5 Tips for Handling Procrastination

by Joshua Roman

If you’re like me, your days are full of blank calendar space but long to-do lists. I essentially run a small business, and while I have partners such as a manager and publicist, there’s plenty of busy-work to fill each and every day. Problem is, since I’m not at an office with coworkers, I have to be a manager to myself, as my only full time employee! Given the lack of structure around my time, I’ve tried to implement various kinds of self-imposed schedules, but it’s tough with the randomness of traveling and performing.

Being someone who is naturally prone to procrastination, it’s a subject I’m become far more familiar with than I’d like. However, this has given me a few helpful go-to habits that might be useful for your own challenges of prioritization. Whether you’re a self-employed musician, or a full-time job holder with the tendency to put things off, perhaps these can help you get your day going as well.

1) Change your space.
A lot of times I find myself easily distracted by the things that surround me. One of my favorite ways to procrastinate is to reorganize my space so it feels “just right”. Of course, once I finish doing that, I have to enjoy the fresh feeling for a while. Then, there are the habits that are triggered by seeing my laptop and the couch, the books on my shelves, the light-fixture project that hasn’t been finished yet… you get the picture. While on a normal day, any of these things can be a good and necessary task, when the mood of procrastination sets in they become obstructions to the prioritization of whatever I’m avoiding. So, moving to another room, especially a pretty empty one, is helpful. Our bedroom doesn’t have bookshelves and usually is devoid of electronic devices, so dragging my chair in there is often a great way to kick-start whatever practicing I can’t seem to do in the living room. If you’re lucky enough to have a studio, keep it optimized for focus! Hotel rooms, oddly enough, often do the trick for me as well. I stopped watching “real” tv long ago, so a hotel room is a simple space with no distractions other than what I bring in my bag. Whatever it is for you – a change of scenery can often help shift your mindset as well.

2) Start with the big things, in small chunks.
Maybe you find yourself, as I do, procrastinating by doing all of the little things that are also necessary. Perhaps there’s a big piece you need to learn, but it looks complicated, so practicing more familiar rep over and over again gives just enough of a sense of accomplishment to reward that need for productivity, without having to tackle the “big deal”. Same can be true of starting a new composition, or really any task that seems monolithic before it’s broken down. And that, right there, can be the key: break it down. Don’t try to learn the piece all at once, let yourself read through it, go on to something else, and then make a schedule that divides the learning process into chunks. Almost every project or task is made up of smaller elements, and if you find yourself feeling anxiety when thinking about the totality of a project, zooming in on the individual elements can be a good way to get yourself started.

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3) Start with the little things.
Sometimes getting started can be more effective if you approach it in a subtly different way – if you are being super hard on yourself, thinking things like “I’ll never amount to anything if I don’t get this done today”, or “I’m just a lazy bum”, then you might do better starting with the low hanging fruit. Example: emails! Sometimes I’ll set a timer for 30 minutes, and clear all browser windows except Gmail so that I can start to clear up the inbox. This is more of a rolling start – as each success happens, mark it and look for something slightly bigger until you’re replying to that one email that requires research for a thoughtful reply. The timer is important here, once it goes off, give yourself a moment to enjoy the small win, then head over to your schedule or whatever you use to manage your time, and plot out the bigger immediate goals. I also think it’s important to schedule time for scheduling! This lets you check in on your progress and adjust for the best results.

4) Schedule your play time.
I think there’s a little kid somewhere inside of me that’s always concerned I’m working too hard. What if I never get around to the “fun” stuff? Sometimes setting aside time in my schedule for relaxing, hanging out, or even watching a movie will assuage those subconscious worries and help me stay focused. It may even be that those moments of play are a good goal to look forward to, a motivating force to help push through the To Do’s. Breaks of any kind help – usually when I practice or compose I make myself stop for ten minutes every hour. No matter what I end up doing, it gives the brain a rest and allows me to refocus in a more powerful way upon returning to the work.

5) Buddy up
Accountability is a powerful thing. Being near other people who are working hard has always gone a long way towards inspiring me to stay focused, as well. This is not always easy, or possible, with the self-composed work life. However, having a friend – even at a distance – to check in with and report to can be a big help. Someone who won’t let you make lame excuses, but understands the challenges of what you do as well. It’s not necessary that the people around you be musicians, artists, or anything similar, really. Work buddies are about creating a sense of responsibility that goes beyond your inner voice.

These are just some of the tricks I use to get moving again. There are many useful books and tools out there – and some might even say procrastinating is not always the worst thing to do. Of course, even when it’s useful, there is a limit. Here are a couple of videos from TED with different perspectives on procrastination. Share your own favorite tips and tools below – I’m always looking for more ways to be effective with my time!

Cutting Through the Noise

by Joshua Roman

We’re so fast.

So. Fast.

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It’s breathtaking, really, if you think back even ten years, to the advent of the iPhone. The internet was something to be checked on a few times a day, unless you happened to be sitting in front of a computer. Very few people were constantly plugged in. Now, it’s the complete opposite.

This is not a new trope; only an acceleration of a theme common throughout human development especially after the industrial age. As we create more and more ways to bring convenience into our everyday life, time for reflection and articulation becomes harder to find. In a world of increasingly instantaneous sharing, the pressure to be immediate exerts itself in ways we do not yet fully understand, and our sense of balance can get lost.

I’m not anti-technology; I’m not even against a fast-paced life. I love living in New York City! But I cherish the moments I get in nature, in silence, in solitude. With the constantly increasing noise surrounding us as we try to stay up-to-date, I think it is important that we embrace the opportunities we have to work on a longer game with the same energy we embrace the new, the latest, the most up-to-date.

I’ve been working on drafts of a post to respond to emotions that are running high all around for the last couple of weeks, including mine. Something designed not to simply soothe, but hopefully to have a positive impact, however small it may be. One thing that strikes me as an avid follower of the news is that in fact, my emotions have been running high for over a year, not just recently. And I’ve felt a sense of urgency that doesn’t have a clear set of actions to solve whatever issues are bubbling underneath the surface.

I’m talking about life right now, but this is also relevant for artand for music. It’s so temptingand again, sometimes necessary and goodto be quick with what we do. Find the easiest fingering for a passage. The phrasing that is good enough. The interpretation that we might already have a knack for. That has served me well; my last post was about my experience and thoughts around improv. It doesn’t get much more immediate than that!* To contrast, though, there are times when something substantive demands a more thought out approach.

(*I will add that the most complete improv experiences I’ve had have been led or inspired by artists with the experience to approach even the moment-to-moment interaction with deep thoughtfulness)

I’ve been pondering and probing the various ways I can serve through my art—as a cellist, a composer, a curator, a writerand there are many. I’m working on concrete plans (again, the scale may not always be large, but the statement and course correction are important) that I will share soon. Some of them are simple codifications of practices and habits that are already manifest in some (disorganized) form, and some may end up being new directions as I seek input to help understand the actual results that affect other people.

Back to #Bach. This time with @ted.

A photo posted by Joshua Roman (@joshuaromancello) on

I felt an incredible amount of tension and animosity in the air in the days after the election and so I responded with Bach. This was not my original idea, but I could not find a quick way to articulate something with words that I believed would be true and also not make its way into one of the echo chambers that surround many of us, reinforcing only what we already think. In Bach I found something universal, something human, something that transcends the temporal. Is it enough? For someone with strong opinions like me, no. So there will be more.

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At the moment, though, I’m challenging myself to be true, rather than fast. To be thoughtful, rather than convenient. In both my art and in my life, as I work on depth rather than speed, slowing down is difficult and yet feels so right. There’s plenty of quick thinking and fast responding (just ask my girlfriend about my obsession with facts and “OK Google” on my phone), and finding the right balance is a constant adjustment.

My challenge to you: think before you _______. (*)

*Speak
*Write (music, that Facebook post, a text)
*Get out of bed
*Put bow to string, fingers to keys, lips to mouthpiece, etc…

Experiment with this balance between the hectic and immediate vs. the slow and thoughtful. It’s a pendulum which works best when swinging in tandem with your own internal rhythm, so take the time to notice what happens when you change it up. Look for other perspectives, explore; how does this practice affect your conversations? How does it affect your practice routine?

Art exists for many purposes, and one of the great benefits of practicing art is learning how to observe and tweak your own internal processes.

As I alluded before, this post comes in the middle of a time of reflection and preparation. Sometimes a period like this does not result in a huge outward change, but an inner realignment of the compass. I look forward to sharing the results of this process with you, and encourage you to take the time to slow down and give yourself a chance to grow in all that you do, so that your actions, words, and sounds may have the full weight of purpose behind them. In doing so, perhaps you’ll manage to cut through some of the self-perpetuating noise out there and find a measure of confidence and peace on our shared journey as musicians, as artists, as humans.

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Four Tips for Classical Musicians Beginning Improv (I wrote this on the fly)

by Joshua Roman
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If you’re a classically trained musician, chances are you can play a number of complex pieces on demand, by memory, you can look at a piece of music you’ve never seen before and decipher the symbols on the page in real time (sight reading), or at least you can rather quickly learn a piece and bring it to performance level. Are you, however, comfortable playing along with music you like on the non-classical station? Can you sit in with your friends and make up a tune, a countermelody, or catch the bass line the first time around?

With the “classical” sensibility that has been cultivated over the last century, the latter set of skills may sound superfluous. Crack open that history book, though, and you’ll see that improv has been integral to musicianship for centuries. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt (name pretty much any musician from before the 20th century) – they all knew how to improvise. Their level of improv was fairly high, in some cases arguably the main reason for their original fame. While that’s an intimidating standard, I’ve come to realize that the benefits of even a basic level of improv comfort are tremendous.

The most difficult part of improv for someone who is used to preparing for hours, days, weeks before letting anyone hear a piece of music, is letting go of that control. The fear of playing something wrong is important to overcome, but I’ve discovered a few helpful mantras/tools:


1. Don’t compare your improv to the music you usually play.
If you spend most of your time playing the music of the greats, you might have totally unrealistic expectations. Those sounds were organized by veritable masters, and have proven the test of time. That’s not necessary for improv purposes! Simple, easy, accessible, creative, and above all, YOU, is what’s important here.

2. Start small.
I mean this in every way possible. Start in a room where no one can hear you, if you need to! Sometimes it’s useful to just play one note over and over again (an ostinato) until you get tired of it and naturally move on. Or, put on a song you listen to all the time, figure out the melody or the bass line, and then gradually begin to find other notes in between. Sometimes I even like to hold one note through a chord pattern, and feel the tension modulate as the chords underneath shift.

3. Allow yourself repetition.
When I was ten or eleven, my dad started having me play with his band on Sunday nights at church. I’ll never forget his reply when I asked about the sheet music – he said “you’ll figure it out. If you don’t like the note you’re playing, play a different one.” Kind of to the contrary, he also said “if you play a ‘wrong’ note, play it until you make it the ‘right’ note.” Basically, if you do something that doesn’t quite fit, you can incorporate the “mistake” into your next phrase, thereby “fixing” the mistake retroactively by use of repetition. So much of music is about how we play with expectations – so a keen awareness of patterns can take us into super cool and new places, and help us let go of the fear of “messing up” in improv.

4. Do your thing.
The most beautiful thing about improv is that it comes from you. It can begin to reflect your own unique voice – your sense of style and the elements of music that are most important to you. Find yourself listening to Lady Gaga when you’re not practicing excerpts? Great place to start! Simple chord patterns, a consistent beat, tunes you can pick up easily. Love the structure of techno with its beat drops and long arcs? That’s a fun way to learn to read what’s coming next. Want to get inside the mind of Dvorak and his Cello Concerto? Take the main theme and riff on it – how would you develop the material differently? One of my favorite things to do in school was to turn out the lights in a practice room and just start “following the sound.” Sometimes melodic, sometimes strange and wonderful fragments, sometimes just a rhythm would emerge. Letting go of expectations is key.

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Photo Credit: Bret Hartman

The benefits of learning to improv become apparent very quickly. First off, it opens up so many collaborative possibilities! It also gives you a very powerful entry point into any composer’s music. When you start to see all of the choices the composer did not make, the choices they did make paint a stronger picture. One of the more amusing results of becoming comfortable with improv is less fear of memory slips. I say “amusing” as I think of the times I’ve heard myself and others wander off script, and the hilarious (and therefore less awkward) paths back to the written score. Perhaps most importantly, as this skill develops, it gives you insight into your own artistic voice. When all the musical choices are yours, your priorities emerge much more clearly. This process of self-discovery is absolutely essential in order to cultivate an understanding of what you offer to your listeners and colleagues.

In my own musical life, improv has gone far beyond those beginning days of an added cello line to the band. I improvise all of my cadenzas when I perform Haydn Concertos, I’ve improvised entire pieces on stages including the TED stage, and collaborations with artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, DJ Spooky, Anne Patterson, We Are Golden (“Just Every Fisher’s Folly” and “Allen in February and March”), Mason Bates, have all come about because of comfort making notes up on the spot. And I’m not even very good at it, just willing!

Let’s hear what you’ve got. Share your stories, through improv video or otherwise.

The Importance of Run Throughs

by Joshua Roman

“It’s the same balance beam.”

The analogy my dad favored when it came to preparing for a performance was that of a gymnast at the Olympics. The beam is the same whether there are judges or not. The cello is the same, and the music the same, whether there is an audience or not. It’s something I’ve reminded myself of many times over the years, particularly when I used to do competitions as a student.

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Working out the kinks of my song cycle with Jessica Rivera, Mae Lin, Richard Belcher, Todd Palmer, Andrew Rehrig, and Conor Hanick in a casual studio run through.

And on one hand, it’s true. If you can tune everything out and magnify your focus on the details of the task at hand, you can do a much better job of repeating the process you’ve honed in the practice room. Execution becomes a habit, and distractions fall by the wayside once you get into that zone you’ve cultivated over and over again.

On the other hand, music is about communication. One of the exciting things about an audience is that they bring energy, and that energy is borne of a desire to experience a shared moment. A moment that is your responsibility as the performer to guide and shape with sensitivity to the dynamics of the relationship between the music, the audience, the other performers, and yourself. To achieve this means rather than tuning the audience out, opening up to their particular energy and incorporating that into your own experience.

But that can be a scary thing! Most, if not all of us, have felt the strange sensation of playing a piece in front of a live person for the first time and discovering that some of the technical or musical aspects that never quite clicked in the practice room are suddenly natural and fluid. Vice versa, some moments or passages are more challenging when all eyes are on us for the first time. So, while a mantra like “It’s the same balance beam” can help calm the mind or nerves and bring us back to the familiar, how do we practice feeling and using the elevated sensations and energy of a performance with a live audience to enhance the experience?

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LACO’s premiere of Mason Bates’ Cello Concerto. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

My answer: run throughs. While I was in school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I was immersed in a friendly culture of shared enthusiasm for the learning process, and happily acclimated to the environment around me. My classmates and I were always pulling each other into the practice room to play through something, just to get that sense of what might change when a piece became performative (and, helpful comments afterwards – it’s always good to learn how what you are doing is perceived by someone who can’t read your mind). Over the years since I’ve left school I’ve continued this practice to some degree, but I always notice a huge difference when I don’t manage to make the time.

I recently performed a piece for the first time, and unfortunately I didn’t get organized early enough to do a run through with a pianist ahead of time. I spent many extra hours with the score to make up for it, so at the first rehearsal, while I didn’t have the tactile memory of making micro adjustments that are necessary whenever sharing the interpretive process, at least I caught up quickly. Still, when I compare that feeling to the numerous times I’ve run through a new concerto with a pianist before the first rehearsal, there’s a huge difference. A few years ago, I was incredibly lucky to have concertos written for me by my friends Aaron Jay Kernis and then Mason Bates. In each case, we went through the piece with a pianist (Aaron on his, and Carlos Avila with Mason’s) multiple times. The point was twofold; 1) make sure the pieces were working the way we wanted, and all tempo markings etc., were in line with the composers’ wishes, and 2) be ready to show up at the first rehearsal with orchestra as prepared as I would be if these were pieces of standard repertoire I’d been playing since I was 12.

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I’m happily present while Jonah Kernis and his dad Aaron run the Haydn C Major Cello Concerto for a small gathering before an upcoming performance.

Who knows if I actually achieved the latter to the degree I wanted (being something of a perfectionist, I always find myself falling short). But I can certainly say I knew the music backwards and forwards and felt ready and excited to take it to the next level from the moment we began rehearsals. In both cases, this was no fewer than 3 “performances” in front of friends and colleagues, as few as one or two on the couch in the living room or as many as 15 in a rented space. The number of people is not nearly as important as the number of times running through. Learning how to take risks means actually taking risks, and being okay with people seeing you fail. Along the way, you figure out that even within a particular style or piece, there’s plenty of room for variations on success in a performance. There’s no true reproduction of what happened in the practice room or the last run through, but the confidence of knowing how to ride the wave of the moment comes through experience.

These were new works that no one had ever heard before. I say, however, that the same rule applies to Haydn or Elgar, which I’ve played many times. It always goes better if you show up with experience under your belt. So grab a friend, pull them into your practice room, and find out what you actually need to work on when you get back to your practice routine.

May your mind be clear and focused, your emotions flow freely and powerfully through the music, and may your fingers find their mark.

Back to School Reset

by Joshua Roman

Sitting in my seat on the flight to my first performance of the 16-17 season, I find myself reflecting on new beginnings. I’m a sucker for New Year’s Day and the first trip of the season is no different. Thinking back even further, I’ve always enjoyed the start of the semester as well. Fresh scenery, new classes and ways to learn, a structured environment after the laissez-faire chaos of summer…

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I used to have a hard time taking breaks – it’s still not the easiest thing for me to do – but I’ve recognized the value in allowing the mind, body, and spirit the chance to rest and relax. A real break gives one the chance to reassess ingrained habits and patterns and start anew with fresh energy. I’m a firm believer now that breaks are an essential part of life, especially when it comes to learning, growing, and developing new skills, but even if you don’t feel you have time to stop completely, a change of setting or routine is the perfect opportunity to alter your approach and renew your energy and focus.

When it comes to habits, I have found limitless value in experimentation. Having a sense of “home base” is helpful; a routine that you are comfortable with, that becomes second nature, and is a space around which you can play with details. An example from my cello practice is my scale routine. I have several that I’ve developed over the years, all of which I can rely on to keep me sharp with minimal fuss. Once I had the first routine solidified, I was able to start really experimenting with different warm ups and ways of interspersing the routine throughout my day’s practice – or even sometimes throughout the week – which led to the development of other routines I could add in. All the while I had the security of being able to fall back on the original when I felt the need to concentrate all of my creative energy in other areas of my practice and still be able to count on daily technical results.

Here are the videos from The Popper Project, a result of rethinking my practice habits back in 2009-2010.

Going back to school, beginning a new season of performances, or any kind of change in setting or schedule presents the opportunity to break whatever habits you have and rebuild them in a better way. It doesn’t always last forever–but if you stay aware of how you are affected by the changes you’re making, and the new routine, you can at the very least get a better sense of how you work.

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This year, I’m not only rejiggering some of my practice habits, but looking at the tools I use in my everyday life to see what might work better. Using multiple Google calendars, moving more of my work to shareable platforms like Google docs and Google drive are just some of the possibilities that help organize and streamline the logistics of many of the tasks on my list. I’m also committing to spend 45 minutes at the beginning of each week contemplating key questions about my career, independent of the to-do lists that end up dominating my thought patterns.

Structuring time, looking at key elements of organization, and reprioritizing areas of learning and work are all ways to give your progress a jolt of energy. There are many resources available to help with this – some that have been helpful to me include:


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
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This book gave me lots of valuable tools that I’ve used at various times to help organize and restructure many parts of my life and career. I especially like the four-part diagram regarding urgency and importance.

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Talent by Angela Beeching41xfrhzrcql-_sx329_bo1204203200_ 

If you’re seeking to up your career game, this book is a fantastic resource. Great ideas for everything from setting up and promoting a concert to how to manage your time so that artistry doesn’t get lost as you seek to create your self-run business.

 

 

 

 

Think Simple Now by Multiple Authors51c0cbveccl

This blog has many great articles about reorganization, and has been an inspiration to me when it comes to simplifying and prioritizing the things that matter most in life.

 

 

 

 

This is a process that never ends, but taking the time to recognize a naturally occurring change of pace and attach extra significance to it can elevate your experience and sharpen necessary life skills. I’d love to know what resources and ideas you have found useful; this isn’t the first and won’t be the last time I lift up the hood and tinker with the engine of productivity. May your semester, season, and fall be fulfilling and challenging in ways that bring you joy and learning.

NEW VIDEO: Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys

On May 24, 2016, Town Hall Seattle concert-goers and Second Inversion listeners were fortunate to hear the world premiere of Movement for String Quartet and Piano by Andrius Žlabys. If you missed it, we’re pleased to present this video production on the Town Hall stage!

Joshua Roman sat down to chat with Andrius about the piece and his composition background.

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

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AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

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AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

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AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

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Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

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There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

Touched by Creativity in Nature

by Joshua Roman

With Maggie Stapleton and Rachel Nesvig at Camp Muir on Mount Rainier (Washington State).

It’s no secret that some of the greatest composers in history have sought inspiration, solace, and rejuvenation in nature. Beethoven loved to escape Vienna to walk through the countryside, and Bartok was an avid collector of insects in addition to folk melodies from the countryside. And they certainly weren’t the only ones.

So good for them, right? Now we’ve got the (insert superlative) music they wrote, and we also get a glimpse into the natural world as they experienced it. At least, that’s what I would guess is the attitude of many of us based on our general (if not total) lack of engagement with the great outdoors. Myself, I’ve always loved being outside, and felt frustrated by the fact that my cello does not acclimate very well to wind, rain, heat, cold, or humidity. So being outdoors, which is a natural part of much of my life, has been largely separated from my artistic endeavors. A few multimedia projects – like some of the videos I shot outside for the Popper Project or my Everyday Bach videos – have hinted at a connection, but it’s only really this summer that I’ve begun to feel a tangible and powerful, even primal, creative force arise when out in nature.

View from Mount Si (little Si) near Seattle, Washington.

It started with a hike near Seattle. I was so ready to do something non-digital, something peaceful, that took me away from the demands of this life that start out joyful, but can easily pile up and become overwhelming due to their sheer volume. Here’s a picture from the summit – I was already feeling a calm but directional energy throughout the ascent, but upon reaching this view it exploded into a force of deep, resonant sound that was surprising and exciting. It was a sound that I couldn’t identify, except that it had a rolling momentum and begged to be orchestrated. Someday, it will. In the meantime, I cannot forget how it came from the peak next to ours, and though the grandeur was bigger than I knew how to express, the desire to share it was so very strong.

Lake Morraine near Banff, Canada.

At that point, I immediately knew I needed to do more of this. Luckily, my summer has taken me to such strikingly beautiful places as Banff to perform for TED in a collaborative concert I curated with other TED Fellows, Boulder for a series I curated (as well as for the Colorado Music Festival), and Maine for the Bay Chamber Concerts summer festival.

View from Bear Peak in Boulder, Colorado.

Looking at photos of stunning views is always nice, but for me they are most powerful when they serve as a reminder tied to a real experience. I’ve had more music come to mind in these places–a result of the inspiration and the sense of release we feel when we connect with our physical bodies and engage with the natural world around us. I think it’s about centering – a rich tapestry of experiences can certainly help us to learn about human expressiveness and the essential parts of our existence, but it’s important to find a way to stay grounded. Connecting with nature is a great way to achieve this balance.

View of the bay near Rockport, Maine.

Sometimes, if you can pull it off, a day or three away from everything goes a long way towards clearing the mind and allowing natural creative energy to flow. But even if that’s out of the question, finding a quiet park for a stroll, or a trail just outside of the city, can make a difference in the flow of artistry. If you can manage it, get outside–whether near or far–and allow yourself to be open to that special source which has inspired so many of our heroes – nothing is better than tapping into that directly.