"In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
These wise words from Emerson break down barriers we've created in our minds. As humans it is so easy to think our way is the best way, and sometimes (which is even worse), the only way. By adopting an attitude of constant learning, life becomes ever richer, because each conversation and interaction with others becomes a pathway to self-improvement. Additionally, life becomes more interesting, for this attitude brings about a fresh bout of motivation with each passing hour, trying to gather as much information as possible, as if gathering building materials to construct a beautiful home, and building yourself into the person you wish to become.
Yesterday I listened to a truly excellent commencement speech by acclaimed author, Neil Gaiman. I highly recommend that everyone listen to it, especially if you have a career in the arts. Here's a LINK.
There were so many incredible elements to the speech, but one of the more simple lessons was relayed when he was discussing his successes. He said he had the opportunity to talk to Stephen King. At the time, Mr. Gaiman was having a lot of publicity and book signings. Mr. King told him, "This is really great. You should enjoy it." Mr. Gaiman goes on to say, with a noticeable tone of sadness, "And I didn't. Best advice I ever got that I ignored. Instead, I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn't a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years that I wasn't writing something in my head, or wondering about it, and I didn't stop and look around and go, "This is really fun!" I wish I'd enjoyed it more. It's been an amazing ride, but there were parts of the ride that I missed because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit that I was on. That was the hardest bit for me, to let go, and enjoy the ride that I was on. That was the hardest lesson for me, to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places."
I have to stop myself right there. I could sit and transcribe the whole speech because it is so amazing. But that, right there, that simple lesson - I wish I'd enjoyed it more - seemed to stick out more than anything in the entire speech. Each of us will have unique opportunities in life. Some people are more talented than you, more beautiful, more privileged, more accomplished, more sophisticated, more (fill in the blank). Regardless of where you're at, enjoy the ride. One of my greatest fears, and therefore one of my greatest motivators, is that if I'm lucky enough, blessed enough, to look back on a life full of accomplishment and success, that I won't have enjoyed it. It gives me reason, each day, to observe some small beauty, some tidbit of inspiration or revelation, and marvel at the miracle that I am blessed to still be living, breathing, loving, existing.
One of the greatest teachers in history was a Soviet pianist and pedagogue by the name of Heinrich Neuhaus. He wrote one of the most authoritative books in his realm of study, entitled The Art of Piano Playing. I recommend it to all musicians, regardless of their instrument of study.
In the book, Neuhaus gives an analogy that can be applied to everyday living. He talks about boiling water. Piano practice, or any endeavor in life worth pursuing, can be likened to the act of boiling a pot of water. When we first put the water on to boil, it begins to heat up slowly. This is like the initial stages of practicing a particular musical passage. The water then heats more quickly - the practicing intensifies. However, many people become satisfied with sub-perfection, content with something that isn't completely mastered. The heat is removed from the water, and it starts to cool. This process is repeated as many times as the student can handle, until he or she becomes so frustrated and discontent that they finally stick with it until it's perfected. The water finally boils, becoming pure.
In life, we often stretch ourselves so thin that we are only able to raise the temperature of a particular pot of water by a few degrees per day. We are attending to so many pots, that the "heating progress" on each is almost unnoticeable. When possible, get rid of all unnecessary pots, and you'll be left with boiling pots of the most important water.
How much would you pay to play basketball like Michael Jordan, to sing like Luciano Pavarotti, to hit a baseball like Babe Ruth, to play chess like Bobby Fisher, to compose like J.S. Bach, to act like Audrey Hepburn, or to swim like Michael Phelps?
Talent is something that cannot be purchased or stolen. It is organically grown, and it cannot be given to someone or taken away. Through toiling away endless hours, one acquires something much more precious than a sum of money in exchange for their labor. They have something that is beyond price and of extreme value.
I vaguely remember a quote from a speech I heard at a conference that went something like this, "How lucky we are to live in a time of such great technological advancement. The richest pharaohs in Egypt would have traded all the riches of their kingdoms to spend even twenty minutes in an airplane, soaring above the clouds."
As we refine, treasure, develop, and polish talent, it can only grow in its effectiveness and beauty. We are able to soar to the greatest heights of human emotion. We are richer than the pharaohs. We become the envy we once sought. The owner of the most refined talent is indispensable, irreplaceable. Rich and poor seek out the talented and ask them to impart even a tiny portion of their gift. Others imitate the most talented, while the most talented imitate no one. They are free, completely unrestricted. They forge new paths, explore unchartered territory, and find places that few people in history have ever seen.
I love the scripture found in the third chapter of Malachi, verse two, from the New Testament which states, "But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap". Whether you are religious or not, I think there are some great lessons presented with this verse. It has always been easy for me to see the correlation of everyday living to the refiner's fire. In movies we can often see blacksmiths beating metal, thrusting it into the fire until it's white hot, beating it some more, thrusting it back into the fire, and so forth. But what about fuller's soap?
After a bit of digging, I found that a fuller was the individual who would take the raw, filthy wool from sheep and purify it using a variety of techniques, including an extremely harsh soap that would ultimately help to make it clean. It was an undesirable job. It was dirty work. It took a great deal of effort to make it white.
Trials in our lives require us to use fuller's soap. Fuller's soap can be an apology. It can be healing from a physical affliction. It can be mending a broken relationship. It can mean paying whatever price needs to be paid to make something right. Sometimes, we carry fuller's soap with us daily, continually. Its abrasiveness is painful, horrible, tough, and gut-wrenching. It is also desirable, stimulating, empowering, and necessary. Don't be afraid to use fuller's soap, for in it you will find healing.
About a year ago, my family took a trip to McCall, Idaho, a charming little town situated around a lake. My wife and I drove up with my cousin, Cole, and his wife, Timbrel. We had great discussions about many things in life. Much of the drive was extremely gorgeous and picturesque, but the highlight was when the sun started setting and the sky turned neon pink. Cole looked out the window and said, "I love magic hour." I'd never heard that term before, but I've thought a lot about it ever since.
Yesterday I was teaching one of my adult piano students, Steve. We've had a great four years of lessons together thus far, and he's overcome a great deal of technical and musical hurdles during our time together. Because of some personal and family hardships, he has to take a few months off from lessons. He asked if we could reflect on the things we'd accomplished together and the things he'd improved on over the last four years. He told me it was very beneficial to focus on these things at such a trying time in his life. In many ways, this was my and Steve's "magic hour".
So often we get wrapped up in so many tasks, some mundane and some meaningful. It's a good idea to take some time to reflect each day. Seasons in life have darkness and brightness, but there's always a magic hour. We create the magic hour. We can stay inside and miss it. Or, we can seek it out, study it, review it. Not every magic hour is filled with happiness and joy. Some magic hours are filled with pain, some with regret. But, every one of them means something. Every one of them is beautiful.
I have contemplated throughout my life the role and impact of gratitude in everyday living. It is my humble opinion that the key to unlocking happiness is gratitude. Many people use comparisons to create a false sense of happiness, but this is a temporary fix that has no lasting impact to actually change a person. Only when one becomes completely aware of their current situation, truly present, can one begin to witness the marvels and multitude of blessings that are present, even in the most dire and humble circumstances.
Welcome to my Weebly blog. For those of you who would like to read my old blog posts (from 2 years ago) - here's a link: www.joshwrightpiano.blogspot.com
Today I was listening to a podcast by Tim Ferriss where he was interviewing marketing genius Seth Godin. In the three podcasts I've listened to where Seth Godin has been interviewed, I've been incredibly impressed, motivated, and changed. He seems to see the world through pure eyes, untainted with greed and self-aggrandizement. He is all about creating his form of art, and strives to not let outside sources sway him from that goal.
He suggested that everyone write a blog as a daily, meditative practice. I've always been a fan of meditation as it has helped me tremendously in my career as a concert pianist, with all of the stress and high-pressure situations it can bring (insert shameless plug for my and Lindsey's "Meditation" album HERE :) ). I see writing a blog as a way of being able to craft and sculpt oneself, publicly, with all of the vulnerabilities and self-consciousness brought to the forefront of your writing. I hope, even in a small way, that my writings may help even a few people, as it serves to help me solidify gems of knowledge that I may stumble across throughout the day.
I don't intend for the blog posts to be lengthy, as I felt an unnecessary need with my old blog to try to basically write an essay for each new blog post. The motivation here is that it will be a practice, a medium through which I can preserve some of the more valuable lessons I observe in this wonderfully unpredictable career of being a concert pianist and teacher, as well as life in general.
So, here's today's takeaway: who's dream are you living? What is the influence you would like to have on the world, on the people you come across each day, on one individual you meet? Are there outside influences pulling you away from achieving that which is of most worth? Are you saying "yes" to things that will pull you away from your purpose and mission (and possibly being a pawn in someone else's dream fulfillment), or are you decluttering your life to focus on a few precious endeavors that will bring your art to others? Be proud of your art, and share it with others. Don't be afraid of using the title of James Altucher's book, "The Power of No", as a mantra to help you say "yes" to the things that will actually bring about change.
Take a moment to watch this 59 second video. It will put your life into perspective. I recently saw this and it was completely humbling. "Busy" and "stressed" has become a word that we associate with normal, everyday living. We have so much stuff in our lives, whether it be material possessions, extracurricular activities, or vain ambitions, that we forget to focus on things of true worth. We commonly think of ourselves as lazy or unproductive if we aren't filling our day with a ridiculous amount of activities that keep us busy and/or stressed. There's often guilt associated with relaxation or satisfaction with life.
I recently finished a jam-packed month of performances. I know some touring concert pianists might laugh at me when I say it was jam-packed, because I only had three events. However, I played a brand new concerto - the Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto - that I had finished memorizing only a few weeks before, followed by a concert program at BYU-Idaho in which I played an extra 45 mins of repertoire along with the Rach 2 (where my amazing wife, Dr. Lindsey Wright, who graduated a few weeks previous to that with her doctorate accompanied me on second piano), then the following weekend I competed in the Washington International Piano Competition with yet another hour of completely different repertoire. We drove from Michigan to Utah, then to Idaho, then to Washington D.C., then back to Michigan totaling over 60 hours of driving. Balancing three different programs, especially when the concerto was brand new, was a big task for me. It challenged me to focus with fierce intensity, and in the end, all three events turned out well and all of the work was worth it.
Upon returning home, I was excited that I had two weeks to "relax". I started working on some new repertoire that I've been wanting to learn, along with teaching my students on Skype. I've also been wanting to start a new video series for over six months, and just haven't found the time to do it with all of the concerts I've been working toward. So, my wife and I started working on a logo, tailoring my website to get ready for the new video series, started gathering the necessary equipment to film the videos in a professional way, and started researching how to edit the videos efficiently and effectively. I found that my practice time lessened slightly, and I immediately felt stressed about that. I told Lindsey, "I have another concert coming up in two weeks, and I haven't finished learning both new Études. I am doing terribly. How could I be so unproductive?" She looked at me and said, "Are you kidding me? What have we been doing all day, every day? Working out this new video series, practicing, and teaching."
It made me think of the video above. We have so many modern conveniences, so much technology, and endless opportunities to be stressed out. The part of the video that really makes you feel spoiled to live in America, even if you live in a small house, is, "I hate it when my house is so big, that I need two wireless routers." What a terrible problem that must be, especially when many people in the world struggle to find fresh drinking water each day. What a terrible problem I faced, not finishing my two Etudes that I'll be competing with sometime next year when countless children went hungry that same day I was practicing. How tough our lives are when we hitevery red light in our air-conditioned car, on beautiful paved roads, on our way to work, where we "don't get paid enough" to buy every new gadget that our neighbors have, to live in a bigger house, to own a boat, or to summer in the Hamptons every year (which, I have "summered" in the Hamptons for a piano festival, and although it's incredibly nice, you find people who are perhaps more dissatisfied with life than you are, whose net worth is tens of millions of dollars).
I want to end this post with the most touching email I've ever received from my YouTube series. Arson is an amazing student who I've communicated with a few times since he first wrote to me last December.
"Hi, I hope you are well.
I am Arson. I am 14 years old. I live in a place that music was banned by the taliban and has been in war from the last 40 years, Afghanistan. But now thanks to Afghanistan National Institute of Music I am achieving my dream to become a pianist.
It has only been one and a half year since i have started to play the piano but I have always wanted to become a pianist. I never had hope I would ever see a piano but today i play the piano and i am one of the approximately 200 musicians in Afghanistan...
I am a very big fan of you. You are amazing! I watch your videos on youtube.
My question was about trills, I am suffering alot with them so i wanted to get some help. I am playing Mozart piano Sonota no.16 1st movement. i want to know how to make it beautiful...."
I was reading a blog post by a great writer the other day, and he was talking about how many great people in history have battled depression in various stages of their lives. Certainly, each of us can succumb to feelings of discouragement, boredom, or lose our passion for the activity that once enlivened our spirits. How can we fight these feelings that make us lose hope and deter us from taking action and accomplishing great things? I've found three methods that have helped me when these negative feelings begin to set in, methods that kindle the fire of productivity and inspiration once again.
1. Be grateful for what you have. No matter what you're going through, someone has always had it worse. Victims of war, religious leaders, victims of human trafficking, and countless others have faced plights that most of us can't even imagine. If you're driving down the street, be grateful for the car that you're able to drive. If you can't afford a car and are taking the bus, be grateful for public transportation that makes your commute faster. If no public transportation is available, be grateful for the ability you have to walk. If you don't have the ability to walk (this is where I can no longer say, "be grateful," for I can't imagine how difficult it must be) one may still find gratitude in the ability to be outdoors or in nature. One of my heroes is the son of the local Steinway dealer in Salt Lake City who was in a terrible boating accident. Someone's towel blew off the houseboat they were sleeping on, and in an effort to save them from having to jump in the water to get it, he dove in after it. Being on the diving team at his school, he didn't think anything of it. Little did he know that there was a small sandbar below, and the dive crippled him. He has since been in a wheelchair. However, he has found gratitude for the small and simple things in life, and has turned his misfortune into inspiring countless others on the subject of finding hope in their lives. I believe that there's no quicker road to happiness than by doing a quick inventory of all of the things you're grateful for. Opening our eyes to see all that we are blessed with is humbling.
2. Find a hobby. My family always says, "Oh no...Josh has found his new obsession. This is the next round of Pogs." Do you remember those truly ridiculous pieces of cardboard called "Pogs"? In first grade, I happened to be pretty good at taking that silver "slammer" and flipping all of the pogs right side up in the endless tournaments we'd play at recess, thus stealing a lot of pogs from my classmates and amassing quite the collection. Pogs were a fad about as fleeting as Beanie Babies (which, weren't those all supposed to be worth hundreds of dollars each by now? It'd be tough to find someone to even give them away to). However ridiculous they may be, hobbies can keep the human spirit alive and provide a meaningful and healthy escape from the routine of every day life. If you can find hobbies that benefit you or your family in a meaningful way, even better! About a year ago, my wife and I got really into emergency preparedness, a "hobby" that I would urge everyone to take up at some point. Having a bit of food and water on hand in case of an emergency, some camping gear, a flashlight, extra blankets, or whatever else you might need in an emergency gives you even more peace of mind in your day-to-day life. Since then, I've cycled through a few other hobbies, some too ridiculous to mention here. Golf has been a constant hobby since I was 15 years old. For Christmas one year, I received a piece of turf and a golf net that we set up in the garage. My mom would often find a club carelessly abandoned on the piece of turf when she pulled in, where only seconds before the garage had started to open I had been hitting my 172nd shot into the net on one of my (far too frequent) practice breaks. My sprinting from the piece of turf to the piano became an art form in and of itself.
3. Maintain balance. If you try to take on too much, no matter how much you enjoy an activity, it can start to lose its zest and you can come to resent it. One of the common balancing acts I have to execute is a proper balance between performing, teaching, practicing, family time, and hobbies. If I have constant performances, I often miss teaching. If I am constantly teaching, I miss performing and may not be practicing as much as I need. If I do anything with piano to an excess, I neglect my relationships with those I care about most. I've noticed another toxicity in regards to balance - being too intense in one's endeavors can lead to an abandonment of those very endeavors. I was recently very sad when one of my favorite students quit taking piano lessons. He was probably in his late fifties or early sixties, and he practiced about 6 hours per day. I always looked forward to our lessons, but a few months back he took a dangerous turn. He wanted to play all of the most difficult Chopin Etudes. After handling Op.10 No.1 really well, he proceeded to go to the dreadful Op.10 No.2 (chromatic) and Op.25 No.6 (double thirds) etudes, pieces which I'm personally intimidated by and seldom perform. He thought it would be a healthy challenge. In hindsight, I should have insisted that he stop. When I originally suggested it would be too much, he asked to move forward anyway, and that we would treat them like exercises. I agreed, as long as we could keep working on more accessible repertoire. He worked extremely hard, had a great attitude about the pieces, and was making headway at a much faster pace than I had expected, when all of the sudden I received an email from him saying he was going to stop taking lessons, that it was simply too much for him, and that he wasn't seeing the results he wanted. I wrote him an email back, telling him how well he had been doing and to notice what tremendous strides he'd made in the past year, already tackling several difficult pieces, and taking on some of the most formidable etudes to improve his technique (and doing really well with them!). It taught me a great lesson that even with rock solid determination and white hot persistence, we can all break at some point, and it's smart to do a weekly self check-up, take a step back, and look at the bigger picture. When readjustments need to be made, don't be afraid to make them. Accompanying really stresses me out a lot of times. Learning vast amounts of repertoire under a very tight deadline when I already have a huge practicing/performing/teaching schedule added quite a bit of anxiety, and I finally asked myself, "Why am I doing this?!" It's quite rare that I'll take an accompanying gig now. Occasionally I'll do it if a piece really intrigues me, or if it's for a close friend or a family member, but simplifying my life in that one small way is something that has really improved my overall attitude and kept my stress levels in check. Even if it's difficult to say no to some things, it can often be worth it if it simplifies your life and allows you to focus on things you're even more passionate about.
A great church leader who I respect greatly put it best when he discussed these topics in a talk entitled "Good, Better, and Best." Which one will you choose? What are the top priorities in your life, and are you letting good things stop you from accomplishing the best things?
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