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.