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!

Deliberate Practice

Practicing hours a day can be tedious. And disengaged practice isn’t helpful. Thus, serious musicians all have little tricks to help them stay engaged for so much time.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to take breaks when your concentration fades. Breaks can be as simple as standing up and taking a sip of water. As long as you’re taking a step back and making sure you’re body’s still relaxed.

I have a few quotes on the wall above my piano to inspire me. This one by poet James Russell Lowell reminds me what practice should look like.

Practice is your time to explore safely. And if you’re up for it, you could discover a new world in your music.

Happy practicing!

Tuesday Tips: Fingerings

One of the first pages of a piano lesson book contains an image of the hand with numbers assigned to each finger. It’s a way to communicate a part of piano technique through text. The next pages include exercises of finger patterns that later move into full songs. For the first few books, finger numbers sit under every note. From the author’s perspective, writing fingerings down is part of the process.

From the student’s perspective, however, these numbers are just a crutch that professionals don’t use.

For as long as I’ve been in the music world, young musicians perpetuate the idea that “real musicians” don’t need these. Perhaps this is due to a flaw in the teaching system, but that’s a discussion for another time. It’s true that more advanced sheet music is not printed with these guides, but they’re still imperative to the musician’s success and leave room for individual hand anatomy to be taken into account.

Frederic Chopin is known for much of his work being in keys full of sharps and flats. These are typically regarded as “more advanced keys” since they’re a little harder to read. Chopin’s work feels good to play, once the work of figuring out all the accidentals is done. His music possesses an innate understanding of the patterns of keys compared to the shape of the hand.

His legacy shows us that some fingerings are better than others. It’s an art form in itself. It’s better to figure out the patterns, write them down, and then learn them than have to puzzle through and learn a multitude of patterns until the “right one” is reached.

A little preparation goes a long way, especially in the professional world.

There are a few books on the art of fingering, but the one most recommended is Natural Fingering: A Topographical Approach to Pianism by Jon Verbalis. This one bases its suggestions in Chopin’s philosophy of proper piano technique. I have yet to read it, but I look forward to checking it out.

 

It’s All About Timing

A girl with her instrument spread before her: those eighty-eight keys of dark and light that blend to compose melodies in hues of every color seen and unseen. Each day, they meet in their ritual to slow the busy day at its close and get a jump on the next one.

Sometimes she wonders why she comes back. Her companion, affectionately called “Clive,” learns everything about her: her touch, her frustrations, her freedoms. He anticipates her. Yet, after years, she barely knows him. Hours spent learning just one of the patterns rumored to make him sing leave her in tears.

“Why can’t I get this?”

Her undivided focus hones in on the single passage: four measures as slowly as she can muster. Time passes, and the night grows full. It’s like this every night. Meanwhile, the stack of other music to learn sits beside them and collects only dust, no memories.

“Why didn’t you practice the rest?” her teacher asks.

“Do I even know how to practice?” she counters.

“You do. Just practice it all. Don’t be lazy.”

There she sits with Clive again, hands trembling after hours of trying to make one passage. “Don’t be lazy” reverberates in her mind.

“What am I doing wrong?”

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Many musicians grow up thinking they’re not practicing hard enough on single passages and stress when they have to hit deadlines on many pieces of music. Until recently, I felt that. Even after getting a degree, I still felt like I was missing something with practice. And at the risk of sounding like an infomercial, I’ll tell you about the product that changed the way I practice.

The kitchen timer!

For less than a dollar, you too can own your very own timer that will revolutionize your practice sessions.

I first learned about it from a Juilliard Viola student, known on Youtube as “That Viola Kid” (a.k.a. “TVK”). This is the video that made me stop to think about the way I was practicing:

For those who don’t want to watch the video in its entirety, he talks about practicing in shorter bursts. He practices no longer than fifty minutes at a time. Within that, he picks one phrase from a song and practices it for seven minutes. Then he moves onto a completely different song and does that for seven minutes. He cycles through three or four songs, so that they each get at fourteen minutes by the end.

I was skeptical, so I let myself grow disgruntled every time the seven minutes ended. After two days of trying, I gave up and dismissed it as stupid.

A month or so later, I began an online course with Juilliard called, “Introduction to Performance Psychology.” Imagine my shock when  the first topic was practicing in short bursts. Turns out, true learning isn’t just about the amount of time you spend on something, it’s the number of times your brain stops thinking about it and then comes back to it.

The professionals leading the course suggest the same thing TVK does by setting a timer. Their rule of thumb is to look at the amount of time you would normally spend working on a section and divide that by nine. Thus, if you would ordinarily spend an hour on a passage, you should now set your timer for about six or seven minutes. They even suggest that as you get used to practicing in short bursts, you set the timer as low as two minutes.

Again, I was skeptical, but I gave it a fair shot and kept at this method for a week straight. What I learned is that for this method to be effective, goal-setting is paramount. You have to decide how much you’re going to learn through the course of the week and then break that up into small sections for each day.

Going week-by-week is perfect for those taking weekly private lessons, and the teacher can help with this kind of goal-setting, but it is up to the student to figure out the day-to-day goals.

Keeping a journal of what I accomplished help me keep track of my progress.

The overall result was that instead of learning part of one song, about a page maximum, per week, I learned a part of four different songs, about a page each. That’s three more pages than I was learning before. The best part is that these sections were pretty much memorized by the end of the week, so there’s definitely something behind this “leaving and coming back” strategy.

It works for learning any other skill, like languages or mathematic formulas. The only downside is that it forces one to be a little more organized, but is that really a bad thing? Musicians could definitely use the help being organized.

You don’t even have to go out and by a kitchen timer; I just found it was less distracting to use that instead of my phone. Seeing a text notification distracts me every time the timer goes off, so I silence my phone during practice and use a piece of really outdated technology.

Any other practice tips? Help us learn by commenting below!

 

What I Wish I Knew: Posture

My piano career started mostly self-taught, and there are a lot of things I wish I’d learnt just starting out, even after finding a teacher. This series explores those topics, so you can learn from my mistakes.

One of the first things a music teacher tells you is how important good posture is. This isn’t just sitting up straight; it also includes many subtle, constant motions. Some feel awkward at first, and some come naturally.

When I started, I didn’t have a teacher to show me “right and wrong,” so I picked up some nasty habits, like playing with collapsed finger joints, pictured below.

Doesn’t that look painful?

What is wrong with playing like that? First off, it’s uncomfortable. Second, in bending my joints slightly backwards like that, I was injuring myself slightly each time. It wasn’t enough to feel pain at the start, but if I’d kept doing that for years, it would build up, and I would end up with arthritis in those joints. My teacher caught that right off the bat and scared me into supporting my fingers. Yet, even after years of lessons, there are still some aspects of posture no one showed me, so as a post-grad, I’m trying to teach myself how to not hurt myself.

Most of the “rules of posture” or technique are passed down from those who discovered how to avoid injury. Music should feel good emotionally, spiritually, and physically. You should feel like you could play for hours without muscle fatigue.

For piano, specifically, this starts with the core. No one emphasized the importance of bench height in my lessons, so I’ll do so here. The core, your back, and the angle at which your arms reach and rest on the keys determines how your wrists, hands, and fingers interact with the keys. Having the wrong body posture can make it easier or tougher on your fingers.

Bench height should be taller for short people like me, and shorter for taller people, so that when you rest your hands on the keys, your forearms run about parallel to the floor. The distance the bench should be from the keyboard should make it so your knees are about even with the edge of the keys.

Those are somewhat vague parameters, so it helps to play around with it. I never did until recently, and when I found my sweet spot, I realized I’d been making more work for myself. I sat too low, so I was having to hold up my forearms to play, when they really could’ve just been resting this entire time. You win some; you lose some.

The hands and wrists should be about level with the forearm, and then the fingers should look as if they’re resting over a ball, tips on the keys, but not curled under the hand. To find the position, it helps to cup your hand, palm upward and then flip the hand over. Repeat that until you find the form that keeps the hand looking the same both directions.

Like you’re holding the world!

It always always always is a good idea to have a teacher to show you the fundamentals of posture at the very least. If you get it right the first time, you won’t have to break old habits, only form good ones. It’s less work that way. In music, as in life, it’s better to “work smarter, not harder.”1

I hope this post helps you newbies out there. If you have any questions or better ways of explaining posture, please share in the comments!

 

 

Footnotes

1. I’m not really sure where this adage comes from, so if anyone knows, I’d love if you shared in the comments!

Take Care

You feel the exhaustion dripping from your eyes to create the dark circles underneath them. A new ring appears each morning, but you must press on. You have a goal: get your practice time in.

There’s never enough time.

You always have more pieces to perfect, and your fingers won’t do what they’re told. They’re stiff, and no amount of warming up eases the tension from them.

You are stressed.

What an understatement! Even a child observing your drooping body at the piano can tell that you need a nap. But you know that if you nap, you’ll sleep away too much of your practice time. You hide away the knowledge that you’re actually making it harder to learn the music this way.

The words of your teachers echo in your mind: “There is no substitute for taking care of your body. Get enough sleep, drink lots of water, take care of yourself.”

So sleep.

Take care of your body.

You can still get all your practice done and keep yourself healthy. It takes a little planning, and a lot of heart. You’ve got the passion, so put it to use.

Take care of your body, so you can continue to make music for a long time.

When You’re Feeling Down

One of the things that I find most inspiring about professional musicians is their ability to keep practicing every single day. Despite however they’re feeling about the day, they press on and practice.

There are so many days when I’ve just felt awful about myself and my abilities to play. I wonder why I’m even trying; I don’t plan on being a professional musician.

Yet, I practice.

I love the feeling of the music under my fingers; they express all I cannot say. I’ve always said that my fingers have a more direct connection to my soul, and it is through practice that I can share my soul with the world.

But why share that?

Empathy. It’s what makes us feel for each other. It assures us that we are not alone. Isn’t that a message we love to hear, one we desperately need to hear?

Even though I can’t always press on through the hard days, someone does, and that heartens me. It is my goal to get to that level of dedication, one that is less than selfish. By practicing their craft, musicians (professional or not), share their souls, and that may be one of the least selfish acts. They assure their listeners that they, as the performer, have been through the same toils as all who are human, and it is that message that keeps us going.

We could argue about what music is, what makes it magical, or what makes it effective, but at the end of the day, it is the sharing of the soul that I look for in music. It is something uniquely human I strive to hear.

This post is in an attempt to inspire me on a day when I feel like I can’t or shouldn’t practice. It’s a day that makes me feel like I gave up long ago. If I want to make the world a better place, I should buckle down and practice.

We all should.