Happy Friday! I changed up my blog design again, which is to say that I changed it back to Automattic’s Scrawl (one of my favorite blog themes), but this time I added a landing page that included a quick overview of my freelance career.
In other words, people who visit https://www.nicoledieker.com/ will get the top-level summary of who I am and what I do, plus the opportunity to browse recent blog posts. People who click on individual blog post links will get those posts. You can even scroll (or scrawl) through the entire blog at https://www.nicoledieker.com/blog/, if that’s something you want to do!
On that note — what do you want me to write about next week? I’m thinking of doing another piano post, but I’d also like to write something about freelancing. I haven’t done a good freelancing post in a long time, so let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to address (how tos, money topics, etc.). If not, I may do a general overview of What My Career Is Like These Days, now that I’ve been at this freelancing game for nearly a decade.
Of course, the best way to understand what my career is like these days is to look at WHERE I GOT PUBLISHED THIS WEEK:
First, a note on why I probably won’t win: From what I understand, this competition tends to favor people who can pull off the biggest and showiest pieces in the repertoire — your Hungarian Rhapsodies, your Gaspards, your Chopin sonatas, your Liszt sonatas (yes, I know Liszt only wrote the one), and so on.
L has some of that repertoire already in his fingers. He could win.
I have Mozart K332, which is one of the more technically difficult Mozart sonatas, and this week I just started learning one of the most difficult Bach fugues (you have to play Bach as part of the competition). I’m not going to disgrace myself or anything, but my Chopin Nocturne Op. 72 No. 1 is a “lesser Chopin” (to the point where Chopin didn’t even want it published, and they snuck it in after his death) and the Stravinsky Les Cinq Doigts is flashy but not extraordinarily challenging.
I mean, I could learn a more challenging contemporary piece, if I have time after polishing the Bach. I could put my dear little Chopin Nocturne aside, even though I’ve finally started to turn it into something that resembles art, and see if I can gronk through the Fantasie-Impromptu.
But I’m not playing to win. I’m not even playing to place. (I’d love to be a semifinalist, and based on the level of playing I’ve seen on YouTube that’s not an outside possibility.)
I’m playing for two reasons.
The first reason is that everybody who enters goes to Paris. You don’t have to send a tape or anything in advance; all you have to do is put your name on the list before all of the spaces fill up, and commit to spending a long weekend in Paris with a hundred other amateur pianists.
So yes, L and I are probably going to Paris together in 2022. We’re also going to note, on both of our entry sheets, that we can play the four-hand version of Ravel’s La Valse together — should the judges want to hear it, of course. (You might remember that this particular move worked for Meredith and Jackie in The Biographies of Ordinary People. It could also work here, especially since it appears that the person who runs the competition likes competitors to make bold choices. [This is also why I’m currently studying the Bach I’m currently studying, because it is so complicated that it rarely ever gets played. If I can pull off the first of the six pages within two weeks, I’ll keep going and tell you what it is — and if you kept track of what L and I were reading earlier this year, you might be able to guess.])
The second reason is because of what competition founder (and bold-choice-approver) Gérard Bekerman said in a recent interview:
I think that it’s quite legitimate for a candidate to want to win, but I can assure you that, at the Concours – and it’s the same in my professional and personal life – you can win without it meaning that you have beaten someone else. In a certain sense, the only person a candidate really has to beat at the Concours is themselves. Competitors have to learn to have complete self-control, totally master their situation and overcome the logistics of the keyboard, so that the door to expression, the “soul”, will spontaneously open. The piano, as you know, is a lot of soul and even more sweat.
(That quote is how I sold L on the competition, btw. That and the whole “we’re going to Paris” thing.)
The third reason is because I want to be the kind of person who is prepared to play the Concours in Paris.
It took me about two hours to realize that wanting to play this competition meant living every moment of every day like a person who was training to play the Concours. Making positive choices that would help me maintain a physical and mental equilibrium that would support my practicing, for example. Prioritizing discipline, balance, and the development of what L and I have described as “magic” (that is, the ability to manipulate the elements around me instead of letting myself be manipulated by them).
It took me about two hours and twenty seconds to realize that this kind of life would also make me a better person.
And it took me two hours and twenty-two seconds to realize that this kind of life could make me an incredible partner to L.
Not because I’m hoping to spend as much as three hours every day at the piano, even though L is exactly the kind of person who would want a partner who does that (as long as he gets his three hours every day as well).
But because — well, think about my spending the next ten months building the kind of awareness it will take to prioritize discovery over assumptions, possibility over conflict, generativity over stagnation (as Erik Erikson put it, and it’s worth noting that I am right on schedule to enter that stage of psychosocial development).
Developing the kind of self-control (as Gérard Bekerman put it) that allows the soul to spontaneously shine through.
The Concours barely matters, except as a way to become that person.
Anne H. Putnam lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their cat and writes about body image, relationships, and anything else that requires an awkward amount of vulnerability. You can follow her on Twitter for politics and random musings or Instagram for cat pics and baked goods.
I began this year with a resolution to prioritize my writing, despite having a plate so overloaded it was bending at the edges. I needed to find a way to fit it in — and also to get it out, which meant, in part, that I would have to ramp up my pitching productivity.
I’d already made solid progress on conquering my fear of rejection (or worse, ghosting) by editors, but I was struggling to come up with ideas for essays and service pieces. How many angles could there possibly be on my two preferred subjects, relationships and mental health?
To be honest, I’ve always had a hard time coming up with ideas. While so many of my writer friends complain about having too many ideas and too little time to write them all, I silently hate myself for the crickets in my brain.
Until I wrote my first memoir, I never thought I’d have a book in me at all; until I started my second book, I was sure I’d tap out at one. I’m always surprised when I have an idea for a story or an essay that actually feels like it can be fleshed out beyond a paragraph. But I was determined to try.
At the end of January, when a writer in one of my Facebook groups announced she was going to send a pitch a day in February and asked if anyone else wanted to join, I signed on. Not necessarily to send a pitch every day — that was a little too ambitious for me — but to at least try to write one.
As a recovering teacher’s pet and a forever student, I love any challenge with an external structure. Show me an outline and I’ll write you a blog post about tech marketing; give me some plans and a mitre saw and I’ll build us a garden box; tell me I need to write 1667 words every day in November and I’ll draft 75 percent of a fairly terrible novel. As an established writer but a relatively recent student of the art of freelance pitching, I figured this practice could only do me good.
I quickly realized that this was much harder than those other structured challenges. I went into week one with a few ideas up my sleeve, a couple of notes-to-self with topics that had been rolling around in my head for the past few months, but by February 8 I was tapped out and panicking. I was sure I’d never have another idea — after all, I’d used up nearly a year’s worth of original thoughts in just one week!
But later that day, as I baked cinnamon rolls to soothe my anxiety about not having anything else to write about, I listened to a little Taylor Swift, and the lyrics poked at the memory center of my brain and sparked an idea. I’d made it through the day with my brief streak intact. Now if only I could keep going for another 20 days…
And I did. I started every day with the wind whistling through my brain and the fear that I’d never come up with a pitch, and every day I hit on an idea. They came from songs, from conversations, from Twitter, from my own experiences, and from the recesses of my memory, where thoughts that wouldn’t leave me alone had been huddling for months or even years.
On February 15, I put on a pair of leggings to go outside the house and then rushed to write a pitch about what a jerk I used to be about people who wear leggings as pants. On February 23, during a conversation with a friend, I said “writing is bloodletting” — and wrote a pitch about that as soon as our Zoom ended.
I stopped feeling like I had run out of original thoughts — and (more interestingly) I began seeing the world differently. Just as I found myself framing every new experience as verse during a brief (and doomed) dalliance with poetry in college, I now found myself distilling everything around me into its pitchable core.
I interrupted heated conversations with my husband to send myself emails, ignoring his probably-excellent next point so I could capture my previous pretty-good one in a pitch. I stared off into the middle distance while attempting to read, no longer satisfied with letting my thoughts be provoked temporarily by a book — no, I had to follow those thoughts, catch them in a butterfly net, pin them into a 300-word essay idea.
As I turned the corner to March, I realized I’d strengthened my pitching muscle dramatically. I read through the 28 pitches I’d written in February, seeing them all together for the first time now that I didn’t need to be so fixated on forward momentum. Not all of them were good — probably more than half were pretty bad, actually — but none was irredeemable. There were some pretty interesting nuggets in there, in terms of “things I could write about,” and the breadth of subject matter and focus was impressive.
I guess I’m not such a two-trick pony after all.
Whenever I’m stuck, I push myself to do a challenge like this: the same hard-but-manageable exercise every day, including weekends, for a definite period of time. That last part is essential, because the ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel is what keeps me pushing through the hardest days.
Practice has yet to make perfect, but these sustained efforts never fail to make me feel like I’ve developed a new muscle in my brain, a living, aching, growing part of my mind that leaves me feeling hopeful and capable and ready to keep working. I feel stronger, and (maybe more importantly) I feel confident in my ability to learn new skills and strengthen the ones I already have.
So if you’re feeling stuck, I highly recommend pushing yourself with a structured, consistent, short-term challenge. (Jami Attenberg’s #1000wordsofsummer is another fabulous example, and is coming up in June.) You just might surprise yourself with what you can do.
Oh, and if you’re wondering: yes, this piece came out of one of my February pitches.
I’ve been working on that page for four consecutive days and I only got it memorized yesterday. It would be interesting to study why this particular page didn’t fall so neatly into the “how to memorize music the first day you learn it” template. (I don’t want to say “because it’s harder;” I suspect there’s something else going on.)
To work the four movements of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts that I memorized last week — but not to bother with memorizing any new ones.
To work evenness in Mozart K332 mmt 3.
To write something up about chess study, maybe? I’ve been doing a lot of chess study recently, and L and I have been playing both virtual and in-person (or, as L says, “over the board”) games. I want to write about how the various learning techniques I’m testing out, including the exercises on Chess.com, are either helping or not helping. Maybe I’ll do that for Thursday.
TO STOP WORRYING ABOUT WHEN WE’RE GOING TO DO ORIGAMI BECAUSE WE SURE AS HECK AREN’T DOING IT
On Monday I told you that I was going to record the third movement of Mozart K332 by the end of the week — well, I decided to record the entire sonata instead.
Here’s MOVEMENT 1, ALLEGRO:
I love everything about this performance except for the part where the phone falls over. Prior to that technical difficulty, everything had been very technically proficient — probably because I spent half of last week’s Mozart practice sessions digging into the movement’s weak spots and trying to solve as many problems as possible — and you can hear how much it delights me to be able to play with a sense of knowing.
On to MOVEMENT 2, ADAGIO:
This is probably the best performance of this piece so far — or it was, until I started thinking this is probably the best performance of the piece so far, I hope I don’t play any wrong notes.
On the plus side, I have now learned which aspects of the piece are still not 100% known.
Here comes MOVEMENT 3, ALLEGRO ASSAI, recorded (by me) for the very first time:
The important thing about this movement is that it is FULLY MEMORIZED. That’s what I spent the other half of last week’s Mozart practice sessions working on, after all — and I spent much of this week’s Mozart practice sessions addressing individual problems within the movement, though it’s obvious that I haven’t yet addressed them all.
On the subject of the work you can do during the course of a week, HERE’S WHERE I GOT PUBLISHED THIS WEEK:
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In both videos, I’m playing the second movement of Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts. This movement is titled “Allegro,” which means it could go fairly quickly if you wanted it to — but in the first video, you’ll note that I ended the movement by saying, spontaneously, “that’s way too fast.”
Pretty much everything in that performance was spontaneous, from my decision to start the piece over from the beginning (because I moved too fast and played a wrong note) to my decision to leave out a few of the notes at the end (because I was moving too fast to play them all).
I’m calling that one the “feelings” version. More impulse than control, as it were.
Here’s the focused version:
I told L that I took this one 20 percent slower, but I think it’s actually 40 percent slower if I did the math correctly; the “feelings” version took 50 seconds and the “focus” version took 70 seconds. Both still count as allegro, which translates more towards lively than it does towards fast.
But really, the tempo at which I took the “focused” version doesn’t matter at all. The tempo at which I took the “feelings” version only matters because I played the piece too quickly to play it accurately — which had everything to do with the fact that I wasn’t focusing on playing it accurately.
I wasn’t focusing on anything, really.
I was just playing.Feeling.Being!
Isn’t that what we’re all supposed to want? To let go and play and feel and be?
Well… go watch those two videos again.
(I’ve watched them several times.)
In the “feelings” version, I am clearly dissatisfied with my performance — and say as much, at the end. During the performance, I am physically tense; my fingers get stiffer, my wrists get tighter, and my neck (though you can’t see much of it in the video) gets a whole lot scrunchieder.
In the “focused” version, my fingers, wrist, and neck all remain relatively relaxed. I am in control; my whole body is saying “I’ve got this.”
And I do. It’s a clean, competent, musical performance.
Here’s the question: Does the “focused” version suffer from a lack of “feeling?”
I really want to know your answer — because mine is no, it doesn’t, but my opinion might be skewed.
It’s also worth noting that any feelings associated with the “feeling” version were along the lines of “wheeeeee!!!! whoops!!!!!! wheeeeeeeeee again!!!!!! wait wait wait it’s going too fast!!!!” It wasn’t like I was creating any kind of significant emotional experience to share with an audience; the feelings, as they were, were entirely self-directed and self-absorbed.
That said, there were zero feelings associated with the “focus” version. All of my energy was directed towards playing the piece as accurately as possible. I wasn’t trying to communicate a specific emotion, nor was I absorbed in my own emotional response to the piece.
I was, ironically enough, just playing.
And this pure, focused play might give an audience what they need to ascribe their own emotions to the piece, rather than getting stuck in “wow, she looks tense” or “wow, she’s taking that really fast, it almost seems like it’s out of control.” (It’s worth noting that when L and I watch a technically-accurate pianist on YouTube, we start talking about how the music makes us feel; when we watch a technically-inaccurate pianist, we start talking about how that person could have done a better job of problem-solving.)
BUT MAYBE YOU THOUGHT THAT THE FOCUSED VERSION SOUNDED ROBOTIC OR WHATEVER
I WILL NOT KNOW UNTIL YOU TELL ME
So go watch each video a dozen times and tell me exactly what you think.
You know I can take it. ❤️
(also, clever readers will notice that let this post run ALL DAY LONG before I realized that I had mistakenly labeled this particular Stravinsky movement “VIVO” instead of “ALLEGRO”)
The reason I started playing Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts again — well, the reason doesn’t really matter, but in the interest of transparency I’ll tell you that I was thinking about entering an amateur piano competition that I knew was totally pay-to-play (that is, the “competition” aspect was much less important to the event than the “money collected from every entrant” aspect), and L and I had talked about avoiding pay-to-play stuff and only focusing on events/conferences/competitions/gatherings that were associated with the pursuit of excellence, and I was still considering entering this competition because it would force me to produce/polish/record a certain amount of repertoire by a specific date, and I figured I could quickly produce/polish the Stravinsky because I used to pull it out as a showpiece when I was in high school — anyway, I recently started playing Les Cinq Doigts again, and it made me think about how much work I did to learn the piece twenty years ago and how much work I didn’t do.
Because each movement has at least one “weak spot.”
A problem that I never got around to solving because I didn’t know how to address it; maybe because I tried a few ways of addressing it and none of them worked, maybe because I was in a hurry and the rest of the piece was good enough, maybe — and very likely — because I was able to articulate the passage accurately 7 out of 10 times and I was willing to play those odds.
The first movement of Mozart K332 had a weak spot that I spent much of last week attempting to solve. There are a few weak spots in Ravel’s La Valse that I am currently working through. I will diligently apply everything I’ve got to the weak measures in the Stravinsky, because the best time to learn a piece of music is twenty years ago and the second best time is now.
But that’s not the point of this blog post.
If it were as simple as saying “well, just practice those weak spots extra-hard and extra-disciplinedy,” then we’d all do it. I mean, if all it took to learn the most complicated measures of a tricky piece was an extra half hour here and there, those measures would get learned. (Even high-school-aged Nicole understood that half hours were currency that could be exchanged for results.)
The problem is that the weak parts, even after you think you’ve done what you need to do to learn them, don’t hold up under pressure. Even though I think I’ve “solved” those 16 measures in the first movement of the Mozart or the one tricky left-hand bit in the seventh movement of the Stravinsky, I know that half of what I’ve tried to solve will fall apart the instant another problem presents itself. The weak spots are the first to go when you’re tired; when you’re stressed; when you’re distracted.
When you don’t practice them every day.
When you don’t give your biggest weaknesses a bit of specific, focused attention before playing the entire piece.
(You’ve probably figured out that “the point of this blog post” has nothing to do with Stravinsky.)
It absolutely astonishes me that I continually forget to be mindful even though I spend part of every day literally practicing mindfulness.
With, like, practice charts, and a reward system (even though I know that the reward for an all-green week is feeling really good all week long), and time built in to reflect on what I’m doing and how I could do better.
It’s just that no matter how much I want to change certain behaviors, I still find myself in situations where I get going too fast — and I stop thinking about making the best choice in the moment and I just start reacting to things.
This happens all the time when L and I play La Valse together, except when it’s music you can say “hang on, let’s go back and take it a little more slowly” and when it’s the rest of life you have to say “I’m sorry, I spoke more hastily than I intended to.”
L has said — I mean, many piano teachers have said — that once you really know something you’ll be able to access it in a variety of suboptimal scenarios. This isn’t the same thing as “you’ll be able to play it perfectly no matter what;” it just means that you’ll have this knowledge to draw from even while other parts of life (ringing phones, sleepless nights, the realization that you and your duet partner are playing this particular section of La Valse a little faster than usual) are attempting to draw you away from it.
Which means I haven’t really learned how to be mindful, not any more than I’ve really learned Les Cinq Doigts.
I can make the kinds of choices I want to make 7 out of 10 times, which is certainly better than 5 out of 10, but reacting instead of acting is still a major weak spot. (There’s a reason why I’ve written three separate posts on overcorrection in the past two weeks.)
And I wish it were as simple as saying “hang on, I want to take this a little more slowly,” and maybe it is, except the problem is that I always say “wait wait wait I need to slow down and think” right after I do the thing that I didn’t want to do (or re-make the mistake that I thought I had learned not to make anymore).
I have just now gotten to the point, with my piano practice, where I stop myself when I’m going too fast even if I’m playing everything well enough so far — because I know that weaknesses always optimize for speed, and because I know that I won’t be able to solve the problems I want to solve at the tempo I’m currently taking.
I want to learn how to do that in the rest of life, too.
I memorized the first two pages of Ravel and the last four pages of Mozart, I worked the 16 measures of the first movement of the Mozart that were still troubling me, and I recorded myself playing Chopin.
I finished reading Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and The Inner Game of Music.
I wrote a blog post about overcorrection, but didn’t write a blog post about using the techniques in Make it Stick and The Inner Game of Music while practicing — and I knew that one of those blog posts probably wouldn’t happen as soon as I made the to-do list, because I had already planned to use Tuesday’s post for the Chopin recording and that only gave me Thursday’s post for either “overcorrecting” or “piano practice techniques”.
What else? I wrote Tara a card, though I won’t put it in the mail until this afternoon. I also studied my grandmaster chess games; in fact, I used some of the techniques I learned in Make it Stick to improve the way I studied chess.
What didn’t I do? I didn’t play a chess game with L. We talked about it, but never ended up with enough simultaneous, consecutive free hours for a full game. As a counterbalance, I suggested that we always have an asynchronous chess game going on Chess.com and I’m hoping to get that started today (I sent him an invite this morning).
We also didn’t make any origami animals, probably because that was more on my to-do list than it was on L’s — but we did throw a backyard party for some vaccinated friends, which hadn’t been on either of our to-do lists when we started the week.
Going to the lake WAS on both of our to-do lists, and we took our first trip of the year on Sunday. ❤️
With that in mind, here is a BETTER(?) to-do list for this week.
To memorize one page of Ravel’s La Valse per day (today’s page is already memorized, did it this morning).
To memorize four of the eight movements in Stravinsky’s Les cinq doigts (movement 7 is already memorized as of this morning, but it’s very short).
To record myself playing the third movement of Mozart’s K332 by Friday, and share it as part of this week’s Thoughts From My Office.
To write a post about piano practice techniques for either Tuesday or Thursday, and use the other slot for blogging about whatever is on my mind at the time.
To continue refining the way in which I practice chess, and come up with some kind of metric for gauging my progress. I’m not satisfied with any of the current metrics, e.g. “number of grandmaster games studied,” because — as I’ve written in the past and as was reiterated in Make it Stick — studying is not the same thing as learning.
To change that chalkboard sign from “number of days spent without overcorrecting” to “number of days spent mindfully” or maybe “number of days spent acting vs. reacting,” since it is easy for me to say that was not technically an OVERCORRECTION and I want something that is a bit more specific (and simultaneously a bit more global) to work towards.
To invite L to play asynchronous chess on Chess.com with me (already done, and notice that I did not frame this to-do as “to play a game of chess with L,” since one of the factors I ignored in last week’s to-do list was that I can only track and complete my own actions).
To make three origami flowers (with L or on my own) and put them in the bedroom vase, which I have wanted to do since we started making origami flowers months ago…
And that should be enough to get us through the week, in addition to all of my usual freelance work, yoga, weightlifting, laundry, cooking, socializing, and so on. ❤️
Let’s start by showing you what’s currently on our chalkboard wall:
This was L’s idea, and although I think he meant it as a joke, I am fully committed. What gets measured gets managed, after all.
It’s also worth noting that — well, two things, the first thing is that the tally marks are only taking up a small corner of our chalkboard wall, the rest of the wall is filled with quotes and notes from (vaccinated) friends and so on, and the second thing is that what this tally chart is really saying is number of days spent mindfully.
Everyday mindfulness sounds like it might take a lot of work (“everyday mindfulness” also sounds like a bestselling book title, I wonder if it already exists) but it doesn’t seem like spending your days mindfully would take that much more out of you than spending them mindlessly. Especially since — as I’ve mentioned before — guessing takes more effort than knowing.
And yesterday, which we both tried to spend as mindfully as possible, turned out to be one of the best days L and I have ever had together. It was remarkable enough that we both remarked on it, at the end. ❤️