1. How has classical music influenced you?
As a senior in college, I often reflect upon how various experiences — especially those that are typically undervalued or seen as tangential and frivolous — have impacted me intellectually, emotionally, and socially, and how the synergy of these experiences contributes to who I am today.
I have been playing the piano for 16 years, and classical music has undoubtedly 1) helped me cultivate important and widely-transferrable skills, 2) empowered me with the ability to express myself and the confidence to engage in creative agency, and 3) filled my life with joy!
Playing the piano has taught me how to coach myself through many different types of “difficult performances.”
Whether it be a presenting a complicated deck or leading a long club meeting, there are so many situations during which I have had to complete a mentally (and potentially emotionally) difficult task in front of many different types of people.
Mistakes are inevitable during any kind of public performance — be it a presentation, speech, athletic game, recital, etc. Sometimes, the mistakes are huge and obviously humiliating, but at other times, the mistakes are small but still rattle you up. Regardless, in moments of panic, despair, and frustration, a performer has no one but themselves to turn to for the resilience to continue gracefully. In these moments, the performer is their own coach — what they say to themselves matters greatly and changes the course of the performance.
Performing classical piano from a young age taught me how to handle those moments — I learned to shift my focus away from the technical mishaps and towards the emotional arc of the piece, and learned to listen so intently to the overarching sound I envisioned that I could put the mistake behind me. I was able to make these quick mental shifts because my experiences performing taught me that what I find most rewarding about music is to take what a musical genius has written and to co-create different musical moments with this genius. In other words, performing frequently taught me to focus on what matters most to me — which, in the case of classical music, is to deliver an emotionally compelling performance. This focus enables me to focus away from technical stumbles, and motivated me to deliver an even more emotionally compelling performance to make up for technical imperfections. This ability has also helped me cope with mistakes during other types of “performances,” such as delivering a presentation: I learn to let go of small slips in a specific wording or gesture I had planned, and recalibrate my attention to focus on the overall message.
So how do I prepare for “coaching myself” in every moment of a piano performance? While practicing, I identify high-level concepts within my pieces. High-level concepts, such as how the musical momentum of the moment fits into the overall narrative structure of the piece, motivate and contextualize the technical details by providing a layer of abstraction above them. And throughout the piece, by focusing on the higher-level concepts, I can see beyond comparatively insignificant technical blunders and remain fixated on the bigger goals of the performing the piece.
Furthermore, focusing on these high-level concepts requires me to be untethered from worrying about technical details, so I usually always memorize pieces weeks before the performance so that no technical concerns crowd my mind in the moment of the performance.
Thus, during the weeks leading up to a competition or concert, I’m no longer practicing the technical aspects of the piece — instead, I’m practicing the messages I have to tell myself (“imagine the plume of a peacock fanning out gloriously under the sun,” “visualize a thin plastic bag being swept around by the wind swirling between towering NYC skyscrapers”) at different points of the piece in order to fully convey the color and energy of the monument, and to maintain the musical message I want to convey.
Tackling new piano pieces has taught me how to learn different types of information in novel settings.
This past summer, even though I worked as a PM for a large tech company, I’ve clearly seen how my training as a classical musician contributes to my ability to approach ambiguity and to problem solve in the workplace. Additionally, my experiences as the Music Director (MD) of my college a cappella group showed me the important ways that my classical music training has enabled me to confront a huge task, break it down into smaller pieces, and to efficiently master those small pieces so that I can lead a group to achieve a significant task.
So what are the parallels between learning piano pieces and learning on the PM job or leading a cappella rehearsals? Let me explain how I think the process of learning piano pieces (and more specifically, preparing for piano lessons) has cultivated a broader capacity for learning.
Even though I meet with my piano teacher every week, we mostly go over important musical concepts to practice, and general technical goals to achieve for the following week. That means it’s mostly up to me to figure out how to get myself from my current state to my goal state. It’s up to me to motivate myself, to plan out different drills / methods of practicing that build on each other, every day, until my next lesson. The process of planning and “coaching” myself involves the important skills of 1) understanding the overall goal, 2) breaking it down into actionable smaller goals, 3) creating a weekly plan, 4) observing your progress, 5) synthesizing patterns among what is and isn’t working, 6) making necessary changes, and 7) holding myself accountable to that plan.
So how do these skills apply to being a PM and a MD?
An important part of being a PM is creating structure out of ambiguity, but more generally, there’s a huge difference between learning in any workplace environment and in any industry role versus learning at school. In college, professors 1) provide a curated curriculum of carefully scaffolded topics and 2) provide assignments that help you practice the topic in preparation for a specific form of assessment. However, at work, I’m often confronted with a question to which there is no one answer, and as an intern, I’m likely the only one who understands close to nothing about the topic. Although my manager sets out goals for me to accomplish, I often lack so much of the necessary knowledge and have to create my own structures for figuring out and learning what I need to know. Thus, it becomes very important to 1) articulate what I DO know, 2) explain, based on what I already know, what I need to know to take the next logical step in my understanding of a topic, 3) connect with the relevant resources to create next steps for understanding the topic, and 4) review and possibly revise my plan for progressing towards my goal.
When I began serving as the Music Director of my a cappella group, I soon realized that while everyone in the group has an amazing voice, there is a lot of variation in the musical training / background among different members of the group. For example, I, personally, have been singing for 12 years and have also played piano for a long time, so many aspects of musicality come naturally to me. However, that was probably the case for only half of the members of my a cappella group. Even though everyone has an outstanding voice, the variation in the knowledge about blending, musical notation, dynamics, and the variation in sightreading ability made it so that I couldn’t just make a comment and expect everyone to know what to do with it.
Being Music Director requires a lot of multitasking, because you have to listen to a run through of the song, pick up on things to improve (balance, tone, pitch, dynamics, articulation, phrasing…), prioritize what to work on and when to work on it, and think of an efficient and interesting way to drill that section, all while the group continues to sing. And you can’t wait too long after the group stops singing before asking everyone to turn to a section to work on something, because if people wait for too long, they start to chat and wander off. Furthermore, the variation in musical training poses an additional challenge: ensuring that rehearsals are productive, accessible, and interesting for everyone, regardless of their musical background.
I believe that my experiences in learning how to most efficiently practice piano have helped me to be a more effective music director, by informing my decisions about how to break down my vision of the piece into smaller parts, to practice those parts. For example, these are some things that I actively do to keep rehearsals interesting, fun, and productive for everyone, regardless of musical background:
- I make sure that when I explain something for the first time, I explain it clearly, so rehearsal doesn’t erupt in a confused mess that people remember every time I revisit that section to sing or drill.
- If I revisit that section and realize that people had forgotten what the group had worked on before, don’t rehearse the section in the same way. That gets tedious. Try to drill it in a different way!
Playing the piano has enabled me to build and pursue relationships forged through shared passions.
I’ve made my very closest friends (including DaEun!!) through music. Classical piano was one of the first extracurriculars I pursued (in tandem with choral singing and art), and it has provided me with opportunities to serve as an accompanist and to be served in creating and expressing myself.
There’s nothing as thrilling, emotionally engaging, and deeply satisfying as sitting in an ensemble with fellow musicians, confident that each person is bringing their talents and musicianship to rehearsal, smiling at each other during beautiful moments of the piece, finishing off a successful run through, and wrapping up and grabbing food together afterwards. ❤
Playing the piano for 16 years has taught me how to develop close, 1-on-1 relationships with adults.
My piano teachers throughout elementary and middle school were the first adults with whom I learned to develop a relationship. Our lessons would often diverge from piano pieces to conversations about school and friends. I learned to speak up with questions and to accept direct feedback in stride, and have become more comfortable approaching and building relationships with adults in any sphere of life.
Playing the piano has been instrumental in helping me to cultivate the skills involved in close social and artistic observation.
Ever since middle school, I’ve also had the opportunity serve as an accompanist for various vocal and instrumental ensembles. Being an accompanist has helped me cultivate the ability to constantly be observant and aware of what others express, to infer their intent, and to respond in a way that affirms and supports that intent.
From the perspective of the untrained audience, the accompanist appears to just “play the background music,” but I believe that a good accompanist plays a much more active role. Although the accompanist frequently rehearses with the soloist, during the performance, the accompanist must still pay close attention to every change in the soloist’s movement and sound, inferring the intended pacing, texture, momentum, and dynamic arc of the upcoming passage, and calibrate her own playing to best support the soloist. For example, questions such as Where is the soloist taking the momentum of this moment? How, dynamically and timing-wise will the soloist ease out of this explosive climax? are always in the back of my mind.
The accompanist often just fades into the background because in many ways, if the accompanist is seamlessly supporting the soloist, the accompanist amplifies the soloist’s playing and draws all the attention to the soloist. These skills — observing closely, inferring future actions, and calibrating oneself to adjust to others — are extremely important in navigating any kind of social interaction.
I’ll again use the example of being a MD.
As the MD, I’m in charge of the pace and atmosphere of every rehearsal, and I definitely feel the pressure to keep every moment efficient and fun. Through this leadership position, I realized the importance of constantly gauging everyone’s energy level and responding appropriately, while keeping long-term goals in mind. I also had to constantly model positivity, think fast, and respond diplomatically when there were disagreements during rehearsal.
Furthermore, as someone who is very familiar with music theory, is fortunate to have perfect pitch, and has cultivated “artistic observation” through many different media, I am also able to enjoy arranging and composing both instrumental ensemble and a cappella music. I always feel an impulse to CREATE and RECREATE and CO-CREATE, and possessing the necessarily musical knowledge and ability has helped me develop an overall courage to experiment with and express myself in different ways.
2. What do you think is a misconception people have around classical music? What is something you wish people knew about classical music?
I think many people believe that classical music is outdated, antiquated, and inaccessible. However, I think anyone can come to appreciate the timeless delight, angst, ebullience, and grief, expressible through classical music.
I wish people knew that anyone, at any age, can learn how to listen to and understand classical music. The ability to understand any form of human expression — be it through literature, visual art, film, music — arises from a basic understanding of the vocabulary and syntax of the art form’s constituent elements. We more deeply literature after we understand the words used, the literary strategies employed, and how common themes are followed or flouted, etc. Furthermore, while one can understand the basic emotion of a piece of classical music by passively listening to it, the music holds more meaning if one learns to, for example, 1) identify a theme, 2) understand why its use at certain parts of the piece makes sense given the traditional structure of the piece, and 3) why a harmonic alteration to the theme is surprising and thus evokes emotion and furthers the composer’s message through the piece. And I believe that these are things anyone can learn through reading, listening to lectures available on the internet, and attending concerts!