Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Beginning of the School Year & "Stage Fright" (And the Big Question... Which is Scarier?)

Plans for the 2021-2022 school year

Needless to say, this coming school year feels anything but "normal," mainly because last school year was very unusual. The effects of COVID are the main reasons for this, and even now, after re-opening and half the country being vaccinated, there are still questions that loom. Almost all of my students meet with me in person now, but whether or not to organize a recital in November/December still hangs in the air, primarily due to concerns about the Delta variant and what potential this may have for children.

Nevertheless, I've been moving forward and plan to have a recital around that time (possibly November 13th, or later), and if new recommendations arise from public safety officials, I can always have that same recital, as planned, on Zoom -- the tricky part is figuring out how I would facilitate that, since I've never held a virtual recital before.


De-sensitizing (Oh God, they're all looking at me!!)

I've spent the last several months thinking about performance anxiety ("stage fright") and what role this plays in my life. It's also a little bit frustrating that it may be hard to book any performances in the near future, since some people are still hesitant to gather in large groups. My experience performing in front of large groups is, in many ways, a "love-hate" experience because on the one hand it's something I really want to do, and something I'd like to continue trying. This desire stems from a simple longing to share my own compositions with others, and the joy of having that connection with the audience. On the other hand, I've been known to experience the anxiety I mentioned, which usually manifests itself with trembling hands, a "shaky" foot and dry-mouth (very typical symptoms of performance anxiety). With this in mind, I've been pondering ways that I can manage these annoying symptoms.  

I sometimes tell people that it's good to find experienced people, especially if they grant you their time to let you "pick their brains". I've been fortunate enough to do this--not to mention that I've been reading a book about a pianists' journey through stage fright--and a common suggestion is to gain more experience in "small" settings, like a group of 10 or 20 people. I've already taken action with this in mind, by sending an email to a coordinator at Enloe Hospital to see if I can volunteer to play their piano for their residents, on a volunteer basis. 

My other idea is to try and organize some kind of "performance group", or a group of friends (or acquaintances/colleagues) who would all perform a short piece of music in a small-group setting. If I were able to find like-minded people, it would be a win-win. So far I have made a list of people who might possibly be interested. The next step is to contact these people and find a place to have these small performances. 

The idea behind all of this is to "desensitize," but of course there are other methods that could possibly help me manage stage fright symptoms, which I might try as well (breathing exercises, meditation, running just before a performance, "tightening" exercises, etc.). 

More $$$ for recording equipment??

As usual, I have been making efforts to record myself and to post more YouTube videos of my songs. One of the approaches I use now is that I record myself constantly. This way, it won't seem as intimidating or scary when I play a song that I plan to post online, because I'll be "used to" the awareness of being recorded. This has actually worked quite well, and I was also blown away because I had no idea that I cursed so much.. (watching the playback videos of me practicing astounded me, as I noticed myself cursing like a sailor when making a mistake :D ). The idea is that I'll record myself so much on a regular basis, even during practice sessions, that during a "real" recording session it'll hardly even occur to me that I'm being recorded, allowing me to play more "freely" and without inhibitions. 

I still use ProTools software for my recording, which ends up with "okay" results, depending on what you compare it to. I conducted a whole series of tests this week and plan to do another series of tests in the coming days. I may have found an even more "ideal" approach, involving a medium volume level from the piano but increasing the gain on my editing software. But instead of boring people with details, I'll go right into the main issue: should I spend more money on better recording equipment? (And more time tackling the learning curve that comes with the purchase?) One way to put it is, quite simply, that I have more hours now at the Sutter County Superintendent of Schools, where I work part time (and a promise of a raise), more private students, and a significantly higher overall income than before. So I'm thinking that in the near future the answer to this question might very well be "yes". 

Only time will tell, and by that time there may be some crisp sound quality coming out of those YouTube videos... or at least I hope. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

A Concert in Spring, Reforming Instruction and Musical Allies (All Rolled Into One)

May 2021 Concert (YouTube Live)

It has been quite a while since I've performed anything, and after having more time to practice (since it's been months since my last performance) I've had the opportunity to ponder quite a bit about which pieces I want to play at my next concert. I've been avoiding setting an exact date, somewhat deliberately, because I fear that my busy schedule will keep me from practicing and that it will result in a "sub-par" performance due to lack of preparation. Nevertheless, I'm playing with the idea of doing a mid-May date, like May 15th or May 22nd (both Saturdays). In the mean time, all I have on my website is "TBD" for the time and date of the show. 

One part of this upcoming performance that I'm excited about is the fact that I've locked in the song "Autumn at Bidwell Park" as a definitely part of the list, and most likely it will be the first song. I performed it a long time ago, but this was on Facebook Live about four years ago when I was doing weekly broadcasts about my music (a series called "Piano Thor'sday"). There will probably be six songs total, and I'm delightfully surprised that I've been able to select pieces that seem to "flow" well from one song to another. As many musicians know, this involves questions like, "Should I play the next song in a minor or a major key?" "Should I play a slow song after a fast song, or vice versa?" etc. I seem to have found a good combination with the selections I chose, so maybe it's just luck :D

"Tightening the Screws" on Music Instruction

As busy as my schedule is (and always tends to be, for some reason) I was able to find time to enrich my curriculum a little bit. I've mentioned before that even though the pandemic initially caused my clientele to drop a little bit, the number of students I have has actually gone up and I've had more now than ever. This has steered me towards the need to keep better track of what each student is working on (you know, so that I don't have to ask a 7-year-old kid, "What were we working on last time?" and other embarrassing questions). 

I've been teaching music for about 10 years now, if you count all the lessons I've ever taught since I had my first student back in 2011. On a full-time basis, I'd say about four years now. I don't think I'm necessarily in a position to act like a wise "Yoda" or "Jedi Master" of music instruction, but if I were to give anyone a tip or a suggestion, it would be this: pick a "main" lesson book that you work out of, and give the students regular supplementary material to support it. This means you have a "textbook" (e.g. the Lesson Books from Faber Piano Adventures) but find other stuff that's appropriate for the student's level, such as songs from other books, other pieces, or downloads from the Internet. In the past few weeks I've been trying to be very mindful about this and it seems like it's already showing benefits. 

How to Find Musical "Allies"

It hardly needs to be said that if you're a musician -- regardless of whether you play in a band, a group of any kind, an orchestra, or if you're a soloist -- you need support. This support, of course, can be described as "moral support", as well as social, physical, financial, etc. It also shouldn't be any surprise to anyone that even with COVID-19 so widespread, musicians from all over the world are still able to connect, learn and perform by the wonderful technology of the Internet. I've recently taken even more advantage of this by joining a Facebook group called "Performing Without Fear," which is a group designed for any musician who suffers from performance anxiety (stage fright). The only "performance" I've done for this group is a video I posted of one of my originals, from my YouTube channel. I took this initial route mainly because I haven't had any time to really do a live performance. The nice thing about this, though, is that I got very generous feedback from some of the other members, including one who ended up buying my sheet music. This is just one example of why people in the music industry should always network, regardless of circumstances. 

At this point I'm looking more optimistically towards the future, especially when people are finally able to have gatherings again. This will mean more networking and, of course, more live performances and the opportunities to put on more recitals for my students. It's been almost a year since California had its first lockdown from the virus, and if this past year can go by that quickly, it only means that soon enough I'll be able to pour my soul into that piano with an actual audience. I feel very lucky that I still have these "allies" online to support me until that day comes.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Sheet Music Collection (And Other Project You Can Do While COVID Keeps You Indoors)

Things You Can Do (As a Musician) While Staying at Home

It has been a long year, especially the way the pandemic has unfolded (meaning, of course, that ever since Thanksgiving the number of COVID-19 cases has soared, at least where I live) and now that we're getting close to the end of December it's good to reflect on the big picture. It has been about ten months that this health crisis has had a significant impact on everybody's lives, whether it's those who have actually contracted the illness, or just those who have had to adapt in some way or another (in other words, all of us). 

For me, it has definitely been a while since I've put on any kind of a virtual piano concert, partly because Facebook Live was acting funny (freezing up during the livestream) and I want to make sure I can use a method of livestreaming that's more reliable (maybe YouTube Live). So what else is there to do? I still teach my piano lessons on Zoom, as well as in-person. The in-person students are required to wear their masks, and with the 28 students that I have now it's about half-and-half (half of them are on Zoom, the other half meet me in person). Even as we approach close to a year since the very first COVID-19 cases showed up, my business hasn't really decreased at all, which I continue to be grateful for. 

One of the many ways I've been spending time, aside from having put on several virtual concerts, is adding new sheet music to my website. I finished putting together new sheet music for two of my songs, which are now up on my site, along with all the others.

I continue to cross my fingers and remain hopeful that the vaccines which have now been approved (which they're distributing as we speak) will eventually start to bring this under control. In the mean time -- since there apparently is a silver lining with everything -- I've been churning out one song after another in my sheet music collection. I recently finished putting together the sheet music for "Search at Jan Mayen's Coast" and "Waking to the Rain," and am about to wrap up another two: "The Falls of Dynjandi" and "Liliana".  After I add one more I'll have a total of 12 pieces with sheet music available, which led me to start selling these as a collection. 

Podcast Hiatus

From August until November I was posting a weekly podcast on YouTube, along with Melissa Brown (another piano teacher who works here in Chico) and we had hoped to continue through the fall and the spring of 2021. We discontinued it temporarily because of the high number of COVID-19 cases and, even though we're both extremely cautious, because of our need to take all necessary precautions. The good news is that all the videos are still up on our YouTube channel, "Treble with Missy and Thor" (a name that I'm still very fond of :D ). As far as a timeframe of when we'll consider it safe enough to resume the weekly broadcast, that's anyone's guess. 

Now, of course, and along with about a dozen on-going projects that are music-related, I'm waiting for some available time to start polishing up the videos we already have -- this would include, among other things, adding intro music at the beginning of each show, fixing some audio issues, and adding a second "blooper video" (the first one got some good feedback, and a few chuckles). 

So remember, there are many things you can do as a musician to keep yourself busy. If I'm able to keep myself as occupied and busy as I have, others can do it too. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Laughs and Local Connections - Update on my Music Podcast

Nothing but Treble...

The most recent project that I've been working on (as if there aren't enough) is the music podcast that I launched back in August. So far I've had a fair amount of success with it, and my colleague that has joined me in this daring venture (Melissa Brown) seems to be enjoying it immensely. I think the most appealing aspect of doing these weekly podcasts is the simplicity of it: every week we broadcast ourselves on YouTube Live, with no script in our hands, and basically just talk about music for a half an hour. The only preparation (besides setting up the equipment, which has only failed us a few times) is coming in with a different musical topic each week. 

The purpose of this? You guessed it, to get more music students, and it has worked to some extent :) Mrs. Brown (a.k.a. "Missy,") also teaches piano at The Music Connection in Chico, so we are both benefitting from this. We've definitely intended to inject some humor into each podcast, and we've done eight broadcasts so far. Whether or not the humor has been effective remains to be seen :D In any case, I've attached the video of our first broadcast below.  

Our first broadcast of "Treble With Missy and Thor," 
our music podcast

Ulterior Motives?

Why yes, there are! The main one is that I hope to get enough subscribers and viewers to our YouTube channel (which is called "Treble With Missy & Thor") so that some of these same subscribers and viewers will eventually be directed to my own music-related channel ("Thorsteinn Gunter"), thereby allowing my compositions to have more exposure. That being said, I find the term "ulterior motive" to be somewhat of a misnomer because I'm very open about sharing this agenda.  


Regardless of how many subscribers we get (we now only have 45) I've been having so much fun with this because it's not something that requires a grueling amount of preparation, or any strenuous effort. In the mean time, I've added a new video to the music channel and thought I would share that one as well. 

"Footprints on Esterro's Sands," 
one of my originals

New Students, Upcoming Recordings, and... a Virtual Recital?

The first two items in that heading are definitely a thing, while the third one is still a "maybe," an idea that I'm floating around in my head (among so many other ideas).  Even though the number of music students decreased slightly during the onset of the Coronavirus, it has still remained pretty steady, and as of recently I gained a few more students, mainly through the vendor programs at the local charter schools in Chico. The interesting part of this (and the very unusual part of this) is that I am now teaching piano to a few students that I have literally never met in person, because they started their first lesson with me on Zoom.

Piano Lesson with Zoom 
(It's the same, I just look a little smaller :D )

As far as new recordings (aside from the most recent one above) I plan to start uploading some covers as well. I definitely plan to mix things up with regard to the types of videos I make, especially since I know people like variety. And the classical covers are definitely no secret - J.S. Bach's Gavotte in G minor, Edvard Grieg's Arietta, and Georg Benda's A minor Sonatina are among the few I plan to record. 

While I feel fairly confident about retaining the students I have now, I also know from experience that if they are not kept accountable, some may be liable to subconsciously "coast" or put in a little less effort. I know there's at least one other teacher in Chico who put together a piano recital entirely on Zoom, so I'm thinking about trying it some time in the future. It definitely has its disadvantages compared to an in-person recital, but the accountability factor that may discourage some of my students has weighed on my mind. 

The solution? Put on a virtual recital, of course! It never hurts to try new things, and this is just one of many new things I intend to do.  

Thursday, July 30, 2020

My YouTube Overhaul

New videos on my channel

I've spent a significant amount of time on YouTube lately, and I don't mean as a YouTube addict (as in someone who watches a lot of videos) but as someone who's been uploading new videos, and getting rid of old ones. I revamped my YouTube channel, mainly by spiffing up the design and adding some videos with better quality (I'm not sure if "spiffing" is really a word, but I'm using it :D ).

New design for my YouTube channel
There's currently a total of six videos, which is fewer than I had before, but these include new ones that I'm happier with, and some of the old ones had mediocre quality in terms of the picture. The goal behind all this involves no secret, of course, which is that I hope to get more exposure. Online platforms seem to be ideal for reaching a lot of people, especially during a pandemic when many people are trying to stay home as much as they can. My goal by the end of this week is to add two more.

Aside from my attempts at creating slightly better quality in the videos, I've been spending a lot of time studying other musicians' YouTube channels, which seems to help (I've included one of the videos below, which I watched in order to get ideas of my own, from a pianist named Jacob Ladegaard).

Diversifying my repertoire

In response to most people's first impression of the title above, yes, I have been writing new music. However, my use of the term "repertoire" in this case refers to the types of videos I plan to upload onto my channel. So far, there are five videos of me performing original songs (four of them with the grand piano Yamaha C3X, a.k.a. "Isabelle", and one on the Yamaha Avant Grande N2, a.k.a., "Zoey"), and one video that features a cover I did of the theme from Princess Bride. After I upload a few more original songs I also plan to add tutorials, where people can learn about piano playing technique, music theory, steps for learning certain songs, etc. YouTube allows the owner of a channel to organize the videos into different categories. Once I get around to adding more covers (and working out the necessary details involving copyright issues) I can create a section for that as well. In other words--and as usual--I have my work cut out for me.

Worried about your business dwindling? Create loyalty in your clients

This is my advice, if I may give it humbly, for any music teacher who's concerned about their students dropping because of COVID-19 and their students having to stay home. One thing I'm extremely grateful for is that even in the midst of the recent upsurge of cases in the United States, most of my students have still continued taking lesson from me, even if it involves the occasional mishaps and hiccups that come with using media apps like Zoom and Skype. A few others, but not many, have returned to receiving their lessons face-to-face, with the other "new normal", which involves both of us wearing masks during the lesson. Students who do whatever it takes to continue taking lessons are showing their loyalty, and it's this type of loyalty that teachers need to foster in their clients.

With regard to music education and my plans for going forward, I'll be finding ways to continue using technology to my advantage, and to find better ways of using this technology to retain as many students as I can. Zoom and YouTube are great resources for that, and platforms such as Canvas will also allow me to continue my work with the Sutter County Superintendent of Schools.

Virtual Concert in August!

I've had plenty of time to practice, so there is no excuse not to do another virtual concert - although it's very likely that I will postpone the date, which is currently set for August 9th. Either way it will include a mix of older pieces (probably "Waking to the Rain" and "Flight Over Askja's Fire") as well as a few newer ones. I've certainly mentioned the fact that virtual concerts are great even when there isn't a global pandemic unfolding, and the same is true with revamping the YouTube channel. My goal is to put on the best possible performance I can, of course, for the August concert, and also a rather ambitious one that involves the end of this week: two new videos on my channel, two new recordings, and two new pieces of sheet music.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Concerts From Your Own Living Room

"It's the new normal". I'm sure by now you've heard this phrase on many occasions, as it obviously refers to the new lifestyles we've all had to adopt (isolating ourselves, social distancing, working from home, etc.). For me, this includes playing my piano concerts from the studio at my house, with my Android mounted on a tripod. It definitely has its benefits and drawbacks, as one can imagine. To be truthful, though, there are quite a few advantages to doing this.

At some point (I think it was during the first virtual concert I put on) I made a joke about the perk that there was no heavy lifting. This is true, actually, and the lack of legwork was really nice, so there's always a silver lining. What's even more encouraging is that I was able to reach a lot more people. In fact, at one point there were more people watching the concert virtually than there were numbers of people that usually show up to my actual concerts!

Another positive result is that these types of  concerts will still continue, even after restrictions are lifted. I see no reason to discontinue the livestream shows, even if I do this in addition to the physical concerts. The easy part? It requires no phone calls or booking agent -- the venue is in my house, so all I have to do is pick a date and announce it :D I've done three of these already, and the next one will be June 13, 2020, (the Summer Concert).

I don't suppose there's anything else new that I've learned from having done the last three, except that I might have been putting a tad too much pressure on myself by allowing only two weeks between shows. Sometimes this is not enough time for rehearsing the songs, since the songs in each concert are all different, which is why I decided to give myself a month before I perform the next one. 

I am my own worst critic, though--or so I've been told--and the last concert seemed to go fairly well. I played eight different piano covers, which I do only on occasion, and people definitely seemed to like it. The Summer Show will feature all originals again (and the luxury of not having to worry about copyright laws). 

After all is said and done, I'm not sure which is more unnerving - looking into a crowd of 200 people, or looking at a phone that I know has 200 people "inside" of it, watching. 

I guess I'll have to get used to doing both. :)

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Getting Music Out During Our 'New Normal'

Adapting to the COVID-19 Pandemic

If you've been spending any time reading or watching information about musicians, you have undoubtedly come across something relating to the way the coronavirus has affected people in the music industry. The best way I can summarize my own experience is how suddenly I had to adapt - how I had to change my habits, my schedule, my routine, and the way I do business. I'm sure a lot of other performers, as well as music teachers, can relate to this as they probably have a similar story.

As if this wasn't enough stress, I was coincidentally in the middle of a major "life event" when things started getting really bad (I know, I have the worst timing possible). When I realized that the spread of this virus was really getting serious, I happened to be right in the middle of buying my first house. The sad part is that I ended up backing out of the deal, because I felt I needed to wait and see how the pandemic would affect my business (and the economy). So, no house! For the time being I will continue to remain but a lowly renter, all because of that pesky germ :P

Skype lessons... from the comfort of your phone :D

There has been something inspiring about this, though, and it's how cooperative people have been throughout the ordeal. I was pretty worried at first because The Music Connection (the store where I teach my piano lessons) has been closed until further notice. My first instinct was that most of my students would drop and stop taking lessons, but actually I have retained most of them. Like many other music teachers, I've been teaching my piano lessons through Skype, Zoom, and other long-distance means. I have technology to thank, I guess, and I also attribute this to the fact that many of my students are already used to this process, since they've been having Zoom meetings with their regular teachers and submitting homework through student portals on their school's websites. At this point I am doing the same thing that just about every person on the planet is doing: getting by and doing my best to endure the process, however long it takes.

Virtual Concerts (C'mon, Everyone's Doin' It!)

I'm sure I'm not the only one who steals ideas from other musicians (in fact, I know I'm not) and I recently saw two of my "Facebook friends" perform their own music on the Facebook Live feature that you can find on the app.

I've seen lots of comments about "silver linings", and there are quite a few when it comes to doing a concert like this. I performed original music on the piano via Facebook Live on Saturday, and I have to say it worked out great. Maybe it was because there was no heavy lifting :D Or, maybe it was the fact that I seemed to reach a lot more people this way. It goes without saying: more people are home, they don't have to leave home to see the concert in the first place, and I was able to reach far more people because Facebook automatically notifies people when someone is live (not to mention that, if you create a Facebook Event page, it automatically reminds every person that you invite). I was also able to get people from out of town to watch it, when they would otherwise not have been able to see the concert.

My attempt at setting up a tripod before my virtual concert.

I have read that the best way to respond to an unexpected event, like the COVID-19 pandemic, is to make the best of the situation by responding optimally. There is some great information about this in the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, as well as (and please pardon my French) an enormously entertaining book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by an author and professional blogger named Mark Manson. In other words, according to the advice of successful people, the best thing to do is make the best of the situation (and any situation) instead of feeling paralyzed, or sulking. The virtual concert I put on definitely motivated me to do exactly that :)

(By the way, this does not give you an excuse to wear pajamas while you're performing -- unless that's part of your shtick. Haha. )

A Great Way to Promote Your Music from Home

It's interesting that even without the plight of a pandemic like the one we're experiencing now, I could have already been showcasing my music from home. Even before the outbreak, there were plenty of people who were hopelessly addicted to Facebook. I've decided to take advantage of it either way, and in about two weeks (most likely) I plan to do another virtual concert. It may be a smaller one (perhaps just a half hour long, or 45 minutes at the most) and it will feature some of my more recent work. The concert I put on last night featured mostly older songs.

And then -- yes -- in about a month from now I'm thinking of doing a concert with just covers. One thing I often tell people is that if you want to improve as a composer, you should study (and learn to play) pieces by other composers. Doing a show that includes covers will be a good way to exemplify this concept. Plus, I'll get to play some of my favorites, classical as well as modern (Chopin, Bach, Ludovico Einaudi and Leonard Cohen, to name a few).

The entire video of last night's virtual concert is still on my Facebook page, for anyone who wants to check it out (or if you want to giggle at the three minutes of technical difficulties in the beginning of the video). But hey, technical hiccups always seem inevitable. The enjoyment that I got out of putting on this concert made it well worth it.