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A few months ago I had the opportunity to compete at the Heida Hermanns International Piano Competition in Westport, Connecticut. After years of competing, I've learned that the healthiest way to go into a competition (mentally) is to have absolutely no expectations of winning. Thus, it was very rewarding and surprising when they announced that I had tied for first prize with Timur Mustakimov, the first tie for gold in the competition's 42-year history. Far more rewarding than winning was the experience I had previous to the competition. What I learned has helped me tremendously in my concerts over the last few months since competing there.
I have always been a fan of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I remember being extremely calm when competing in the International Chopin Competition Preliminaries (probably the biggest piano event of my life!) in Warsaw a few years ago. I was extremely nervous for the competition, as it had always been my dream to compete there. Even though I only made it to the preliminaries and didn't advance into the first round of the competition later that year, it was still an amazing opportunity to see Chopin's birthplace and visit the country where he grew up. Having just finished Tolle's book for the first time, I remember having a very keen awareness of the present moment, and I was able to fight off nerves better than I ever had before. Remembering this experience, I thought it might be useful to go back and re-read the book before the Heida Hermanns competition. I actually ended up listening to the entire book with my wife, Lindsey, on the 12-hour drive from Michigan to Connecticut. Lindsey had also been listening to some meditation tracks online that had been helping her with stress levels as she was finishing a bunch of doctoral coursework and her dissertation. She suggested that I give it a try as well.
The day before the competition we listened to a few of the meditation files, and I listened again to a couple of my favorite chapters of the book. I practiced for maybe an hour, mostly going through all of my pieces very slowly, and performing them once. When I showed up to the competition I was in a mental state of utter calmness. I had prayed to have peace, and I could feel not only peace, but a sense of being alive that I'd rarely felt before. It was as if I could feel every moment as it happened, and I was aware of all movements I made. It sounds weird, but it was very invigorating and mentally stimulating. As I walked onto the stage, it felt as though I was more aware of my breathing, sitting down on the bench, the scent of the piano (Steinways have a very specific scent that I can remember experiencing when I was 10 years old for the first time), lifting my hands to the keyboard, and then...just letting go. It was a very unique experience. It was as if there was a wall between my thinking and my playing. I was more of an audience member than a performer. I just listened to the sounds I was producing, rather than analyzing each line in my mind before I played it. It was complete freedom, and I was absolutely unaware of the time. I was enjoying myself, but it wasn't because I was performing. It was because I had total acceptance of what was happening. It didn't matter any longer how I played, but rather that I was sharing what I loved with the audience, and more importantly, enjoying what I loved doing. I finished playing, and it suddenly dawned on me how well I had performed. I wasn't in the state of dissecting every detail like I do in the practice room, but rather, I had completely let go.
This lesson in unconditional self-acceptance has been an extremely valuable lesson in my life. Whenever I approach the stage now, it is with love towards myself and the audience, rather than criticism of myself and hope that the audience will like what I do. Ultimately we have no control over what others think about us. We only have control over our own self-acceptance. To quote the meditation we listened to immediately before walking on stage, "I believe, I trust, I let go."