you were born an artist

As my brother Kan likes to say, good art comes from mundane daily practice. This is an unequivocal fact. Kan is quite the artist, and most people only get the opportunity to see his final products, but there is a perk to being his brother. I got to see the practice that went into those pieces. Before any of those pieces came to be, I got to see the pile of papers on his desk on which he practiced, letter by letter and font by font, over and over and over and over again. Also, he uses the word “mundane” somewhat liberally here, because the acts of practice and continual improvement are actually far from mundane, in fact they are the most significant sources of joy for an artist. In a society so focused on results, many people misunderstand this point. They think that acting is about landing a role in a major film, painting is about having your work featured in a famous gallery, writing is about winning the Nobel prize in literature, and music is about playing to an audience at iconic venues. Of course, they are all wrong. Art is simply about showing up on a daily basis, and relentlessly pursuing to better ourselves. Everything else is just fluff.

There’s something so satisfying about practicing and getting better. Performing can be fun too, but not as much. Don’t tell anyone, but I actually don’t even like performing all that much. I do it anyway because my performances seem to give joy to some people, and I’m always happy to contribute joy to others, but after every performance I can’t help but think, “whew it’s over, now I can go home and do what I actually love, which is to practice.” As Karl Paulnack urges, we musicians must take our practice very seriously just as doctors would take their education seriously. If you’re a doctor, someday, someone will be brought into an emergency at 2AM, and it will be up to your knowledge and skill to save that person’s life. Well, if you’re a musician, it’s just as likely that some day a broken soul might walk into your concert at 8PM, and whether they go home whole again will be based purely on how well you do your craft.

Anyone who has recently pursued any form of art knows all this. However, recently, I have had several conversations with others that led me to wonder how many people have forgotten about the joy of creating art, and tragically settle for a never-ending spiral of consumption. Just consider that a friend of mine took one look at my apartment, which consists of just the bare necessities, and asked me, “Are you happy? I could not live like you, I need to enjoy life.” Societal influence is strong on this one. So many people have been led to believe that somehow there is a correlation between spending money and enjoying one’s life, and such a belief just turns people into slaves of money.

It would be one thing if people’s decision to stop creating art is a conscious one, but that is far from it. We are all born artists, and cultural influences suck the inner artists out of us. So much of this has to do with the society’s love of money. It isn’t out of randomness that I blog a lot about personal finance, although there don’t seem to be too many other pianists who blog more about finance than pianism. But I do it consciously because if you don’t control your money, your money will control you. And when it does, it makes it that much harder to have the mental energy to create good art.

I love this commencement speech by Neil Gaiman.

Creating your best art is your purpose in life. Are you getting farther from it? Then something about your life ought to change.

Me llamo Shin. Soy músico.

During a recent conversational class, I learned to introduce myself in Spanish.

“Me llamo Shin. Soy músico.” (My name is Shin. I am a musician.)

This got me curious, because any English speaker would be tempted to say “Soy un músico” instead, but apparently, it’s not quite correct to add the article when speaking about my profession.

So during a 15-minute break with my band in between our shows, I asked my Spanish-speaking bandmate why he thinks this is so. His answer was so beautiful that I have to share with you:

“When you say ‘I am a musician’, you are just that, one musician. But you see, you are not just a musician. So you say ‘Soy músico. I am musician.‘ When I tell you ‘I am musician’, I’m heroically professing that I embody music. All musicians are within me, and I am within all musicians.”

I’m pretty sure he just made that explanation up, but nonetheless, I was inspired by how romantically he thinks about his language.

choose the difficult road

During a recent music gig, a girl who looked to be a teenager came up to me and asked, “is it hard to become a musician?”

At that moment, I could have simply answered the question and tell her that yes, it is probably difficult and requires much more work to be a musician than most other jobs, but I wondered about why she was asking the question in the first place, so I asked her, “what would you do if I told you that it was difficult?”

After a short conversation, I found out that she loves to play the guitar, and her parents think that making a living as a musician is difficult, so she should pursue other things instead.

I see two main beliefs that drive this kind of thinking.

  1. You should not pursue something if it is difficult.
  2. Pursuing one career takes away an opportunity to pick up another down the road.

The only problem I see here is that both points above are completely wrong.

Often, it is very tempting to take the easy road. In fact, a lot of what we do on a daily basis is driven by how much short-term reward we can get for doing as little work as possible. For example, many people (including me) like to get drunk for the good feelings we get in return, however temporary they may be. We also like to satisfy our hunger by consuming junk food. And we attempt to garner “likes” on social media by posting an over-dramatic representation of some status update based at least in part on our lives showing off how great our lives are, or taking pictures of food that we didn’t even make ourselves, as if we somehow deserve the credit for the culinary art.

All these things give us instant gratification, but they make us worse off in the long run. They make us feel good just in that moment, but that feeling does not persist, and we even pay a price afterward. In the case of alcohol and junk food, the price is obviously our degrading health. In the case of posting things on social media, our price is the empty feeling we feel on the inside from desiring so badly for social approval while doing nothing of value to others.

It turns out that the things that are truly worth doing, like the things that change the world for the better and the things give us a sense of purpose, are all difficult things. So even though we all succumb at times to the desire to pursue the easy road, we must not give up completely by making that our default action. Whenever we come across a juncture (which is pretty much every single day), we must intentionally choose the difficult path that takes more work but also leads to more growth.

And as for the second point, no, we do not necessarily diminish our chance at one career by pursuing another, and sometimes, we even gain more, as our philosophy slowly builds to help compound our overall growth which opens up more opportunities. Besides, with the current pace of societal changes, there isn’t a single job that exist today that is guaranteed to exist twenty years from now anyway, so we might as well embrace the changes and take joy in all the learning that we must do continually. It is even becoming the norm for people to pursue multiple careers throughout their lifetime. Personally, I know that I have lost nothing by pursuing music. In fact, music taught me some of the most important lessons that allowed me the chance to develop my skills in other areas. Music helped me internalize that the only way to get better is to work to get better. It turns out that this applies in any other field. So just by knowing that and letting that conviction be the guide for daily action, you will have a leg up on anyone who believes that there is some magical shortcut in life to achieve more with less effort. There isn’t.

Just show up

I happen to live and work by the gym where Kobe Bryant works out. He works out quite early, and today he showed up at 5:45AM for his morning workout. My coworkers tell me that this is nothing unusual for Kobe, and he’s been doing it since his high school days. Mind you, he is a retired player, but hey, Kobe is still Kobe, and I think the fact that he still shows up in the morning to this day says a lot about his attitude and philosophy toward life in general, not just basketball. Now I feel like a coward lecturing to my students about the importance of work ethic, when my daily practice sessions don’t start until much later in the morning (if it starts at all). Apparently, I still have a whole lot I must learn from truly dedicated people like Kobe. He makes me look like the laziest person on the planet, and that’s probably why he makes millions and I don’t.

By the way, here’s a little nugget of insight I’ve discovered over time, for anyone who thinks that practicing is too hard and unpleasant; practicing is actually not hard at all. What’s really difficult is to do the Step Zero, which is to show up for practice. Or in my case, to sit myself down in front of the piano. Once I can overcome that initial step, the actual process of going through the practice is not as difficult.

New York City

When I stepped foot in New York City, I felt a strange sense of familiarity. Here I was, in a city that I had never been in, yet it seemed as if the scenery in front of me was something I had seen before. I even felt like I had come home.

It could be because New York City is similar to my hometown in many ways. Just like Tokyo, you encounter thousands of pedestrians on a daily basis. Many of them seem to be in a rush to get somewhere. They are “strangers” to you, as in they are people whose only connection to your life is that they once walked by you in a busy city street. If your life were a movie, they are part of the “extra”. But let us remind ourselves that in their lives, we are the extra. Just strangers walking by. Most will stay strangers, yet, should you get to know some of them through a stroke of life’s luck that bring you together, you quickly find out that you were not strangers at all. After all, we are all human, and as such, we share much in common. We all seek meaningful relationships, we strive to do the best given our life’s circumstances, we worry about our future, and we ponder about things like the meaning of life and our place in society.

I wrote this piece, “New York City” for my album “Portraits”. The album is called that because these are pieces that portray some aspects of my life that have meant a lot to me.

You can listen to the rest of the album on Spotify and iTunes.

Conducting and the Creative Process

Last week, I got to witness my friend Jojo make his orchestral-conducting debut, conducting the Brahms’ first symphony. It was an incredibly moving performance to say the least, and it was particularly special to me because Brahms’ first symphony is a work that I have always loved.

Many people think that conducting is about the motions, and understandably so because that is the obviously visible part of a conductor’s work that you see every time you witness an orchestra perform.

However, having talked to conductors, it seems to me that that is actually not what conducting is about. Even though I sometimes hear reviews that focus on the motions, such as “that conductor was so into the music” or “that conductor was a bit tense,” such reviews might be missing the most important aspect of conducting. Conductors tell me that conducting is much more about the skill to rehearse an orchestra in a limited time to unify their playing so that the group performs as one, instead of 100 independent musicians. Simply put, conducting is not about the conductor. It is about the music.

Joshua Bell once said this in an interview: “A bad conductor is someone who can get in the way of the music. I mean, the great secret is that an orchestra can actually play without a conductor at all.”

Talking to Jojo after the performance, I gained some insights that parallel my desires to produce good works as a fellow creator and a musician.

For one, a conductor’s work begins long before the first rehearsal with the orchestra. That is actually true of any genre of art, but especially important for a conductor. Conductors who show up to rehearsals unprepared are not only useless, they are almost criminal. They are essentially taking the precious time away from the lives of the members of the orchestra, and throwing it down the garbage.

In Jojo’s case, he studied meticulously the music and created in his mind the sound that he wanted, months before he even met with the orchestra for the first rehearsal.

It can be a bit misleading when you see any kind of a music performance, because all you’re allowed to witness is the final performance. But it turns out that music is actually so much more about what happened behind the scenes long before the music was produced: all the preparations and the rehearsals. For many aspiring musicians, this is a turn off. They like the idea of performing a beautiful peace of music, but do not want it enough to actually get up in the morning everyday and go through the process to develop the required skills. That is such a shame, because it is precisely in this process from which I gain my happiness and a purpose for my life.

I often hear people tell me, “I wish I could play music like you.” My response is usually the same. “Do you really? There is nothing stopping you.”

Morning Calm

“Morning Calm” is the title of my new piano piece.

About six months ago, I moved closer to my day job in order to give myself more time to work on my music. My new apartment is just a walking distance from the office, and one of the best consequences of this change is that I no longer use an alarm clock to wake up. It is such a blessing that my life is not dependent on the hours of traffic or bus schedule.

Every morning, I feel relaxed, and my mind is more focused on the music I create.