Do you remember the first time you thought your instrument was awesome?
I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, and a doctoral student performed Andre Previn's Sonata for Bassoon and Piano, and I am pretty sure my mouth actually dropped open. I was so nerdishly giggly and head over heels in love. I swore that I would play it "when I was ready" (whatever that meant to 18-year-old Cayla). I didn't even listen to it again for a long time, purely out of fear that in the harsh light of a second listening I would fall out of love.
I did in fact play it later (see a clip from my first doctoral recital here) and will again this coming spring.
It has not been until years later, though, that I realize what actually happened in that moment. I thought the bassoon and its music were awesome. After that performance, I started hearing the potential for awesome in everything. There was a good bit in Saint-Saens, there was some in Mozart, there was a lot in Vivaldi, and most recently there was way more than I expected in Gubaidulina. From that point on, everything new could potentially be knock-me-to-the-floor awesome.
So I'll ask again: do you remember the first time you thought your instrument was awesome?
In addition to being a warm fuzzy and self-assuring sentiment, this realization has motivated me through the tough practice sessions lately. While I've written before about the tools of slow and the dangers of angry practicing, this is even more fundamental. For me, this has been the answer to the "why am I doing this?"
These past few weeks, I have been working on David Maslanka's Sonata. In a break from one particularly tricky section, I wandered my way onto Instagram:
Pouring in the blood, sweat, and tears for the potential of awesome is one thing. For years, that has been enough. Now I realize that I work not only to realize the potential of awesome in a performance, but also to potentially create a moment where someone first realizes that the bassoon and its music are awesome. That music as a whole is pretty awesome.
What if you were the moment someone realized music is awesome?
Now get to it. Go be awesome.
Last week I sent a text message that used the word "just" three times. ... A text.
I am especially guilty of using the word "just." I just want to tell people things. I just want to say... I'd just like to ask... I was just wondering... and it will just take a minute. For me, "just" doing something is often an apology. I'm sorry you're reading this right now - I just wanted to share something, and it will just take a moment of your time.
As it turns out, when I started paying attention to this tendency, I found that it has seeped into my professional world, too.
Two days ago, the awesome Christina Feigel and I taught a master class on giving constructive criticism that included scripted responses with students. As happens with scripts, ours became predictable and elicited some laughter and good-natured teasing. What was my response to that? "It's just one option of phrasing."
WHAT WERE YOU DOING, PAST CAYLA?! That meant they were listening, and they learned. No apology needed.
I even do it - and I bet you do, too - in musical and school situations:
Now, the point - I have decided to reclaim the word "just." "Just" is not always evil. Sometimes "just" keeps things in perspective. Sometimes "just" helps me focus.
I put this plan into action last night, for the bassoon preliminaries of the concerto competition. I did a little powering up and made a positive "just" mantra.
I am not going to do everything. I am not going to play with flawless technique. I am not going to be the poster child for authentic Baroque style. I am not even going to remember every note.
And at the end of the evening, I hadn't played with flawless technique or glorious Baroque style. I hadn't even remembered all the notes. "Just" wasn't a perfect plan, by any means. But someone came up to me afterward to tell me how much he enjoyed it - "I mean, really."
You know what I felt like?
Yep, phenomenal cosmic power. "Just" wasn't a perfect plan, but it was a surprisingly empowering one.
I'm just going to leave you with that.
"Technically, you played it correctly..."
"Technically, everything was right..."
"Technically, it was fine..."
This post goes out to the several people over the past month who have asked me what to do when they've technically done it all. You know who you are, and you're not alone.
I have previously referred to this performance trend as "playing apologetically."
This can take many forms:
As impolite as it sounds, what if we didn't apologize?
If no one wanted to hear you, they wouldn't be there. Even for "mandatory" school-related events, each and every audience member has chosen to listen to you perform instead of sitting on their respective couches ordering pizza and marathoning Netflix.
What if we didn't apologize for that? What if, instead, we made it really and truly worth their while? We are all at least as interesting as another streamed episode of Law and Order or Gossip Girl.
Sometimes I also think of this difficulty as "being camera shy." Shyness is about
hiding, and in music this can be physically hiding behind our music stand or
instrument. More often, though, it means emotionally hiding behind the ink on
the page, rather than presenting what we actually believe about a piece and its
For the sake of brevity, here I defer to these cute kids in this Dove commercial:
When did you stop thinking you're worth hearing?
Throw away whatever hides you.
Show off for the camera.
After my most recent writing haitus, I struggled over choosing which topic would relaunch my blogging. Many things come to mind (and will be passed to yours in due time) - I have stream of consciousness ramblings and vague outlines on teaching, focus and mindfulness, research, social media presence, and so on and so forth. I decided to blog on "powering up" because it has benefitted me very concretely in the past two weeks.
It all started here, with my summer foray into documentaries and TED Talks:
In case you don't have 20 minutes to watch a TED Talk (which I think you should set aside at least once a week), the organization summarizes it for you:
"Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see
Wait a minute. So you CAN actually fake it 'til you make it?
The concept is quite simple, actually. Holding your body in a wider, more expansive, "high power" pose sends the message to your brain that you are, in fact, high power. Biologically, the claim is that testosterone levels rise and cortisol ones fall, thus increasing your subconscious expectation of success and your natural propensity for risk-taking (or bravery-requiring) behaviors. Additionally, you send the the nonverbal message that you are strong and confident, despite how you may feel in actuality.
I was intrigued enough to try this a little over a week ago, immediately before performing the Mozart Concerto with the lovely Henry Cheng and IU Ad-Hoc Orchestra, to whom I am continually thankful. Despite my immense self-consciousness, I stood backstage for a solid minute like this:
No, I was not wearing that costume.
I was amazed at how well it worked! I felt physically stronger, my weight was more even distributed between my feet, my legs and hips were more grounded, my inhalations flowed deeper into my abdomen, my shoulders fell back and down naturally. As much as I was ever going to in that moment, I felt pretty Wonder Woman-y.
Now, I am not advocating imagining yourself as a superhero as a method for technical improvement. Ultimately, if you can be as collected, self-assured, and in the moment as possible while performing, you are more likely to replicate how you present the music in a stress-free environment. And superheros, at least according to my observations, cope with stress exceptionally well.
Amy Cuddy (afore-referenced TED Talker and Harvard business professor) presents this as applicable in job interviews and presentations. I vote for performance settings such as recitals or auditions. The opportunities are quite wide ranging, though. Give it a shot, and I would love to know what you experience.
Power up and go be super!
I find it fitting to inaugurate this blog with a brief introduction on my views of performance. Firstly, because performing is at the center of our musical lives, and secondly, because I am just shy of four hours away from my first doctoral recital. For the first reason, this post should be a novel. For the second, it is embarrassingly short and unorganized.
Performance is the culmination of so many aspects of musicianship, each of which will inevitably make its way back to this blog. Programming, practice, rehearsal, marketing, anxiety, physical health, stage presence, logistics... the list seems endless at times. What I wish to impress today is the undeniable need for performance.
As students, public performances are daunting. They represent evaluation, criticism, and potential for failure. Not passing a barrier jury can mean a delay (or termination) of your studies. Presenting an ill-prepared recital can mean the same, plus the added humiliation and blow to self-confidence. We are too frequently transplanted from a place of sharing human experience to one of judging technical achievement, and we are scared to perform.
Without performance, however, music is denied its intent. Delicately shaped melodies that fall not on deaf ears, but rather on none at all, have no impact. Emotion finds no person to affect. All of your work exists only for you, and the timeless suites, sonatas, and concerti die in the practice room as etudes. The tree falls in the woods, and it does not make a sound.
"Music fills the infinite between two souls."
So go find another soul and fill the infinite. You may miss a few notes, send a few errant squeaks and squawks into the world, but nothing exists in a vacuum.
Be brave and go perform.