Last weekend I was a judge in a viola competition at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. The annual competition was hosted by the Fine Arts Club of Pasadena. The Pasadena Fine Arts Club is entering its 101st year of supporting up and coming artists, both visual and in the performing arts areas. Each year a particular discipline is selected for the competition, and this year was the viola.
Naturally it was an honor to be selected to judge the competition of college violists, and help select which violist received the financial prize of first place. Thing is, the experience was more than one of service… it had a few unexpected aspects that were both nostalgic reflections and present reminders of what it is to be a musician and artist. I had waves of emotions and ideas that I had not reflected upon in some time, and these thoughts have stayed with me all week.
As I watched these contestants, at first a sentimentality washed over me because I was hearing a repertoire of music that I had played in my youth. At first everything was adorable – their nerves, the stiffness of some and the overambitious intensity of others. But then as more and more contestants performed, my thoughts refined, the nostalgia wore off, and I was observing and contemplating what it takes to truly become one with your instrument and your craft.
It is something that takes years. Many, many years of training, practicing, and work. I am still on this journey towards mastery, and I have been playing the viola since I was 8-years-old. But I realized that I could classify so much of this journey in four words: Technique, Skill, Confidence and Emotion. And it was with this perspective and criteria that I juried this group of up and coming violists.
This is the easiest to understand and one of the hardest parts of the journey, because it is the daunting uphill walk up the mountain. And when the instrument is a viola, there is so much technique to learn. Holding the instrument and getting a quality sound out of it is far from the end of this aspect of the journey. There are countless bowing techniques that take years to learn, there are so many positions to learn on the instrument with the left hand that plays the notes, and we do not have frets like guitars so this is only learned through discipline. There is pizzicato (plucking the string with your fingers), there is vibrato and the many kinds of vibrato that evokes different sounds and emotions. Differentiating the ranges of volume, tones, sounds, harmonics, textures… what makes string instruments so beautiful is that they can create an abundant, mind-blowing range of sounds that pull the emotions from our souls.
I remember when I was fifteen years old, and the moment I had realized what reverence I had for this complicated instrument that had gained my commitment. It was my first year in the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra. I was sitting second chair under the conductor Jahja Ling and was studying with violists of the Cleveland Orchestra. I had thought at this point, I had learned most of the techniques available to me as a violist, and now my journey was mostly about refinement of skills. But no. Even then, after so many years of orchestral and private study, I was learning techniques, and I realized that learning techniques was a never ending journey.
Now, I like to invent techniques on the viola. See… it really is never ending! And it’s an amazing, wonderous thing that should keep every musician in awe.
Onward to skill, something that will make any artist completely humble. You may know a zillion techniques, but how good are you at them? Are you good at every one of them? Have you mastered them all? No?? OK, go back to practicing, because this is serious. You may be an encyclopedia of techniques, but what good are they if your skill level is not at a level of mastery?
Disclaimer: I am not a master of all techniques, far from it. This is why I need to practice just as often as everyone else does. In fact, I’m just as guilty as so many musicians out there who don’t practice as often as we could and should! (Writing this blog is a fantastic reminder to up the ante on my practice time too. #accountabilty)
OK this one is important. And all of you have seen the scale of this as you’ve watched performers, and this was in my face at the viola competition. Confidence is a big deal, and it cannot be faked. You may be the most skilled violist (i.e. artist) in the Milky Way, but without confidence you can make the experience of watching you play be tense and awkward. And I saw this at the competition. Nerves can undermine all of your hard work, and very quickly.
Granted, it is not an easy thing to perform in front of others, especially adults who are sitting only a few feet away from you, there to JUDGE YOU. And it’s not easy to play for a room, a theater, a crowd of people. Kudos to anyone who has the guts to do it in the first place. And nerves are a part of the process and journey. But that said, you need to work those kinks out and get confident.
Where does confidence come from?
Experience, for one. The more auditions, recitals, competitions and gigs you do, the easier it becomes. The earlier you start, the better off you are. I love performing and whenever people have asked my why I’m so comfortable in front of a crowd, sometimes the reason I give them is that I started giving concerts when I was 9-years-old. Doing my thing in front of a crowd is part the identity I have forged. To me, performance is simply connection.
Confidence also comes from practicing and being outrageously familiar with the work that you want to present, whether you created that work or you are playing someone else’s work.
Hear me loud and clear — confidence will define so much of your success. And I’m talking about genuine confidence, the humble and effortless kind that comes from the heart and soul, not from the mind and ego. Know thy self, know why you are up there and believe in your talent. Audiences are smarter than you think and feel what you are going through more than you may realize. Show them who you are and be graceful in all that you do. You can even make mistakes in front of a crowd, and if you have that genuine, humble confidence, those mistakes end up being no big deal. Believe it.
This is my favorite piece, I have saved the best for last. Have you ever heard the expression about how one should learn all the skill and technique available to you so well so that you can forget that you know any of it? Well, this is true. Because what happens once you learn your instrument so well that it becomes an extension of you, and once you know your music so well that you aren’t thinking about the next note in your head, you suddenly become free to bear your soul through the nuance of
It’s the most magical thing. This is when playing music starts to feel like a dream, where you and your audience can begin to travel those magical dimensions and worlds that only music and art can provide.
And what a gift. Musicians have the ability to gesture all of life with such subtle delicacy and limitless strength through sound. We create these waves and tones that mysteriously have the ability to bend time and heal all wounds. Music does not judge, music can hold every emotion that was ever felt in the history of humanity. It is sacred, an honor, a triumphant gift given to us.
And it is only after we climb up that mountain of learning technique, becoming skillful at our craft and confident in our abilities and ourselves that musicians create the conditions to lose ourselves in the music.
It is why I play. It was what brings me to my knees and confront the gods time and time again.
Musicians, do not neglect your gift. And I promise you I won’t neglect mine. So let’s go practice, yes?
Thank you again to the Fine Arts Club of Pasadena for inviting me to be a judge of the viola competition this year and allow me to not only support and encourage young violists, but seed the inspiration to articulate why I do what I do, and why I love the viola so very much.
One Response to “The Journey of Technique, Skill, Confidence and Emotion: A Reflection”
How eloquently this expresses the art! There are artists that are gifted – by which I mean have talents and abilities that may far surpass others, but then there are the truly gifted – those who not only possess the talent and skills, who have developed and mastered their craft, but also understand it. They have the passion and confidence, (not ego) and can successfully share their gift with others – they will connect with their audience, who in turn end up being gifted as well.
Thanks so much for sharing your gifts.