Some News

Hello, it’s been a little bit since my last post, so I wanted to pop in with an unofficial post. Regular school work, my two jobs, and preparing for grad school have been dominating my time, but I hope to get back to a regular post schedule with short essays on music.

Until then, I wanted to share that I published sheet music for my arrangement of The First Noel on Sheet Music Plus.

I plan on arranging more pieces for piano, and I’m in the editing process for a few pieces for pop acapella to put up. Although I haven’t been with Sheet Music Plus for long, I will say that I am impressed with their service toward composers and arrangers. It doesn’t cost anything to publish music with them, and their commission rates are among the highest of sites like theirs. So if you’re looking for a place to sell music, they are my first recommendation.

Given that their site provides much more exposure for sheet music, it is a good deal.

You’ll notice a new tab on the top menu: Sheet Music. Here I’ll post links to all sheet music I’m sharing on the internet. This is how I’ll avoid spamming you guys every time I come out with a new piece. I will continue to post some freebies as well, and those will also be in the sheet music tab. As the numbers go up, there will be a little more organization to the page, but for now you can enjoy the two that are up there right now.

And of course, I love criticism on my pieces. If there’s anything in particular you like about my arrangements, I’d love to hear it! Conversely, if you can offer suggestions of anything I can do better, please share!

Thanks for all of your support!

Waging War: 5 Battle Strategies to Defeat Impostor Syndrome

Raise of hands, how many of you feel like you’re faking your way through life? Like you don’t actually know how to do your job, or people think you’re a lot smarter than you actually are?

Impostor syndrome (also “imposter”), impostor phenomenon, impostor experience, impostorism, and fraud syndrome are all terms that encompass the idea of feeling like a fraud. It’s been a bit of a buzz topic lately, especially with a few celebrities speaking out about it, like Neil Gaiman:

In addition to Gaiman, the following well-known figures also report having felt the phenomonen: Maya Angelou, Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chuck Lorre, John Green, Tommy Cooper, Sheryl Sandberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Mike Cannon-Brookes, Diana Crow1, Seth Godin2, and Amanda Palmer3. I especially love that Palmer dubs it “The Fraud Police.” It’s less impending if you name it, right?

Actually, both Palmer and Gaiman have very vivid fantasies of imaginary people coming to them in the  middle of the night and telling them, “We know you’re a fraud, and now we’re here to take everything away from you and to tell everyone you’re a fool.”3,4

What Impostorism Is

The first study on impostorism, by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, published in 1978, explains that those “who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”5  In a later interview, however (in 2015), Clance amended the definition: “if I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome of a complex or a mental illness. It’s something almost everyone experiences.”6

It’s a growing body of research, but the more psychologists study the phenomenon, the more they learn how universal the experience is. In fact, that first study by Clance and Imes asserted that it was only the women in academia who felt this way, but men were later included after ‘fessing up to being quiet on the matter.6

Impostorism can be defined with three major characteristics. Those with impostorism:

  1. Believe that others view them more favorably than they deserve.
  2. Have fear of being found out and then viewed as a failure.
  3. Have trouble internalizing their actual, tangible successes.7

How Impostorism Presents Itself

If you’re really down the rabbit hole of not believing your own worth, you may not know you meet any of the above criteria. One of the easiest ways to tell is if you find yourself exhibiting a behavior consistent with this mindset.

There are many behaviors that those with impostorism may exhibit, but there are four pretty standard ones that Clance and Imes outlined, and later works still agree. Someone with impostorism may exhibit one or two of these, but it’s rare for them to show all four.

1. From the belief that hard work will cover up a lack of intelligence or talent. They work hard and make sure to do so behind closed doors. This can look like someone who pretends to be playing games on the computer when a family member walks by, but they’re actually studying. Sense of approval from others reinforces this behavior.

2. From a sense of phoniness. They believe they participate in intellectual flattery by doing types of work that will please others (i.e., choosing a paper topic that they know their professor will like). If they had not flattered their superiors, they would have failed because they’re just not smart or good enough. Actual success feeds this behavior.

3. From a desire to be liked as well as thought of as competent. They use charm and perceptiveness together to win approval, like flirting with intent. And when they do win approval, they don’t believe they earned it. That if they were actually intelligent, they wouldn’t even need outside approval to convince themselves of their value. Again, success itself reinforces behavior like this.

4. Avoidance of success completely, out of fear of failing. As in, they don’t even try to win something they possibly could win because they’re afraid they’ll fail, and everyone will see, so they just avoid the situation altogether. This one can go hand in hand with depression and is fed by opportunities for success.5

As you can see, all of these behaviors feed into themselves. They encourage more of the same behavior, and it may seem like an impossible war to someone who’s been stuck in the cycle for a long time. Unfortunately, it’s not just the internal mindset and behaviors that contribute to the problem. There are also external factors.

What Irritates the Problem

Although impostorism is a fairly universal experience, it tends to be worse in fields like academia or the arts where there is a lot of competition. Instead of waning all on its own, as it does for many people, impostorism is developed by physical events.

In a study about academic faculty and the ways they cope with impostorism, Holly M. Hutchins and Hilary Rainbolt discovered four types of  “imposter incidents,” which they describe as “disruptive events that created doubt, shame, and questioning of who they [the participants] were.”8

These four types of events perpetuate rather than diminish feelings of fraud:

1. Moments when expertise is questioned. This can be when someone straight up asks you if you’re qualified or when you have to teach in your field, like giving a lecture or presentation. I just dealt with this myself with some suburban moms asking if I was qualified to teach their children beginner piano, and I almost said, “Even with my degree, I’m not qualified at all!”

2. In moments of self-evaluation of one’s work. The faculty members in this study spoke specifically about submitting their work for publication and applying for grants and tenure. Universally, this might look like when you’re trying to prove your worth (like in a job interview) or dealing with negative criticism or comments.

3. Competition or comparison. This one’s pretty obvious. For piano, a great example is when you’re looking up recordings of your repertoire to listen to, and you find a wonderful rendition by a four-year-old prodigy. It makes you re-evaluate why you play at all. But in general, any kind of comparison can do a lot of damage to one’s perspective of self.

4. Moments when one is asked to accept success. Winning awards, getting asked to be a judge in one’s field, and being invited to speak as an expert all aggravate the cycle because impostors really can’t internalize their own success.8

Strategies to Break the Cycle

So it is a war, not just a one-night battle. There are so many forces encouraging feelings of fraud, and this can make you feel trapped. But, all you have to do is interrupt the cycle to find a way out. Just one little bump, and there’s some hope. Each of the studies and articles I looked at have different strategies to cope,  but these five are fairly universal ideas that are easy to do.

 

1. Be open and honest with yourself.

Remember how Amanda Palmer gave her feelings a name?3 Part of the psychology of naming is that you choose to accept that the idea is a real, tangible thing. This isn’t AA, but it’s the same concept. The first step is to accept you have a problem and choose to do something about it.

I think I’m going to call mine Fred the Fraudmonger. That seems like a great villain name. Let me know if you’ve picked out the perfect name for yours. But the idea is to face it like it’s a tangible enemy. Be proactive, and let yourself feel it.

I’m coming for you, Fraudmonger!

2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.

In the same speech in which Amanda Palmer dubbed impostorism “The Fraud Police,” she had everyone in the room raise their hands if they had ever felt like a fraud. All the faculty sitting on the stage behind her raised their hands as well, and she said “If they didn’t, they’re lying.” She’s right. That’s exactly why Pauline Clance said that if she could redo the original study, she’d call it the “impostor experience.” It’s that universal. Some people just have more trouble with it than others. Palmer even says at the end of the video that the feeling never completely goes away; you just learn how to deal with it.

For some, just knowing that it’s part of being human helps them accept it and move forward.

3. Be honest with others and vice versa.

In her book, Presence, social psychologist Amy Cuddy includes a chapter solely about the impostor experience. She sums up her research and interviews with,

As I review the research and talk to people like Pauline [Clance] and Neil [Gaiman] who’ve experienced the same fears, I see the one quality of impostorism that stands out from all the others: it makes us feel alone in the experience, and even when we learn that other people have similar fears, we don’t take heart.6

Sometimes it’s really not enough to hear that all these famous people suffer from the same feelings. Because they’re actually talented, and I’m obviously not.6

The APA lists talking with people as two separate ways to deal with impostorism.9 Find someone you trust and aren’t afraid to just be open with.

In some cases, mentors are excellent to talk with, but don’t be surprised if your mentor actually makes you feel worse. I’m not trying to be mean to all the mentors out there (I mean I guess as a piano teacher, I am also one), but in different study by Hutchins, results showed that in all but 3% of the participants’ experiences, mentors actually made feelings of impostorism worse. The mentors didn’t do anything wrong, but the fact that they were so successful, and the participants in the study felt they weren’t added to the issue.10

The original study by Clance and Imes discusses the high effect of group therapy sessions. “A group setting is also valuable because one woman can see the dynamics in another woman and recognize the lack of reality involved.”5

There’s always someone to talk to. The worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself and suffer alone. You may actually be helping another person by bringing it up.

4. Look at the hard facts.

If you have a degree, you earned it. If you won awards, you earned them. Take another look at the tangible evidence of your skill. You can’t fake all of that. It’s impossible. Try looking at everything objectively, or as if you were in the heads of the people who gave all these certifications to you.

Another part of this is to say “thank you” and mean it when people congratulate you for success. Instead of shying away and mumbling something to the effect of, “Oh, no it was nothing,” or “It wasn’t my best work,” try standing up tall with a big smile on your face, look them in the eyes, and say, “thank you.” This is one of the best things you can do if you’re a performer too. This is actually one of the major points of last week’s post about Alpin Hong, who says that the “joyful expression of appreciation…cannot be overestimated.”

All in all, just own your successes. And if you have trouble, go back to number three and find someone who can help you find a way to be excited about your triumphs.

5. Pretend you’re someone who can.

In a commencement speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012, Neil Gaiman spoke a little bit about impostorism. The advice he gave was that if you still don’t think you can do it, pretend that you’re someone who can do it. The full quote is wonderful.

Be wise because the world needs more wisdom. And if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.4

So pretend you’re someone who did earn those degrees, someone who truly deserved those accolades and awards, and just act like that person would. It helps.

There’s a lot of debate in the psychology world about how much acting actually contributes to changing your thought process, but it’s worth a shot, and there are plenty of people out there who defend this idea.

Nudge Forward

The key to any of these strategies working is to expect it to be a slow process. We’re fighting a war, not a battle.

Realize it won’t happen in a day, but little nudges (apparently it’s a real psychology term) will weaken the cycle. Over time, it just might break!

Nudge theory explains why most New Year’s Resolutions don’t stick (these goals are way too big). It is the idea that to change your behavior (and your thoughts), you have to do so in small steps that slowly build up over time.

Governments all over the world actually have their own “nudge units” to encourage people to make better eating choices and to recycle. And all they do is start placing healthy food at eye level, and putting junk food where it’s harder to get to.11

Just thinking deeply about your specific type of impostorism and how it affects your behavior is a great start. Here’s a recap of five strategies to break the fraud cycle:

  1. Be open and honest with yourself.
  2. Know that everyone else feels the same way.
  3. Be honest with others and vice versa.
  4. Look at the hard facts.
  5. Pretend you’re someone who can.

If you found any of these sources interesting or helpful, there is a list of recommended resources as well as the works cited in this article below. Check either or neither of them out. Just remember to pass the ideas on. I don’t lay claim to any of this. I’m not a psychologist; I just enjoy research. Cite studies where applicable, but carry the ideas on forever if they help you.


Recommended Resources

Amy Cuddy, TED Talk  and Presence (Amazon Goodreads). Both are excellent resources. I recommend watching the TED Talk first, and if you want to dig more into the scientific studies and read more interviews regarding how the body shapes the mind and the idea of “fake it ’til you become it,” then the book is for you.

Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012 (also embedded above).

Amanda Palmer’s Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011 (also embedded above).


Works Cited

1. Wikipedia. “Impostor Syndrome.” (2018, July 30).

2. Richards, Carl. “Learning to Deal With the Impostor Syndrome.” The New York Times. (2015, October 26).

3. Palmer, Amanda. “The Fraud Police.” Commencement Speech to the New England Institute of Arts Class of 2011.

4. Gaiman, Neil. “Make Good Art.” Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts Class of 2012.

5. Clance, Pauline Rose, and Suzanne Ament Imes. “The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15.3 (1978): 241.

6. Cuddy, Amy Joy Casselberry. Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. New York: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Company, 2015.

7. Leary, Mark R., et al. “The impostor phenomenon: Self‐perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies.” Journal of personality 68.4 (2000): 725-756.

8. Hutchins, Holly M., and Hilary Rainbolt. “What triggers imposter phenomenon among academic faculty? A critical incident study exploring antecedents, coping, and development opportunities.” Human Resource Development International 20.3 (2017): 194-214.

9. Weir, Kirsten. “Feel like a fraud?” American Psychological Association. (2018).

10. Hutchins, Holly M. “Outing the imposter: A study exploring imposter phenomenon among higher education faculty.” New Horizons in Adult Education and Human Resource Development 27.2 (2015): 3-12.

11. Wikipedia. “Nudge theory.” (2018, June 11).

4 Aspects of a Great Performance from Alpin Hong

“The power to affect how people perceive you gives you the ability to transform the world around you.” Alpin Hong, TEDx La Sierra University, July 1, 2015

It starts the moment people can see you. Whether it be a stage, the boss’s office, or a high school hallway, we are constantly performing. People evaluate you according to how well you present and choose to listen to or ignore you.

Performing is a skill that turns you into an effective communicator; it encourages people to hear you out. And it’s not just for stuffy classical musicians and theatre nerds.

In his entertaining and insightful TED Talk at La Sierra University in 2015, classical concert pianist Alpin Hong illuminates four simple ways to have a great performance in any field.

1. Project confidence (even if you’re dying inside)

It’s just as good as confidence itself, and it will put you at ease.

Stand up straight and steady but with relaxed shoulders, arms hanging by the side. Turn your arms so that your palms and forearms are facing forward, and then rotate only your palms back to face your sides. In this position, your body is more open but also flexible.

Eye contact is also important. Pianists typically can’t really look at the audience while they’re playing since they’re facing sideways, so this goes with the outer parts of the musical performance: the entrance and exit.

In my undergraduate days, most of my vocalist friends were taught to close their eyes to start and look at a point just above the audience to help with nerves. But after some experimentation, a lot of us found that we actually became more comfortable when we were able to make eye contact with people. We created connections with the audience members, and it was easier to feel like these strangers wanted us to win.

Finally, the bow. There are so many tricks to “do a proper bow.” My high school choir director had us recite, “Do I have my shoes? Yes, I have my shoes” as we tilted our heads down and bent to the correct angle from the ground.

But Hong puts it as, “You go down, you go up, and smile.” He says, “That last step, the smile, cannot be overestimated.”

Expressing joyful appreciation reinforces the good feelings you gave the audience, and they’ll take that home with them. They may not remember what you played years in the future, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.

All in all, someone who projects confidence and isn’t afraid to laugh at themselves is much more persuasive than a stiff perfectionist (oops called myself out!).

2. Be smart in your preparation

Hong notes that most musicians prepare in the same way: they learn their songs from beginning to end and don’t delve into the theory of it. But, understanding the basic structure and knowing the piece inside out and forwards and backwards is one of the best ways you can prepare.

He compares it to a speech: if you remember the basic concepts of each paragraph, you can have a successful presentation, even if you forget the specific words you wrote down.

That’s why music theory is important! If you know the chordal structure of your piece, you can find your way if you get lost (and it’s bound to happen at least once in your life).

The way you learn the music should also be under scrutiny. Most musicians learn the beginning of their songs and add on the subsequent measures each day. This means that the beginning is strong, and it weakens as it goes. A good way to combat this is to learn pieces backwards: start with the last four measures, then last eight, and so on until you’re at the beginning.

This actually puts in little memory structures or anchors as you go, and that alone is beneficial to memorization. But it also means that the song gets stronger as it goes. You always end on a triumph!

Since watching this talk, I’ve started doing this (actually a lot of professors also told me to do this, but I didn’t listen), and it has helped tremendously. I don’t have substantial evidence, but I do feel like I’m getting a lot more efficient practice done as well.

3. Find the right mindset

A lot of anxiety comes from the assumption that the audience wants your performance to fall apart. Instead, make connections with the audience with your eye contact, give them stakes in your performance, and then you’ll know that they want you to succeed. You’ll have auditoriums full of people cheering for you.

In any other situation, you can do the same with your posture and with your attitude of graciousness, like in the first point.

But we all know that no matter how well we do at number two, preparing, there will always be mistakes. We can have a healthy attitude with number four.

4. Improvise: Learn to roll with the punches

Improv troupes are at a severe advantage with this one. With the idea of “yes, and,” they choose to accept whatever the situation throws at them and keep moving forward. When the inevitable mistake occurs, you can either freak out or make the best of it.

This is where understanding the structure of your performance (number two again!) helps you get through. If you get lost in your piece, you can then get yourself back on track, even if it’s not exactly how the composer intended it. Hong actually quotes Thelonius Monk here, “There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”

A mistake actually created Hong’s most-requested piece, “Twinkle Twinkle Death Star.” He was playing the Mozart’s 12 Variations on “Ah vous dirais-je, Maman”, K.265 (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) and lost his place, so he played what he knew in the key, which just happened to be the Imperial March from Star Wars. And he kept going with whatever he could think of, Zelda, James Bond, Harry Potter, and so on until he found the end. If there’s only one part of this TED Talk you watch, I suggest it be the performance of this. It starts at 14:14.

Performing doesn’t have to be as daunting as it is, especially because we all do it everyday. It’s a lot easier to think of it as four small pieces, and I’m thankful for great performers like Alpin Hong who love to share their expertise with the world.

What do you think? Do you have any great tips or videos on cultivating a great performance? Share in the comments below!

Sometimes Living is Necessary Too

Recently, one of my professors shared this article by Tanya Kalmanovitch, a Juilliard graduate. The title, “How Quitting Music Made Me an Artist” sounds like clickbait with the promise of some revolutionary way of looking at a tradition that’s ages old.

Yet, I keep coming back to it, and I find something new to take away from it every time.

I’ve got my own story of quitting (and coming back), full of doubt and disillusionment with the music world. But we’re here for Kalmanovitch’s story.

I’m not going to sum it up here, so go read it; I’ll wait.

Now then, onto the takeaways.

Quitting is not talked about enough in the music world. Most musicians I’ve met who went to school specifically for music have played almost their entire lives. By the time they’re either about to go to college through when they’re coming out of it, they might want to see what else life has to offer.

Putting that to the side for a time to experience new things is not a bad thing. But “quitting is bad” and can feel awful, even if you’re doing it for the right reason.

Some of the masters (well a lot of them actually, but we’ll only mention a few by name here) are quoted as saying that experiencing life is the most important, and art comes after.

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.

Charlie Parker, as quoted in The Legend Of Charlie Parker by Robert George Reisner, 1977.

There’s a couple ideas to pull from this: experience and “no boundary line to art.” Here he implies that music is a living entity that is birthed of our experience, and there isn’t some invisible line dividing it from “real life.”

Musicians aren’t some mystical gurus who stand apart from the world. Sure, we spend a lot of time playing, but at the end of the day, we’re people who struggle with school, money, relationships, and purpose. And we shouldn’t pretend that we’re not.

Music is the language of the soul.

Although this particular quotation is attributed to multiple people across the internet, I found a couple publications (including a lengthy footnote by Liszt) that trace it back to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher.

In any case, it’s short and memorable, which is why it’s plastered across the internet.

Define soul how you will in your mind. For the purposes of this post, “soul” refers to the core being of a person. Relating back to Parker, the experience that makes you who you are can only truly be expressed in the soul’s own language, music.

But what does it mean for your soul, your being, to truly live?

The living soul demands life, the living soul will not submit to mechanism, the living soul must be regarded with suspicion, the living soul is reactionary!

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Norton Critical Edition, 3rd ed., 217.

Reactionary. Living can be viewed as a reaction to the experiences we face. If we hide ourselves away in the practice room, there are less ideas, events, obstacles, to react to. But to have a true experience, we must react to something or someone.

That’s why it’s important to go meet new people, expose yourself to new ideas, see new lands, immerse yourself in other cultures. You’ll have more things to react to.

Make no mistake, practicing is critical to being a high-caliber musician, but the performance will probably fall flat if there’s nothing behind it to hold it up.

Aesthetes may favor Wilde’s idea that “All art is quite useless,” but there are enough voices on the other side, that I fall on the side of living.

And for this, I have a book recommendation.

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process is a collection of essays culminated and edited by Joe Fassler that provides a way into the lives of authors who’ve already “made it.” It may be specific to writers, but the ideas are universal. I recommend it to any creator or anyone who needs a dose of inspiration.

Neil Gaiman has the last spot in the book. His closing remark can serve as a mantra when doubt comes creeping around again.

"Just live. Sometimes that's necessary too."

Even though it’s easy to get caught up in perfection and the self hatred that comes with “quitting,” but remember that we’re here to live. And we can’t create something beautiful if we’re not alive.

Focus on living, and if music is for you, it will be even better because of your experiences.

Kalmanovitch’s article made me feel less alone, as if quitting is almost a rite of passage through the music world. No matter what it means, it made me feel better. How do you feel after reading it?

Also an announcement! I really enjoy making quote pictures. They make me happy and help inspire me, so I’ve dedicated a page of this blog to quotes. Let me know in the comments or via the contact form if you have any quotes that should get the photo treatment. I look forward to hearing from you!

3 Questions to Ask When You Feel Pointless as a Musician

Constant self criticism, practicing perfectionism, locking yourself away for hours. Such is the life of a musician. Half of it, anyway.

The other half of being a musician can be so rewarding, but when you’re stuck in the first half, it can feel like there’s no point in trying. There’s so many more people that are better than you. Child prodigies show up and learn skills in half the time. You started late, and there’s no such thing as “catching up” in music. You just aren’t as good as you thought you’d be at this point in your life.

At some point, you knew you wanted to be a musician, and you knew why. It just got lost along the way.

Here are three questions to ask yourself when you feel like you have no purpose as a musician.

1. Why did you start?

Maybe you started lessons as a child because your parents made you. Maybe you had to pick an elective in school, and band was the least offensive idea to you. Even if the very beginning wasn’t your choice, you’re here because you’re worrying about the reason you bother practicing. It is now your choice.

Music gave me a sense of belonging when I felt I could never fit in. I was the girl who ate lunch by herself everyday, but I joined choir and found a community. After that, I started piano, and I felt like I found an entire world of love. It’s a little odd since it can be rather solitary, but either way, I found a place to belong.

I started working hard as a musician because I was so thankful for it.

2. How are you making the world a better place right now?

You may feel like you aren’t influencing the world at all, but remember that change has to start in one place. That place is small.

The moment I realized I could actually make a difference was during a family trip out west. The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, is this massive gallery of instruments from all of world history. It’s divided according to geographical location and is absolutely not limited to Western Europe. I’d love to go back; there’s a lot to learn there.

My favorite part of the museum, though, is the Steinway grand sitting out in the lobby. They encourage anyone to play it.

When we took our trip, I had only been playing piano a few months, so I was still in the honeymoon phase of learning an instrument. At the urging of my mother, I quickly sat down and played one of the only two songs I knew. I developed this arrangement of “Beauty and the Beast” back then because I just loved piano that much.

To that point, I hadn’t really had a bad performing experience, so I got to enjoy playing a Steinway for the first time ever without much anxiety. When I looked up, I was surprised how many people had stopped to listen. A group surrounded the piano, and there were even people smiling down at me from the balcony above.

Afterward, a few congratulated me and asked about my background, but one person stuck out: a little girl (with her parents of course!).

She jumped up and down like I had physically flown around the room with fireworks exploding behind me. That’s when I knew I could do magic; I could influence people with music.

I hold this memory close and pull it out when I need reassurance that I can play a role in making the world a better place. It starts with making someone smile.

3. Who are you working hard for?

This answer changes with your circumstances. When I was younger, I practiced simply to make the people around me smile. But the more I learned of how dark the world can be, I decided to work for those who need a little light.

Music gave me a community when I was alone. It’s a refuge for some with mental illnesses or dire situations. I practice for them, so they know they’re not alone.

But I know I can do more. There are many musicians I look up to who donate heavily to or create their own charities. With budget cuts leaving kids without access to music education and without the same community I found, I was thrilled to learn of Josh Groban’s Find Your Light Foundation. I want to work hard to support that and other groups that are making real impacts in the world today. I can use my love to help others live.

The people who will benefit from that are the people I work hard for.

Whoever it is you’re personally working hard for, think about them when you feel pointless. It could be your parents, your sister, your teacher, your student. Let them motivate you.

It’s easy to get caught up in the monotony of practice and performance and forget just how hard being a musician can actually be. When you find yourself in the practice room in tears asking yourself, “Why?” ask these three questions too.

  1. Why did you start?
  2. How are you making the world a better place right now?
  3. Who are you working hard for?

I hope these help, and if you have any other questions that help you, add to the discourse! You can comment below or share elsewhere.

7 Ways to Avoid Frustration While Practicing an Instrument

Music might be this magical language of the soul, but it can still be infuriating to practice, especially if you’re fairly new to the craft.

I recall countless high school hours spent banging out Hanon exercises or Bach (I vividly remember anger associated with my left hand when I was learning his Two-Part Invention No. 1, BWV 772). The longer I practiced, the louder it got because I was angry. Luckily for my family, all we had was a keyboard, and I always used headphones.

Looking back, I’m amazed I didn’t do more psychological damage from self-directed hatred (or, you know, physical harm to my hands). Somehow, after all that angry practice, I got into a decent music program and continued my piano studies.

Many teachers will tell you they don’t teach students how to play; they teach students how to practice. Jeremy Denk writes that his teacher, “Sebők said many times that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice—the daily rite of discovery that is how learning really happens.” But the student still has to focus on adventure in the practice room and trying to find the best way to practice.

No one can tell you.

That’s frustrating; it really really is. But there are a few tips I can pass along that will hopefully help at least a little bit.

1. Practice Every Day.

This is a duh, but some of us still don’t do it. You can’t “catch up” by practicing longer one day if you didn’t practice the day before. That’s not how learning works. It’s better to do 15 minutes each day than four hours one day. We’ve all been guilty of this thinking at some point, so we’ll just get it out in the open.

2. Set small goals.

Until you have an idea of how quickly you are able to learn a piece, I don’t suggest sitting down and saying, “I will learn this whole page today.” You’ll only feel you let yourself down when you don’t achieve that.

Instead have smaller goals, like “I will practice for 20 minutes without stopping today.” Until you have a lot of experience, you can’t know how quickly your fingers will take up a certain piece. Once you get to know your learning tendencies, you can then make more challenging goals.

3. Keep a practice journal.

This helps direct your practice. Sometimes it’s hard to get your mind into the practice space, especially if you don’t have as much time as usual. School, work, difficult people in your life, and your bed calling out to you will all inevitably creep into your mind and cause you to mess up if you don’t do anything to focus.

Write down your goals at the beginning of the practice session and then reflect on how well you achieved them at the end. Connect this to your future practice session by setting your goals during your reflection time. Review these at the beginning of your next session, and bam, you’ve got a focused mind that is less likely to get distracted.

4. Celebrate the little things.

Because we are taught to be critical of our sound, we tend to forget to get excited when we play correct fingerings at tempo for a tricky cadenza that was killing us. Celebrating is so important, and it will help you stay in a positive-growth mindset. And that’s where we all need to be.

Shoot for at least three things you can be excited about, and write them down in your practice journal. Then, when you’re feeling down or angry during a session, you can skim back through that list of accomplishments.

5. Take a Break.

If you find yourself getting frustrated, and you’re beginning to pound out notes, it’s time to move on. You can get a sip of water, just breathe, even take out your phone (but really, don’t let yourself look at it for more than a minute. If you can’t control yourself, leave it outside the practice room).

The human brain can really only focus on one thing for about 20 minutes at a time, so don’t get upset with yourself if you can’t stay diligent for longer. The professionals take water breaks too. Plus, hydration helps your brain work better too.

6. Move on.

The kitchen timer practice method actually helped me more with frustration than anything else. In it, you practice a phrase (around 4–6 measures) for a specified amount of time (I’ve pretty much settled on two minutes), and when the timer goes on, you move onto the next phrase.

This method forces you to plan out your practice session because you need to come back to each phrase at least two more times in the session. It’s the returning to it that helps you learn. More than anything, though, it helps me avoid getting fixated on something I can’t seem to get. And most often, I get it solidly by the next go ’round. I do technique practice this way too.

7. Smile.

The classical music community on Tumblr jokes a lot about practicing including lots of tears, banging your head on the wall, or just lying on the practice room floor in the dark. Practice is hard. Accept that. But find a way to make yourself smile too.

You’re doing amazing things that so many others can’t even understand. Find something that can make you smile.

I have a few inspiring quotes above my piano that remind me why I’m torturing myself with practice. My favorite right now I mentioned previously, and I’ll put the picture here too because it just makes me happy.

All in all, take a step back when you need to. Breathe. Remember why you’re trying to make music in the first place. You’ll get there, and maybe you’ll even love practicing!

What are your favorite tricks to keep yourself going during a difficult session? Do you have any favorite quotes? Share them below! And if you like this post, don’t forget to hit that like button and share, so I can keep making awesome content!

Creating Music, Part One: Where to Begin

Classical musicians are cover artists. We play the scores of composers from long ago, and we get to put our own spin on the music.

But what about creating our own from scratch? It’s not always easy to start off. Compare it to writing in your own native language (English for the sake of the analogy).

You started reading somewhere around the age of five. Then you probably began to write short sentences and progressed to essays during the time of grade school. You learned to write poetry, the easiest form being the haiku, and possibly some fiction. Throughout this process you learned to express at least some part of yourself in a literary manner.

Now think about your journey with music. Your parents may have started you in lessons when you were just starting school and learning to read, or you may have waited until you could join band in the fourth grade, or maybe you didn’t even think you’d like music until you started taking piano in high school.

Nonetheless, the fact that you are reading this probably means you are a musician and have studied musical literature in some way, shape, or form.

You probably know at least the bare basics of theory, and if not, you’re not afraid to ask for help. The internet is full of resources.

And maybe you’re like me. You want to learn to express yourself with music too. Playing already composed music is one of the most amazing things you’ve ever done, but you also feel this urge to create.

Yet, instead of starting you off with short sentences, the music education system had you learn all the grammar, had you read only the very best of musical sentences. And the result of that is you know how elementary your own creations seem.

You have to start there though, and that’s okay.

You’ve got all the knowledge of theory and grammar that you need to learn how to write music much, much faster than when you learned to write.

At the risk of adding to an already loud discussion of advice blogs and Youtube channels telling you how to break into arranging and composing, I hope to help in any way I can.

Remember how all your teachers always say to “listen more than you play.” They’re referring to paying attention to your technique, to other members in your ensemble, to recordings of the greats. But something they don’t always talk about is that tiny voice inside you.

You experience the world differently than anyone else. For synesthetes, it’s very obvious; they literally see color when others don’t. For the rest of us, it’s the memories we’ve made that paint the world in different shades in our minds.

You hear things in a way that no one else does.

So when you’re listening to a song that you want to arrange, you might add notes here or there, or you might sing along and add harmonies.

Listen.

Be confident in that voice. Arranging and composing is one of the rare times when you actually get to listen to that voice.

For the rest of your life, you’re encouraged to be more objective, to listen to technique, to think about what the audience or the judges are looking for. But here, in this creative space, listen deep inside.

Your instincts will guide you.

Of course you still have to work hard. There will be countless hours when you don’t know how to finish a song. The muse refuses speak to you. But keep trying different things; it’s a puzzle to be solved. You’ll find the answer.

Exercise: Pick one of your favorite songs that gets you moving, one that you either literally or figuratively dance to when no one’s watching. Learn the melody on your instrument (or just sing it) and then turn off the track and have fun with it. Don’t worry yet about writing anything down. Just let yourself have fun. Good luck!

I plan on doing a series of arranging tips, so this is the first. There are so many resources available today for musicians, so I’ll gather up what I’ve found helpful and try to build upon that. Let me know if there’s any specific topic regarding arranging or composing that you’d like me to touch on. You can do so in the comments below or send me a private message via my contact form (or even on tumblr if you prefer)!

I Lived

Inspired by the Daily Post’s daily prompt, Retrospective.

Looking back isn’t always easy. A lot of you are probably thinking of cringey moments from high school or college when you should’ve done something differently, but you can’t; the moment’s passed.

Until recently, I’d been pretty good about not letting myself regret mistakes or big decisions. To, as Longfellow puts it, “Let the dead Past bury its dead.”

But now I look back at my time in university and am shocked that two years have already passed since I graduated.

I could go on and on about what I regret most in my time fleeing my calling after leaving school, but that’s not very productive. Sharing music seems like a better idea. Plus, it cuts to the heart of matters a bit quicker.

“I Lived” by OneRepublic seems fitting. I listen to this a lot when I’m feeling nostalgic, and I hope I can pass these ideas down to someone younger than me. And I hope I also learn to listen to this advice going forward.

It’s not about striving for success; it’s about living.

What about you? Are there any songs with ideas you’d like to share with younger folks?

Career Thoughts

Careers have been on my mind a lot lately. I recently gave up a job accompanying a choir full-time and a job teaching piano in favor of a full-time, assistant manager retail job. And I really don’t know why I did that.

It certainly wasn’t for the pay and probably not for the experience. I fell back on retail because the places where music took me weren’t a good fit.

The short of it is that I don’t enjoy practicing that much repertoire all at once, so a job in piano performance is not suited to me. I also don’t enjoy teaching, at least not from the very beginning. One thing I do love is giving presentations, which is teaching in a way, but it targets a specific audience with a predetermined level of knowledge in a subject.

My dislike for teaching baffles me. Growing up, people always told me I was so good at teaching, so I thought that’s what I had to do. I gave it a try, and here I am at square one again.

Perhaps I’m not starting completely over though.

At least I know where not to go. One thing to consider is the skills that make me a good teacher. These run deeper in each individual than the public is likely to notice. Thus, when I ask friends and family why they think I make a good teacher, their answer lies somewhere around, “You just have the personality for it.”

But what, in that personality, makes me a good teacher?

Through the experience of trying a multitude of jobs, I have come to the conclusion that I am an effective communicator. I possess the ability to present any idea, regardless of complexity, in a way that anyone can understand. That skill lends easily to public speaking, management, publishing, writing, music, and yes, teaching.

That’s the point of this lesson: skills are transferable.

A kid that’s good at soccer doesn’t have to find their career in athletics. Perhaps that person is a good forward in the game due to their aggressive nature: they go after what their team needs. In this example, it’s the ball. In their future, the target might be a merger in the business world, or a bigger budget for a school arts program. It might even be a flight to the next destination.

Most of the time, we have to identify these skills on our own. We are the only ones who can answer the deep “Why?” underneath people’s accolades of our so-called talents.

Now that I understand the reason why people tell me to teach, I can confidently say, “Teaching is not for me.” I no longer feel obligated to teach. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on my true calling, whatever that might mean.

I could write stories, make music, pursue business, become a scientist that publishes sound papers of discovery, and so much more. I feel like a kid again, the whole world before me like a map with so many paths to discover and many more skills to understand. Even though I have yet to find my fit in the world, I am hopeful that I will find it.

Never stop asking why. It’s never too late. Become that kid again. Maybe you won’t find your place immediately, but you’ll begin the journey to finding your role in the world.

If you have any advice regarding careers or finding one’s place in the world, please share below! You’ll help many people by sharing your story.

Time Well-Spent

I don’t remember much of anything I learned in high school. Most of us don’t. But there was one phrase my high school biology teacher said at the beginning of every week that really stuck with me: “Time spent organizing is time well-spent.”

At the time, I could see some benefits of giving us extra time in class to organize all our binders, but I never really appreciated her catch-phrase until after college.

Guys, organize your music. Do it. Right now. It will save you headache, heartache, and mini-panic attacks. Your brain cannot remember where you put that one sheet of music two years ago. Even if you know for certain you didn’t throw it away, it will take you hours to find it, hours you could spend doing something productive like practicing.

Believe me.

The day that inspired this post was when I had just scheduled an audition for a job accompanying a choir on piano. The director of the choir wanted me to play something from memory (easy-peasy) and then read a hymn for her. My go-to hymn, “Lord, Here Am I,” (not “Here I Am, Lord”–there’s a difference) is not in the hymnal at my house. The only hard-copy I possess is a photo-copy from my old music teacher back in high school.

I lost it.

It was somewhere in my room; that I knew. I had recently pulled it from my active binder (the one I carry with me 24/7) and stuck it either in another binder, on a shelf, or in a folder, or in the closet, or it fell behind it…..Many, many, many hours later, I was in tears and on the phone with my boyfriend who convinced me to pick a different hymn (of course I had back-ups, but “Lord, Here Am I” is my favorite).

After practicing another couple hymns for the audition the next day, I started putting the sheets of paper, at that point coating the floor, back on the shelf. Voila! There it was!

The moral of the story is not that it was there somewhere; it’s that I could’ve found it in mere seconds if I kept my music organized.

I do have binders on my shelf that are somewhat organized by type of music and composer, but the problem is my laziness. I rarely put the music back where it belongs.

No more!

Taking the two seconds to put music back where it belongs will save me hours later down the road when it really matters.

So there you have it. Organize your music, fellow musicians. And may you be as lucky as me to have a boyfriend who offers to help with that part. Best of luck to you all!