons of students, perform all of the time, and still have time to take my calls when I have an issue with a piece I'm playing, or worse yet, a musical crisis (yes, all you jocks out there can punch me later for that last statement....back off, musical crises do exist).
I found myself in such a crisis at the National Chopin Competition in 2010. I had just played my entire first round, and somehow it went pretty well. The reason I say "somehow" isn't because I wasn't prepared. It's because I completely froze up mentally, and basically my over-preparation for the competition allowed my fingers to carry me through my mental breakdown without crashing-and-burning too badly. I felt sick about performing the next round a couple of days later. I'd never had that big of a problem with nerves, but now I knew what everyone was talking about. This was a huge competition, and perhaps it was my great love for Chopin's music, coupled with my desire to be successful in my performances that put an enormous amount of pressure on me. I gave Susan a call, and sure enough, she had a brilliant answer as always.
We talked of several things to help aid this situation, including imagery. We had already discussed imagery as a means of calming oneself before a performance, but how does imagery work when you're on stage? Sure, if the piece reminds you of a story or a situation in life, go ahead and think about it. But what about when you start to derail? I've found that once a performer starts to derail, nerves set in at a whole new level, and it's hard to recover. She said something particularly noteworthy - "You have to find a way to distract yourself from your nerves when they set in."
And so I come back to the title of this post - Pencils, Tigers, and Other Stuff. I took Susan's idea to heart, and set out on really honing the idea of distraction in times of crisis or extreme nerves. This idea can apply to non-musicians as well. This can be for anyone experiencing a panic attack of any kind. What do you do? What do you think of?
There's a cliche in our culture that can be applied to almost any situation in life - "Back to Basics." What is one of the first things you learned as a child? Pretty basic stuff, across the board. You learned sounds, shapes, and how to name things. You learned what a pencil is, what a tiger looks like, and a whole lot of other stuff. So, what I'm advocating here is going to sound super weird, but it works. It has worked for me every time. When you are having a crisis, go back to the basics in your mind, and focus on the image of a pencil. That's it. If that's not doing it for you, focus on the image of a tiger. That's it. If that doesn't work, choose something else, anything else, but choose an object that won't move around in your mind. It just sits there, and you focus all of your energy and thought on that one thing. It can be a word, a color, or a beautiful sunset on a beach, if we're wanting to stick to the idea of cliches.
What this does is temporarily remove you from your current situation. It puts you in a world where only one thing exists - that pencil, tiger, word, color, sunset, etc. And when you're in a world where only one thing exists, life is pretty simple, right? You don't have to worry about hitting that next note, you don't have to worry about having a mental breakdown, you don't have to worry about the bills, picking up the kids, doing the laundry, going to work, or anything else that causes you stress. Pretty soon, you get really bored of that image. You think, "Wow, this is it?" Yep, that's it. For now. But hey, you can choose to return to your current situation anytime you like. You'll start to realize that your current situation isn't all that bad. You start to realize that no matter what situation you're in (unless you're about to fall off of a cliff), it's not the end of the world. Who cares if I screw up a measure of my piece? Who cares if the laundry isn't done this instant. And you know what? My kids can learn the art of patience and wait for an extra two (or twenty) minutes for me to pick them up from school. My brother Jared and I mastered the art of patience (just kidding Mom...love you?).
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that temporary distraction, coupled with perspective can solve almost any crisis dealing with nerves. If you're performing, I'm not suggesting that you stop playing and sit on stage in silence. You simply distract yourself from your nerves, or from those horrible thoughts like "What's the next note? and the next? and the next?"which turn your performing experience into a nightmare. Take a few seconds to get out of that world of mental destruction by focusing on something really basic. If everyday life is stressing you out, take a few moments and do a breathing exercise. If nerves are constantly torturing you, I suggest reading the book by one of the weirdest people of all - Eckhart Tolle. His work, "The Power of Now", along with these very weird ideas I presented today, have helped me nearly conquer all nerves when I perform. Sure, there are times when nerves creep up, but when they do, I know what to think about - pencils, tigers, and other stuff.
As you can tell from the title of this, my very first blog post, I enjoy watching television. I also enjoy movies, and I feel like so much inspiration for my music is gained from this simple pleasure that so many people refer to as "being lazy," shunned as the worst experience for a human-being to engage in by the very people who hourly feed their raging Facebook/Twitter/Google+/Instagram/Pinterest/YouTube/Blogger/MySpace addictions. Most of you are probably thinking, "What sophisticated films or television shows does he watch? He's a classical musician, so he must be into all of those "deep" documentaries and independent films...and other weird stuff." The sad truth is that I'm very easily pleased, and I find wit, charm, and revelation in even the simplest of movies, and this translates into imagery that I use for my music.
Was it embarrassing for me to try to describe "Avatar" to a woman in her 60's who was trying to create a magical touch in the passage of her Debussy piece, because it reminded me of the plant life on Pandora? Sure. I didn't even want to try to describe what it must be like to ride on an ikran, or give a run-down of the spiritual underpinnings of the sacred Na'vi tree - Eywa. Was it humiliating when I described what it must feel like to fly on a broomstick and live in the magical world presented by J.K. Rowling in the "Harry Potter" series to help my 14-year-old student achieve sparkling textures and fleeting dynamics (who kindly TRIED to understand where I was coming from)? Oh yeah. You know you've really hit rock bottom when your studentS (yes, plural) who are 11-years-old look at you like you're a total loser.
Having said this, I can't help but feel that the greatest composers and musicians in history found inspiration through even the simplest of things, and given the technology we have today, we can access vast libraries of knowledge from a tiny little device we put in our pocket. What a blessing to have this at our disposal! I have never been to Switzerland, Japan, Madagascar, China, or Australia, but I can zoom in to basically any street in the world and take a virtual tour of any of these countries from my piano bench. I can access the photos of the greatest photographers, capturing the most majestic images on earth in an instant. I can hear the greatest compositions, played by some of the greatest pianists in history who passed away long ago, while working out, walking to class, or driving to lunch. With this enormous well of knowledge, how could one ever lack in ideas for innovation, creativity, and possibility?
I have had numerous examples of enlightenment in my life from wonderful musical teachers, namely Susan Duehlmeier, Sergei Babayan, and Logan Skelton. Perhaps the greatest source of enlightenment comes from my wife, Lindsey, who knows my playing better than any of those previously mentioned, as she hears me practice daily, and who is my ever-patient (or should I say "long-suffering," emphasis onsuffering) audience. On the days where I become discouraged, run out of ideas, or am just plain sick of the pieces I am working on, any of these four individuals always have just the right thing to say. They are "doctors" (yes, my geek side coming out again, over-analyzing everything in a philosophical or metaphorical light) that can heal musical problems, catalysts for success. Having been trained by these four geniuses who each have such astounding and truly different ideas to offer, I feel I have a responsibility to share this knowledge with those who have not had the amazing opportunity to study with teachers like this. I envy those who studied with Chopin, Beethoven, Neuhaus, Schnabel, and many others. However, I can get a rich and rewarding experience by hearing of their experiences with such dynamic and electrifying human beings.
It is my hope that through this blog, my readers can gain insight into the great lessons I've learned from my mentors and musical heroes. Along with my feeble attempts to be clever and entertaining, I hope to use this blog as a type of online journal, documenting discoveries as I practice, teach, and perform. I also plan to post emails (anonymously, of course) that I receive from various students around the globe that have asked questions regarding various techniques and musical concepts from my free online piano series on YouTube, "Josh Wright Piano TV," along with my responses on how to aid and fix the technical or musical problems they are inquiring about. In posting these, I hope readers can gain insight and solutions to problems they encounter on their own musical journeys. Certainly, there will be many revelations given to me by Lindsey (soon to be "Dr. Wright"), and thus I (not-so-soon to be "Dr. Wright") have named the blog, "The Piano Doctors." Now, I could say "Let the musical healing begin!" but that would just be too loser-ish, so I'll just leave it at that.
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