Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Sunday, July 13, 2014
I know this is 9 days late, but I wanted to share my arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner with each of you. I also have sheet music available if you like the arrangement (there's a link in the comments section of the video). Happy belated 4th of July!
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Take a moment to watch this 59 second video. It will put your life into perspective. I recently saw this and it was completely humbling. "Busy" and "stressed" has become a word that we associate with normal, everyday living. We have so much stuff in our lives, whether it be material possessions, extracurricular activities, or vain ambitions, that we forget to focus on things of true worth. We commonly think of ourselves as lazy or unproductive if we aren't filling our day with a ridiculous amount of activities that keep us busy and/or stressed. There's often guilt associated with relaxation or satisfaction with life.
I recently finished a jam-packed month of performances. I know some touring concert pianists might laugh at me when I say it was jam-packed, because I only had three events. However, I played a brand new concerto - the Rachmaninoff 2nd Concerto - that I had finished memorizing only a few weeks before, followed by a concert program at BYU-Idaho in which I played an extra 45 mins of repertoire along with the Rach 2 (where my amazing wife, Dr. Lindsey Wright, who graduated a few weeks previous to that with her doctorate accompanied me on second piano), then the following weekend I competed in the Washington International Piano Competition with yet another hour of completely different repertoire. We drove from Michigan to Utah, then to Idaho, then to Washington D.C., then back to Michigan totaling over 60 hours of driving. Balancing three different programs, especially when the concerto was brand new, was a big task for me. It challenged me to focus with fierce intensity, and in the end, all three events turned out well and all of the work was worth it.
Upon returning home, I was excited that I had two weeks to "relax". I started working on some new repertoire that I've been wanting to learn, along with teaching my students on Skype. I've also been wanting to start a new video series for over six months, and just haven't found the time to do it with all of the concerts I've been working toward. So, my wife and I started working on a logo, tailoring my website to get ready for the new video series, started gathering the necessary equipment to film the videos in a professional way, and started researching how to edit the videos efficiently and effectively. I found that my practice time lessened slightly, and I immediately felt stressed about that. I told Lindsey, "I have another concert coming up in two weeks, and I haven't finished learning both new Études. I am doing terribly. How could I be so unproductive?" She looked at me and said, "Are you kidding me? What have we been doing all day, every day? Working out this new video series, practicing, and teaching."
It made me think of the video above. We have so many modern conveniences, so much technology, and endless opportunities to be stressed out. The part of the video that really makes you feel spoiled to live in America, even if you live in a small house, is, "I hate it when my house is so big, that I need two wireless routers." What a terrible problem that must be, especially when many people in the world struggle to find fresh drinking water each day. What a terrible problem I faced, not finishing my two Etudes that I'll be competing with sometime next year when countless children went hungry that same day I was practicing. How tough our lives are when we hit every red light in our air-conditioned car, on beautiful paved roads, on our way to work, where we "don't get paid enough" to buy every new gadget that our neighbors have, to live in a bigger house, to own a boat, or to summer in the Hamptons every year (which, I have "summered" in the Hamptons for a piano festival, and although it's incredibly nice, you find people who are perhaps more dissatisfied with life than you are, whose net worth is tens of millions of dollars).
I want to end this post with the most touching email I've ever received from my YouTube series. Arson is an amazing student who I've communicated with a few times since he first wrote to me last December.
Hi, I hope you are well.I am Arson. I am 14 years old. I live in a place that music was banned by the taliban and has been in war from the last 40 years, Afghanistan. But now thanks to Afghanistan National Institute of Music I am achieving my dream to become a pianist.
It has only been one and a half year since i have started to play the piano but I have always wanted to become a pianist. I never had hope I would ever see a piano but today i play the piano and i am one of the approximately 200 musicians in Afghanistan...
I am a very big fan of you. You are amazing! I watch your videos on youtube.
My question was about trills, I am suffering alot with them so i wanted to get some help. I am playing Mozart piano Sonota no.16 1st movement. i want to know how to make it beautiful....
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
(photo taken from jpsteiner.blogspot.com, via a Google image search for "pogs")
1. Be grateful for what you have. No matter what you're going through, someone has always had it worse. Victims of war, religious leaders, victims of human trafficking, and countless others have faced plights that most of us can't even imagine. If you're driving down the street, be grateful for the car that you're able to drive. If you can't afford a car and are taking the bus, be grateful for public transportation that makes your commute faster. If no public transportation is available, be grateful for the ability you have to walk. If you don't have the ability to walk (this is where I can no longer say, "be grateful," for I can't imagine how difficult it must be) one may still find gratitude in the ability to be outdoors or in nature. One of my heroes is the son of the local Steinway dealer in Salt Lake City who was in a terrible boating accident. Someone's towel blew off the houseboat they were sleeping on, and in an effort to save them from having to jump in the water to get it, he dove in after it. Being on the diving team at his school, he didn't think anything of it. Little did he know that there was a small sandbar below, and the dive crippled him. He has since been in a wheelchair. However, he has found gratitude for the small and simple things in life, and has turned his misfortune into inspiring countless others on the subject of finding hope in their lives. I believe that there's no quicker road to happiness than by doing a quick inventory of all of the things you're grateful for. Opening our eyes to see all that we are blessed with is humbling.
2. Find a hobby. My family always says, "Oh no...Josh has found his new obsession. This is the next round of Pogs." Do you remember those truly ridiculous pieces of cardboard called "Pogs"? In first grade, I happened to be pretty good at taking that silver "slammer" and flipping all of the pogs right side up in the endless tournaments we'd play at recess, thus stealing a lot of pogs from my classmates and amassing quite the collection. Pogs were a fad about as fleeting as Beanie Babies (which, weren't those all supposed to be worth hundreds of dollars each by now? It'd be tough to find someone to even give them away to). However ridiculous they may be, hobbies can keep the human spirit alive and provide a meaningful and healthy escape from the routine of every day life. If you can find hobbies that benefit you or your family in a meaningful way, even better! About a year ago, my wife and I got really into emergency preparedness, a "hobby" that I would urge everyone to take up at some point. Having a bit of food and water on hand in case of an emergency, some camping gear, a flashlight, extra blankets, or whatever else you might need in an emergency gives you even more peace of mind in your day-to-day life. Since then, I've cycled through a few other hobbies, some too ridiculous to mention here. Golf has been a constant hobby since I was 15 years old. For Christmas one year, I received a piece of turf and a golf net that we set up in the garage. My mom would often find a club carelessly abandoned on the piece of turf when she pulled in, where only seconds before the garage had started to open I had been hitting my 172nd shot into the net on one of my (far too frequent) practice breaks. My sprinting from the piece of turf to the piano became an art form in and of itself.
3. Maintain balance. If you try to take on too much, no matter how much you enjoy an activity, it can start to lose its zest and you can come to resent it. One of the common balancing acts I have to execute is a proper balance between performing, teaching, practicing, family time, and hobbies. If I have constant performances, I often miss teaching. If I am constantly teaching, I miss performing and may not be practicing as much as I need. If I do anything with piano to an excess, I neglect my relationships with those I care about most. I've noticed another toxicity in regards to balance - being too intense in one's endeavors can lead to an abandonment of those very endeavors. I was recently very sad when one of my favorite students quit taking piano lessons. He was probably in his late fifties or early sixties, and he practiced about 6 hours per day. I always looked forward to our lessons, but a few months back he took a dangerous turn. He wanted to play all of the most difficult Chopin Etudes. After handling Op.10 No.1 really well, he proceeded to go to the dreadful Op.10 No.2 (chromatic) and Op.25 No.6 (double thirds) etudes, pieces which I'm personally intimidated by and seldom perform. He thought it would be a healthy challenge. In hindsight, I should have insisted that he stop. When I originally suggested it would be too much, he asked to move forward anyway, and that we would treat them like exercises. I agreed, as long as we could keep working on more accessible repertoire. He worked extremely hard, had a great attitude about the pieces, and was making headway at a much faster pace than I had expected, when all of the sudden I received an email from him saying he was going to stop taking lessons, that it was simply too much for him, and that he wasn't seeing the results he wanted. I wrote him an email back, telling him how well he had been doing and to notice what tremendous strides he'd made in the past year, already tackling several difficult pieces, and taking on some of the most formidable etudes to improve his technique (and doing really well with them!). It taught me a great lesson that even with rock solid determination and white hot persistence, we can all break at some point, and it's smart to do a weekly self check-up, take a step back, and look at the bigger picture. When readjustments need to be made, don't be afraid to make them. Accompanying really stresses me out a lot of times. Learning vast amounts of repertoire under a very tight deadline when I already have a huge practicing/performing/teaching schedule added quite a bit of anxiety, and I finally asked myself, "Why am I doing this?!" It's quite rare that I'll take an accompanying gig now. Occasionally I'll do it if a piece really intrigues me, or if it's for a close friend or a family member, but simplifying my life in that one small way is something that has really improved my overall attitude and kept my stress levels in check. Even if it's difficult to say no to some things, it can often be worth it if it simplifies your life and allows you to focus on things you're even more passionate about.
A great church leader who I respect greatly put it best when he discussed these topics in a talk entitled "Good, Better, and Best." Which one will you choose? What are the top priorities in your life, and are you letting good things stop you from accomplishing the best things?
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
A few months ago I had the opportunity to compete at the Heida Hermanns International Piano Competition in Westport, Connecticut. After years of competing, I've learned that the healthiest way to go into a competition (mentally) is to have absolutely no expectations of winning. Thus, it was very rewarding and surprising when they announced that I had tied for first prize with Timur Mustakimov, the first tie for gold in the competition's 42-year history. Far more rewarding than winning was the experience I had previous to the competition. What I learned has helped me tremendously in my concerts over the last few months since competing there.
I have always been a fan of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I remember being extremely calm when competing in the International Chopin Competition Preliminaries (probably the biggest piano event of my life!) in Warsaw a few years ago. I was extremely nervous for the competition, as it had always been my dream to compete there. Even though I only made it to the preliminaries and didn't advance into the first round of the competition later that year, it was still an amazing opportunity to see Chopin's birthplace and visit the country where he grew up. Having just finished Tolle's book for the first time, I remember having a very keen awareness of the present moment, and I was able to fight off nerves better than I ever had before. Remembering this experience, I thought it might be useful to go back and re-read the book before the Heida Hermanns competition. I actually ended up listening to the entire book with my wife, Lindsey, on the 12-hour drive from Michigan to Connecticut. Lindsey had also been listening to some meditation tracks online that had been helping her with stress levels as she was finishing a bunch of doctoral coursework and her dissertation. She suggested that I give it a try as well.
The day before the competition we listened to a few of the meditation files, and I listened again to a couple of my favorite chapters of the book. I practiced for maybe an hour, mostly going through all of my pieces very slowly, and performing them once. When I showed up to the competition I was in a mental state of utter calmness. I had prayed to have peace, and I could feel not only peace, but a sense of being alive that I'd rarely felt before. It was as if I could feel every moment as it happened, and I was aware of all movements I made. It sounds weird, but it was very invigorating and mentally stimulating. As I walked onto the stage, it felt as though I was more aware of my breathing, sitting down on the bench, the scent of the piano (Steinways have a very specific scent that I can remember experiencing when I was 10 years old for the first time), lifting my hands to the keyboard, and then...just letting go. It was a very unique experience. It was as if there was a wall between my thinking and my playing. I was more of an audience member than a performer. I just listened to the sounds I was producing, rather than analyzing each line in my mind before I played it. It was complete freedom, and I was absolutely unaware of the time. I was enjoying myself, but it wasn't because I was performing. It was because I had total acceptance of what was happening. It didn't matter any longer how I played, but rather that I was sharing what I loved with the audience, and more importantly, enjoying what I loved doing. I finished playing, and it suddenly dawned on me how well I had performed. I wasn't in the state of dissecting every detail like I do in the practice room, but rather, I had completely let go.
This lesson in unconditional self-acceptance has been an extremely valuable lesson in my life. Whenever I approach the stage now, it is with love towards myself and the audience, rather than criticism of myself and hope that the audience will like what I do. Ultimately we have no control over what others think about us. We only have control over our own self-acceptance. To quote the meditation we listened to immediately before walking on stage, "I believe, I trust, I let go."