Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Pencils, Tigers, and Other Stuff

I like weird people. Some of the most fascinating individuals I have encountered are among the strangest people on the planet, and I love them for it. When I say "weird" I don't necessarily mean socially awkward people, the people who leave long gaps of silence before they respond to you, or the ones who just smile back at you when you ask them a question. I'm also referring to brilliant individuals who are so brilliant that they just can't be classified as normal. I'm referring to the people who have such off-the-wall ideas that your first reaction is either, "okay....?", "huh...?" or "Wow, he/she is nuts." Welcome to my new post - Pencils, Tigers, and Other Stuff, meriting one, two, AND/(or) three of those previously mentioned reactions. I'm very weird (minus the aforementioned brilliance).

What I have to say here is actually inspiration from one of my greatest heroes, both as a pianist and as an individual. I met her when I was nine years old. I was on my way to my audition to determine whether I would be accepted into her piano studio. She was the head of the University of Utah piano department. Yeah...she's kind of a big deal. I panicked in the car ride there, trying to remember everything I'd learned about music up to that point, because I desperately wanted to study with her. My heart sank as we turned onto her street - what were those long, curved lines above the music? Slurs? Oh man, I definitely wasn't going to pass this audition. Fortunately, she must have seen some ray of hope, because she accepted me into her studio, and thus started a journey from which I would never turn back. Susan Duehlmeier is one of the most amazing individuals and teachers I've ever met. And, she's very weird - not in the sense that she's not fun to talk to or that she dresses weird, or anything like that (she's very articulate, and classy). She's weird in the sense that she can learn and memorize a concerto overnight, run the piano department at the University, have a position in her church that is extremely demanding, teach tons of students, perform all of the time, and still have time to take my calls when I have an issue with a piece I'm playing, or worse yet, a musical crisis (yes, all you jocks out there can punch me later for that last statement....back off, musical crises do exist).

I found myself in such a crisis at the National Chopin Competition in 2010. I had just played my entire first round, and somehow it went pretty well. The reason I say "somehow" isn't because I wasn't prepared. It's because I completely froze up mentally, and basically my over-preparation for the competition allowed my fingers to carry me through my mental breakdown without crashing-and-burning too badly. I felt sick about performing the next round a couple of days later. I'd never had that big of a problem with nerves, but now I knew what everyone was talking about. This was a huge competition, and perhaps it was my great love for Chopin's music, coupled with my desire to be successful in my performances that put an enormous amount of pressure on me. I gave Susan a call, and sure enough, she had a brilliant answer as always.

We talked of several things to help aid this situation, including imagery. We had already discussed imagery as a means of calming oneself before a performance, but how does imagery work when you're on stage? Sure, if the piece reminds you of a story or a situation in life, go ahead and think about it. But what about when you start to derail? I've found that once a performer starts to derail, nerves set in at a whole new level, and it's hard to recover. She said something particularly noteworthy - "You have to find a way to distract yourself from your nerves when they set in."

And so I come back to the title of this post - Pencils, Tigers, and Other Stuff. I took Susan's idea to heart, and set out on really honing the idea of distraction in times of crisis or extreme nerves. This idea can apply to non-musicians as well. This can be for anyone experiencing a panic attack of any kind. What do you do? What do you think of?

There's a cliche in our culture that can be applied to almost any situation in life - "Back to Basics." What is one of the first things you learned as a child? Pretty basic stuff, across the board. You learned sounds, shapes, and how to name things. You learned what a pencil is, what a tiger looks like, and a whole lot of other stuff. So, what I'm advocating here is going to sound super weird, but it works. It has worked for me every time. When you are having a crisis, go back to the basics in your mind, and focus on the image of a pencil. That's it. If that's not doing it for you, focus on the image of a tiger. That's it. If that doesn't work, choose something else, anything else, but choose an object that won't move around in your mind. It just sits there, and you focus all of your energy and thought on that one thing. It can be a word, a color, or a beautiful sunset on a beach, if we're wanting to stick to the idea of cliches.

What this does is temporarily remove you from your current situation. It puts you in a world where only one thing exists - that pencil, tiger, word, color, sunset, etc. And when you're in a world where only one thing exists, life is pretty simple, right? You don't have to worry about hitting that next note, you don't have to worry about having a mental breakdown, you don't have to worry about the bills, picking up the kids, doing the laundry, going to work, or anything else that causes you stress. Pretty soon, you get really bored of that image. You think, "Wow, this is it?" Yep, that's it. For now. But hey, you can choose to return to your current situation anytime you like. You'll start to realize that your current situation isn't all that bad. You start to realize that no matter what situation you're in (unless you're about to fall off of a cliff), it's not the end of the world. Who cares if I screw up a measure of my piece? Who cares if the laundry isn't done this instant. And you know what? My kids can learn the art of patience and wait for an extra two (or twenty) minutes for me to pick them up from school. My brother Jared and I mastered the art of patience (just kidding you?).

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that temporary distraction, coupled with perspective can solve almost any crisis dealing with nerves. If you're performing, I'm not suggesting that you stop playing and sit on stage in silence. You simply distract yourself from your nerves, or from those horrible thoughts like "What's the next note? and the next? and the next?"which turn your performing experience into a nightmare. Take a few seconds to get out of that world of mental destruction by focusing on something really basic. If everyday life is stressing you out, take a few moments and do a breathing exercise. If nerves are constantly torturing you, I suggest reading the book by one of the weirdest people of all - Eckhart Tolle. His work, "The Power of Now", along with these very weird ideas I presented today, have helped me nearly conquer all nerves when I perform. Sure, there are times when nerves creep up, but when they do, I know what to think about - pencils, tigers, and other stuff.


  1. One of my dearest friends in the world shared your post with me because he knows how much I have struggled with stage fright my entire life. I have even experienced one major anxiety attack, which was so humiliating for me. I want to thank you for writing this post, as I am sure it will help many people like me! By the way, I used to feel uncomfortable in my own skin because many people have found me weird, throughout the I am quite content and happy to be who I am and how I am. Weird can be quite wonderful! More people should try it, don't you think? Thank you, again, for this wonderful post!

  2. Thanks so much Shawn. I really appreciate your kindness and your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)

  3. Congratulations on this new endeavour Josh, I can't wait to see all the wonderful content you'll be posting.