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 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 Prokofiev’s Toccata

this post is part of the hackneyed devices series that chronicles my fall 2017 solo Prokofiev tour. enjoy!

Playing with form–or, in the case of the Toccata, perverting it altogether–assumes great importance in this piece. The toccatas (from Italian tocare, meaning literally “to touch”) of Bach’s and Scarlatti’s time were strictly studies of keyboard technique, pieces that could only be played on keyboard instruments. Bach’s infamous organ Toccata and Fugue in d minor, for example, also epitomizes the original purpose of toccatas as improvisatory, cadenza-esque pieces, something to whip out as the equivalent of an encore. Though unmistakably showy and technique-driven, toccatas symbolized a freedom at the keyboard not afforded to other forms.

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On Prokofiev’s second sonata


this is the first post in the hackneyed devices series that chronicles my fall 2017 solo Prokofiev tour. hope you enjoy!

“Prokofiev follows sonata form like a train schedule.”

Like any train schedule, however, unforeseen delays and detours may interrupt it, and Prokofiev’s take on sonata form in the Second Sonata is no exception. Indeed, “interruption” is the main counternarrative running through the work, as argued by YSM Prokofiev scholar Rebecca Perry–brusquely unfamiliar material interrupting main themes, seemingly inconsequentially, that assume great significance as the piece progresses.

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