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Student Blog: The Formula of Live Performance

SFCM’s student blogger pianist Helen Wu on what music and racing have in common, and how it deepened her passion for playing.

July 11, 2022 by Alex Heigl

As an instrumentalist or composer, have you ever questioned yourself? Why am I doing this, especially in a world where more and more things are high-tech, and now even computers can compose music using algorithms?

Or have you asked yourself a similar question even before artificial intelligence (AI) was “born:” “If there are so many people who play better than I do… then why am I doing this?”

The answer is: You, and everything it takes to become you.

I was born in Shanghai, a place where about eight out of ten children can play the piano—and probably five of them can play it very well. Many of us share some similar stories about how we started, how we practiced, and how we ended up being in the US. But today, I want to share something different.

How does a flower become a flower? Water, sunlight, and those who see it, who name it a “flower” and appreciate it. Similarly, how was my music world established and expanded? Music, of course, but at the same time thousands of other things. In other words, I love music, but I also love things that are considered unrelated to music but are indeed for me, musical.

I have watched Formula 1 racing (F1) for 13 years, and over these 13 years, I hardly missed a race simply because of the unpredictability of the sport: The wonder of “what is going to happen” forever unknown ahead of time. A driver who is leading the race might have his car’s engine blown out in the last lap. Watching the cars weave through the chicane (tight curves on the race track) is excitingly intense, as the smallest mistake might make them spin out.

Knowing that changes or incidents can occur in milliseconds keeps me attentive for every single moment. This is how I want a live music performance—and my role in it—to appeal to the audience. There, unpredictability is not about unexpected mistakes but about surprising timing, phrasing, and silence. If you know what is going to happen for a fact, that every time is the same, then why don’t you just listen to the recordings?

Performance is an art of interaction just like F1. Drivers race wheel to wheel, different rivals overtake each other in different ways. On stage, these interactions happen between performers (in an ensemble setting), and even more so, between the performer(s) and the audience. When an audience member smiles, laughs, or exclaims because something I just did excites them, their reactions will push me to do even more. Just as in F1—same driver, same team, same circuit: different year, different strategy, different result— the same performer, same repertoire, or same listener at different times or in different moods can produce different interactions.

Sometimes it seems like a stretch to relate every single thing in life with music, but more often than not, the connections are surprisingly inspiring. A mentor of mine in college once said to me after reading my piece of writing on F1: “You’ve seen drivers who fall into a vicious cycle. If they made a mistake, it’s very likely that they would make more similar mistakes in the next few races. They lose their race or, in the worst cases, their life. The stakes are super high,” he said, “but don’t you feel similarly insecure on stage? I suppose you are afraid of making mistakes in front of others, which is… normal to everybody.”

Writing helps me think deeply. Literature was my second major in college, which I personally regard as “the art of written words,” a sibling of music—“the art of sound.” People have asked me: “Does playing music make you write better? Your sense of timing in your writing is significantly different.” While I don’t have a clear answer, I would lean more towards “vice versa.” When practicing piano, I usually aim at finding the right interpretation with the right touch at once, which makes me hesitant to make attempts. Meanwhile, my writing practice is completely different: I am fearless of making mistakes; I look for the best word, phrasing, and style through numerous rounds of deleting and revising.

Why? Perhaps I once received professional music training with the idea that there is a right way to play a certain note, a certain piece, a certain style.

But neither discipline should have a correct answer nor a “best” version. Classical music, just like writing and literature, is a form of art, a creative experience. Reading and listening are almost purely subjective and related to individual and sensual experiences. A better goal than perfection is to be highly personal, with whatever distinguishes me from you and everybody else.

Nostalgia and even sentimentality are perhaps some of the best gifts my experience has brought me. Sentimentality isn’t always a bad thing: When it inflates to a certain extent and almost explodes in my body, there comes an urgency to express it (along with a sense of helplessness at its inexpressibility). 

One day, I was standing on a lawn and saw a plane cut across the twilight. The image struck me and I froze there with my heartbeat accelerating and eyes tearing.

Keeping those moments, for me, is one of the keys to remaining full, full in a way that memory, when awakened, can speak for itself through the ineffable. After some days, or even weeks and years, it will be for me, for my music, and for whatever I do as a creative person. And for you, I hope, it will be the same.

Helen Wu is a graduate pianist in the String & Piano Chamber Music department at SFCM.