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WHAT WE TELL OURSELVES CAN HELP OR HINDER

Updated: Jun 19


We've all heard the old adage that "familiarity breeds contempt." That's a heckava lot less harmful than what really can be bred if we indulge in too much familiarity (i.e., repetition) of the wrong kind, that is, assuming that we are serious in our professional or amateur pursuit of a grand love affair with our instrument or with music.


I confess to both of the above kinds of love, with my piano and with music! But I also confess that I needed a refresher on the point Julliard Prof and psychologist-violinist Noa Kageyama succinctly makes in a vlog he recently sent to his subscribers and students, "The Subtle Habit That Might Be Undermining Your Confidence."


A few years ago as a late-life returning piano student when playing in front of a piano teacher or a few friends, confidence did not come easy to me. Fortunately, confidence was something of far less concern to me after taking Noa's five-session zoom "Psych Essentials of Performance"* class in January, 2023 and re-taking it a year later. That class focuses on effective, practical, and study-based strategies on how to acquire or improve confidence, and what I learned in that class works for me about 99% of the time.


Confidence also came to me after reading the book "Mindset" that Noa recommended, written by Stanford Prof Carol Dweck. You can easily find YouTubes of her TED talks that can be summarized by her main message which I regularly repeat these days:


"I don't YET know how to do that, but with time, effective practice strategies, and persistence, I can get there!"


By a shorter name that's often called the "growth mindset".


I could, but won't, discuss the validity, fairness, or kindness of a former piano teacher who was not a trained psychologist but who nonetheless readily diagnosed me and motivated me to find Noa's class by telling me that "your main problem is that you lack confidence, and it's nothing I can give you; you have to find it for yourself."


By that point some nine months into lessons I had become distressed and depressed because I felt that I was a failure and likely not a suitable candidate for piano lessons to begin with. I was one of those whom Noa says conclude that “Maybe I don’t belong here.”


Suffice it to say that after taking Noa's effective class I am now convinced my former teacher was dead wrong, and that a student's confidence is actually a joint project and joint responsibility to improve or solve a problem with which any good teacher, piano or otherwise, should be able to carefully and kindly help a student.


From time to time I discuss confidence-building strategies with my performing friends, both professional and amateur, piano teachers, composers, and academicians, and I read anything I can get my hands on about the topic. That often includes specific ways to focus the mind to benefit performance and pleasure in the doing of it, and how to achieve focus to begin with.

A former classmate in Noa's 2023 class, Grace Huenemann, and I were discussing this topic over dinner not long ago (pictured above on that happy occasion) because she had just concluded two close-in-time public performances of the very complex, very long Fantasy and Fugue in C Major by Mozart. I had the pleasure of being a "trial audience" in one of her final at-home rehearsals and was beyond impressed, but then, she was about to conclude a successful career and love affair with teaching the piano. I wanted to know how her confidence strategies in the two performances had held up under pressure?


Apparently quite well!


Grace told me about two novel strategies she had employed, variations on ones taught in Noa’s class, and I was fascinated. Before one concert, Grace had thought back to the critical moment and experience in her life as a recent college graduate with many years of piano lessons under her belt. She had been practicing a difficult piece for a lesson, and she decided to play it just the way she heard it, without worrying about mistakes.  She was stunned by how good it sounded, and in that moment she decided to direct her career toward the piano. On the occasion of her first recent performance, she thought back to how she felt at the time, and decided to allow that free musician to come into her mind, spirit, and body before she sat down to perform and as she performed - and it worked well for her!


Before the second performance occasion, Grace was seeking a comprehensive story or overall message to convey to the audience about the same Mozart Fantasy she was to play. She had played the piece as a student and resurrected it for these performances, and after several performances she was searching for a fresh idea about the meaning and possible story behind the composition that might inspire her performance.


She was initially stumped -- until she thought about how a young Mozart might have been having fun in this variegated (and long!) Fantasy, as one musical idea after another tumbled out!  She took on an attitude of playfulness and pure enjoyment in presenting the piece, and the audience responded enthusiastically.


So what was the message behind Noa's blog referenced above?


He started by asking "how does the brain decide what is true?" A study from the 1970s might hold the answer, he says, that "frequency might be one of the tools that our brain uses to make decisions about a statement’s validity."


"Repetition leads to plausibility... Essentially, it seems that our brain sometimes confuses familiarity with truthfulness...regardless of the actual truth."


We surely have some excellent examples of that point from current politics, and that is the endless, affirmative repetition of phrases such as "Stop the Steal" or from public health such as "the Covid vaccine causes autism". Repetition of those now-familiar phrases helped convince millions that a patent falsity is actually a truth.


The power of frequency became crystal clear in a front page article in the Sunday New York Times of June 9, that discussed the irrational recall rampage against a Nevada county clerk in charge of voter matters. The courageous clerk who took multiple redundant steps to verify that all voting was and had been done properly, reported that time after time she heard the common allegations of voter fraud based on: "Oh, I think I heard that somewhere before. I guess it must be true."


Coming back to music, I am reminded of Natalie Hodges, the young violinist and music student who wrote "Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance And The Science Of Time", a recently-published book about how she decided to walk away from a possible performing career (but not from music). She describes how she could not find a way to get over negative self-talk in her head that told her she was going to "mess up" a particularly difficult spot in any given piece she was performing -- and sure enough, she would do just that. It caused her unsupportable stress.


As Noa says, "our thoughts tend to be awfully automatic. They often happen very quickly without our realizing it. And many of us tend to have a negativity bias, where the voice in our head habitually points out the things we struggle with and can’t do quite yet." He advises readers to learn to be constantly and consistently aware of negative self-talk.


I congratulate Hodges for caring about her well-being and music enough to go after the joy of it in other ways aside from concert performance -- and not bear unbearable pain after many tries to improve matters, but her story still leaves me a bit sad. It's the perfect example of the point of Noa's vlog.


I'm going to be more aware of any remnants of antiquated, crippling self-consciousness and insecurity that might crop up from time to time in my life, and then employ one of the effective strategies I settled on in Noa's class, or find new ones like Grace's inventive strategies mentioned above.


I'm also going to remind myself of what Grace and I both agree is the prime source of troubling or persistent nerves: a bit too much of the wrong part of ego, resulting in fear of the disapproval of others.


I keep a list of confidence-building strategies on cue cards at the side of my score holder and I'm sure I'll be adding to them over time as I get on with my learning and piano-playing adventures that were born and keep blossoming out of love.

_________

*Noa's next class begins June 18 so you might want to check it out at bulletproofmusician.com!

***


ENLIGHTMENT

(for an upcoming volume of poetry)


The first step to enlightenment is awareness.

The first step to awareness is belief.

The first step to belief is openness

to ideas that won’t us deceive.


The first step to openness is inspiration,

an idea the universe presents

via nature or spirit or the teacher [Noa!] who arrives

and toward enlightenment of others is bent.


The first step to inspiration is clear,

that’s when mist drifts from the darkness of space

and dawn allows us to see we’re never alone in our soul

and know the answer is simple grace.


###


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