Today we have the pleasure of talking with Josh Wright, a highly successful pianist whose first solo album topped the Billboard “classical” chart. He’s played with a number of symphony orchestras, won prizes in international piano competitions, and studied with some of the world’s greatest piano teachers. He shares the insights and strategies he’s learned along the way through his highly popular YouTube channel “Josh Wright Piano TV”.
We had been really impressed by the practice and performance tips Josh shares in particular and so we were excited to have him as a guest on the show to dive into these topics as well as his own musical journey.
In this conversation we talk about:
- How to make technique exercises more interesting and a more valuable use of your practice time
- The clever performance strategy that involved him making snowballs before sitting down at the keyboard
- The three “levers” you can play around with to transform a robotic performance into a truly musical one
- The reason he will still travel long distances to go visit his childhood piano teacher when preparing new repertoire.
This was a seriously value-packed conversation, Josh has tons of practical tips and mindset-shifting insights which he shares freely so we know you’ll be taking away some impactful ideas from this episode for your own practicing and performing.
One quick note – we failed to sound check the piano before we began the interview and so there are a few spots where Josh demonstrates something and you’ll hear the sound get a bit crunchy. We apologise for that, but we think the points he’s making still come across fine.
We hope you’ll enjoy this episode!
Listen to the episode:
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Josh: Hi, this is Josh with Josh Wright Piano TV and you’re listening to the Musicality Podcast.
Christopher: Welcome to the show, Josh. Thank you for joining us today.
Josh: Oh, so great to be here. Thank you for having me.
Christopher: You are someone who began studying music fairly seriously from a very young age, is that right?
Josh: Yeah, I started when I was 5 years old, taking piano lessons. My mom had taught piano in our basement for my whole young childhood and I’d always begged her to play piano, so she said, “Yeah, you can take lessons with me for a few weeks and then go to your grandma for lessons after that.” My grandma was a piano teacher and actually taught me for five years, and then after that, I went to the university teacher that I studied with for almost 15 years.
Christopher: Interesting and so your mom and your grandma were both equipped to teach you piano. Had music and music education been in your family throughout for generations?
Josh: No, actually my grandma was the first one. She would babysit kids and then she would use that to buy her piano books and pay for her own piano lesson, so she was a real go getter and then my mom took piano lessons actually with my same teacher. She was like, “I don’t know why Susan,” my university teacher, “ever accepted you,” because I was the worst student ever, but anyway, she said that she’d had a wonderful upbringing in music during her childhood because my grandma was always teaching piano round-the-clock, so it was a part of the family culture, but it was largely just thanks to my grandma’s initiative.
Christopher: Was there an expectation then that you would be a fairly serious musician or go on to be a piano teacher yourself even?
Josh: I don’t think so. That’s one thing my parents really let us decide. My dad grew up in a household of stonemasons, like laid stones on houses and mailboxes and fireplaces and things like that and his dad, it was work and church and that’s all they knew growing up and so my dad said, “I wanted to be very different. I want you guys to pursue whatever career paths you would like.” I have two brothers and a sister and being a stonemason is one of the most manly things you can do. In order, it goes me, I’m a pianist, my brother is a male nurse, my next brother is a band teacher and then my sister is also a pianist.
I think we chose the most feminine professions coming from stonemasonry, so anyway, but yeah, it’s been a wonderful opportunity. My mom had to drop out of college because she got cancer. She overcame it, but she only did about a year of college. My dad never had education past high school, but they definitely placed a large emphasis on education, so really amazing parents helped to set up a successful career for each of us kids.
Christopher: Fantastic! What did those early years of piano look like for you? What were those lessons with your grandma like for the first five years or so?
Josh: Yeah, I always love performing besides my first recital where I ran off the stage crying because I forget the first note.
Christopher: Wait, you have tell us that story a bit more.
Josh: Oh, yeah. My mom said, “You got up to the piano. You put your hands up and then you shouted, ‘Mom!’ and ran off the stage crying because I guess you’ve forgotten your first note.” Besides that, I always love performing. I think I must have been 5 years old at that point, but yeah, beyond that, I always love performing. I didn’t always love practicing at that stage, but it was a requirement in our house like you didn’t go play with your friends until your piano was done and your homework and that was always enforced throughout my life and my next brother’s life.
My brother after that kind of got away with murder. My mom was like, “You know what? Just get out of here,” because he was a troublemaker, but anyway, when I switched to my university teacher, she said, “I expect two and a half hours a day from you,” and as a 9-1/2-year-old, that was a lot, but I never missed because if I missed, my mom would make me make it up the next day, so if I only did an hour one day, she said, “You have an hour and a half from yesterday to make up, so that’s four hours.” That really got us. I only think I hit practice five hours probably in two or three times because that’s how infrequently I missed because I knew that if I didn’t do it one day, so that consistency really helped my growth as a pianist.
Christopher: Wow! Just to pick up on something there. You said your university teacher, this was a faculty member at the university who was teaching you privately, is that right?
Josh: That’s correct, yes.
Christopher: And you said two and a half hours at the age of 9 or so.
Christopher: That seems pretty intense.
Josh: Yeah. Well, I think it was because I went to her and I auditioned with her and luckily I got in to her studio. She took me on and then she said, “What are your goals with piano?” and I said, “I want to play with the Utah Symphony,” and she said, “Okay, if you’re going to be that serious, you need between two and three hours a day, so we set it at two and a half and I actually ended up playing with the Symphony a few years later which was a lot of hard work and a bit of luck too because they take the winners of this local competition and then about 50 kids auditioned for it and they chose six.
I think it must have been lucky. I was a very small little kid, so maybe I was the cute one on the program or something, but it was really intense to even go through that process. There’s a lot of hard work, a lot of failures. I mean I think right after I started with her I started competing and I think I lost like pretty much every competition up until that next local competition where I was able to audition with the Symphony. I actually won that one and then went on to play with the Symphony. A lot of perseverance.
Christopher: Yeah. I’d love to just dwell on that for a moment before we continue your story because you’re someone who has this very impressive performance track record starting as early as 9 years old or 12, 13 with the Symphony, and at the same, you’re clearly very down-to-earth. You’re not one of these concert pianists who’s totally got the head in the clouds and believes themselves to be a virtuoso genius from birth. I’d love to understand, where did your perspective on performance and your ability to juggle both high standards and the kind of humility you just demonstrated when you said, “Maybe, I was the little cute one”?
You clearly got your head on straight. Can you think back to when you were 12 or 13? As you’d said, you’d had some failures, you’d been struggling, but then you got this amazing opportunity. How are imagining your musical life at that point? How are you seeing yourself as a musician?
Josh: I think the perspective came in from my mom because she would always say, “You know, I was head cheerleader in high school and I had good grades, but I took all the easy classes,” and my dad was like, “I want more for you, boys.” I think the perspective of my parents was really helpful because they always wanted more for us, but my mom always would say, I would come off stage and I’d say, “Oh, I missed like these three passages. I totally messed up,” she’s like, “Yeah, but your tuxedo looks really nice,” or like, “Your hair looked good.” That always kind of brought me back to Earth and my piano teacher was always very encouraging.
When I was really young, I was very ambitious though, so I said, “I want to be famous one day. I want to play with all the greatest symphonies around the world, and as I kept getting older and competing more once I realized the hardships of the life of a constant traveling concert pianist, I think that also helped me ground me because I look at some as amazing as Daniil Trifonov, probably the most famous young pianist alive today and he looks exhausted. I mean I’ve had dinner with him before because I’ve done some private studies with Sergei Babayan who is his teacher and I hear about what that must be like.
The aspirational element of, “Oh, I need to be famous,” that dwindled. That’s a very fickle and not a goal of substance, so that kind of dwindled and then it got me thinking, “What do I really want to do?” I want to always perform because I always want to keep my skills the best that I can but I also kind of shifted towards teaching, not only as a way to support myself but because I really loved it and that has brought about a whole new level and a whole new set of goals and purpose in life.
Christopher: I see. It’s not many 8 or 9 – or 12 or 16 or 18 – year-olds who have the ear and the appreciation for classical music to pursue classical piano the way you did. I think often when we hear that story, there’s a strong parent standing behind the child, motivating them and driving them, but clearly for you, you had internal motivation going on. What was your relationship with classical music? How are you, a 9-year-old, who could say, “I want to play for a symphony,” and even knew what a symphony was?
Josh: My parents had taken us to the symphony a lot when we were young. They got season tickets which again is I pay a lot of credit to them because I mean, here’s my dad, he was a stonemason, I don’t know if he’d ever been to the symphony before he met my mom to be honest and my mom, well, she loved music and she loved classical music because she studied for a year or two of college. I don’t know how often she would go to the symphony growing up, so I think they wanted to instil really good culture into us as kids. Again, I think the parenting aspect is one of the great reasons and then I just fell in love with it because I would listen to these recordings.
I remember one time I was so proud of myself because I think I was 8 or 9 and my grandma was like, “Let’s listen to this recording of Rachmaninoff, Third Concerto,” and it was Yefim Bronfman playing and I was so proud of myself because I could follow along and I could see where he was in the music and I was like, “I must be really good if I could follow along in the music to where he is.” Those kind of experiences like my grandma just sitting with me next to her little stereo and pulling out the music and putting those in, I think I really owe so much of that to my family culture of loving music and promoting the arts in our family.
Beyond that, once I saw I think it was Ryan Brown of The 5 Browns. I think it was the youngest one, it could have been Greg, but I’m pretty sure it was Ryan who played with the Utah Symphony at one of the concerts that we had season tickets to, it’s called Salute to Youth, once I saw him play on that Salute to Youth concert where they featured young local artist, I said, “That’s what I want to do. I love this,” and it was just so exciting, and to see another little kid, I think Ryan might be a year or two or three older than I am, but to see someone around my age playing with the Symphony, I said, “I want to do that.”
Shortly thereafter, I had switched to my new teacher and then I actually played with a little local nine-piece orchestra that pretty much my teacher just hired local musicians to play for her students, little concertos at a local church, but that really motivated me. It was not only good parenting, but great opportunities offered by my first teacher, Susan Duelhmeier who really set me up for success and help instill that love into me.
Christopher: Terrific! Let’s talk a little bit about that period if we may because you as we’ll touch on shortly have some really great insights on performance and practicing and the psychology and practicalities of becoming a very excellent musician and again, I love to hear where these things comes from and where they originate, and from what I gathered, Susan was a really big influence on you and youo studied with her for a number of years, is that right?
Josh: Yes, I started when I was 9-1/2 and I studied with her all the way through to the end of my master’s degree which is crazy when you think about that. Usually people are switching teachers every few years, but she just had so much to offer and was such a wonderful teacher. I even flew out to LA just this past September to go play the Saint-Saens Concerto No. 2 before I performed here with the Salt Lake Symphony and she still had so many wonderful things to say, so I’ll still go see her for lessons. She’s just that kind of teacher. She’s just that good and she’s that sharp to even now after 25 years of study, she’s still pointing out things that I’ll miss, not necessary notes that I missed.
At this point, I can handle almost everything on my own, but she’ll help me with stylistic things that I may not have thought of before. She is next to my parents the greatest influence I had growing up to help shape my future, to help instill that love of music.
Christopher: I’m sure people listening would love to hear some examples of what she might say to you at this stage because as you just said we kind of assume someone at your level, they can get the notes right and then everything else is up to them, but it sounds like she’s still acting as some kind of coach or artistic input for you. Could you maybe tell us the kinds of things that she might say to you after you played something for her?
Josh: Oh, right now? Like things that she’s helping me –
Christopher: At this stage.
Josh: Yeah, sure. When I flew out to LA … Do you want me to demonstrate on this piano?
Christopher: Yeah, please. Sure.
Josh: So I was playing Saint-Saens and a lot of people kind of storm through this first part. She said, “You know? It’s nice, but it really doesn’t touch me to a great extent.” She said, “It needs to really speak. Each little phrase needs to speak. Go up to there and then raise all down to there,” and then another thing she’d said, “You really have beautiful right hand, but still involve your left hand in the shade even though it’s secondary. Maybe here and then sing with this. Same thing here. See with this left hand. Another problem I was having is…
Sorry, I haven’t played this for about two months now. You can watch the recording on YouTube if you want, but for instance, on the second movement, I was tending to rush those or I wouldn’t wait on all of my rest, so I’ll go. Maybe a little too fast for us. That would provide more clarity if I would spend more patience.
A lot of it is having patience with things, bringing out lines more clearly, maybe some manipulation of the rubato, the pushing and pulling of time and stylistic things. She would be the first to say, even I hadn’t flown out to see her, the performance wouldn’t have been successful because at this point, I know what I’m doing but those little nuggets of wisdom just helped to put me at ease emotionally and also just gave me a few things to think about that really made the performance way more successful.
I think at any stage, I mean even Lang Lang had said he still sees a teacher occasionally because his playing gets strange if he doesn’t, and I think that’s a great way of putting it because if you’re playing, it’s left up to its own thing. By degrees, it can become strange. One day, you might do something just a tiny bit different and then that’s your new norm and then it’s a tiny bit more different. After a month or two, it’s still completely normal to you, but it’s so far off the mark. I remember I was playing Schumann, Sonata in G Minor.
A wonderful piece, but I remember one section I was taking out the tempo like 20 notches on the metronome and my teacher said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Oh, this sounds good. This is even.” It’s so crazy because it had just happened by degrees over two or three months and I hadn’t played that for anyone, so it had just gradually worked into this new norm for me and then when I put a metronome to it, I was like, “Oh, my goodness. I’m way off.” That’s why it’s so important to see a teacher. They help keep you aligned and it’s an extra set of ears to make sure that you’re not totally off the mark.
Christopher: Interesting. I’m reminded of something I believe I saw on your website, maybe when talking about your ProPractice Course which was that you would like to act as a mentor for your students. I wonder if you could just explain a bit what that word means to you because it sounds like Susan at this point, she’s not a teacher in the sense of showing you where to put your fingers. She’s playing a slightly higher level role maybe that is more like a mentor or a coach. How do you see that role for a musician?
Josh: Yeah, I think a mentor is someone that can inspire you, keep you grounded, someone who can point out mistakes, that you’ll listen to them rather than just this authoritarian figure that makes you feel bad about yourself which I’ve had in different master class situations. I won’t name any names, but there’s been quite a few. I think that she’s played that role beautifully because she always makes you feel that she cares. Same thing with Sergei Babayan. I occasionally go see him for a lesson or even my teacher at Michigan, Logan Skelton. He’s one of my greatest friends.
I mean he’s just such a wonderful guy that you can just have dinner with but then when you get into the studio, you’re going to work and the friendship is put aside and if he needs … Babayan would yell at me a little bit, but Logan and Susan wouldn’t yell, but if they need to be stern with you, they will. I remember I was playing for Logan Skelton at Michigan, he’s a wonderful teacher and it’s my first year. I was still kind of adjusting to his style, but I have this phobia of playing harsh. I don’t like really harsh sounds like really metallic sounds.
I remember I was playing Schubert, Sonata, for him, but everything had become completely washed out and blurry and not great and he said, “What are you doing?” and I said, “I don’t want to play harsh,” and he’s like, “You need to stop with this.” That was like a pretty intense lesson and I walked out thinking, “Gosh! Is my whole perception of sound skewed?” but that’s I think what a mentor does, is they make you question your norms, they make you question what you feel about the piece, and on that same note, they make you reinforce what you do believe in.
He would say, “Do you really want it sound like this?” and it would make me question and say, “Do I?” If the answer is yes, I believe in it that much more. I think a mentor not only points things out that might be distasteful, but they also help you reinforce your own beliefs about what music is all about and what you want to convey which each composer’s works.
Christopher: Fantastic! Well, I was going to come to this later in our conversation, but maybe now is a good time to unpack this question of, what makes for a truly musical performance? Because there were a couple of videos of yours that I really enjoyed, one was actually about tone what you just mentioned about harsh versus a softer tone on the piano, which I really appreciate it because I think the piano is not an easy instrument to bring out a variety of tone from compared to something like electric guitar where you got a board of pedals and every possible combination of sounds at your fingertips and you explained really well that loud and harsh and not necessarily one on the same and you can play loud with a nice tone and vice versa and the other was about rubato and dynamics.
It just all made me want to really hear from you on this topic of shaping a performance and bringing musicality to it because several things you’ve said in the last few minutes touched on this question of, what are you trying to express? I’d love to just hear you speak on this if you would, what factors or what aspects are you’re playing around with to take something from kind of the pure literal sheet music definition of the piece and turn it into something that people are going pack a concert hall to hear you perform?
Josh: Sure. I think a strategy I use is to figure out, this is the practical side of things, the different climactic points of the piece and then you work around that. I remember I was teaching for the first time the Bach, C Sharp Minor Fugue from Book 1 and it was a triple fugue with very truncated short subjects which makes it extremely difficult to know how to manipulate. You think, “Oh, my gosh! Not work with a lot here.” The fugue in of itself is a fairly complex structure. Bach was truly the master of fugues but then to do a triple fugue, basically you have three different subjects, statements, and each of them come back.
They’re manipulated in different ways and so I was teaching this brilliant 14-year-old girl in Australia named Jennifer. She’s so fun to work with and I said, “Okay, I’m not really sure what to do here as your teacher either. So I’m going to teach how I would approach this.” We went through and I said, “Okay, where do you feel like on the page is your biggest climactic points?” so we identified together a couple of climactic points. I said, “Okay, if you’re working up to that point, that means you need to be softer before. Where do you feel like the softest point is? Okay, here it is. Okay, now, if that’s the softest point, it probably has to die away to that softest point.”
After just a few decisions, you can really start to shape the entire piece because everything is cause and effect or choice and consequence. If you choose to be loud here, then it’s probably going to soft before that. That’s a practical way of going about how to shape a piece and how to make it special. Beyond that, I like to try to convey some type of image or experience or emotion with each piece, and then within each piece, each large section, and then within each large section, each phrase, and then within each phrase, small nuances. I like to think of the whole piece as this overarching shape, just maybe like a semi-circle. It works up to a climax, comes back down or maybe it works all the way to the end with a climax.
It’s kind of these waveforms but within each smaller section there are smaller waveforms even down to the minute, like one bar at a time, you can still have small nuances in it and those types of questions like, where am I going to shape this tiny phrase? Where is this leading? Okay, how does this fit in to a larger scheme? That’s what I like to be asking myself and that’s what I ask about my students so that we can make that there is never a boring moment, that we’re always leading somewhere that is always leading or dying or growing or decaying so it always keeps the listener engaged and you can even hear on way more professional recordings than I’d like to admit that sometimes they’re playing becomes stagnant and then even though their technique might be amazing it alienates you as a listener.
If you hear someone pound through more than just a few bars, it’s going to alienate your ears, and even though it feels powerful, it loses the effect because it’s not leading anywhere. I’d like to always be asking myself those types of questions and the same can be said about rubato, kind of the pushing and pulling of time. Where do I want this phrase to pull back? Where do I want to push ahead? That can really enhance the experience for the listener.
Christopher: Would those be the two kind of levers you are playing with to create that shaping? I think you did a fantastic job there of explaining the kind of resulting shape you would be going for and I think our listeners can probably understand intuitively, yeah, you’re trying to kind of shape or build your climax. I’m sure some of them are wondering like literally, what are you doing to make that happen with rubato playing with the time and dynamics playing with the loud versus quiet? Would those be the two kind of dimensions you were playing with?
Josh: Yes and a third would certainly be voicing, so how vibrant your melody is in comparison to your complement, because a lot of times this is a surprising realization for many students and I’ve been teaching this more and more in the past few years to always keep a melody vibrant. Really in a Chopin, Nocturne, your melody sometimes stays a mezzo forte for a while and I mean with some nuance while the left hand is at a pianissimo, that creates a very atmospheric effect, and then as you grow, maybe your right hand grows up to a forte, but your left hand comes in and it fills it in so much.
That left hand support in regards to the voicing of the right hand over the left hand and how much fill the left hand has in regards to melody can have a big impact on the overall effect of your musicality or interpretation, however you want to word that. That’s certainly one of them and I would say in order. Well, what I would recommend in order, I would first work on your voicing and then I would work on dynamics and then I would work on rubato. I always do that with my own students. I try to get notes, rhythm and articulation and pedaling, right off the bat just right in the first lesson.
I try to make sure all those things are in place and then we start working on voicing next because you can have the most beautiful dynamics and rubato ever, but if your voicing is bad and you can’t hear the melody, you’re going to lose that effect. That’s kind of the sequence of events. I have a YouTube video called the Piano Mastery Checklist where I go through every concept and really piano only comes down to about eight concepts, so notes, rhythm, articulation, pedal, voicing, dynamics, rubato and then finally the last thing I do is tempo.
I guess rubato does play into tempo, but I always tell my students the last time you should worry about is speed. Make sure everything else is in place. Usually, people get their notes and rhythm, then they’re thinking of speed and then they dread out everything else. It’s so hard to do that in a past tempo. It’s better to do it in a slow tempo.
Christopher: That was a wonderful description and I really like before you were talking about your relationships with your teachers, with Sergei Babayan and Susan Duelhmeier, you mentioned that they can help kind of reign in your taste or shape your taste by reigning in something that might have otherwise been going off track and you had a lovely analogy in one of your videos of how use of rubato and dynamics can be a bit like dessert. I don’t know if that is fresh in your memory, but if it is, I’d love you to explain why that might be like dessert.
Josh: Sure, yeah and it can be like a sauce or a spice or anything you want to think of. If you have like a wonderful meal, let’s say, if you’re a meat eater, a nice steak or something and it’s the best kind of steak you could possibly have and let’s say you like steak sauce or a certain spice, well, that can enhance your experience, but if you then pour the whole bottle of spice or sauce or anything onto that steak, it can then ruin it and I think rubato is much like that sauce or spice. It enhances what you’re already doing and it can take you from “Oh, a really good performance” to “Oh, my gosh! that was completely magically and it transformed.”
It’s a necessary component to a very magical performance, but it can be taken to such extremes that it can become distasteful. An example and I personally find it very tasteful the way he manipulates it and I like it a lot because it’s so unique to his style is Cortot. C-O-R-T-O-T. I think his first name is Alfred. I can’t remember exactly. It’s a French name, but Alfred Cortot, he would manipulate things to such a degree that people are very polarized by his performances. They either say, “Oh, this is the greatest thing ever,” or “I hate that,” but I love that he is questioning things. I love that he’s pushing the envelope with every possible detail and I personally love it.
Even though I wouldn’t personally do all of the things that he does, I enjoyed listening to him because it sparks my imagination versus an amateur player that might just be rendering the notes with a little bit of dynamics, okay voicing and hardly any rubato. Even if you find Cortot offensive which like I said I don’t, but if you do, it’s still a more interesting performance than hearing a robotic rendition of something that’s going to offend anyone, but it’s also not really going to inspire anyone.
Christopher: Got you. A moment ago when you laid out the kind of eight elements of piano mastery and the kind of stuff we’ve been talking about in terms of rubato and dynamics, if we think back to maybe midway through your studies with Susan, with all of these kind of second nature to you, I asked because I think a lot of people would assume that to become a high-level performing pianist, most of your journey is about technique and figuring out the fingering and getting very fast and very accurate, but I think much more fascinating is the evolution of your appreciation of these musical aspects, the stuff that actually turns into a moving performance that captivates the listener and I’d love to understand if you can cast your mind back to how much you understand these stuff and appreciate it at that stage in your journey.
Josh: I don’t think I really understood it at all and I think this is something I think you can all feel it. When you hear a great performance, you know that it is special. You know there is something about that so amazing, but I don’t know. Over the years, you’ve come to identify how they’re manipulating those three elements of voicing, dynamics, rubato, because in any professional recording, they’re going to have their notes and rhythm and articulation and pedaling pretty good, but it really comes down to those three concepts of voicing, dynamics and rubato to really set something apart and make it extra special.
For instance, Volodos’s arrangement of the Rachmaninoff, Cello Sonata, why is that one of my favorite pieces ever? Not only it’s a brilliant arrangement, but it’s so nuanced and magical not only with the figurations he writes but how he takes time and how he voices things and where he chooses to inflect the melody. That’s what makes that a special performance for me. This is why you need a teacher especially as an amateur, a growing musician until you reach a high level of professional quality. That’s still why I go see a teacher and that’s why I studied performances of great masters like Sergei Babayan and Daniil Trifonov, Krystian Zimmerman, Martha Argerich, all of these wonderful artists.
That’s why I still go to them on YouTube or in person with Babayan occasionally because they have so much to offer and they have a different perspective on not only the music but on life that gets you thinking in such a unique way. I would highly recommend everybody just type in Babayan, B-A-B-A-Y-A-N, Interview into Google and just go read his articles. His articles will transport you. There are just interviews that random people had done with him, but when you read his thoughts, how he views life, you’re immediately kind of elevated to a higher level and he attributes a lot of that to his teachers in Russia who would do the same thing for him.
I think a whole of this ties back to musicality and how it’s not something that’s innate in any of us. We have tendencies that can be innate and natural, but it takes a lot of refinement and a lot of practice and perseverance to really get to the stage that you want to be at expressing music, and really to be completely honest, that’s only happened in about the last seven or eight years for me. I was about age 22 after some studies with Babayan that I really started to feel like, “Okay, now I’m starting to understand Chopin’s rubato,” and I mean I played all the Chopin etudes.
I played hours and hours of Chopin’s music. I’ve studied for 17 years up to that point, and yet, it was still a bit foreign to me and then I started to gain my own voice. It’s a very difficult task. It’s something that has to be learned very gradually.
Christopher: That’s fascinating. If we jump back then to that period, if you weren’t immersed in this aspect of performance, what was on your mind and what was your journey from that point forward when you were studying with Susan? How did things progress for you?
Josh: Are you talking just about like my education or a specific aspect?
Christopher: As a musician.
Josh: Yeah, I think that I always had the goal to be as great as I could be and I also knew that education is very important because I wanted that door to be open to possibly university teaching at some point if I didn’t want to do that and that door actually opened right after my doctorate. My teacher said, “Will you come fill in for me while I take a sabbatical?” and then they kept me on at the University of Utah which has been a really fun journey, but I think the audience and what they feel and what I feel as a musician has always been at the forefront of why I play music. Is that what you’re asking? I’m not sure what you’re asking.
Christopher: Yeah, I’m curious. What were you focused on from say age 16 to 22 if you weren’t yet really appreciating the musical expression side of things to fullest? I think I asked partly because you have some terrific videos from very early in your YouTube channel about practice technique and about performance and clearly you are very sharp even at that stage in terms of self-awareness and understanding and the techniques and mental models that you can bring to a list. I’m just curious to understand, where that was coming from and what musical life was like in that phase of things?
Josh: Oh, sure yeah. I think I was pushing to the absolute limit even at that age. I think at every age I’ve tried to always get that potential. It was those studies with Babayan that opened my mind to the possibilities of extremes of rubato and kind of abandoning the rules in many ways. I think that’s when I started to make an even greater transformation, and as you get older, you make good transformations, and as you study with different teachers, different things are opened up to you, but I think at that age, I was still pushing as hard as I could. I was still practicing several hours a day, trying to build my repertoire.
That was a really big goal and I remember I hadn’t played a Schubert or Schumann, Sonata, up until my doctorate. I went to my teacher at Michigan. I said, “Look, I have a few holes in my repertoire that I need to round out. Can you help me? I haven’t played much by Brahms. I played his Rhapsody Op. 79 No. 2,” but then we did a set of the Op. 118 pieces, so I think rounding out repertoire with something that I was very passionate about, I was very passionate about competing because competing, I was challenged in a way that just sitting in practice room or playing a concert, competing definitely takes you to a different level than those other tasks and those other endeavors.
That’s something that I was very focused on. I was focused on teaching as well. I started teaching when I was 16 years old and becoming a great teacher was always an interest of mine, so I would continue to try to take my students to the next level and again I owe a lot to my teacher, Susan Duelhmeier because she would occasionally have me tutor her younger students and seeing all her markings in the score and how she would approach teaching these young budding pianists really helped me to know, “Okay, this is how you take someone from not very good to absolutely incredible,” as she kind of has some of magic way of doing it. I still don’t fully understand how she does it. She’s really incredible, but those are types of endeavors that I was engaged in at that age.
Christopher: Got you. I think it’s something reasonably unique to pianists that you are expected both to have an extensive repertoire of some quite lengthy pieces in the classical realm and be able to quite ably sight read whatever is thrown in front of you.
Christopher: And maybe that’s part of what gave you particular insight on this topics, but I wonder if you could just run us through some of the strategies or some of the tips and tricks you have or had developed at that stage to be able to prep a lengthy piece in a short space of time or handle sight reading a level that most people would really struggle with.
Josh: Sure. A few tips on sight reading is try to only look at your music and orient yourself by the three and two black keys on the piano. If you can’t find the G, down look down and find the G. Find the three black keys and then step up from the lowest black key and find that. That will help you kind of get a mental topography of the keyboard and the more you just look at your music and don’t look down at your hands, the more independent you’ll be, so I hardly ever look down at my hands at this point when I start reading unless there’s a big jump or something that I’m a little nervous about.
That’s just some practical tips and to prepare a lot of material in a short amount of time, I like to plan things out and say, “Okay, I need to be ready by this date,” and over the last year or two, I’ve kind of upped my game with that and actually I think that kind of shows in my performances over the last two years. I think I’ve had more successful performances than I ever have before, not that they’re flawless because they certainly aren’t. I still have little flaws in my performances, but I’ve come up with a plan that I want to try to get as close to 10 performances before each actual concert as I can and this is for newer works.
I mean if I’m playing the First Blood I can bring that back in pretty much in an hour and be ready to go because I’ve played it so many different times throughout my life, but for Rachmaninoff, Third Concerto, or the Saint-Saens that I recently played or the Chopin, Grande Polonaise, that I just played with Symphony or the Beethoven, Choral Fantasy, all four of those performances were with orchestra and they were all this year and that was a lot of material for me. I usually might have one or two orchestra performances in a year tops. It’s quite rare to play with orchestra, but there was four this year and so I tried to do those 10 performances, and so far as getting the repertoire ready I would specific plans, but within those plans, it takes a lot of nitty-gritty tiny sectioned off work.
Most people when they have a lot of material to prepare, they panic, so they start playing through their whole program every day at a very low level, so by the time they get to their performance, they haven’t made much progress because they’ve overwhelmed themselves. It’s like drinking from a fire hose, that cliche. You’re trying to devour as much water as you can and then you actually hardly get any at all. If you actually break it down and take little tiny sections to perfection, hands alone and hands together.
Most people would say, that’s going to take way to long, I’ll never finish, but it’s actually a really good way of doing things because if you get that section perfect and actually get it to a pretty high tempo, maybe even beyond your full tempo, then when you leave that alone it move on to the next section, that kind of stays at a pretty high level. I’d like to think of it in terms of temperature, Heinrich Neuhaus, an amazing pedagogue from Russia said that, “It’s like boiling water. If you actually boiled a water it purifies it and it stays pure, whereas if you only heat it up to a certain temperature and it never boils, it cools down and it’s never purified.”
He said, he was teaching one of his students, Sviatoslav Richter particularly difficult Prokofiev, Sonata passage, and he said, “How did you get that so good?” He said, “I practiced without ceasing on those few measures for two hours,” and here is Richter, one of the greatest pianists in history and he had to practice a passage for over two hours. I’m sure it was not like a three-page passage. I bet it was like two or three measures, very small and getting those to the high level gives you confidence to move on, put that aside, move on to your next section and then at the end of the day or the end of the week, put everything together and it will still hold up. I promise it will. Most adult students, and since you said your audience is mostly amateur adults, do not fall into this trap. It’s tragic when people fall into this trap. They think, “Oh, my gosh! I’ve worked the last six months on this [BA 00:45:17] Convention. I can’t possibly let it go because I’ve worked too hard on it.”
Then they add this to this daily routine, and after a couple of years of studying, they have this routine of 20 pieces. They need to get three [inaudible 00:45:33] so they don’t forget and then they never actually accomplished anything, so they have really good initial studies. When they go to a new teacher, they work on a brand new piece and they see a lot of progress, but then as their studies increase and they’ve never let pieces go, only work on two or three things at once. Unless you’re literally preparing for a recital, then you have to bring everything back but really shouldn’t be bringing things back way in advance of a recital, maybe two or three months tops bring things back but only focus on two or three things at once and that would really help your progress rather than trying to juggle way too many pieces. Sorry, that was pretty wordy, but I hope that gives you some insight.
Christopher: Yeah, excellent! I wonder if we could take a little deeper even. Can you take us in to just one of those practice sessions maybe for yourself or if you imagine yourself standing behind one of your students, helping them have the perfect practice session one evening? What would that 30 or 60 minutes look like? What would they be doing in terms of approaching pieces and working on their repertoire?
Josh: Sure. I would say if they have an hour and they working on a substantial work, don’t try to do more than one work at a time, so I would say, “You know? Get the whole hour to that piece and then also identify section.” The thing I would tell them not to do is do not start out by playing through the whole piece. That’s the worst use of your time at the beginning of your practice session because it tires out your mind. At least, it does to me. A lot of teachers say that. Play through the piece, kind of see where things go wrong and then work on the bad parts. I just do the opposite.
I record myself at the end of the practice session and then you start your practice session by listening to yourself and marking up your score and then you go to those sections. Within a section, I might say, “Okay, I want to work on this page in this next hour or these two pages. Okay, now. Where are my weakest spots?” I’ll go right to those spots and I will actually try to identify the very note that things started to go wrong with and then I’ll build out and do just an add-on type exercise, so one note beyond the mistake, one note before the mistake, two notes beyond mistake, two notes before and pretty soon, you put things back to a larger context and the problem has resolved itself.
We could go way deep into lots of different technical practices that I used, but that’s my basic method for fixing issues and how I practice, and then once I’ve gone through and I’ve fixed each problem spot, then I might play through that whole section a couple of times and see how it goes, and if there’s still problem, I might go back and fix them again and then at the end of the session, I’ll play through the whole piece, record it or maybe just a section. If I just want to focus on that section again tomorrow, maybe I’ll just focus on that. I remember when I was preparing Rach 3 it was very scary because I performed first and third movement by the end of December.
My performance was the end of January, but the end of December is coming and I still don’t have second movement memorized and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh!” and it’s so difficult. The second movement is so hard to memorize and so I said, “Okay, well, I’m abandoning first to third movement for the next two weeks,” and I’m only four weeks away for my performance so I can really get that second movement down and then I worked like crazy the third week to pull everything together and it came together and actually the week of the performance I almost felt a little bit bored.
I thought, “What would I work on? I feel ready,” but it was because I have the courage to just zone in or laser focus on that second movement and then move on to the first and third movement which were already in pretty good shape.
Christopher: I see and I did ask specifically about repertoire there, but I noticed you didn’t say spend the first 30 minutes of your practice playing scales and Hanon until your fingers are a bit tired. What was your perspective on that? Like, how would you balance that kind of pure technique exercise with the more artistic and repertoire-based practice?
Josh: Sure. I apologize, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t do technical exercises. I was giving that example as if you were just working on one piece, so I don’t mind at all if students warm up with some exercises, I generally 20 or 30 minutes tops. Even if you’re doing four or five hours a day, I would still recommend only 20 to 30 minutes of dedicated exercises because you should be able to find exercises that you can do in your pieces. You should be studying things that will develop your technique rather than just playing scales endlessly.
You need to have practical examples, so maybe study a Chopin etude or a Liszt etude or Rachmaninoff, Concerto, or something that will challenge you technically. Now having said that, it’s been really interesting as many people who are familiar with my channel know I do a paid series called ProPractice like where I sell individual videos of the whole course and I’ve been rounding out my beginner section these past couple of weeks with just basic exercises, Schmitt and Hanon exercises, but it doesn’t involve me going through and just saying, “Hey! Let’s just play fast and loud.” Every single video, I try to hone in on a new concept.
Today, we’re going to do long short rhythms. Tomorrow, we’re going to focus on counting when we are playing these exercises which most people don’t count their exercises. It’s so basic, but the point I’m trying to drive home is when you’re practicing an exercise, make sure that you’re actually developing another skill just beside strengthening your fingers and getting “warmed up.” Rather than just warming up your muscles like you’re warming up for a workout or something, think of it as, “Okay, this is my time to take a very easy exercise,” easy meaning to read it, most exercises are in some type of pattern or predictable figuration or something. “It’s not hard to read an exercise, but let me make it more challenging by practicing a method, a practice method that will help me in this really tough passage I have coming up at one of my pieces.”
That’s the best use of time when you’re practicing exercises rather than just mindlessly going through it, like I heard someone, I can’t remember maybe it was Glenn Gould, I can’t remember but someone said, “You know? I’ve seen students read a novel while they make their way through the 60 Hanon exercises to warm up each day.” That is not a good use of time because you’re not stimulating your mind if you’re reading a book. You want to be applying an exercise that can help you in your repertoire.
Christopher: Fantastic! Well, that was certainly something that jumped out at me from your ProPractice course was that yes, you’re teaching scales in that kind of pure technique, but you mentioned, “Every time we’re going to do a little bit different. We’re going to be throwing in something new,” and I think that’s a wonderful way to kind of get double the value from your time spent on the technical exercises.
Christopher: Supposing you put in your practice for a few weeks or months even to really nail a piece of repertoire and the times comes for the big performance, how would you go about preparing for that? What’s going on in your head before the performance and during the performance to let you be at the top of your game?
Josh: I think a lot of trust that things will go well is a prerequisite. If you go in trying to overanalyze things, you’re going to sabotage your performance and one thing that I really liked was two pianists that I admire greatly, Claire Huangci and Daniil Trifonov, they both had interviews that I really liked. In Claire’s interview, she said, “I try to think of my mind as a blank slate and my creative impulses are all that’s left,” so I’m not thinking, “Oh, is that D Minor chord coming up?” You can. If you’re really nervous about something, you can still have landmarks of like, “Yeah, this D Minor chord is coming up,” but you’re not overanalyzing and saying, “What’s that next note? What’s that next note? Oh, this is hard part coming up.”
You’re not doing that. Your mind is at peace. It’s blank and then your creative impulses kind of improvise what you’re going to do dynamically in your performance. Now, when I say improvise, it can be planned out, “Oh, I can do this with my dynamics or this or this,” but then when you get to the performance, you do what you’re inspired to do and that’s why I love performing. A lot of times, you’re under all this pressure, but then that forces you to be at your most creative state. Another thing Daniil Trifonov said in one of his interviews, I think it’s on Medici TV, if anybody wants to check that one out, but he said, “When I perform, I feel this current working up inside of me that I have to share with the audience, I have to share this experience and this journey with them,” and I actually watched that interview.
I had that interview bookmarked to watch, but I watched it like two hours before my Rachmaninoff, Third Concerto, performance and I feel like it was one of my more successful performances I have ever given and it was because I was concerned about sharing. I was thinking of everything that he said during that performance and it was no longer about me. It was no longer about my own insecurities. Getting rid of yourself in your performances is one of the most crucial things to success. Stop thinking about yourself. Stop thinking about what you struggle with and instead think about sharing with that audience and enjoying the experience to yourself and enjoying the music.
You’re playing this wonderful. Why are you thinking of yourself when you have this amazing music that you’re going to play? When you start to do that and that’s harsh advice, I’m not saying you’re a selfish terrible person if you’re thinking of your own insecurities, it’s a natural human inclination, but if you can quiet your mind, get rid of negative self-talk, stop thinking of yourself and start thinking of the music and sharing this beautiful experience, performing becomes a joy and it’s no longer scary, it’s no longer nerve-wracking. It’s actually just fun at that point.
Anxious anticipation is how Daniil talked about it in his interview. It’s not that you don’t have butterflies going on in your chest or anything, but it’s not this feeling that, “I want to go throw up because I’m so nervous, I’m going to die. I can barely breathe.” I’ve had that feeling before. Actually at the Chopin National Competition, it was in 2010. I was playing Mazurkas and I was so nervous and it was like hard for me to breathe. I felt like I was suffocating almost. I’m so nervous and the second time through, I said, “I don’t care what these judges think. I’m just going to play my very best. They can pass me onto the next round or not, but I’m going to enjoy this experience. I’m going to share this. I’m playing for the audience, not the judges. I don’t care.”
Then I ended up placing in that competition whereas the first time when I was so scared I got caught after the second round. Your own perception about the performance experience has a great deal to do with the outcome. It does not only have to do with how many hours you practice because I’ve seen students overly prepared for a performance completely botched it because they got into their head and I’ve also seen students who are really not prepared but they have those nerves of steel and they don’t care what people think. They actually make it through their performances fairly successfully even though they are little unprepared. A lot of it is mental at that stages. It’s not just practice time.
Christopher: How did you make that mindset flip? You gave an example there where you did it once and you were not in the right head game for it and you came back again with a completely different attitude. What changed in the meantime? If someone’s listening and thinking, “Oh, yeah. I wish I have that kind of attitude to performance.” How did you get there?
Josh: Yeah, a lot of it is practice performing. Practicing performing, so putting yourself in those situations. I don’t want to sabotage myself as much as I can. Before Carnegie Hall, I wanted Carnegie Hall to be super successful. My friend invited me to play half of her concert. She said, “You know? I don’t really have enough repertoire for this concert. It’s in a month or two. Would you mind playing half of the concert with me?” I said, “Yeah, sure. I’d love to.” So we played at Zankel Hall at Carnegie and I said, “This has to be my most successful performance ever,” so I would do crazy things.
Like it was in the middle of winter in Michigan and I’d go out and I’d make snowballs and cover my hands with snow until I couldn’t feel them anymore and then I go to the hot practice rooms and I played a lot of La Campanella and my hands would be like warming up and they’d be completely numbed and warming up halfway through or I would play … These ideas came from Logan Skelton, my teacher at Michigan. He said, “You want to sabotage yourself?” So I tried to come up with this many weird ways of doing this or playing right when you wake up in the morning when you’re tired or right before you go to sleep or after you’ve had a terrible day or any type of negative experience you can possibly think of.
Try to perform under those circumstances so that when you finally do get to your performance, “Oh, my gosh! You’re warmed up. You’re on a beautiful piano. You’re comfortable. It’s a warm room,” it’s a walk in the park at that point. It’s so easy. Babayan told me, this is a funny story. He said … He was one of the judges at the Chopin Competition. I think it was a rule that you couldn’t have studied with one of the judges for three years or something and we haven’t done a lesson for three years, so it was legit. Anyone listening to those feel like, “Oh, yeah favoritism,” whatever, but it was a legit.
Anyways, afterwards, we have a good relationship together, but he said, “Oh, my goodness. Your first round was incredible. We all thought you would win First Prize and I walked off stage, told the other judges but the other judges said, ‘I love this boy,’ and I said, ‘You know what? I love him too. He’s amazing.’ Second round, still very good. Third round, oh, my goodness! You come out and you play those Mazurkas better than anyone in the competition. That’s why you got the Mazurka Prize. It was unbelievable, and then what a pity! Your fourth and final round, you walked on stage like scared little boy, I thought, ‘Oh, no. Joshua will come out of this,’ but you never did. Your Mazurkas were so good, we couldn’t give you Sixth Prize,” because there’s six finalists, “so we gave you Fifth.”
He said, “Let this be a lesson. You always start with last round first and you work backwards from there towards the first round. I remember I did something very similar. I played all of my best repertoire, Queen Elizabeth Competition and I thought I was going to be so special by playing Rach 3 for a final round. I played Gaspard de la nuit. I played Pictures at an Exhibition or something, he named this wonderful repertoire and he said, “I made it to final round and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! I didn’t plan on making it to finals. I had Rach 3 to still master,’ so I was practicing 23 hours per day, getting one hour of sleep trying to get this ready and every single judge came up to me and said, ‘You were supposed to win. What a disappointment that your Rach 3 was so unprepared,’ and I never did that again, and so I always prepare my last round first, so next competition I went to,” I can’t remember what competition.
He won like first try in like five consecutive huge competitions, he was amazing, but he said, “I was like Liszt Concerto. It was so in my hands. It was so perfect that the day of the performance, I played video games and I went home and I walk and I won because it was so prepared because I started with last round first.” So funny but anyway, I forgot even what you said. I was getting so off track. What was the question again?
Christopher: It was about preparing for performances.
Josh: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Christopher: I loved what you said that the advice to sabotage yourself is phenomenal and I think what you just said there reminds me of a really excellent tip from one of your videos and I want to be respectful of your time, so I wouldn’t ask you about it now, but we’ll put link in the show notes because you’ve got some great advice on why you should practice pieces from the end back to the beginning rather than vice versa. You should practice them in reverse in those sections and we’ll put a link in the show notes. I’m just going to tease everyone with that.
Josh: Sure. The last piece of advice is a book that you can each read which is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle which is an amazing book all about living in the moment, but some of the imagery that he gets in that book really helped me with performance, so I wanted to mention that as well.
Christopher: Interesting. I’ve read that book and loved it but I’ve not thought about it from a music performance perspective. I will have to revisit it.
Christopher: I did want to ask you one final question before I let you go on the topic of performing because in an example like you just gave where things are going great, you’ve got yourself ready, you’ve got yourself in the right mindset, but then on the day, things do not go according to plan, how do you handle that because I know that’s something that trips a lot of musicians out is if they’re starting with a completely blank slate, they can get themselves psyched up, they can get themselves prepared, it’s all fine, but then when the performance doesn’t go well and you’re midway through the performance or the next day when you’re trying to recover your motivation, how do you think about mistakes or problematic performances and how to move on?
Josh: Sure. You can go watch and laugh at my Beethoven, Choral Fantasy performance. It actually overall was pretty good, but one page in, I had a memory slip. It’s on the Fantasy part where it’s piano solo and it’s with a choir nonetheless, so you probably have like a 150 musicians on stage with you and the whole audience, a couple of thousands of people are there watching you and you messed up your first page in and I recovered. I just kept going, but I walked off the stage pretty much saying like, “Yeah, I’m ready to quite piano. That was so stupid.”
This was just this past May or March or something, anyway and my wife was like, “That was not that bad,” and I was like, “No, I’m sick of this. I’m sick of not playing my very best. Why can I not do this? There are all these 17-year-olds winning these international competitions and here I am 30 and I’ve played my whole life. Why can I not do this?” First of all, it’s normal for everyone at whatever stage they might be to experience this, but then you get back to why you’re playing piano in the first place. You love the music.
You love what type of mindset it puts you in, where it takes you, where it transports you, and then when you get back to the fundamentals like that, the basics of why am I doing this, that gives you the motivation to continue whereas if you just base your continuing playing lessons or whatever instruments you’re playing or continuing just studying the piano on your own, if you’re not taking lessons, if you base that on the quality of your performances, much of it is something that you can’t control because some of that performance anxiety and the negative performance experience, some of that is spontaneous and some of it is out of control because we don’t know how we’ll react in every situation, so it’s a learning experience.
You’re learning about yourself. I always try to get back to why I’m studying music in the first place. What I’m trying to accomplish through this and a lot of it is personal satisfaction, and if I have a bad performance, yeah, I’m not personally satisfied, but maybe I’ll just go and play it for my wife after that and play it really successfully and okay, now I can move on. I don’t have to end it with a sour taste in my mouth with this particular piece, so getting back to that, listening to great recordings and sometimes just taking a break from piano, sometimes I’ll take a week off after a huge performance and that kind of recharges your motivation as well. So don’t be afraid to take a break every now and again especially after big performances.
Christopher: Wonderful! Really terrific advice there that I wish I could go back in time and give myself and my teenage years. Josh, we’ve mentioned your YouTube Channel and your ProPractice Course, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about both of those.
Josh: Sure. I have a YouTube Channel that I started back in 2009, so it’s almost 10 years old and I’ve just started it to give tips to my young students, so I could say, “Go watch that video if you want more tips on this particular technique,” and then I started doing these full-length tutorials that I call ProPractice, actually at the request of one of my YouTube viewers and he said, “I’d love to see you step through a whole piece,” so I sold those for about $9 on my website and actually I just launched all of my videos on a new platform called Teachable, which is kind of cool.
It allows you to download the videos, view them offline on iPhone, iPad, progress track. It’s just a better platform, so you can learn all about that at my website, joshwrightpiano.com, and if you’re interested in the full ProPractice videos and there are several hundred free YouTube videos as well that are just under Josh Wright Piano TV. If you just go to my channel, it’s Josh Wright Piano TV, that will kind of give you a guide to everything, and if you’re interested in full-length courses, I’ve created those as well.
Christopher: Tremendous, well, we’ll certainly have a link in the show notes to several of the videos I’ve made reference to and we’ve talked a little bit about on these topics like performing and practicing more effectively and bringing musicality to your playing and obviously if you are a piano player yourself or a piano teacher even that you’re going to get even more tremendous value from Josh’s channel. Whether or not you’re a pianist, definitely do get check it out. Josh, it’s been such a pleasure to talk with you today. A big thank you for joining us on the show.
Josh: Thank you so much for having me. I hope something in there was helpful to each of you in your studies.
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