nos. 1 & 2 | on performance anxiety

this post is part of the hackneyed devices series that brings you along on my fall 2017 Prokofiev tour. I hope you like it.

Before I left for D.C. and Princeton last Friday (the 13th, no less), before lugging a full-to-bursting weekender on the subway and mustering a half-hearted “hello” to the bus driver, I felt wholly severed. From my body, from the music that would rule my life the next 48 hours. Even after fifteen years of studying piano, it still strikes me just how many costumes performance anxiety can slip into. Sometimes, it may be something as feathery as a stomach flutter: quiet enough to go unnoticed, just disquieting enough to lace my hands in ice, turn them as unforgiving as wood. Sometimes, it is so mercilessly crippling that the very prospect of stepping out of bed is excruciating, and the voices that taunt you swell into a cacophonous, deadly chorus. Other times, there are nightmares, and these are the most heartless of all.

Since I was 10, I’ve had a recurring performance anxiety nightmare. It goes like this: I walk onstage. For some reason, there are thousands of attendees, silent as a catacomb. Before I take my first bow, they begin screaming in unison, clawing up at me, hurling a random medley of things at me, shouting, “what are you doing?” “You shouldn’t be up there!” I never stay unconscious long enough to see what happens next, because my mind, so treacherous in its tenacity, spares a stroke of remorse and startles me awake, usually fighting a lump in my throat.

Every week before a performance, every year, for the past ten years. Like clockwork.

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On upcoming books

a month into the new semester, I thought I’d reflect on four things I’ve learned, and re-learned, the past four weeks.

  1. It is absolutely possible, and indeed necessary, to work hard without shriveling with stress. 

    In a school where harboring a cesspool of stress is considered a status symbol, that feeling of guilt when not doing something jabbed at my ribs for three years. It still creeps, squinting sinisterly in the shadows of my day, but no longer numbs my psyche like it once did, like an iron mass pressing inside my skull. So uncanny, isn’t it? Going through the motions day-by-day, without realizing we’ve turned a deaf ear to our bodies, until, almost unconsciously, we begin to perk up, jot down some notes, and feel the weight lift.It’s less that I was unhappy before, and more that I have never been as comfortable with happiness as I am now. I work better, I do better, I think, feel, am better, when I choose to listen to myself. When I stop frantically conjuring up the shame of sacrificing an hour of practicing to finish a few more pages of reading; when I just go the fuck to sleep already.

    In yoga, we fixate our breath on creating space within our bodies: between our organs, within deep, dark cavities, around tightly-locked joints. I’m only wishing so desperately that I had realized sooner the immense contentment creating space within our lives, even within a moment, can bring.

  2. There are three kinds of critics: those who are deathly afraid, those who are strong, and oneself. 

    The curious conglomerate of commitments I’ve embraced this semester have invited a whole battleground of feedback. Everything from “how are you going to prove that musical sexism is different than everyday sexism?” (thesis seminar), “whatever you do, do not hesitate” (anxiety-inducing fellowship nomination meeting), “make it uglier, turn your fingers into machines!” (a lesson on Prokofiev’s fiendish Toccata). I’m reminded ever more forcefully of just how transformative a poignant word of advice can be, and how devastatingly easy it is to validate one’s jealousy with one awful sentence. I hear my mother’s words of, “if you’re truly strong, you will lift others up” ringing in my ears, indicting me when my perfectionism gets the best of me, when I forget that, without listening to the ones who support me, I would scarcely be anything at all.

  3. Simply expressing what you love is not enough; the rhythm and the inflection of that expression is where the impact lies. 

    I’m often asked, “How do you have time for a social life with all the crazy shit you’re doing?” Usually, the answer is some variation on “I just pray,” but it almost always comes down to necessity. I have learned far more stuffing my face to the brim with food with a friend than I ever will even dehydrating on a bus to Prague, because I absolutely need to stuff my face with friends. Being with them, and meeting new ones, sharpens the edges of what I love, and challenges me to find better, clearer ways to articulate it. It’s not merely what I enjoy about my internship, or what I’m struggling to process for my tour, for example–it’s about structuring that enjoyment, or that struggle, or that passion, into something meaningful for the one taking time to listen to me.

  4. Being “too ambitious” is impossible–ambition wears many different masks; when stymied, it often creates its own cracks to seep into. 

    My thesis advisor recently prodded, “this may be a bit ambitious to include in this project.” (I’m writing on the structural and socio-psychological occupational barriers women face in the classical music industry). “Okay,” I replied, one finger running methodically along my chin. “Could I turn it into a book, then?” His resulting smile contained all the satisfaction of garlic flecks grazing oil at just the right temperature. So, yes, perhaps this amateur and rambly and nonsensical corner of the interwebs will prove useful in a few years. Remind me to keep my eyes peeled on Amazon Books.

On silver cobwebs

[POI: conducting a beets&noodz interview, where Sein, our interviewee, spent four minutes gushing about her idol, violinist Janine Jansen]

“I became obsessed with her playing, her strange posture, the clothes she wore…” Sein’s voice trailed off, like fog dissipating at dawn, as I drifted into the small well reserved in my mind for pianist Martha Argerich.

Argerich is peculiar. The only thing the world knows for sure is that we know nothing about her. She eschews time-space; tracking her down for even a five-minute phone interview is a herculean task; expecting her to follow through with engagements is almost comical–Argerich cancelled as many concerts as she played last year. Her physical persona, too, creates an aura of being shrouded in mystery: a cobweb mane of silver hair, once an inky, fathomless black; dark skirts that billow like fumes when she walks, or when she thunders away at the keys. She is perhaps the only figure in the world that is so notoriously beloved yet so notoriously inscrutable. (When former President Obama conferred her Kennedy Center Honor last winter, he pronounced her name wrong. Twice.)

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On full moons

[POI: a “deep existential moment,” as a friend put it, I had walking home from practicing in the early hours of the morning this past Wednesday]

This week, I felt disoriented walking the same paths, holding the same doors, complaining about the same nuisances–here, that includes a bureaucracy “to rival the Ottoman Empire’s” (according to my History of the Modern Middle East professor), a new credit cap that unleashes a different head of the same stress hydra, and inconveniently-located women’s restrooms (vestiges of the university’s more-sexist-than-today years). I felt the same strangeness answering the twenty-seventh question of “are you ready for senior year?” “does it feel different?” “are you…on the cusp of change?” It’s remarkable how, with a simple wring of time, everything you’ve known for three years somehow leans a different hue, is outlined another way.

And yes, I do feel different, but a comfortable different. Like things have fallen into place, the way milk, poured in languid swirls, fills the cup’s edges until the coffee emerges a spritely hazelnut color. Some constants will always remain so–rapidly-turning leaves landing with small thuds on College Walk; late nights on Low banisters, legs dangling off the ledge; early mornings gathering myself for the day ahead, accompanied by 0% plain Fage. It would be foolish to think that senior year will somehow be easier now that internships take up as much time as classes do, now that E.C. parties have reached a new zenith of affectionately disgusting.

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On Prokofiev’s sixth sonata

this is the third installment of the hackneyed devices series that chronicles my fall 2017 solo Prokofiev tour. hope you enjoy!

The Sixth Sonata, the first in the “War Sonatas” trilogy, is a significant departure from the Second Sonata we heard earlier: gone are the lush colors and deference to tonality; in their place are jagged rhythms, unapologetic dissonance, and an eerie musical irony in the lyrical passages amidst the piece’s electric fury. The harsh battalion imagery of the Sixth Sonata is especially fascinating, for the Nazis had not yet invaded the Soviet Union when Prokofiev set to work on this piece. Prokofiev was instead engulfed by personal turmoil–his friend, Vsevolod Meyerhold, had commissioned an opera, then disappeared (code for “was arrested and executed”)–while simultaneously commissioned to write a celebratory cantata for Stalin’s 60th birthday. In some ways, then, this sonata can be interpreted as a political statement, an overt critique of a brutally oppressive regime.

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On humbleness

[POI: embarking on another father-daughter Costco run; a coffee catch-up with my unofficially-adoptive mother, Sue.]

I was terrified of Sue when I first met her. She has the gaze of Mulan‘s Shan Yu (minus, you know, the falcon sidekick and bloodlust) and a résumé to rival that of Condaleezza Rice. Years of negotiating with the world’s most intimidating, and therefore often stubborn, climate lawyers have lent her a particularly impenetrable aura, like the shell of an ostrich egg. She has an uncanny ability to perfect anything; competition is irrelevant to her because she is the competition, the one everyone loves (wishing they were her) and hates (knowing they could never be her) with equal ferocity. Her sense of humor is as wry as it is biting. Her first words to my parents were, “can we trade kids?”

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On current piano teachers

[POI: waking up to a “sorry, Cindy, I accidentally took the keys to the car in the garage” text, leaving me no choice but to cancel my morning with my piano teacher.]

Today, I’m missing my piano teacher–let’s call her “E.”–more than usual. It was supposed to be very straightforward: greet the doorman. Tap E.’s doorbell (just once). Place a customary can of jasmine tea leaves in her palm. Attempt to play piano for her. Afterwards, crunch on salad (her) and inhale some pastries (me) at Kafe Leopold. Instead, a key mishap left me at home, one hand clutching Prokofiev scores, the other angrily schmearing avocado on toast.

I met E. by accident. After a previous piano teacher (not this one, rest assured) decided it was worth my mother’s money to yell instructions from her kitchen, fifteen feet behind me, I quit. In a snotty voicemail, the woman blurted out a name in a teary garble, saying, “I think she would be great for her.” My mother shepherded me from house to house, suspicious woman to suspicious woman, trying to figure out who was supposedly so spectacular for me. Some appointments ended in disaster (potential teacher: “Okay, dear, now you can ask any question you’d like.” Me: “How old are you?” Mother [stammering]: “We’re leaving, thank you, goodbye”). Others, like anything J. Crew, simply didn’t fit.

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