Almost losing her hearing leads pianist to new practice technique

Anne Liu
Anne Liu, 16, is an accomplished pianist and soloist who uses mental practice to improve her craft. Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune

One of Anne Liu’s early memories is of watching her older brother play the piano. She was 2 years old and recalls being fascinated by the black-and-white instrument and the clear sounds it produced. By the time she was 4, she was playing the piano herself, but at age 12, there was a threat to her music career. She was diagnosed with secretory otitis media, which causes a build-up of fluid in the middle ear that can lead to hearing loss.

“I was terrified,” she says. But she also had an idea. “I was sitting on my hospital bed, reading a biography of Ludwig van Beethoven, when a thought suddenly dawned on me: What if, instead of actually hearing the music, I can just imagine the sound? Despite being deaf, Beethoven was one of the most renowned composers ever in the history of music. He created music in his mind, he didn’t need to play it or hear it, it was just there for him. So, I thought I should fill my mind with the music that I want to hear first, then imagine myself playing it.”

And it worked. She’d stumbled upon an established technique known as mental practice, the cognitive rehearsal of a physical skill without using the physical movement to go with it. After surgery and several months in the hospital recuperating, Anne spent hours each day committed to her mental practice. She’s gone on to perform here in the United States, China, and Italy; won numerous scholarships and competitions; has been a featured soloist with symphonies and orchestras; and was a 2018 National YoungArts finalist, a program that counts Viola Davis, Kerry Washington and Josh Groban among its alums.

Anne, 16, lives in Carmel Valley with her parents, Sean and Linda, and has an older brother, Henry, who attends UC Davis. She took some time to talk about navigating her illness, how mental practice and music in general continue to help her, and her experience with the National YoungArts program.

Q: How did you find out that the idea you had for practicing in your mind was a technique that already existed, known as “mental practice”?

A: I met a practitioner of mental practice, Frederick Chou, at a summer camp at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. I remember attending one of his master classes with him explaining this concept of “hearing what you want to play.” He called it “mental practice.” I immediately related to the method that he was describing and knew that this technique that I had been doing all along was called mental practice.

Q: What else did you learn about this technique?

A: It not only increases one’s mentality, but it also helps retain the physical movements during practice. I realized that mental practice can be used anywhere at any time. It’s a useful technique for those who are injured, but also want to learn music. Mental practice also makes learning new pieces in music faster. It not only applies to music, it applies to sports as well. I found out some athletes also use mental practice for similar reasons that musicians do.

Q: Walk us through your mental practice routine.

A: I would imagine myself sitting at the piano, with the music score in front of me. I have to review in my head everything that I need to do and need to know for this piece that I’m about to practice, then I can touch the keyboard. I feel the weight of arms at my sides and take deep breaths to relax. Then I begin to imagine myself playing, picturing myself exactly the way I would be physically. I can feel the touch of the keys under my fingers, I can imagine what kinds of sounds would be produced through different kinds of touch. If the imagined sound produced from my imaginary practice didn’t quite match the sound that I wanted it to be, I would picture myself starting again, trying to feel the perfect touch to make the right sound.

Q: What does mental practice do for you that physical practice cannot?

A: In my opinion, mental practice allows you to concentrate more on the music than physical practice does because mental practice uses imagery to develop the senses and touch; the focus is solely on the music itself.

Q: You performed in a solo concert in China in 2016 and said that you chose pieces to reflect the emotions you felt during your difficult times. What were the pieces and the emotions that you were feeling in each of them?

A: My repertoire consisted of Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Muczynski. One of the pieces that I played was “Desperate Measures” by Robert Muczynski, a contemporary composer, and it reflected the emotion of excitement. When I started mental practice, there was this excitement inside of me and an explosion of happiness. Another piece, “Rigoletto” by Franz Liszt, expressed agony. Since it’s an opera about betrayal, I also felt betrayed by my own ears when I was diagnosed with secretory otitis media. I kept asking, “Why is this happening to me?” Bach represented the tranquility and peace I felt before my illness, and Mozart represented the humor and happiness of how having this auditory impairment motivated me to discover new ways to practice music.

Q: You were also a finalist this year for the U.S. National YoungArts program. Why was this a program you wanted to apply for and participate in?

A: It is a very friendly program that allows artists to interact with one another to create bonds and deeper understandings about art. YoungArts also provides many opportunities for young artists to pursue their passions and present their talents to the world.

Q: Who were you excited to work with when you got to the competition in Miami?

A: I was really excited to get to work with the master teachers, the piano panelist, Marina Lomazov, my duet partner, and meeting with other artists and musicians.

Q: What has it meant to you to have this experience?

A: To be able to work with so many talented young artists and prestigious musicians in Miami was truly an experience that I treasured. These musicians pass down their knowledge to us to prepare us for a future in the arts.

Q: What has your experience with being ill and finding mental practice taught you about yourself?

A: My experience with being ill and finding mental practice has taught me that I am capable of doing anything as long as I have the passion for it. There are always more solutions to than the problems available.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: “You can’t take what is not meant to be yours, but you can’t hide from what is meant to be yours.”

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Waking up when the sky is still dim outside to go for a peaceful walk first thing in the morning. Then, I’d come back to have breakfast, with coffee. Coffee is a must for me; I am a huge coffee person. Then I would start my practice routine, as usual. Around lunch time, after having a delicious meal with my family, I would then spend my free time on drawing or reading. In the evening, I would either get ready to go to a concert or perform at a concert.

What I love about Carmel Valley …

A: I love the people in my neighborhood, who are all very friendly. There’s convenient accessibility around the neighborhood. It is also very safe.

--Lisa Deaderick is a writer for The San Diego Union- Tribune