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!

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)!