Or things I wish I knew when I was 8 years old…
Recitals are like so many things in life. It’s a due date when you need to really know something well and you need to show it in public, in this case 100 of your friends, families and peers. Think of the times when you had to present a paper or a case or a sales pitch at a specific time and day. The recital is preparation for that. It’s a deadline.
Discipline and Mastery
Preparing for the recital is also like life. The discipline required to learn, memorize and perform the pieces is the same discipline you use when you are in college working on a term paper, at your job preparing the big powerpoint presentation to your clients, presenting your court case to the judge and jury and so on. There’s a level of mastery that needs to be achieved in a recital. Nowadays, it seems there’s less encouragement or paths to mastery with all the instant gratification of digital downloads and games and apps. We don’t let our children go 5 seconds before we step in to help them with a frustrating problem. Mastery requires discipline and a commitment to “do it again…and again.” Self-help guru Anthony Robbins speaks of the 10,000 hours it required to master a skill. Malcolm Gladwell describes some great outliers including Bill Gates in Outliers: The Story of Success. It does take a lot of time, discipline and repetition to master anything. And music lessons culminating in a recital is a training ground for discipline on the road to mastery. Even better to start at such an early age!
In my past life as an actor and television host, I had to memorize lines all the time. I remember this as an incredibly difficult task. My acting teacher gave us the trick of writing down the lines over and over to internalize them. And then to say them back in multiple different rhythms and phrasing. Along the way, I started to notice certain patterns in the language and even structural groupings of how one paragraph was almost like a variation on a previous one. We’ve done many of these things in the music lessons as I ask my students to play the second part first, or play it at triple speed and then play it with your eyes closed and then play it as if you were dancing. And then somewhere around the 100th time, the notes stop being just a sequence of sound events, but they start to flow and have a feeling of their own. “It’s like I wasn’t even thinking about it anymore.” is the phrase I’ve heard from several of my students.
Anxiety is a big part of any public performance. There was a survey somewhere I saw that listed people’s top fears in order of worst to least. At the top was public speaking, followed by death by burning! Incredible. Most people would rather die burning at the stake than have to speak in public. A recital is a public performance and by repeatedly going through the process, the anxiety lessens over time. 2 years ago, I remember a number of students in particular looking rather ill before their turn. Now, those same kids are still nervous, but it’s not the same panic attack level, rather a heightened level of awareness with a confidence that they will fly through.
Mistakes will happen as in life. In fact, how often do things go exactly the way you want them to? Almost never. Your goal is to minimize them. But you can never achieve 100% perfection, you wouldn’t want to. To play like a machine is completely useless. It’s the mistakes that make you sound human and gives you unique expression. As described in a recent NY Times article about what makes music so expressive, researcher Daniel J. Levitin at McGill University and Edward W. Large at Florida Atlantic University recorded a concert pianist performing a Chopin etude analyzing it for speed, rhythm, loudness and softness. They then recreated the performance with a computer stripping it of any human variances, in other words, making it more perfect. They then scanned the brains of listeners as they listened. The results? Perfection is boring.
Another thing discovered by these researchers is that music can give us emotional hits by creating a subtle change from a pattern. In all of my lessons, I’m always showing the structure lying underneath the piece of music we are working on. Whether it’s the grand scheme of section A followed by section B or even just how the notes of one measure actually are spelling out an F chord. It’s the same in real life. There’s an order and structure to how things are put together, whether it’s a sandwich, a computer program, a resume or a social network.
Possibly the best part of a recital is the immediate feedback from the audience. There’s no waiting around for an acceptance letter in the mail, if you did well, you know it right now! And if not so well, then you know that too. What’s great about our recitals is they are safe space, a controlled environment as everyone is there rooting for you. It’s your home court and we all want you to make a slam dunk! And if you don’t, we’ll empathize with you and give you a hug too. It really doesn’t matter – you did your best. And there’s always the next recital.