What's the difference between a pianist and a car?
Even if you are not at all interested in the automobile industry, or couldn't care less about the
ups and downs of big corporations, in the past few weeks it was impossible not to hear about
the Volkswagen scandal.
In short, this automobile giant produced millions of cars that did not satisfy stringent nitrogen
oxide emissions standards. The worst part of it was that they tried to hide this fact. The most
striking part was how they did it. The cars were programmed to notice when they were being
tested, and "pretend" they satisfied the standards - in other words, they cheated on the test.
Musicians also perform differently under test conditions. We inevitably play differently in
auditions, competitions, or school exams than we do in practice rooms or at home – just the
sheer fact that we are observed changes our performance. Unfortunately, there is no cheating
possible in music exams. Unlike cars, which can be programmed to do better, most of us
humans do worse in tests than in everyday circumstances.
I vividly remember my performance at the UNISA competition in South Africa a few years ago. I
played pieces I had performed many times before, and I spent many hours preparing. Yet, in
the moment of judgment, my fingers turned cold, my mind turned blank, and what came out
sounded more like a toddler discovering a piano for the first time.
On the other hand, some of the most successful and engaging performances I have given were
for an audience of one. When I play for my sister Lidija, who is not a musician by profession, but
enjoys music deeply, I forget about fear, and immerse myself easily into the musical matter. I
know she is there to have a genuinely moving experience. Music takes her out of her everyday
life and transports her into a more beautiful and fascinating world. It erases the boundaries
between performer and listener, and builds a community between us.
Sometimes, I even fall into a kind of flow state in which I feel like a vessel for the music to
channel itself through. Almost like an out-of-body experience, in that moment, there is no
attention left to think about playing right or wrong notes. All my powers are focused on
carrying the message of the music across.
But it's not only about playing for your family. I have often played in nursing homes and
hospitals – the kinds of concerts some of my colleagues understandably avoid playing out of
fear it could look bad on their CV. But that's a shame, because the smiling faces and shining
eyes of the audience after these concerts are worth so much more than a cold
“congratulations” after a concert at Carnegie Hall. This was where I felt all the endless hours of
practice and struggle actually paid off – I found meaning in a simple gesture of sharing beauty
with those who were surrounded only by memories of life and the reality of death.
In other words, meaning emerges from the interaction of human beings, and their joint
participation in something greater and more beautiful than themselves.
But auditions, exams and competitions are an inevitable part of a young musician's life. They
are mostly brief, cold, closed to the public, and take place in the presence of a numb, bored jury
who can't wait to go home and never hear a Chopin Ballade again. Is there a way to find
meaning, even in an audition, where you probably won’t even have the chance to play the
piece fully to the end?
Yes, it is possible, and not just that - it is necessary in order to win. This happened to me at the
NYCA audition, just a week after I returned from the UNISA competition. My program was
ready, but my hopes were low, and I walked out on stage without expectation. I didn't care
about winning, and I didn't care about the jury. I cared just about the music.
And something magical happened. Suddenly, I was not in an audition situation anymore. It was
just me and the music, the interaction I had with it, and the pleasure I derived from it. What
brought me into this state? It was probably the failure at the UNISA competition a week before,
and a kind of resignation from the relentless wish to succeed. It was also the shifting of my
focus from judgment and self-criticism onto the music itself, maybe even plain enjoyment of
the music as I was playing it. In any case, it helped me win.
Can we recreate this state for future auditions? We should certainly strive for it. But it's not
really a striving in the normal sense. It's a kind of negative striving. It's the striving not to strive.
Don't try hard to win, just do what you do best, for the sake of the music. Trust the framework
you put in place by practicing, and let yourself be in the moment.
But how do you change the state of your mind before an audition? When you're under
pressure, you can’t just pretend you don’t care. What you can do is imagine that you are
playing for a member of your family, or for somebody who really cares about you and about
music. You can transport yourself into the circumstances of the music you wish to share, and
lose yourself in it. Just like actors, we can't lie to ourselves and pretend to be somebody else.
We have to - as Stanislavski said - live truthfully in imaginary circumstances.
And in this we are yet again unlike the Volkswagen cars that were programmed to notice when
they were being tested. We should program ourselves to forget that we are being tested, and
play as if we can really reach into somebody’s heart and imbue it with beauty.
The Croatian pianist Javor Bracic is the first prize winner of international piano competitions in Italy,
Croatia and Belgium. He gave a critically acclaimed solo recital at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall
presented by New York Concert Artists. His first CD album Tribute to Haydn was released by Labor
Records, and his performance was broadcast on WQXR. He was invited to give recitals and perform at
festivals and conferences throughout the USA, Europe, China, and South Africa.
Javor has given a series of concerts for the humanitarian organization "Yehudi Menuhin's Live Music
Now" which brings music to nursing homes and hospitals. He has also given a series of conversation-
recitals under the title the Art of Listening aimed at promoting the interest in and understanding of
Javor has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Mozarteum in Salzburg, as well as a
Professional Studies Diploma from Mannes College in New York. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate of
Musical Arts at the City University of New York, studying with Ursula Oppens and Richard Goode.
Follow Javor Bracic on Hello Stage!