learning, piano, self-improvement, simplicity, teaching, tutoring

“Simple can be harder than complex.” -Steve Jobs

Last Tuesday, a friend and I watched pianist Yuja Wang in concert at the SF Symphony. “I thought we could relive our piano days,” my friend said when she invited me. She and I started learning piano at very early ages, and when we met in high school, we immediately bonded over the hours of practice and obscene amount of stress that accompanied piano recitals and formal evaluations.

If you’ve never performed in a recital, what you don’t know is that by preparing your music, you will only be half-prepared. Other integral parts of rehearsing include choosing the right shoes (some shoes are better suited for the pedal), the right hairstyle (there’s nothing worse that hair falling into your face when you’re looking for E-flat), and the right pre-recital sanctuary (you need a clear, stress-free mind). A perfect performance is as much in flawless play as in your command of the stage.

When Yuja entered the stage, she was wearing silver stilettos and a tight red dress. My friend and I looked at each other in shock. Yuja flipped her hair and waltzed to the piano. She swan-dived into a bow, sat down, and took command of the keys. She swayed to the music, as if she were foxtrotting with the Steinway. It was as if she wasn’t even trying.

Watching Yuja play wasn’t like reliving my piano days. If she had relived my piano days, she would have made a forgettable courtesy, her fingers would have trembled when she placed them on the keys, and she would have stopped mid-piece having forgotten how to start a coda or something. Her non-piano-playing parents would have been shifting in the audience, praying that she, they, and the audience would survive the next ten minutes. No, these were not my piano days.

Recently, I started tutoring a high school senior. She moved from China two years ago and is looking to improve her written and spoken English. We’re starting with her college application essays (talk about plunging into the deep end). Our first meeting was a struggle due to the language barrier and I found myself questioning whether our relationship could help her. Within hours of our first meeting, she sent me an email. It was the draft of her personal statement.

The essay describes her move from China to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, the dismal living conditions of her insect-infested California home, and her determination to learn English and go to college so that she can one day support herself and her family. I cried the first time I read it. It was a visceral reaction to words so powerful in their rawness. This is definitely going to work.

“This is so perfect,” I told her when we met a week later to discuss her essay. She looked at me blankly, not because she didn’t understand but because she thought I was lying. “The words are too simple.” “What do you mean?” “It’s not impressive. My teacher helped me edit it. I have another version.” She pulled it up and watched me read it. This version had been steamrolled by a thesaurus. It was a bumpy read and when I got to the end, I felt nothing but relief to be done reading. “So? Which version is better?” she asked when I looked up from the screen. “Definitely the earlier version,” I responded without pause. “Why?” “It just is.”

She was unhappy with my vagueness, and I was annoyed at my inability to explain why.

As I listened to Yuja play on Tuesday, it dawned on me why the first essay was so good. It was good because it took something so foreign to most of us, and made it relatable with carefully-chosen everyday words. The power was in its seeming simplicity, the same way that Yuja took pages of overlapping notes and turned them into sooting melodies. This audience, unlike the ill-fated ones at some of my more horrific performances, could have listened to her play forever (as demonstrated by four encores).

Frederic Chopin once said, “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” What may feel couterintuitive as we advance in our art, career, and lives, is that the true mark of proficiency is the ability to execute with seeming effortlessness. When you make something look difficult, it also becomes difficult for others to appreciate. Anyone who can read music can play a Chopin, but to play it as he would have, you have to think like him too.

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commitment, dance, dedication, piano, real world, success

It’s quite clear that I’m stuck here

I was eight years old when I first started learning piano. I had already been involved in several other activities since I the ripe age of five, but, over the course of those three years, they had lost their novelty (no disrespect, I’m just telling it how I saw it, as a mature and sophisticated eight-year-old). Convinced that learning piano would be something new, exciting and different, I begged my parents to put me into class. Begged. They didn’t have a dog yet but having a daughter literally begging at their feet probably made them feel like they did.

It was a couple months by the time my parents finally obliged. They found me a nice Russian piano teacher who no doubt, has tremendous talent. She was also a slave driver (figuratively, no need to notify the authorities). What followed was years of sweat, fear, tears, and stress. I used to have rehearsals on Wednesdays at 6 PM and let me tell you, for ten years, Wednesday was my least favorite day of the week. The prospect of Wednesday was paralyzing. I dreaded 3:30 PM, which signaled the end of the school day and the beginning of my two-hour cram session before going to class, no matter how much I had practiced during the week. I spent numerous Tuesday evenings choosing piano practice over exam preparation. At 24, I can honestly say that so far, nothing in my life, not the SAT, not job interviews, not final exams, nothing has been as stressful as my my past life as a student of this particular piano studio.

Piano was the first real thing in my life that felt like a binding commitment. There were monetary repercussions for missing lessons (and let’s just say that my parents weren’t exactly okay with making charitable donations to a well-off Russian Maestro), requirements to perform in quarterly recitals, and annual piano exams. As you can imagine, it stopped being fun very early on. And neither my parents nor my ego gave me the option to quit.

Not to be dramatic, but my experience with piano has deeply affected the way I approach potential commitments in my life, be it something big like a job or a friendship or even something seemingly inconsequential, like plans for the weekend. I fear that the second I commit, the fun, and more importantly, my ability to be in control, will disappear. With commitment, the light-hearted, fluffy excitement of an opportunity or possibility is immediately transformed into an imposing burden. And my moral opposition to shirking commitment does not help the case.

At the end of my senior year of high school, I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I was going to be attending college two thousand miles away, suggesting a natural end to my piano lessons. To encapsulate my ten years of hard work, I, for the first time, put on a recital for my friends and family. Previous recitals had been for members of the piano studio or panels of judges.

I still remember that recital. I walked up to the piano, took a bow, adjusted the bench, and took a seat. I took a quick breath, lifted my hands, then released my fingers onto the keyboard. They began flying. My body swayed with the music, melodies and harmonies swirled through the theater, and I for the first time in many years, was truly playing for fun. It was both liberating and rewarding.

A couple years ago, my mom and I got into an interesting debate. Coming from a culture where a husband and wife may meet on the day of their wedding, potentially only sharing one common goal of a successful marriage, my mom is very dubious of the world of dating. It doesn’t make sense to just go around dating fifty people. If you always have the option to leave, you’ll be less inclined to making any one relationship work. You’ll always be convinced that there is better out there. Valid, but room for argument (though not in this particular post). I bring up this conversation only to emphasize the power and importance of commitment. Not, necessarily to a person, as is the case with dating, but commitment to values, outcomes, goals, beliefs, and in general, your success and happiness.

A senior leader at my company put it best. We were discussing my rotational program, in which for two years, associates move into new roles every six months. The biggest mistake you can make is to act as if you’re shopping. If, in each role you think, Oh well, I’m just experimenting. I’m going to be out of here soon anyway, you’ll never feel the need to learn and improve. And at the end of the two years, you’ll have nothing to show for it.

On my college dance team, I coined the term “commit” for dance moves (seriously, talk about lasting impact). For each year’s repertoire, we incorporated a few modern and, for lack of a different word, different styles. Learning choreography for these pieces often required movements or poses that felt unnatural. The team would stand behind the choreographer walking through sequences. To be blunt, you’d feel like an idiot. But then, as you learned the piece, when you really put your all into each movement, imagined yourself on stage, in costume, performing, and essentially lost your body in the dance, it was almost impossible to look anything but glamorous.

As difficult as it is to admit (this is one of those “mom was right” moments in public), it was the feeling of being tied to the piano, the seemingly “signed in blood” commitment, that gave me no chance but to practice and become a rather decent piano player. I am almost positive that had I felt like I had the option to quit at any time, I wouldn’t have had the desire or motivation to rehearse my heart out.

Of course, I am not saying that we go through life feeling as if every decision we make is unchangeable. Not only is that unrealistic and naive, but it would also make me a hypocrite. But reflect on each potential commitment to be sure that it is something or someone really important and true to you. That, if going through with the commitment means jumping through hoops of fire, you’re willing. That you won’t spend more time finding the easy way out. Because the second you tell yourself that something is temporary, that it doesn’t matter, that you can always get out of it, you compromise your potential. You’re less invested. And it shows. I’ve tracked these repercussions in my own mindset shifts. The mediocrity that comes with irresolution is relentless.

So yes, commitment is stifling. The word even feels a bit binding and restrictive. Those poor vowels are completely trapped between harsh consonants. But I’ve begun to realize that commitment doesn’t need to be fear-inducing. Commit to being happy in all regards. Commit to learning and exploring. Commit to enriching, once-in-a-lifetime type experiences. Paradoxically, this is the only way to free your mind, to grow as a person, and to soar through life.

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college, failure, piano, success

#Fail

I took piano lessons for many many years (eleven, but who’s counting?). Each year, I performed in four recitals for a mixed-bag audience of friends, family, and strangers. Between an Indian mother and a Russian piano teacher, to say the weeks leading up to each recital were excruciatingly stressful would be an understatement. I still remember one particular recital as if it happened yesterday. I was off to a beautiful start, mind lost in music, fingers flying across the keyboard, unfazed by the pairs of eyes and ears assessing me. And then something unfortunate happened. My mind drifted for a split second. And in that split second, everything unraveled. My fingers started slowing down then stopped. I attempted to brush it off as if nothing had happened but could only produce dissonant chords and a rather unmelodious melody.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed my piano teacher’s head buried in her hands. I was trembling. My lips were quivering. I wanted to disappear. This is it. My piano career is over. She’s going to disown me as a student. I thought to myself. I managed to create some sort of ending, stood up, took my bow, and to the chorus of a pathetic yet sympathetic applause, left the recital hall.

In class a week later, I sat next to my teacher as she entered my recital grade, an ominous letter “F” in my notebook. It was very deliberate and took what seemed like an eternity. The feeling of failure soaked in as my teacher retraced each line of the letter over and over. This resulted in not only an image that terrorized the specific page on which it was written, but an engraving that haunted the blank pages to come. It made it so that my failure would not be forgotten any time soon.

At that point in my life, the experience felt like an irrevocable failure. After all, I had failed my teacher. Failed my parents. Failed in front of everyone. Failed myself. It was a deeply upsetting feeling. But thinking back, the fact that I didn’t quit, the fact that this experience only inspired me to practice more and try again four months later, makes me feel like perhaps this was not failure, per se, but a necessary learning experience.

Unless you’ve spent the past couple years living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed a widespread explosion of the word “fail.” The word is an internet meme, for crying out loud. But I think it’s safe to say that increased use of the word is not at all related to increased experience of failure. Instead the power of the word has simply begun to diminish (of course, context still plays a significant role). From “epic fails” to failblogs, this word which once had grave consequences is now veiled by humor and hilarity. It’s a digestible euphemism for that daunting and unpleasant concept of failure. I would even venture to guess that in some ways, the way we now use this word is starting to affect the way we think about, or at least experience, failure itself (to a psycholinguist, probably the most controversial statement I’ve ever made in this blog).

Recently, my manager mentioned to our team that when it comes to his “failures” he feels that he has never failed, but only learned. To me, it’s this exact mindset, not the absence of failure, that cultivates success.

Today, unlike the “olden times,” failure is less and less about being shamed by your family or banished from a kingdom and more about dissecting and reflecting on a failure to ensure that it is not repeated. Increasingly, the only failure is in how you deal with an outcome that is not ideal.

From analysis to early videos to anecdotes to quotes, Steve Jobs’ resignation announcement has spawned a flurry of reinvigorated fanaticism for him and his company. As someone who is taking the first steps in my career journey, one statement I found to be particularly meaningful was Jobs’ musing that being fired from Apple was one of the best things that has happened to him. “The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

I recently watched this TED talk in which Alain de Botton explains his philosophy of success (and by association, failure). He begins by defining our meritocratic society today — one where success and failure are thought to be deserved. Those who work hard rise to the top. Those who don’t end up at the bottom. And because we no longer worship some superhuman force or spirit and instead worship human heros deemed successful by society, we as individuals strive to be successful in the eyes of others. Society. Worst of all, we take failure as a personal blow. Something we have deserved. The end of the world. Botton offers that the key is to identify what you deem to be successful for yourself and to commit to getting there. Expect to fail along the way. Hope to fail along the way. If you ask me, these points of supposed “failure” are the ones that allow you to reflect and reevaluate. To confirm that you still want what you are working towards. Then stand up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Most importantly, don’t take failure personally. Sometimes, it’s just out of your control.

Finding out that I had been rejected from my dream college was like having someone punch me in the stomach. I felt the walls of my world closing in on me. The place I had for so long identified to be my successful future now, no longer was. What did I do to deserve this? I wondered indignantly as tears streamed down my face. I’m such a failureHow am I going to tell my parents? How am I going to tell my friends?

It was at that junction that my idea of success required redefining. I realized that “Yale University” should never have been my definition of success. That the way I would be perceived by others should never have been a consideration. And only a year into my time at Penn did I realize Wow, this worked out so well. I am growing and thriving as a person. Being rejected by Yale was not a failure of my own. And clearly, I didn’t even know what success was until after I had experienced it.

If you ask me, society’s obsession with categorizing events, actions, and beliefs as “success” or “failure” is the fundamental problem. Because this obsession pervades the way we assess our individual lives, even when the categories are unfitting. The truth is, sometimes failure isn’t failure and success is not visible to the naked eye. Resist the urge to mold your life into success versus failure, and instead, just experience. Live. Get lost in the music while working towards everything you want to accomplish. And as long as you accept that sometimes you’ll need a chord change to keep the music alive, your fingers will never stop flying and you will never fail.

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basketball, hard work, hubris, piano, winning

Nobody Said It Was Easy

About this time eight years ago, we were reading The Odyssey in English class. I think it was during those discussions that I learned the word “hubris.” Words have character, and to me, this one is ugly. But in ancient Greece, hubris wasn’t just ugly. It was illegal.

About this time one year ago, I was standing in front of my mirror practicing my first semester thesis presentation over and over. And over.

About this time two weeks ago, the arguable hubris of the Boston Celtics and the undeniable skill of a certain Russell Westbrook led the Oklahoma City Thunder to victory. This isn’t the first time I’ve written a post involving overconfidence and the Celtics.

We’ve all experienced success in some form or another. From exceeding our own expectations to those of others. From avoiding to overcoming obstacles. And the sweet taste of it is unforgettable. We turn a blind eye to everything we did to get there, though. After all, “it was all worth it” in the end. It’s when we fail (or “fail,” like when you call a B+ failing) that every single moment of preparation (or lack thereof) rings loud and clear in our mind and memory. Feeling wronged, we think, I don’t deserve this. With our rose-colored glasses, victory is easy. Success is a right.

At my piano studio, we were required to perform pieces from memory. No sheet music during recitals or tests. To prepare us, my piano teacher would assign us to memorize a piece weeks before it was to be performed.

Memorizing was woefully difficult for me. It would take me hours of practice and often require me to play isolated four-measure phrases repeatedly. At no point in my childhood or early adolescence did that process seem attractive. Frequently, I did what most stupid children do — skipped the practice and walked into class hoping for the best. Whatever. I’ve memorized pieces before. I’m sure I’ve got this. In modern vernacular, you could say that week after week, I would just do it live. Or try, at least. Needless to say, the repercussions were disastrous. My piano teacher, sitting across the room with my notes and fuming with rage, would impatiently listen as I attempted to play a modern Gershwin masterpiece from my you know what. I guess sometimes you have to fall on that you know what to have some sense knocked into you.

Psychological theory explains performing under pressure in the following way: When you are already pretty good at something, you perform amazingly under pressure. But when you’re not so good and the pressure kicks in, you completely tank. It suggests that practice, but not too much practice, makes perfect.

As a notion, beginner’s luck seems wonderful. It’s cool to be a natural star. But beginner’s luck is just that. Luck. And rare. As blunt as it might sound, you can’t just expect to hit the ball out of the park. This is especially applicable to me as I have never held a baseball bat.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to hear a high school friend perform at a coffee shop. She was an amazing singer when I met her eight years ago and has only gotten better. And now she’s “out there”, trying to “make it big” in the music industry. When I was telling a coworker about her, he asked Well if she’s good, it shouldn’t be too difficult right? That’s the thing, though. It’s never easy. But that’s what makes success even sweeter.

I like to win. And I’m a bit of a sore loser. But as I continue to grow up, I’ve learned that no matter how much you like to win, regardless of whether you usually win, you can never expect to win. It’s as an announcer preached during that Thunder-Celtics game. You can’t just show up and win. You gotta play the game.

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piano, potential, risk

Every Road is a Ray of Light

If you knew my family before 2001, you know that my brother was the most hyperactive of children. To give you a frame of reference, my parents used to put him on a leash when they went out in public. They aren’t even that strict about leashing our dog. So when my mom took her four-year-old son to a piano studio in Cupertino for an “interview,” it is not surprising that the teacher did not immediately accept him. She shook her head decidedly. I only accept students after they’ve turned 7. My mom was determined. He is very capable. He needs this. She insisted just talk to him. Sometime during her interview with my brother, the teacher went from “absolutely not” to a reluctant “yes.”

She took a risk. She must have seen some potential.

He started with thirty-minute lessons. He couldn’t even sit still for that long. After fifteen minutes, our piano teacher would make him run up and down the stairs three times. A couple years later, she was calling him “Professor” (her accent made it sound like an even bigger deal). And a few more years later, she was sitting in the audience of the student-directed play for which he had directed the orchestra. Though my brother retroactively competes with me in every aspect of his life (“what was your GPA when you were in the ninth grade?”), when it comes to piano, there is no competition. We started learning at the same time and he was always better.

Development for the iPad began twenty years ago. That was before my brother was born, when computers looked like this. The fact that developers could see the potential for this device in a future world is pretty amazing. And the fact that they waited and correctly identified the perfect timing in that future world to release the device is pretty skilled.

So often, what exists in the moment distracts us from what could be or worse, convinces us of its implausibility. It takes imagination to see the potential, be it of a skill, a relationship, a product, an art form. The work of Dutch painter Van Gogh went unappreciated during his lifetime (by the way, sorry about the World Cup, dude). You could say that he was ahead of his time. People couldn’t see value in what he had to offer.

For two years, I interned with HP’s Innovation Program Office. The group was all about looking 10 or even 20 years out. Dreaming and creating for the future. Realizing future potential is about understanding the continuum of innovation and imagining what could be.

But it’s not only about imagination. It’s also about taking risks.

During a Columbia University information session, the admissions officer spoke. There is a lot of potential out there. We could probably build four or five completely unique classes out of our applicant pool. How do they know they know they’ve chosen the best class? Well they don’t. They evaluate the potential — the unrefined talent — then take the risk, the challenge of realizing the potential.

The use of experimental treatments for chronic illnesses follows a similar path evaluating risk and potential.

I think we have been groomed to associate risk with the possibility of failure more than the possibility of success. You know, the whole “for every Bill Gates and Steve Jobs out there…” shpeel. But recognizing potential and taking risks is the only way to make any dream a reality. You can study the stats and receive input and advice, but in the end, it’s in your hands. Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of going about it (think, “The Decision”).

To this day, I think about how my piano teacher saw that potential and took a risk. If she had turned my brother away, he or my parents may have lost interest altogether. My family looks back and laughs about those beginning-piano days. And as much as we appreciate the music, we just wish he would plunk out tunes (“realize his potential”) during daylight hours.

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