What I Learned from the Past Year of Music (pt. 2)

Hello again! Since my previous post got a rather positive response compared to what I expected (which was absolutely nothing), I am going to write Part 2 with the points that could not fit into Part 1.

I have already conceived enough things to write for at least one additional part after this (yes, I learned that much from getting steamrolled in music :O), so I will see how you guys like the next two (very inter-related) things I learned from my past year of music.

Thank you for reading even up to here, by the way. It means the world to me ❤

  • Learn to pick the lock instead of breaking the door.
    I was so excited to start working on “impossible” repertoire beyond my wildest dreams. I prided myself on being rather good at throwing technically challenging pieces together through grit, so I went full steam ahead with grinding away at a bunch of Chopin etudes. I was gloating about my “progress” when I first arrived in Montreal; from late March to early August, I learned six (!) Chopin etudes “well” (for those curious, they were op. 10 nos. 1 , 2, 4, 9, 12 and op. 25 no. 5). In my mind, I was thinking: “Seven Chopin etudes [note: I played op. 10 no. 5 previously] is a lot and Chopin etudes are hard, so I’m probably more than caught up with the other McGill students now!”Spoiler: nope. On the contrary, I realized that in so many aspects I was still stuck at the very beginning. I was learning a lot of pieces very quickly, but they never got easier for me like they usually did naturally. Instead, it just felt like the difficulties as I brought the tempo up to Chopin’s marked tempos compounded exponentially, until playing felt almost like a one-man circus act where I would juggle three balls on a unicycle then crash into a wall because I become so blind to my surroundings.WHY?! I was very frustrated when I got to McGill when my peers made my weaknesses very apparent to me, but could not readily fix them. However, after a conversation with a kind upperclassman (hey FL <3), I soon made my first leap in collegiate piano studies. He saw that I learned my new assigned repertoire very quickly, but was struggling to bring it further than where it was. He also got to witness a special performance of Cirque de Tim Min, where I flopped op. 10 no. 4 for him. He told me that I had, though hard work and many years of practice, mastered the art of kicking the door in and walking through the obliterated doorway. “However, you’re getting to the point where doors are getting harder to break, because they’re getting heavier and sturdier.”

    He went over to the practice room and pretended to unlock it. “However,” he said while turning the doorknob gingerly and opening the door to demonstrate, “you will get much farther and use much less effort in the long run if you learn to pick the lock.”

    The amount of progress I made since then has been largely due to this gem of a lesson from FL-senpai.

    Thinking of my classmates from those blissful high school days,  I realize now that we were all masters at blowing up doors with our whole set of special gadgets (mnemonics, rote drilling, cramming, memorizing sample problems). Some may have done it less or more than others depending on how much busting the door helped us understand the door more over the years, but (almost) all of us can admit there was at least one question we solved in a high school science class which we did not truly understand.

    However, university was different (I know, as an  ex-STEM major). Only the most skilled of crammers would be able to stick the entire textbook down their throat right before an exam. Marks for right answers started getting shifted to marks for the entire process; exams became less a test of how much information you know, but rather how efficiently (quickly) you can use it to solve what feels like endless questions;  your teachers/jailers (ahem, sorry, professors) started to skip over critical material and throw you into the frying pan, then getting genuinely surprised when their students don’t figure it out like expected.

    Music was a good place to learn the solution for this, because I definitely didn’t learn it in the first year of university in nanotech. The subjects I already thoroughly understood like the back of my hand (mathematics, basic CS) were essentially free, while on the other subjects I either successfully crammed right before the test or burned up trying. I know plenty of people who got through four years of undergraduate and however many years of grad school continuing this habit of door-breaking, because exams and one-shot assessments allow for this kind of thing. Forgetting everything afterwards and not understanding the material is the least thing you’re worried about when you have an exam the next morning. However, music as a career is a journey which relies on optimized rehearsal and painstakingly making your way from 90% to 95%, then 98%, then 99%. It’s a career where the difference between a pro and a disillusioned scrub-out is, looking at it holistically, just a collection of what seems like nitpicks.

    So I can assure you that I got to learn solidly that kicking a steel-reinforced door is a great way to shatter your leg.

    What is slow practice to me is analyzing the logic behind the different steps of a chemistry problem for you, my dear STEM friends. What is historical and theoretical study for me is the exact same for you, which is understanding how the methods came about and what principles they lie on. What is me learning a piece bar by bar or hands separately is you showing way more work than you need while working on sample problems or you working backwards from the answer to the question. All of these methods have the same aim: understanding over fixation on performance. I am already not able to just throw together a performance by regurgitating my teacher’s instructions or copying Rubinstein, by nature of the music profession not allowing this kind of fakery. But even though you might get through your schooling and future career in STEM via door-breaking by nature of a science career not requiring every single bit of information that appeared in your lectures (hell, can we say that every high school science teacher even understand the course information?), you might have an easier time taking your off-time between terms and fully relearning the previous term’s crammed material to make your future learning easier.

    (Of course, there are people like YO-kun who both understands all the course material and crams all day anyway. So hard working ❤ ganbatte)

    Maybe most of my friends already learned this lesson their own way too, or maybe we all knew but just didn’t have time to fully recognize it and admit it in the midst of the chaos of deadlines and responsibilities. But next time, before you jump headfirst into working your ass off at your next study session, take one moment and appreciate how great of an opportunity you have right now to learn material in an environment that many people will never have the chance to experience. Studying in a university is a true privilege, so don’t waste it away memorizing flashcards.

  • Admire how the masters think, not what they do or achieved.I was always a huge stickler for forcing anyone who asked me for the answer to a math or science question to try to fully understand the entire concept of the question so that they wouldn’t need to ask me questions again in the future. Sometimes, I would even go back and relearn something I (unfortunately) crammed just so I could teach the other person. However, usually the person would just run off as soon as they have enough information to solve that question on their homework assignment, then run off without thinking twice about the problem they had so much difficulty with.This was (and still is) my biggest pet peeve, and I have complained about it more than once. So, I am probably some awesome tragic hero for becoming exactly what I despised.

    Not in the exact same way as my previous rant about lazy STEM students, but in a broader sense. I often look at successful people and recently completed projects, then take some really half-baked conclusion away from it. For example: “Look, Glenn Gould sits really low and he’s damn good at piano!!! Time to sit lower at the piano!!!” For those who don’t know, Gould sat low both to take advantage of his immense finger independence and to compensate for his messed up back. But plenty of piano students (I’m guilty) will just try sitting low without trying to gain that legendary finger technique or trying to see how their particular posture and circumstances might require a different height than “low asf”.

    [An even better (not serious) example: “Look, Bill Gates left a STEM major and became rich after!!! Better leave my STEM major and become rich!!!” Oops. Mistakes were made.]

    You will notice that my first point in this article can be applied the the STEM students example I gave. If those students had actually understood the problem and all the theory behind it, they probably wouldn’t need to ask for the answer. However, in a broader sense, they asked for the answer instead of the solution or explanation because they saw something they wanted to achieve or do (complete assignments quickly and get high grades effortlessly), and tried to take a direct path to it (getting a lot of right answers) instead of taking the paths of others who got there (learning the material thoroughly to get the right answer. Or getting good at cheating.)

    My entire past year of piano has been spent in the paradigm of “doing what the experts do”. The kind friend who coached me for my audition (thanks RP-sensei :D) played a ton of Chopin etudes, so I learned seven. Pros and the upper years perform immensely hard and complex pieces, so I asked my teacher if I could learn Beethoven’s Sonata no. 31, op. 110 (the obviously correct response is laughing while saying “no”). Plenty of current and former McGill students made it big through competitions, so I started looking into signing up for the Canadian Music Competition next year.

    However, now I can clearly see the lessons I should have taken out of seeing these amazing people accomplish amazing things. RP was able to play so many Chopin etudes through patient and dedicated practice over the years, so I should have adopted his drive and perseverance. Professionals and high-level music school students can play complex works because they studied many other pieces in the past and trained their musical sense, so I should have started to pay even closer attention to small details in the pieces I am playing now. Students who make it big through competitions were already at the caliber where they could win or place very well, so I should have focused on developing a wider repertoire and gaining more experience with the piano literature so that when I do enter a competition I would actually have a realistic chance.

    How this will directly apply to my STEM friends is variable, but I assure you that I have seen many examples of where it applies. Particularly, of University of Waterloo engineering and CS students who have fallen into this trap: “So many UW students succeed through start-ups, so we should do a start-up!” or “I want a good resume like my classmates/upperclassmen, so I will do things that will pad my resume (specific types of projects and events, especially personal websites, design teams with very unfocused objectives or terrible role division, grunt positions on research teams, and open hackatons) even if it doesn’t interest me.” Or a particularly bad offender among life science students, “People who get into med school do X, so I gotta go do X so I can become a doctor!”

    I get it; especially as an undergraduate, you want to make yourself stand out as much as possible, even if you end up feeling like you’re forcing it or losing your integrity. But I propose this: how about instead of trying to look special and stand out, why not become someone who is special and stands out by means of their own unique strengths? People who succeed via start-ups really succeeded at producing a viable idea to fit a certain niche, followed through with their idea, persevered through all the difficulties, and confidently marketed their product. People with great resumes/CVs often manifest their passions through the type of work they do and the projects they take on; I have a friend (JZ) who took on the job of making a new theme for UW’s anime club WordPress and made a tsundere-stylized web diary and Japanese dictionary. He’s working at his third major tech company right now. I have two other friends (YO and ZC) who are working in labs on projects which genuinely interest them and which they can wholeheartedly pour themselves into. These two dedicate themselves to their work because there is nothing else they would rather do, and it’s not surprising that this type of person would naturally have a very interesting resume/CV.

    The next part (directed right at my dear STEM friends) is a bit cheesy but… since I am telling all of you to follow what the masters think, it means you should all follow through with your instincts and desires more. Because I genuinely believe that you are already masters, and stifling yourself by trying to emulate someone else’s endgame would just break my heart. Follow your heart while letting the stories of other masters guide you, not letting them control you.

I hope you enjoyed this article! I feel like it was a bit more preach-y in nature compared to the previous one, but that’s because this article is perhaps mostly for myself. This is my personal pledge that I will take this opportunity to study music full-time very seriously. Through my journey of reaching true musical heights, I will discover myself so we can all celebrate together in the future.

I wanted to say something to my friends from high school and first-year university so many times over the past while, but always kept it inside. Recently, while sitting in a practice room alone for so long, I realized that the feeling was growing so strong that I have to face it straight on.

I miss every single one of you dearly. The lack of each one of you is a hole in my heart, no matter what kind of rough patches we had together or what kind of note we ended on. I could message each one of you with everything you added to my life, but I would risk seeming a bit creepy 😉

It’s almost the weekend; you all deserve a break from working hard 🙂 I hope to catch up with all of you when you have time!

What I Learned from the Past Year of Music (pt. 2)

What I Learned from the Past Year of Music

If you’re reading this blog post, you most likely got here off a link I posted on Facebook.

It’s been such a long time since I did extensive writing of any sort, and recently I have been feeling disconnected from spending so much time alone in the practice room. I have been trying to catch up with old friends, and in one conversation they mentioned that they would read my blog posts if I managed to go back to writing. So I figured it might be interesting to condense all the learning I did in the past year for my first post in ages.

I have to start off with an apology of sorts. To the people I went to high school with, it probably seemed very sudden that I suddenly jumped ship from engineering to music. Before I left to go to McGill, I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to most of you. I could have made the rounds and messaged all of you personally, but I don’t think I was in the right mindset at the time to do so. It was a tough year where a lot changed, and even now I am trying to fully comprehend the gravity of everything happening around me. I think the best way for me to make amends is to at least share some of “wisdom” I gained from my situation.

I am writing this in early morning, so bear with my scattered writing.

  • Never assume the path you’re on is the right one.
    The verdict is usually not clear until you either reach the oasis or hit a dead end. But you should always be constantly assessing whether the clues and landmarks seem to be pointing in the direction you’re heading, and not be afraid to admit you’re wrong.This one is two-fold for me. In terms of my degree, I chose my program for the wrong reasons (a superficial desire to enter a “hard” STEM field and a fear of being far from the people I care about), and I had a whole summer and first semester to either act on my accepted transfer request into Mechatronics Engineering (which aligned with my interests a bit better) or math, which I am much better at than sciences. The regrets I had overwhelmed me until I decided that I had to find some way to live without feeling this shitty about a decision ever again. Music seems like a weird choice, but it’s a path where I will be continually challenged and never be allowed to become complacent (versus most over career paths where the contents of your courses and textbooks fade away while you work at your 9-to-5 job). It suited my life goal very well (to always continue growing my skills and be able to reach for the top) while also alleviating the regret that started piling on ever since I disregarded music as a career. It’s interesting that the choice I made after clearly recognizing I threw away two better choices in the past (math and tron) was to take a third choice, but that’s just how human nature is, I guess. Our experiences help us see clearly when walking through the maze a second time.The other way I learned this lesson is through my practice time at the piano. Before I came to McGill, I became obsessed with increasing my technique because I was convinced having impeccable chops would allow me to coast in first year and beat out the competition. I managed to slowly develop a forearm injury and perpetual finger fatigue. When I arrived and met my classmates, I realized the two areas in which I was lacking most compared to my peers were diversity of experience (which I did not increase, because I practiced Chopin etudes, Pischna, and Hanon all day) and musical sense (which also did not increase, since I drilled my fingers instead of taking some time to study and listen). On top of that, I became introduced to the entire world of “extrafinger technique”, where we use our entire body to support our sound rather than base it around our extremely weak finger extensors. I could have figured out all of this a few months earlier if I had just practiced as normal and clearly recognized the warning signs that I was doing something wrong (pain and resistance, both mental and physical, are ALWAYS signs of non-optimal execution at some point; this applies to every field and career), then done a bit of research on the matter. It might have saved me the trouble of learning it all now, but alas. The result is I ended up with a low-tier technical level, dirt-tier for everything else, and have to work much harder than the others around me to even keep up.I lost a bunch of time in two spots because I didn’t take the time to just consider whether or not I was progressing in the right direction. To progress is to move forward, and we may well move forward out of the forest and down a cliff. As uncomfortable as it may be, constantly assess whether or not you are heading in the best possible direction. First (best) outcome: you will affirm your previous decision and have more confirmation that you should carry on full speed ahead until some warning sign shows otherwise. Second (not as good, but better than the cliff scenario) outcome: you will realize something is wrong and be able to either make the decision to continue in the same direction and make an adjustment when appropriate, or cut your losses and do a 180 turn before you reach a point of no return.

    Even now, I am constantly assessing my trajectory. So far, I am liking it.

  • Be willing to learn from anyone.
    I think I already told many people about my story about the Magical Piano Master from UW CS, but I enjoy it so much that I will summarize it here again. Basically, I decided to audition for McGill after months of not seriously practicing since entering university, and literally the day I sent in my application I met another first year student who coached me for the entire month I had to prepare my repertoire. In almost every way, this story seems uncharacteristic of me. Even though the Chinese are known for their many tales of humility and open-mindedness, in reality concepts of “pride” and “face” fester in many who are very familiar with the culture. Imagine if I had decided that I would not take the “shame” of being taught by someone my own age who I just met that day, and who had told me in no uncertain terms that I was definitely going to get screwed at my audition from the looks of things.For the next month leading up to my audition and the remaining one month until this friend went back home after his exams, he listened to me play every week and gave me assignments for how to practice before our next session. I can safely say that if I had not asked him to become my teacher on that first day, and instead just brushed him off and continued preparing on my own, I would have crashed and burned at my audition and be regretfully moping around studying something I don’t care about instead of sitting here in my studio apartment in downtown Montreal, “happily” ( >.< ) waiting for morning when I can go hit the practice rooms again.Also some things to consider: when I used to sneak into Laurier’s practice rooms to practice, senior students would often drop by and give me tips. Often, this advice out of context can be very harmful. For example, one fellow told me to sit a certain way while another told me to position my hands and arms a certain way, even though the two were irreconcilable. In this case, you would gain your learning from assessing what those around you say. The comments on how I was sitting and using my hands ended up coming back to me when my teacher at McGill noted I was making things harder for myself with the way I used the non-finger parts of my body, and I realized that what I should have learned from the imparted tips from those Laurier students was to be conscious of my sitting posture and arm use. Even in what first seems to be aimless commentary or malicious attacks, you can probably find at least one shred of truth that made the time you spent listening worth it.”How can you not solve this integration problem? My daughter can do this!” = “Go practice your integration more.”
    “You’re a narcissistic jerk and should go kill yourself.” = “Try being kinder to others.”
    “Dude, that piano song was awesome!!! You should totally medley that with some Ariana Grande!” = “You’re doing a good job, keep at it :)”

    What Asian parents say but never follow themselves: “You have one mouth and two ears for a reason. Always be willing to hear out others.”

    What Confucius said: 三人行,必有我师 (“If three journey together, one must be my teacher.”).

    I will continue to improve here at McGill with the help of not only my dedicated teachers, but also my piano buddies who drop by to tell me my Ballade coda sounds like shit, the senpai who stops by to sightread my entire repertoire perfectly, and the heckling I get from a certain friend I often voice call to play for (hi, YF).

  • Take a full stride one way instead of tiptoeing in a circle.
    This is basically the whole crux of my decision to withdraw from full-time enrollment in engineering to focus on practicing music and planning out a potential transfer to the UW math faculty. I could have “sort-of” put myself into nanotech, “sort-of” worked on my audition, “sort-of” looked into maybe changing careers down the road, but in the end I would just be doing a crap job of everything. Half-assing something both gives you the instability of being in a halfway/transition point and denies you the momentum to actually make a change in your life.I could have thought, “But if I put a bit of time into everything, I can get 3 Social, 3 Piano, 3 Math, 3 Engineering, and 3 Writing onto my stat card! 15 STAT POINTS!” But what if I told you you needed 5 points in any single area for it to actually get anywhere? In that case, 0 Social, 7 Piano, 5 Math, Engineering, 0 Writing might actually be a more effective stat distribution, even though only 12 points were allocated! In the second case, you would potentially be getting more results with less overall effort, and you still have three points throw around depending on the day and your mood. Slow and steady only wins the race if you don’t have to continually overcome the static friction of the race track. This can explain why doing a narrower spectrum of activities with higher concentration yields better results than juggling more (potentially irrelevant) things  for a higher total time but with less time on any individual activity.There will be different points of your life where you might get more stat points to allocate for your life (so maybe you can manage some godly 15-stat lifestyle like 5 Career, 5 Social, 5 Hobby) or times where you necessarily need to do particularly well on one aspect of your life to get anywhere (so during job interview you might tune your lifestyle to 10 Career, 0 Social, 0 Hobby, although maybe in some cases 7 Career, 3 Social, 3 Hobby is enough). The idea is, you should not get caught in the trap of thinking you need to have it all, all at once. Maybe during exams you can focus exclusively on studying, then after get back into your normal routine. Alternatively, there may be an appropriate time where you can skimp on studying for one day to attend some event concerning your hobby, or to go on an outing with friends, or to try something totally new. In most cases, you will not (and should not) be maintaining a perfect balance, and that’s a perfectly good thing.

    (In case you’re curious, I am basically rocking a 9 Piano, 1 Social, 1 School, 4 Hobby life right now 😛 Perhaps I can consider reallocating the 6 non-Piano points…)

    [Note: I wish to point out that this model sort of explains role divisions in RPGs and MMOs and why people don’t spread their points over every category even though it results in the highest theoretical increase in overall “stat value”. It’s because being sorta good at a bunch of things is a good recipe for getting nowhere and dying to slimes. Just stick all your points into Intellect to learn that “Flaunt Degree” skill, and then after maybe dedicate some points to Charisma to land that hot date.]

    My stat system also works on a smaller scale, for individual tasks within an activity. For example, playing every single piece in your repertoire during your practice session is much less effective than working thoroughly through just a few pieces and setting up a good schedule for when to switch focus. I found spending 5 hours on my entire repertoire at once was less effective than spending 3 hours on just two or three pieces, which is helping me divide my schedule up efficiently. Two 5 hour blocks of working on everything has proven less effective than three 3 hour blocks of practicing fewer pieces, even though in the second case I saved one hour which I can spend writing verbose blog posts like this.

    I have many more things I learned, but I will stop here for now. If you guys like this and actually found it in any way interesting, I might try writing more stuff in the future. I hope you are all doing great in your STEM degrees, and that you appreciate the ramblings of a withering music student :’)

What I Learned from the Past Year of Music