A Little Bit of Math and Magic

Music. It hovers around us every day. Some say that it is a fundamental part of being.

At its base, music is a collection of sounds in the air. (Some old-fashioners would say “organized sounds,” but we have John Cage to thank for a more inclusive definition.) Once the air molecules cease to vibrate, the music ceases. It wisps away as if it never happened, and all we have left is the memory of the sounds that came before.

It is the most present of all the arts.

Perhaps this is why it’s also one of the most stressful creative endeavors. Seriously, little kids have some serious guts to play in front of their peers, and even more to play for their parents. Great job, kids with musical extracurriculars! Expectations of excellence fill those environments, and I’m glad I started piano late enough to avoid much of that.

Even into college years, however, performing live music is terrifying. You’ve got one shot, one four-minute slot in a departmental recital, to prove your worth (while hopefully also creating something worth listening to). How you approach that moment can make or break you. And that’s why so many musicians have anxiety.

It’s the hours that turn to days, to weeks, to months, and to years of preparation that culminate into one moment. If you mess up, you think you didn’t practice enough. You should’ve slept less and practiced that one passage a billion times more. Sometimes that’s exactly what you should’ve done. Other times…not so much.

At some point in their musical careers, the pros learn to just let it happen. Those months and years of preparation are the best they can do. Freaking out in the moment does not help at all. So they let go. (To be clear, pros still have performance anxiety, but they approach it in a much more graceful way than I’ve yet figured out. If you’ve got that part down, then go you! Also, teach me!)

For a musician, the moment they walk onstage is comparable to stepping calmly (or not so calmly) off of a high-flying aircraft, no parachute in tow. They have two options: 1. Flap their arms like a crazy person trying to take flight and die in pile of tired anxiety, or 2. Accept it and make the most of the time between them and the ground.

This is where the magic comes in!

They don’t really have to die from walking onstage.

Musicians are silly. They always forget what happens when they choose option number two: they learn to fly. That ability is somewhere inside them, probably from all the practicing. Musicians are at their most vulnerable when they perform, and watching them find the magic and learn to fly is one of the most humbling and beautiful experiences known to humanity. It’s why we keep coming back.

So, while all the mathematics and theory on the music itself is equally important, most of us stick around to watch ordinary people learn to fly.

About the Author

Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.

She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.

Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.

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