Physics is by far my dad's greatest passion. Ever since I remember he has been fascinated by the universe and various theories about its nature. It's extremely hard to impress my father but I'm sure that if he were to name one person that he unquestionably admires it would be Albert Einstein. As it often happens, his passion (and daily lectures about physics during breakfast) spread a part of 'the disease' to me. Although I admire all Einstein's theories, these are not his scientific discoveries that have influenced me the most. What has made the biggest impression on me was his unique way of getting to those discoveries. He wouldn't spend hours reading scientific books or listening to lectures on physics. All he did was carefully observe all, most ordinary occurences around him and use his imagination rather than complex calculations to analyze them. It took me many years to fully understand the essence of his genius. It wouldn’t have been possible for me at all if I hadn’t been introduced to the book by W. Timothy Gallwey, ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ (many thanks to my friend, Ewa Januszewska, for recommending it to me!). It's a kind of a guide book on how to use your mind properly to increase your performance, learn quicker and generally become your best self on many levels. The author is a tennis coach so he uses the game of tennis as an illustration for his ideas but all he writes about can easily be translated into other areas - playing the instrument for instance as well as learning any other skill or generally developing as a person. Gallwey offers an approach which I would call 'westernized zen'. He doesn't set the bar too high for us raised up in a culture of success, a punishment and reward system and the cult of ego. Pure zen philosophy insists on letting go off all these concepts entirely which for western-world people usually turns out to be impossible. Gallwey proposes a milder solution- he encourages us to meet these two cultures halfway. Instead of disowning all our western concepts he suggests that we start using them wisely and with a zen-like, observant and distanced attitude. I remember that when I was reading this book I was struck by Gallwey's idea of a dual, intuitive vs. intellectual nature of human beings. What surprised me, a western-world girl raised in the cult of science, books and eloquent concepts, was a gradation of these two elements. Following zen principles, Gallwey presented intuition as a core of our true selves equipped with natural wisdom and stunning skills. The intellect, on the other hand, was depicted as as a kind of an intruder that is constantly commenting on us and our surroundings, which overwhelms the intuition and undermines its efforts. The main point of this gradation was to show that the intuitive part of our nature is ‘wiser’ than the intellectual one. It is the true source of our creativity and best learning and executive potential. Of course, human beings haven’t been equipped with an ability of intellectual, verbal analysis in vain - only if we use both parts of our nature in a proper relation to each other are we capable of becoming our truly best selves. All the genius concepts, scientific discoveries, books, poems, musical pieces and their phenomenal renditions have come into being like this. What makes the ‘Inner Game of Tennis’ so unique is that it describes how to achieve that perfect balance between our intellect and intuition in a very simple way. Gallwey draws directly from zen philosophy but translates it to the Western culture language; hence makes it much more approachable for non-Asian readers. First of all, he explains how to temper our ego or rather how to successfully seperate it from our actions. On the example of anegdotes from his tennis lessons he shows how emotional we tend to be about our performances – we hardly ever acknowledge mistakes or imperfections without getting angry, irritated or disappointed. This is our ego speaking. It identifies with the results of our actions and draws the sense of self-worth from a success. At the same time, though, in case of a failure it creates inner blockades within us and quickly leads us to burnout because of too big an emotional involvement. There's no way to avoid mistakes when we're acquiring a new skill and if we let our ego deprive us of our self-esteem each time failures happen the whole learning process will become very painful, unstable and inefficient. The key to fully separate the sense of self-worth from our actions is to stop judging and start observing. Judgments are always connected with positive or negative feelings while observations are objective and emotionally indifferent. This is the crucial point. If we manage to unlearn a habit of scolding ourselves after a mistake and, surprisingly, also praising ourselves after a success, we will gain a priceless feeling of comfort. Our emotions will no longer distract us and slow down the learning process, the way we perceive our performance will become more objective and more accurate so we will diagnose areas that need improvement quicker and find the ways to do that easier. Another extremely simple yet truly brilliant technique that Gallwey recommends concerns the right way of communication between our intellect and intuition. Using his terminology - these two natures do not speak the same language. Our intellectual part develops through education in a form of verbal messages so it operates only via words. The intuitive one, on the other hand, acquires knowledge through senses and the only way to communicate with is via sensory imaginations. It is connected to the outer world in a much closer and more natural way than our intellect. This is the reason why it possesses a 'higher wisdom' and the ability to respond in the most appropriate way without any prior verbal processes that we would consciously operate. It does learn, too, but only if we speak to it in its 'native' language. Here we have to mention Mr. Einstein again because this is the point when we finally uncover the essence of his genius. The crucial part of its secret lied in the fact that he just instinctively new which language to use! He reached the most creative and brilliant parts of his mind using imagination or, more precisely, visualization. This is exactly what Gallwey means when he writes about the right communication between our intuition and intellect. He claims that we have to transform the latter's verbal comments and instructions to sensory imaginations. If we're talking about improving our piano playing it can mean, for instance, picturing a shape of a phrase in our minds, playing a difficult passage in our imagination or innerly hearing a proper kind of sound that suits a given part of a piece. In case of a public speech it may mean picturing oneself behaving in a relaxed and confident way on stage, maybe even joking and making an audience laugh. For people who work on being more straightforward and honest about their feelings it could be imagining how safe and relieved they would feel after a truly open conversation with a friend. No matter what area of life we want to apply this rule to there is one crucial ingredient without which we won't see any positive results - trust. We need to learn to trust our intuition. Confronted with a challenge, we feel such a burning urge to be in control that we give in to the old system of verbal commands of our intellect. It happens whenever there's a lot at stake for us, when we feel stressed or scared. However, since our brains code through repetitions we must dare to take a risk of letting go off control as often as we manage to. Our intellectual part will oppose out of fear that it will become neglected and forgotten. If we challenge ourselves to endure this emotion, though, and simply get used to how this new state of mind feels we will discover our greatest potential and unlock skills that we would never access otherwise. And who knows, maybe we will see another Einstein among us?
The other day, a friend asked me to write a post about efficiency, especially regarding to piano practice. Why she thought I was the right person to do that is a mystery to me since I'm fully aware of my weird and unorganised working routine. Back at university in Poland, my friends used to come to my room and listen as I was practicing. Some of them would even sit there for a few hours, probably waiting for me to really get started with something substantial, but then all of a sudden I was done and willing to go. Their only comment was: 'Wait, what - that's it?!'. Once, I was even asked to take part in a test whose objective was to compare various ways in which pianists work on new music. Each of us was given 15 minutes to read and prepare in the best way we could a one-page piece; after that time we had to 'perform' it in a clean, concert version in front of a jury. Since the jury was in fact my friend who was writing a master's thesis on efficiency, I asked him about his feedback on my results. He summed it up pretty much like this: 'You were doing everything wrong but somehow it worked!'. I guess that's enough to convince you that I don't really have the authority to write about wise and thoughtful practicing. I do consider myself efficient, though, rather in the right-before-the-deadline kind of way but still! That's why, even though I feel slightly under-qualified for this task, I will try to reply to my friend's request and write a few words about how to achieve satisfying results at the piano in the quickest way. Whenever a subject of efficiency is taken up we hear about a necessity of making plans. Again, I'm extremely unorthodox in this department - my present daily schedules are as flexible as one could only dream of. It hasn't always been this way, though. There was a time when I had to combine a demanding boarding school with the music one to which I had to commute two hours by train for weekend classes. Later, I had to put up with studying in a foreign country, learning the language I barely spoke, giving private piano classes, working at school in a nearby city and from time to time, flying to various places to play concerts. Now that I'm having a gap year and taking a long, well-earned break from life, I have a lot of free time. Surprisingly, it seems much more difficult to maintain efficiency now than when I was being extremely busy. That's because I miss a syndrome which motivates and shakes me up unlike any other. The syndrome I have on my mind is called deadline rush. If I was to point out any secret that lies behind my being successful at preparing a piano program sufficiently in a rather short time this would be it. Once I get a deadline, most preferably a short, three-, four-week one, my brain instantly moves up a gear and employs working technics that surprise even its owner ;). First thing that switches on is a new quality of focus. I have very little time so I simply can't afford to waste it. When practicing, I concentrate on the essentials and give up the unnecessary, like mindless repeating or playing whole pieces just for fun. The crucial trick is to play as correctly as possible from the very first moment you start working on a new piece. What I mean here is not to teach wrong patterns to your brain and body. If you practice in stages - first, you read the score, than work on technic and finally add musical nuances - as a matter of fact you learn a piece three times. Our intellectual and body memory has sponge-like qualities, it literally codes all signals that it's exposed to. The more repetitions of these signals it gets, the stronger the codes become. That's why if at some stage of your learning process you choose to neglect, for example, a quality of sound, right voicing and phrasing or even a speed in which your hands will have to move in a final rendition, you code yourself in a wrong way. Later, you try to reprogram your brain-body system but it is much more difficult to change a code than to create a new one; it may even turn out impossible in some cases. Besides, it significantly extends the time of the whole learning process. The other aspect connected with a higher focus is having a fully awake and present mind when you're practicing. The subject of mindfulness, hated by so many and so commonly misunderstood, deserves a separate post so now I will only mention its essential point. When you put your mind in a quiet and still state you give it a great perceptive space. Your senses get enhanced and you have better contact with your body and everything that is happening around you in the present moment. It allows you to listen to your own playing more cautiously and actually hear it in a more accurate way. You can actively observe your body and be aware of the way it works, to what extent it supports your good results at the piano and to what it undermines them. You feel the level of your body's stiffness which allows you to properly adjust it. As a result, your sound quality becomes much better, you develop the so-called 'outer ear' that helps control and improve all aspects of your rendition plus you get significantly less tired after a few-hour piano practice. The last efficiency-related issue I'd like to mention is motivation. This is a brand new discovery for me, I learnt about its importance and hidden perversities a relatively short time ago. I mean, we hear about it all the time. The media are full of motivational talks, there are tons of books on this topic. The tricky part which is not mentioned that often, though, is a cunning, fox-like nature that motivation can have. I used to think that it didn't actually matter what drove us so long as it was powerful enough to get us to the results we wanted. In fact, I wasn't paying attention to why I was taking up various challenges or making my plans at all. The thought that I might have been doing even the good things but for the wrong reasons never occurred to me. And what reasons are wrong? Basically all whose purpose is to either help you run away from yourself or make you feel better with yourself. If you practice to distract yourself from nagging thoughts or feelings all the efficiency components - focus, mindfulness, body and sound awareness - are distorted. If you work on your piano playing to prove your value and worthiness to yourself and other people most of your practice is nothing more than a show-off. Your mind is more interested in projecting your opinions on your performance (which in this case means opinions on you as a person) on imaginary or real people that may be listening to you. All in all, to practice truly efficiently we have to be ok with ourselves. We need to sit at the piano with a calm mind and a sense of unconditional self-worth. Our motivation obviously has to orbit around concerts or other professional engagements that we have in schedule but we will be able to work peacefully, efficiently and with pleasure only if we entirely separate ourselves and our sense of worthiness from music that we play. That pretty much sums it up! I have no special tricks or ground-breaking methods to share. The only advise I can give to you is to find small, personal goals if you currently lack in big, professional ones. If you're anything like me and your greatest powers wake up only at the sight of a deadline, arrange it for yourself. Just always remember to do it in a friendly, not regime-like way and never forget to reward yourself after you succeed!
A few days ago, I had a nice chat with Aleksander Debicz, a pianist I met several years ago at the Mozarteum Summer Academy in Salzburg. Alek has just been nominated to the prestigious Polish phonographic award Fryderyk 2019! On this occasion I decided to ask him a couple of questions about the way that led him to this great success. - I’ve been following your career for a while and I’m under great impression of all three of your CDs! What led you to the contract with Warner Music Poland? - I can say I followed a very conventional pattern – the offer came after my success at the Transatlantic Instant Composition Contest in 2013. It was a very special competition, participants had to compose and improvise live music to a movie they saw just a few minutes before getting on stage. The jury consisted of many important people from the film music world, like Leszek Mozdzer or Dave Porter, the author of the ‘Breaking Bad’ soundtrack. Winning that competition was a big deal and instantly helped me get noticed. Soon, I was asked to record a demo with a completely free material. That was when I came up with an idea to stick to the Transatlantic Festival direction and show to a wider audience my two great passions that I’d been cultivating my whole life in private until then. I decided to combine improvising and composing with movies and film music. It turned out to be a good choice and a few months later I was recording a professional CD for Warner Music Poland in a great Alvernia Studio with absolute sound engineering virtuosos, Aleksandra Nagorko and Andrzej Sasin. This is how the Cinematic Piano came to life. - Tell me more about improvising and composing – where did you get this idea? - I’ve been doing this ever since I remember. As a child, instead of playing scales I would warm up improvising or playing various melodies by ear. I like to say that my composing now is a result of fun I’ve been having this way all my life. Nobody ever taught me how to do it professionally; I've taken part in a few workshops on improvising but apart from that I’ve learnt everything by myself. Of course, now that I’m older and have more knowledge I listen to music in a more analytical way and that is hopefully translated into a higher quality of my pieces. Still, though, I prefer to call myself a pianist that happens to compose rather than a composer. But I admit openly that composing turns me on a lot! Whenever I’m sitting at the piano I have to have a pen and a piece of music paper in front of me. It calms me down for some reason, like meditation. - And what about movies? - Films have been my life-long hobby. Right now as we’re talking it’s the middle of the Oscar time and I’m fanatically watching all the nominated movies one by one! I’d like to actively get involved in the world of film music. I've already had a few successful attempts – I’ve composed the soundtrack to a few Polish documentary movies and it’s been a very inspiring experience. The last project of this kind was a set of piano-saxophone improvisations with my friend, Szymon Nidzworski. - You like to cooperate with other musicians. Your second album was recorded with a cellist, Marcin Zdunik. Had you played together before or did you form this duo specifically for that project? - We got to know each other closer with Marcin at the summer piano workshops in Nowy Sacz. We worked together and shared a room there. Very soon it turned out from our long evening conversations that we were both Bach fanatics and so we decided it would be great to play his music together. This is how we came up with an idea of the Bach Stories. - Just like that? - Just like that. There were no contracted concerts or recordings; it was all done purely for music. We were inspired especially by Bach's Chorale Preludes. Finally, we decided to prepare a set of their transcriptions for piano & cello and to intertwine them with our own musical ‘comments’ in an improvised form. The idea was to make these improvisations as free and personal as possible, with no regard to the Bach style. Later, we registered this material on the second CD of our album; on the first one we focused exclusively on Gamb Sonatas and Cantatas. - Can you tell me step by step how, starting purely from music, you and Marcin ended up recording the Bach Stories CD? - From the distance the whole process seems so neat and smooth right now but in fact it wasn’t all so beautiful at the beginning. Advertising our project was no easy task. First, it was Bach, difficult and not very popular kind of music. Second, we were offering non-jazz improvisations, the idea which most people completely didn't understand and it took time to convince them. The first opportunity we got to play our program in public was a modest concert in a church - a result of our own initiative. Later, we recorded a demo that we used to support our offer and finally we received a proposal from the agency in Cracow to play in a beautiful monastery there. Step by step, we ended up having a lot of concerts together. Our cooperation still goes on; as a matter of fact we’re working on a new project right now. But yes, in general I’d say that the whole process cost us a good deal of a struggle and patience, it’s never an immediate miracle. - Let’s talk about your last CD. The Invention album has recently been nominated to the prestigious Polish phonographic award Fryderyk 2019 (congratulations!!!). Your choice of repertoire for this CD was again brave and unconventional – you decided to record a set of Inventions and Sinfonias by Bach and top them with your own compositions/improvisations that combine Bach stylistics with contemporary music influences. Didn’t it seem too risky to you? - I didn't think about it this way. It had been my dream to record Inventions and Sinfonias for a long time. In my opinion this music is very underestimated, mostly because children are tormented with it at schools in early years. Since, quite naturally, at that stage they lack in abilities and musical means to fully show the beauty of this music they completely distort and simplify it. That’s why I thought it would be a good idea to show how incredible these pieces really are, that although their main purpose is pedagogical, in terms of the level of mastery they can be compared to Etudes by Chopin. From the practical side, I also figured that a CD with a less popular repertoire would be a better idea than another album with Goldberg Variations or Partitas. I log on the I-Tunes store every week and check all the released CDs (it’s too many of them by the way) and I just don’t want to repeat what I find there. I prefer to propose some new material than go for something that has already been recorded in hundreds of versions. - Have your CDs brought you many concert offers? - In general, yes. Both Cinematic Piano and Bach Stories have a program that sells well on stage. The Invention’s repertoire wasn't intended to be particularly suitable for live performances but it’s getting some concert attention too, especially now after the Fryderyk nomination. - What projects are you working on at the moment? - Right now, composing consumes most of my time. I’m experimenting with writing for a bigger ensemble but I don’t want to say too much about this project yet. I need to finish the piece and then I’ll decide if it’s worth anything (haha). Apart from that I’ve recently started making video clips with my recordings and putting them on the Internet, it seems to be a great way to get to a wider audience. Lately, I’ve started cooperation with my friend, an outstanding filmmaker, Adam Andrzejewski, who takes care of the visual part of these clips. - You like to take full advantage of means of promotion that popular music artists commonly use but the classical ones are still very reluctant about. - Yes, I do it for two reasons. First, because it simply gives me a lot of fun and second, because I'm convinced that it is the only way to draw attention of the younger audience today. Popular music influences, video clips, concerts in venues not commonly associated with classical music, like shopping malls or bars – these are all means that make good music more approachable to the young generation. I believe that there are only two kinds of music: the good and the bad one. From the physical point of view it is the very same mechanism that gives us goosebumps when we’re listening to Beyoncé and to Mozart’s Symphony so I am absolutely ok with combining influences from both sides. - You seem to be in a very good place in life right now – a 30- year-old pianist with a classical education who functions successfully on Polish musical stage. What do you think you owe it to above all? - It's many factors but the first thing that comes to my mind is people, the ones that have had a crucial, long-time influence over me, like my parents or teachers and those ones whom I've met briefly at various points of my life. This is important for many reasons – support, contacts, inspiration, self-development and many more. Apart from that, I’d say that today it’s extremely significant for classically trained, young pianists to find something that will make them stand out from the hundreds of their fellows. It cannot be anything forced, though, only the naturally driven ideas are convincing and sell well. When I think about some advice I could give to those young people, the tired ‘follow your heart’ slogan comes to my mind. But that’s actually all it takes – define your strengths and special interests, be flexible about them as you change throughout your life and just invest yourself in whatever you feel like doing the most!
A few posts ago, I introduced you to the first part of my project about the human brain and its reaction to music. Today, I’d like us to dive deeper into the feeling of pleasure which music can cause. Let’s learn what scientists and psychologists have discovered about the mechanism that makes us enjoy things. I remember that when I was working on this project I was struck how universal these rules were - it was an essay about pleasure assisting music but I had a feeling that it could have as well been a study on what attracts and repels us in life and how we experience joy and distress in general. Music and Pleasure In the previous post we followed a long way that a sound signal has to go to be transformed from ‘meaningless’ molecules vibrations to a trigger of pleasure. Now, I would like us to look more closely into the feeling of delight itself. What exactly do we enjoy in music? Why our preferences differ? Does ‘the absolute beauty’ defined by physical laws exist or is every parameter of our perception determined psychologically? Change To evoke the highest level of pleasure music has to keep auditor’s attention. All of us, no matter how well educated or culturally involved, have surely experienced this feeling during a concert when our thoughts dangerously shift towards new sweater we bought, a film we watched the night before or dinner waiting at home. Good news is that we do not have to feel guilty about that. Scientists, along with psychologists, agree that, in certain cases, we simply have no choice – it is a structure of our brains that is to be ‘blamed’. The vast majority (about 85%) of auditory neurons is subject to a process called habituation. This means that after long stimulation they stop responding. In extreme situations, if our brain is continuously ‘attacked’ by a sound signal of the same pitch, volume, timbre and all other parameters we physically deafen to it. ‘This comes as no surprise to psychologists, who have long known that the brain is ultimately only interested in change’(7). Familiarity Human beings are creatures full of contradictions. On the one hand, we need variable stimulation to enjoy our actions; on the other hand, we like when things repeat and get predictable. A group of Spanish scientists carried out a research focused on familiarity of music and its impact on a level of evoked pleasure. They tested a group of volunteers comparing their brains’ reactions to familiar and unfamiliar pieces. The results showed remarkable increase in activity of limbic and paralimbic regions as well as higher dopamine release in response to familiar tunes. The effect was the most noticeable when the piece at the same time matched auditor’s preferences, but even without this factor, in case of a previously unknown compositions, fMRI scans changed between first and following listenings. ‘Hence, familiarity seems to be a crucial factor in making the listeners emotionally engaged with music.’(8) The exposure effect, as literature calls the phenomenon described above, can also be viewed in a wider context. Since the mystery of personal musical preferences still has a lot of areas that remain scientifically unexplained, it has become a subject for speculations. One of them considers a theory according to which musical taste is shaped by two different factors. On the one hand it depends on our genes – ‘hard-wired’ brain responses to certain triggers (auditory neurology) and personality. We can even observe a link between our choice of music and drug preferences. Different kinds of personalities reach out for substances enhancing different kinds of moods and music is often used in the very same way, for example, hard rock as energizing cocaine, cool-jazz as relaxing marijuana, classical music as depersonalizing psychedelics. On the other hand, our musical taste is strongly affected by exposure to external influences, especially at the young age. We have all heard and read passionate disputes on the significance of children’s acculturation and the need of higher level of basic musical education. It indeed has a crucial impact on how children’s brains will process music when they grow up but statistics show a bit disturbing occurrence. Apparently, regardless of education, most people ‘imprint’ musical taste in their adolescence adopting preferences of their peers. For teenagers, music is a symbol of belonging to a group, it defines youth subcultures, unites their followers and draws lines between others. However natural it seems, the intriguing part is that these adolescent preferences stick with most people until their graves. The associations created at this emotional time of life are so strongly engraved in the brain that opening up a heavy metal or techno lover to classical music in his adulthood can turn out to be an impossible task (9). Anticipation system The early education and childhood experiences are not meaningless. Our brains are ‘programmed’ in patterns. We learn to anticipate certain repetitiveness of occurrences and actions– a millisecond before we sit on a sofa we expect it to sink down a bit, opening a window we already ‘hear’ the outside noise, touching a door handle we are sure it will go down. We pick the most important data, simplify it and categorize according to the previous experience (10). This is how the evolution adapted us to handle billions of signals from the outside world in a quick and not overloading way. The same pattern applies to processing music. We imprint on our brains certain anticipations connected with the sound of the instrument, tempo of the piece, melodic phrasing, rhythmic structures, harmonies etc. Absolutely every music parameter is subject to this mechanism. The number of components that we are able to notice and analyze in a certain piece depends on a level of our exposure to them during our whole life up to the moment of listening. Of course, the exposure to ‘good’ music performed in a ‘good’ way imprints ‘good’ anticipations. Childhood experiences get most ingrained in the brain and therefore play the most important role in this process; hence, the importance of early acculturation. Regardless of our education, the most primary element that all auditors with no brain damage are able to process is melody (that is why majority of pop-culture hits do not bother to develop any other components further than the necessary basics). Big percentage of listeners respond also to the rhythm – or, more precisely, to the meter as pulsation of the beat. Lower number is sensitive to harmonic changes, even fewer auditors are able to consciously follow and appreciate phrasing. The essence of musical education actually centers on moving this perceptional limit further and further. Of course, the process of adapting our brains to various skills continues throughout the whole life but the longer we train it in a certain area, the higher results we may achieve. However, what is actually this whole analytical race about? The answer is: pleasure. We seek enjoyment in every action taken – it is a kind of motivation system pushing us towards survival and development. The same mechanism drives us towards music. We can take pleasure from it in various non-intellectual ways, for example, by performing it with other people and enjoying the feeling of contribution and sharing, by dancing to it and letting go off stress and other negative emotions or by listening to it after a long day of work and just relaxing. However, there is also a higher level of pleasure which music can provide. First of all, it can be the pleasure derived from an intellectual involvement, a task successfully completed by our brains. As Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz stated: ‘Music is the pleasure the human mind experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting’ (11). This is the area where the exposure effect has its role to play. According to scientists’ research, we feel the highest intellectual pleasure when our brains are challenged but not beyond their capacities. This means that if we train them to process a lot of musical parameters in an advanced way, we give ourselves access to the most complex kinds of music as a source of more stimulators of pleasure. Apart from delight in successful processing of music there is also another kind of enjoyment. This one is caused by the anticipation system. Some psychologists claim that the appearance of pleasure in general can be simplified to a ‘yes-no’ response to our brains’ anticipations. In restaurants we pick dishes assumed to be tasty and if they meet or even exceed our expectations we feel pleasure – if not, we get irritated or disappointed. When we put our hand in a wallet to take out a ten-dollar bill, which was supposed to be there, and we do not find it, we get angry but when it is there, as expected, we experience a kind of peaceful pleasure. This rule applied to music means that we take pleasure from hearing a piece or a certain rendition that meets our anticipations. The more musical aspects turn out to be as we expected, the higher the level of delight (12). 7 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 54 8 C. S. Pereira, J. Teixeira, P. Figueiredo, J. Xavier, S. L. Castro, E. Brattico, Music and Emotions in the Brain: Familiarity Matters, 2011,Retrieved http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0027241 9 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 261-263 10 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 54 11 A. Graham, The Sum of You: Teach Yourself, Hodder Education, London, 2011, p. 5 12 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997,
How many classical pianists do you know? Ten? Twenty? Maybe fifty? Now, let's try to estimate how many piano students graduate with a higher education degree around the world each year. An average European country has anywhere between 5 and 10 music universities with an exception of high-scoring Germany - 40 and Italy - 20; we'll find a similar number in bigger Asian countries and Australia, around 50 schools in Canada, over 170 in the US and a few in South America and Africa. All of them 'produce' approximately 1 to 10 piano graduates each year. Music, art in general, has a stamp of an activity undertaken for pure ideals and a higher purpose. It is believed to be almost driven by supernatural powers, waves of mysterious inspiration and effortless talent. The word 'money' feels somehow inapropriate and offensive from this perspecitve. The truth is less appealing, though. First, if you want to go pro, let's say, as a pianist, you have to perform music on a certain level of technical and artistic proficiency. This, in contrast to common belief, isn't achieved without effort. It's not enough to learn how to read the music and find the notes on the keyboard to be able to perform Prokofiev Sonata or Chopin Ballad. Playing any instrument is very complex, piano especially, since it involves an independent action of two hands. Most of the time they're playing different melodies in different dynamics and with different articulation (the way of touch). A pianist has to think in two dimensions only in order to press the right keys. When we add a necessity to control an overall result in terms of tempo, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, building up a climax, quality of sound.... the brain turns to a machine. It works faster and multitasks more efficiently in a fraction of a second than during any other activity. Now, all of this has to be learnt. It doesn't come with the wave of inspiration, it's not coded in bodies of a few chosen genius prodigies. Even the most talented person, predisposed to play the piano in every way, needs to train his mind and through it, his body. It's like becoming a dancer, teaching your muscles to perform a series of complex movements precisely in time. But being a pianist means more. You're not only a dancer at the piano, you're also a writer, a story teller or a conductor who grabs and shapes the whole narration behind the music. And you are also a painter, for the more convincing pictures you can evoke in your imagination while you're pracitisng and performing, the more captivating, almost mystical, your rendition will become. All in all, this means years of practise. Hours and hours spent every day at the piano, alone in one room, only you, your ears and your criticizing mind. This marathon starts for most pianists when we are five or six years old. The majority of us grow up with a conviction, carefully enforced by adults, that we are special, exceptionally talented and that we have a great future ahead. This is usually enough to convince us that it's a good idea to go to two schools or one with an extended program with music classes (depending on an educational system) and to spend our free time practising the piano instead of resting and hanging out with friends. From my experience and observations, real problems start when we go to university. All of a sudden, we begin to realize that, first, there's a disturbing possibility that we're not as special as we used to think, second, the educational ladder is soon getting to an end and for some inexplicable reason we haven't been noticed by the serious musical world yet. Most of us find ourselves facing the following truth: we have been trained to be soloists, we've been tought how to play in the best way we could but noone instructed us how to make a living out of this. Here's where the high ideals meet unsentimental reality. Now is the time to come back to the numbers. Using my extremely simplified and hugely underestimated calculation we can assume that there are about 500 music univerisites in the world, let's say we consider only the most decent ones. Taking an average number of 5 piano graduates annualy we get a total of 2 500 new young pianists ready to fill the market every year. Even if we estimate that about 4/5 of them realize at some point that a soloist career is not for them and they voluntarily look for jobs in schools or in operas and ballets, we are still left with a number of 500 young people ready and willing to work as concert pianists. And remind me, please- how many pianists were you able to name...? So here begins a struggle. There are a few most common ways we follow: many of us engage in a competition marathon, which often starts very early, in school and during studies. The purpose is dual: to get noticed and to earn money. Big competitions are broadcast online and on TV nowadays, commented by musical critics and observed by managers. First prize winners are often offered concert tournees, professional artistic management, sometimes a contract with a record label. Plus, depending on sponsors, quite considerable amounts of money, at times even a grand piano. But to win a big international piano competition is a highly tricky challenge and the whole procedure has its advocates and opponents. I write more about this in the blog 'Greek tragedy with a piano?'. Festivals are a notch less competitive alternative. Most of them also pick participants based on recordings they submit but the chosen ones do not compete with each other to win, they're just given an opportunity to play concerts in public and hope to be spotted by managers or other concert organizers. Some of piano graduates try to form chamber ensembles with other fellow students, reffering to the 'safety in numbers' motto. Other ones invest their savings in renting a studio and recording CDs that they later sell after their concerts or sneak into CD shops using complex nets of connections. Some look for support from various foundations, apply for extra money to EU or other organizations. A few of us try on their own to get in touch with managers or cultural insitutions hoping for some cooperation. All these efforts turn out more or less successful, depending on personal luck. Is there any easier, more predictable way to develop a career as a pianist? Honestly, I haven't heard of it. Most of young graduates aren't even aware of all the options I've mentioned. This is one of the biggest gaps in educational programs of music univerisites- a complete lack of practical advice what to do once we graduate. That's why I believe we need spaces like this blog, where we can share our ideas, discuss and handle various obstacles, maybe even get together in some musical undertaking! I've participated in hundreds of conversations among my fellow-musician friends during which we were looking for something to blame after a musical failure or a career crisis. The poor quality of cultural life in our countries or the malfunctioning system which decides who gets the opportunities to play in public and who doesn't were the most common villains. Current political situation, bad luck or insufficient talent also appeared on stage. The truth is, though, that most of us, when we get down to earth from the world of our high ideals and artistic exultations, just have no idea what to do. The overwhelming majority of young musicians don't know that there are many ways to operate within the system and to use the current political situation in our favor; that nowadays we can actually take things in our hands and turn the luck to our advantage. What if we tried and did it right now, right here- through this blog?
Today, I'd like us to come back to the topic which I started in the 'Greek tragedy with a piano' post - what options young musicians have to develop their careers. A few days ago, I had a chat with François-Xavier Poizat, a French/Suisse pianist whom I met when I was studying in Geneva [http://www.fxpoizat.com/]. This courageous man started his own music festival when he was only 20! This year, Puplinge Classique Festival is celebrating its 10th anniversary and on this occasion I'd like us to uncover the backstage story of this special undertaking! - 'I am going to start my own music festival' - where did this idea come from? - When I was 20 years old I didn’t have enough self-confidence to apply to big piano competitions and I thought it wouldn't be my way. Funny enough, a year later, I took part in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and won a prize there, which changed my mindset completely… I got addicted to big competitions. But when I was 20, it was very different. I had a lot of free time, a lot of energy, I was full of ambitions so I just asked myself how people around me made it to have a successful career in music. I was really inspired by the French violinist, Renaud Capucon, whom I’ve always admired. He launched his own festival when he was only 19 [Les Rencontres de Musique de Chambre de Bel-Air http://www.rencontresbelair.com/les-rencontres-de-musique-de-chambre-de-bel-air.html] so I thought: if he could, why couldn’t I. I started with zero experience. First of all, I had to choose a place. It was my girlfriend at that time that suggested Puplinge, my mother’s village. We thought it would be easier to start a festival in a smaller place than Geneva, especially that the city authorities already knew me from a recital I had played there a few years before. - Let's talk about money. How did you handle this issue? - The budget of the first season was CHF 23,000. As a matter of fact, we were very lucky because we got CHF 12,000 of it from La Lotterie Romande [the Suisse lottery]. The rest was up to ticket vending and how many people the concerts would attract. I’m sure our young age was a great advantage. Funny enough, it seems that we started a new trend then - at that time, I knew nobody at my age that would have a festival and now there’s a plenty of such people. It seems that nowadays to be young and to start a big musical event is no longer anything special. Coming back to the Puplinge festival - the first edition was very modest, a total of four concerts with the maximum of three people on stage at once. Most of them were my friends and we were all so excited that even if we had had no money at all it still would have happened. - How many people did you manage to attract? - We had the biggest audience at the opening concert, mostly our friends and family, a total of 120 people. It felt like an incredible success then, we were really afraid that no one would show up. Nowadays, if we have 120 people in the audience it’s a great shame! (haha) - During the very first edition, the second concert was played by Sergey Ostrovsky. How did you manage to invite such a famous violinist? - We just contacted him and he came (haha). The truth is that we had very little money to offer but the money is not everything. There can be a very old festival with badly organized concerts and a brand new one with very good energy. Besides, all big artists have to rehearse their programs and they often agree to do this at smaller events for a smaller salary. - Tell me how the festival started to grow. - The second season was already much bigger. We had 8 concerts instead of 4 and the Quartet Sine Nomine and the Suisse Youth Orchestra on stage. This edition also benefited a lot from the fact that just a month earlier I had won a prize at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition and whenever the newspapers were writing about it they were also mentioning the Puplinge festival. The forth season was another big step, we welcomed the first fully professional orchestra then, the National Orchestra of Armenia. What gave us a true credibility as a professional festival, though, was a gala concert at the Victoria Hall for the 5th anniversary. We had the National Orchestra of Armenia with four pianos on stage and it attracted a great audience of above 1000 auditors. The impact of this concert was so great that it doubled the number of people coming to the festival from the following season on. It made us really popular in Geneva. This year we’re very excited to be organizing another gala concert for the 10th anniversary! The Victoria Hall will be hosting it again and it will have a few times more impressive program than at that first time; but that’s in the future! - I understand that the bigger the festival was becoming, the more financially profitable it was for you? - Actually, already the first season brought me some satisfaction moneywise. Today, the festival is a third of my whole income, the rest comes from concerts. Of course it costs a lot of effort, I have to work all year long to prepare the next edition, there’s not a single month of vacations. I’m responsible for the biggest part of the artistic programming, executive direction, which means hiring all the staff that works for the festival, and the accounting- managing the budget and registering all the expenses. It ends up as a 60-page book and at times I write it in three languages, French, English and German. - How do you manage to do this all on your own? Do you consult any professionals? - Yes, my godfather is a professional accountant and he’s spent a few years helping me learn how to do it properly and correcting all the mistakes I made. Now, computer softwares take care of it all so my job is to learn how to use them. Another person that helps us a lot is the uncle of Damien Bachmann. Damien has been the Co-Artistic Director of the festival from the very beginning and it’s amazing how we’ve kept the same enthusiasm for all these ten years of our cooperation! His uncle is a famous lawyer and we always ask him all the questions about legal matters, mainly taxes. - So it’s all doable for a musician? - Yes, of course, we just need to learn new things all the time; plus we share duties. - Drawing on your experience with the festival, do you have any advice for young people graduating from music universities nowadays? - Yes, I have a very concrete one: put all your resources on the table and write them down, both the material ones: money, sponsors, contacts etc. and the ones connected with your personality. I got the idea of the festival when I was 20 because some voice in my head kept telling me that I was not only a pianist, that there was another part of my personality with a lot of leadership and maybe if I started such an undertaking this part would begin to live. It turned out that I loved it and that’s why I’m still doing it today. Every musician has something more than just music and this something more is what makes a difference. We should all find out what these special non-musical strengths in us are and then make a choice if to use or to ignore them. I know many young musicians that dream only about big competitions and great careers they’ll guarantee them but the truth is that not all good musicians are born professional competitors. It’s another part of personality and it requires special features that not everybody has. All in all, use what you have and don’t wait for somebody's permission to start doing something more than only playing music. Just don’t get discouraged - when I was starting the festival everybody was against it, my mum, people at the Puplinge town hall … but I decided to honor my intuition. After all, life is mainly about experience and success doesn’t matter that much at the end. Puplinge Classique Festival https://www.puplinge-classique.ch/en/program-2018/ Festival YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9Fy19icS1r9wCZw6aTVwEQ
Today, I'm going to take up a very difficult subject of a thinking pattern which is hugely responsible for all kinds of stress. We learn it at the young age - 'acquire' is probably a more appropriate word, since we never fully realise what is going on as children. And frankly speaking, many of us don't get much more aware as adults. The thinking pattern I'm talking about is called 'perfectionism'. As is the case with most things in life, the kind of impact this matter has on us depends on our approach. For instance, what's wrong about having an ambition to achieve the highest quality in whatever we're doing? Or why should it be damaging to be constantly developing and elevating our competence? These are examples of a good kind of perfectionism connected with a high self-esteem. Cooperating with it makes us grow and helps achieve great goals. Perfectionism, though, has also another, entirely contradictory face. Instead of a development supporting system it can show up in a form of a suffocating net which sabotages all our actions. Its most damaging version is always accompanied by three emotions that suck the joy out of life in the most efficient way: fear, guilt and shame. Simply put - it makes us deeply unhappy. This kind of perfectionism is in fact a master of disguise. We may think that we're obsessively trying to do things in an ideal way just for the sake of these things but it's never the case. They would never become our obsession if we weren't driven by something much more powerful, something that is the very core of human nature, if we like it or not. This thing is a need of love and acceptance. Most of thinking patterns that we use throughout our lives develop when we are children. For many of us the feeling of being truly accepted and loved by our parents, siblings, care-givers or generally people surrounding us wasn't gained in an entirely unconditioned way. This is not because those people were bad humans with wrong intentions - it is simply because we're all imperfect, hurt and developed in an unharmonious way. So are we and so were all the generations before us. Hence, there's no point in despairing and getting angry. It is a much better idea to focus on learning what wrong patterns we use to feel accepted and loved and to relearn them consciously now that we are all grown-up and pretending to be smart ;). My experience taught me that the very first step - detecting that you are prey to an unhealthy kind of perfectionism - is already very tricky. These few questions might be helpful. For example, do you often feel uneasy, as if something was wrong but you can't really pinpoint the reason? Does it happen to you especially after a challenging, stressful situation, doesn't matter if it's a recital at the Royal Albert Hall in front of hundreds of people, a first date or a conversation with a lady at the post office? Do you feel so uncomfortable and afraid of something vague then that you start to scan every second of the event, every note you played, every word you said, every joke you made and every expression on people's faces? This is one of the signals that you treat acceptance and, broadly speaking, love as something you can get only if you try hard and make absolutely no mistakes. Every little flaw in your performance, looks or behaviour instantly makes you feel guilty and ashamed of yourself. It causes this mysterious uneasiness and the need to find what you did wrong in order to either punish yourself or immediately improve. You may not realise it but you'll see it's true if you dare give your deepest self an honest look - it all happens because the most sensitive part of you is convinced that you don't deserve love being just as you are. We often get trapped, somehow tricked by our perfectionist nature. It tries to convince us that we should be feeling guilty and ashamed after a failure because in this way we have a drive to become better versions of ourselves. It makes us feel afraid that without this mechanism we would stop developing. This is completely not true, though! As a matter of fact, it's a huge and dangerous illusion. Living under dictatorship of perfectionism resembles a constant state of war, if you like a military metaphor, or a soil depleting cultivation, if you prefer an agriculture one ;). What I mean is that it is so destructive that, first, you cannot go long-term using this strategy without causing great damage to yourself and second, there's no place for joy and peace in this system. I know that it's easy to become a hostage of your own perfectionism. Your fear that you will never earn the right to be loved and accepted or will instantly lose the bits of affection that you have the moment you make a mistake seems overwhelming. But the truth is that you are able to develop healthily, have access to your creativity and fully use your potential only when perfectionism stops ruling your world. How to achieve that? Those of you who struggle with perfectionism know how impossible this task seems. But there is a way to handle it! I've tested it and it's the only strategy that has proved effective to me so far. I like to work with tricks, somehow long and vague methods of self-analysis with no action in practice only make me frustrated. Maybe I'm too much of a product of the last two centuries ;). Anyways, the trick against perfectionism which I figured for myself appears in my head under the name 'courage'. And it really demands a lot of it, especially at the beginning, but the good thing is that is gets easier very quickly. The point of a whole trick is to consciously practice being imperfect. Sounds crazy? Only at first. Start with small things and see yourself how it works. For example, an option for girls: if your looks are a sensitive area for your perfectionist nature, try to go out with no make up or maybe even, a hardcore version, wearing sweatpants (!;D) once a week when you shop for groceries. Believe me, you'll discover at least two surprising things! First, most people don't really pay attention and won't notice you at all. Second, those who will notice you won't treat you even half as critically as you imagine. You might even get a few very fond glances from one or two guys - take it all in and enjoy! That's your first prove for being absolutely worthy attention, acceptance and even affection from people when you're being a 100% imperfect version of yourself! Let me give you another option how you can practice courage of being imperfect. Let's imagine you're in a foreign country and don't speak the language too well. You are very tired after sightseeing for hours and you'd give up everything for a cup of coffee. Suddenly, you spot a nice cafe at the corner. It smells insane, you can see glasses of great espresso through the window...and yet, you're reluctant to go inside. More, you're absolutely petrified with a picture of yourself mixing up all the words, speaking with a dreadful accent and, of course, making everyone laugh at you mercilessly. Fear, guilt and shame instantly go crazy in your mind and you feel totally miserable. This is the perfect time for your exercise! All you need is courage (tough part, I know...) but you can do it like a bungee jumper - close your eyes, take a deep breath and just take the first step. Yes, that's all true that you're going to be imperfect - more, you'll most likely be totally ridiculous. That's the whole point! First, you'll see that you survived, second, you'll get the coffee you wanted and three, if you manage to cover all your mistakes with a charming smile you'll most probably get it back from a waiter with a bonus of a few friendly words. There are as many ways to practice this trick as your imagination can think of. The crucial thing is to repeat it regularly for a long time. What we want here is to create new patterns of emotional reactions to what we perceive as a failure in our brains. We learn by experience, our minds connect all occurrences, especially those ones that appear repeatedly in our lives, with a simplified 'good or bad' reaction. This is the way our brains developed to make us survive among billions of signals that reach us every day. To a big extent, we are like CDs that got recorded at the very beginning of our lives. Some recordings work really well but other ones keep freezing, the sound quality is bad and there's a constant background noise. You can't throw this CD away, sadly. You're stuck with it until the end of your life but it is entirely up to you if you keep playing it or not! Your brain, though, needs some paths of automatic reactions to function well. So what can you do? The only reasonable option is to record a new CD in your mind, this time choosing all your reactions consciously and deliberately. Unhealthy perfectionism is a difficult issue. Handling it usually turns out to be very challenging and time consuming. The trick I described, though, is really simple and helpful. The first step is the hardest one - finding courage to break the habit and act against your deepest fears. Later, it demands a long-lasting commitment and regular practice. But if you manage to get through this all, it will pay off with one of the greatest rewards - a feeling of freedom.
Ever since I started this blog I've felt that it would be a good idea to share with you a few chapters from a project I wrote a little while ago. I'm sure it will feel very much at home here. Since it is a university thesis you may find it a bit more formal and scientific, especially today's part, than my usual posts. But the content and the conclusions are really worth getting through it (modestly speaking ;D) so I hope you won't get easily discouraged! The project will appear in a few parts in turns with the continuation of our series about stress and other random posts - so that every one of you can find something interesting here! Today, it's going to be all about the brain and what happens in it in response to musical sounds. You will learn why remembering is so important, which parts of your brains make you feel emotions when you hear music and, last but not least, what exactly music and sex have in common. The next post will be even more intriguing because we will dive straight into the issue of music and pleasure. Curious enough? ;) Let's get it started then! When physics meets psychology Human beings are very special creatures. We are superior over other species in many aspects thanks to the level of our brains’ development. One of the most fascinating human characteristics is the way our sense of hearing evolved. The nature did not equip us with the most responsive ear out of all the living organisms but gave our brains a unique skill of putting auditory signals together and interpreting them not only as pieces of information, but also as triggers of certain emotions. This transition of sound from outer physics phenomenon to inner psychological experience is the essence of music. As a pianist and at the same time a big enthusiast of science I have always been fascinated by this process. What actually happens in our brains that makes us cry when we listen to some musical pieces? Why is a certain set of sound waves interpreted by our brains as beautiful? To what extent is the perception of music objectively determined by physics phenomena and to what degree is it shaped by psychological aspects of different personalities? In the following project I try to answer these and many more questions connected with the mutual penetration of physics and psychology in the world of music. Music and the Brain From a scientific point of view sound is nothing more than a vibration of molecules. Hitting one another they create a so-called wave which spreads in space until the source energy is used up. Astonishingly, in human’s brain this phenomenon evokes a reaction of an utterly non-physics nature. Inside our heads, science mysteriously transforms to psychology – the experience of hearing a sound. ‘Where the physicist finds energy,the psychologist finds information’ (1). The fact that evolution equipped us with an ability to detect and interpret sound signals from our surrounding does not seem surprising. This gave us advantage over other species and hence bigger chance to survive; for example, enabling us to hear a hunting predator or an approaching storm. However, why did human brain evolve to the capability of connecting sounds, giving them a certain time and dynamics relation, forming and recognizing melodies, sensing harmonic tensions and rhythmic order – it remains a matter of speculations. Irrespective of the purpose, the evolution’s gift of creating and processing music might have been one of the most enriching for human nature and as musicians we cannot be grateful enough for it. Let us analyze this storm which music stirs up in human brains. About twenty different regions, among them four main ones responsible for movement, planning, attention and memory, get activated when we listen to music– significantly more than is involved in processing the average noise and other sounds from our environment (2). But how does the whole process look like step by step? Air molecules vibrations (sound waves) are collected by our ears, which then transform mechanical signals into electrical ones. Those signals first reach the so-called primary auditory cortex, which is responsible for the primary analysis of sounds – they get broken down into basic parameters like pitch, timbre, location, amplitude etc. After this categorization two other parts of brain get activated: cerebellum and cerebrum. The former is mainly involved in motor actions of body, such as reflex, balance and skeletal muscle movement. When it comes to processing music, it is responsible for coordinating the body while playing the instrument and for the sense of rhythm. The main function of the latter concerns cooperation with hippocampus, the bank of our memories. The exchange of information between these two brain regions is a crucial part of a whole process. Without reference to previous notes in a phrase we would not be able to develop a sense of melody. With no recollection of previous parts of a piece we would not understand its entire construction. Hence, this part of the process puts musical features into a perceptual whole. There is more to it than that. According to neuroscientist researches, ‘only the most basic mechanisms for recognizing individual sounds are into our nervous systems. Every other aspect of listening is partly or entirely conditioned by learning' (3). This means that without cooperation between cerebrum and hippocampus (and all the previously acquired knowledge) we would generally never be able to experience music in the full meaning of this word. Another region of brain that strongly contributes to the full experience of music is the limbic system – the part responsible for emotions. This is where the most unexplained and fascinating processes take place. As Daniel Levitin, a famous neuroscientist, the author of the best-selling book ‘This is your brain on music’, stated: ‘music can be thought of as a type of perceptual illusion in which our brain imposes structure and order on a sequence of sounds. Just how this structure leads us to emotional reactions is part of the mysteryof music!’(4). Unable to answer the question why music triggers certain combinations of neurons responsible for emotions, scientists have managed to examine exactly which of them get activated. In 2008 Marcel Zentner and Klaus Scherer ran a test on a group of volunteers in order to name ‘music-specific’ emotions. As a result, they ended up with a group of nine states which people claimed to experience while listening to music: sadness, joy, tension (fear or worry), nostalgia, wonder, power, tenderness, peacefulness and transcendence. However, music goes even further. Other researches proved that when people hear a particularly liked piece, and especially its climax, their brains respond with production of a ‘feel good’ hormone– dopamine. It is involved in a ‘reward’ system and a feeling of pleasure; it typically gets released as a reaction to food and sex. In correlation with dopamine’s appearance, scientists noticed a decrease in action of the so-called amygdala, the part of brain involved in negative feelings such as fear and anxiety (5). Music and Pleasure We have just followed a long way that a sound signal has to go to be transformed from ‘meaningless’ molecules vibrations to a trigger of pleasure. In the next paragraph, I will look more closely into the feeling of delight itself. What exactly do we enjoy in music? Why our preferences differ? Does ‘the absolute beauty’ defined by physical laws exist or is every parameter of our perception determined psychologically? I will write about three basic factors that determine the feeling of pleasure: change, familiarity and a positive response to our anticipations. On the example of music we will be able to observe how science and psychology work hand in hand in all areas of our lives. 1 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 2
2 L. Bushak, This Is Your Brain On Music: How Our Brains Process Melodies That Pull On Our Heartstrings, 2014, Retrieved from: http://www.medicaldaily.com/your-brain-music-how-our-brains-process-melodies-pull-our- heartstrings-271007 3 R. Jourdain, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1997, p. 5
4 D.J.Levitin, This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession, Penguin, New York 2006, p.12
5 P. Vuilleumier, Department of Neuroscience, University of Geneva, Musical Emotions in the Brain, Retrieved from http://emotionresearcher.com/musical-emotions-in-the-brain/
In my last post, I wrote about various emotions covered by the term 'stress' and their positive and negative effects. I focused particularly on fear, its real sources and ways of dealing with it. Today, I'd like us to have a closer look at another feeling that always accompanies stress and can easily penetrate all areas of our lives. 2. Discomfort I'm sure I don't have to convince anyone that this is what bothers us most in a challenging situation. We may practice our concert program for weeks, we can rehearse our presentation in front of friends, we can go through all the books over and over again before an exam, we can check our looks a hundred times and make a list of conversation topics before a date - but no matter how we try, the feeling of discomfort will always be there. Symptoms are common for all stressful situations. Our hands are sweating or shaking, our body is getting stiff or too relaxed and sleepy, our mind is feeling confused, we are having problems with memory, focus and creativity. We may have dry mouth and a stomachache. In general, our whole system is protesting in every possible way and we still have to use it as a tool to perform an important task we care about. Is it possible to handle this anyhow? My experience has taught me that there's only one sensible reaction to discomfort: acceptance. I know that now you can feel slightly disappointed. You probably expected some miraculous anti-discomfort formula that would change your life ;). The truth is, though, that there is really no such thing. People are biologically constructed in a certain way and the effects of stress cannot be completely eliminated. But there are a few things we can do to improve our situation. At the beginning of this post I mentioned that a sense of discomfort can spread to all areas of our lives. I don't know if you've ever experienced it, but it happened to me after a long, emotionally overstraining time, that for a while I felt an allergy to any kind of discomfort. If the task required the slightest physical, intellectual or, God forbid, emotional effort, I was out straight away. Putting myself out there for anything and anyone just seemed like too much for my system. But I was wrong. Of course, at times like this, you have to allow yourself a break and rest. Beware, though, of getting used to treating yourself as a never-recovering patient. It's very easy to get stuck in this state but the longer you're there, the faster your world shuts down and the harder it gets to open it up again. Meanwhile, in this situation one must remember two fascintaing facts about human nature . First, we act like accumulators- the action creates power for more action. Second, it's our dreams and desires, not our fears, that limit our capabilities. I remember that it struck me when I was browsing various Internet TEDtalk and heard the quote "Discomfort is the admission to a meaningful life"/ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S45YDJZLjW8 / . At that time, discomfort had a stamp of the greatest enemy in my head. But when I was listening to Susan David it all became clear all of a sudden- like she said, avoiding difficult and harmful emotions was a goal of a dead person. Running away from anxiety and doubts or escaping from danger of losing something I care for was a goal of a dead person. Rejection of effort, sweat, fatigue, hope, fear, expectations and disappointments was a rejection of life in its full, satisfying meaning! But now the whole trick comes on stage. I already understood two facts: first, that I wasn't going to be happy if I kept running away from discomfort and second, that taking up challenges and dealing with discomfort the way I had been doing until then wasn't making me happy either. How to solve this problem, then? A ridiculously simple solution came to my mind and once again I was struck by its effectiveness. It is natural that our brain resists when it anticipates effort and any kind of discomfort. It reads it as a message about danger, the possibility of getting hurt, so it does everything to protect us from it. Following this lead, I decided to teach my mind to interpret discomfort in a new way. I started to enjoy more pleasure, especially in times of challenges and increased stress. The completion of a task itself is rewarded by our system with a release of dopamine and other hormones that cause satisfaction, but sometimes the path to the end is long and the expected success is very uncertain. That's why, I decided to give myself plenty of tiny rewards all the way through. Very quickly, my intuitive part started to associate discomfort with pleasure and I began to like and truly enjoy challenges. In this way, almost instantly, my world started to transform from a constant battlefield to a place of friendly, joyful cooperation in which everything could be seen as a fun adventure instead of an exhausting burden! What does all this mean for us? Basically, that there's nothing to worry about if it comes to discomfort. The first step to overcoming its destructive power is accept that it sure will arise when we're stressed. After that, pure fun is all that's left- we have to pamper and indulge ourselves whenever we feel stress and discomfort as much as possible. Very soon our mind will fall in love with challenges and we won't even remember how discomfort could have ever limited us in any way!
Every week, I'm going to post three quiz questions here. After four rounds I will sum up the points and announce the winner! The prize is a big surprise ;). Here we go! Round No. 1 1. Which city connects Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky and Jascha Heifitz? 2. Which country connects Steinway, Morningside Music Bridge and pancakes? 3. Which famous concert hall connects the Miss World Pageant, the Grand Wagner Festival (conducted by Wagner himself) and the Classic BRIT Awards? Have fun! :) Use the mailbox on the home page to send the answers.