“If They Only Knew!”: a funny thing about competitions, and how to deal

A young student, wise far beyond her years, said something to me recently that summed up, in a simple way, one of the hardest things about competitions.

We were discussing a competition in which she had won first place, and a friend of hers had won fourth.

She and the friend shared an accompanist, so they had been hearing each other’s progress over the course of several rehearsals before the big day.

My young student noticed how much improvement her friend had made between the first rehearsal and the competition day. She expressed regret that the judges were unaware of that fact.

“I wish that they could hear [the other student]’s recording of the first rehearsal, and see how far [that student] has come,” she expressed.

I nodded in agreement, and her mother and I exchanged rueful smiles, as if to say, “Yeah, that’s pretty much IT.”

I agreed with her that because the judges had no way of knowing the history of every student, they had to make their decision solely based on what they heard that day.

If the competition were tomorrow, the results might be different.

It follows, then, that the only recourse we have to this conundrum is to increase our consistency in performing — that is, our Repeatable Good Performance.

For ideas about increasing your aptitude for Repeatable Good Performance, check out this post: https://www.fearlessfiddler.com/2014/10/it-sounded-better-at-home-achieving-repeatable-good-performance/

Performing While Introverted: How Introverts Can Leverage their Strengths

audrey and book

Following on the heels of recent research by Susan Cain (author of “Quiet”) and others, the qualities and strengths inherent to introverts are being increasingly recognized and celebrated. Leaders in a wide range of fields, including business, politics, and the arts, often self-identify as introverts. This may seem surprising, given the stereotype of public figures as extroverts — outgoing personalities who typically crave the spotlight and thrive on social interaction.

Indeed, the parent of one of my students expressed shock when I admitted that I identify as an introvert — “But, you are a performer!” was her surprised reaction to what she saw as a contradiction.

The fact is, some of the very qualities that classify individuals as introverted, are also qualities that enhance their ability to perform well in public.

1. Introverts work well independently. This is extremely beneficial in the practice room, where a strong internal drive and conscientiousness are indispensable. The ability to work independently is also helpful during the long, isolated and sometimes lonely hours of practice that are required of a good performer.

2. At the same time, introverts work well in groups, because of their good listening skills and ability to compromise. Sometimes, more-outspoken extroverts are less likely to give equal time to other group members.

3. They make excellent public speakers and presenters, owing to that same conscientiousness — they come thoroughly prepared.

4. Introverts are often subtle communicators, noticing the smallest details and making thoughtful connections that may go unnoticed by others. This can translate to a great range of expression and subtlety in performance. In addition, their love of quiet reflection paves the way for deep and meaningful interpretations.

If you are an introverted sort, I hope that you’ll be encouraged to appreciate these qualities and others that can enhance your performances and above all, to share your abilities.

TBT: Ravel Sonata

In the spirit of the longstanding tradition of “Throwback Thursday,” I’m posting a video that Louise and I recorded live back in February – it’s the Ravel Sonata, which we performed at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago. It was kindly recorded by a staff member of the church.

This is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music — the first movement has a fairy-tale quality reminiscent of “Ma mère l’Oye.” The second movement is a wonderful French take on the blues form; and the third is a riveting perpetual motion. I hope that you’ll enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed playing it!

Talent is Overrated, Part 2

My quest to uncover the meaning and question the validity of talent continues!

I’ve been reading an excellent book by a two-time Olympic table tennis champion, BBC commentator and journalist, Matthew Syed. The book is called Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success.

Here are a few key points from the book:

  • Physical skills such as reaction time, which would be seemingly transferable if inborn, in fact do not transfer to other areas. For example, the author explains that his lightning-quick reaction impulses in table tennis do not carry over when he plays “regular” tennis.
  • Physical equipment such as “amazing hands” in tennis are not, in fact, inborn, but rather are the result of amazing coordination between the brain and the nervous system, created and honed through hours of intense practice.
  • Expert performers step outside of their comfort zones continually, in order to make progress. Even given their extraordinary ability, they constantly attempt new challenges that are just outside their ranges. I.e., expert skaters fall more often than average skaters do.
  • Child prodigies may look as if they have reached the top in double-quick time, but the reality is that they have compressed astronomical quantities of practice into the short period between birth and adolescence.

Notwithstanding the amazing benefits of deliberate practice, Syed cautions against the so-called “Tiger Moms” (and dads). He writes, “It is only possible to clock up meaningful practice if an individual has made an independent decision [author’s emphasis] to devote himself to whatever field of expertise. He has to care about what he is doing, not because a parent or a teacher says so, but for its own sake. Psychologists call this ‘internal motivation,’ and it is often lacking in children who start too young and are pushed too hard. They are, therefore, on the road not to excellence but to burnout.”

Sports scientist Peter Keen concurs, “Starting kids off too young carries high risk…The only circumstances in which very early development seems to work is where the children themselves are motivated to clock up the hours, rather than doing so because of parents or a coach. The key is to be sensitive to the way the child is thinking and feeling, encouraging training without exerting undue pressure.”

The findings shared in this book are exciting, hopeful news for anyone who has ever considered attempting a new activity, but was afraid that they “didn’t have the talent for it!” As it turns out, a strong desire to learn, coupled with good practice, may outweigh the importance of talent after all.

Catching the Wave: Flow

Flow is a mental state characterized by total immersion in the task at hand, coupled with a sense of enjoyment of the activity and an overall feeling of well-being. A lot of what propels musicians to pursue their art is that they can experience this state of flow.

Do you recall a time when you experienced this feeling? Maybe it was while finger painting as a child. Or becoming wrapped up in a video game for hours, not realizing how long you’d been sitting there, because “time stopped.”

Wouldn’t it be great to live life constantly in this state? Unfortunately, a flow state, much like creativity in general, cannot be forced or willed into existence. That being said, there are a few key components that make a person more likely to get into this all-encompassing state.

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

(Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow,

Human Factors International)

For musicians in particular, this boils down to: playing a piece that is at once challenging and enjoyable, but that also falls within your own perceived skill level. Keep in mind that this can be either during practice or performance — you can experience this state at any time, and in almost any place!

Ready, Set, Go!

Picture this for a moment: you’re on stage – bright lights beaming toward you – you hear the introduction by the orchestra or piano, and you think, “But I’m not ready yet! I don’t know this piece!” You wake up in a cold sweat, relieved that it was just a dream.

These vivid anxiety dreams are all too common before a performance, and they reveal an underlying, understandable fear that many musicians have: that you are not or will not be ready. Despite hours, weeks and even years of preparation and study of your instrument and the music in question, you still shiver with apprehension at the prospect of a big performance or audition. This is when it’s time to take a mental leap and trust your preparation.

Remind yourself of the time you’ve spent and the care you’ve taken with the music. Picture yourself in the practice room. Maybe even go all the way back to your early music lessons, and see the time and effort you’ve put in since then.

Sometimes all you need is a gentle reminder. Recently, one of my students, who is ten or eleven years old, came to me nervously just before a student recital. “Can I use the music?” she asked.
“N., how have you been practicing?” I asked.
“By memory.”
“And remember how great you played, by memory, in your last lesson?”
“Yes…”
In the end, she DID perform by memory and played beautifully. I think she just needed a reminder to trust her preparation.

It’s funny that, no matter what, I always wish for more time before a performance. I think, “If I only had one more month…” But I’m sure that, even if I DID have an extra month or two to prepare, I’d say the same thing! There comes a time when the preparation phase is over, and it is time to go out and do it. You’ve done the work. Now trust your preparation.

Welcome!

Welcome to the site! Fearless Fiddler is dedicated to helping violinists (and other musicians) realize their potential and achieve their best performance, and to enjoy the process! In my blog you’ll find posts about everything violin-related, from news about upcoming concerts, to reviews of violin literature and method books, to inspirational posts about performance and preparation. It will also feature guest articles, so if you have a suggestion, please go ahead and contact me!