University of Nebraska-Lincoln sophomore piano performance major Sean Lebita is caught between two musical loves – jazz and classical piano. When he’s focusing on one, the other calls to him from the practice room.
Being a multi-faceted musician has its perks – Lebita has developed his own philosophy on how to find inspiration, deal with nerves, and navigate between success and disappointment as a performing artist.
Recital and competition
One of the demands the classical music world has thrown Lebita’s way is a Music Teachers National Association state division competition at the University of Nebraska at Omaha; he’s practiced for it relentlessly over the summer, five to six hours a day since late May. He won this competition before, but this year he said the competition is stiff.
Leading up to the contest, Lebita featured his competition repertoire in front of an audience during a sophomore recital. The pieces are diverse, including three movements of “Estampes” and “Sonata in B Minor Hob. XVI:32”, one movement from “Two Romanian Dances”, and “Evocation”.
“[The set] has classical cleanness, bombastic, big moments throughout the whole thing, as well as really just being able to showcase musicality, and how I deal with harmonic things,” Lebita said.
Focus on the present
Lebita said the most important lesson he’s learned through practice of this set of songs is how to stay focused.
“This whole competition season I want to practice consistency, and just playing as if I were performing in a practice room versus being in a recital and being in front of a judge,” Lebita said. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned with how to deal with nerves is just don’t care.”
That may seem counterintuitive, but Lebita insists that not obsessing over the past helps him clear his mind for what’s to come in a piece. He has put in the practice hours and that’s all he can do, so he feels ready to practice his coping skills in the competition.
“Giving the recital and learning how to deal with the nerves and pressure and all of this has really been more valuable to me as a musician than winning some competition would ever be,” Lebita said. “So I’m just going to go into it and have some fun.”
Fast-forward to the day of the competition, and Lebita hopes to finish what he wants to say musically and not look back, just like he’d done in practice.
“The only thing on my mind is executing the musical ideas in the moment that they are happening,” Lebita said. “I try not to think of what happened before or after – just to do it.”
Lebita earns an honorable mention – essentially third place. He knows he did well, and in his opinion did better than last year, if only falling into a few minor mistakes.
“Music is a crapshoot,” Lebita said. “I say this a lot. I think competitions are as well. And I think that’s one of the reasons why maybe in the moment, I [thought], man, I played so well, but I didn’t win. You never know what the judges want. Music is more of a gamble of luck, rather than anything else.”
Lebita appreciates competitions for what they are: a way to perform a high-level set under the most stressful of situations. He says it’s scary to be judged.
While Lebita is attending the university to study classical piano, he has a love of jazz that he pursues on the side. And jazz, according to Lebita, is much more free and forgiving than its counterpart. Sure, classical piano and jazz are different worlds, but learning them together can be beneficial.
“Everything that I’ve learned from that idiom [jazz] really applies to how I think about classical music and probably why everything I do feel so nuanced,” Lebita said. “I always think about harmonic direction in all of this stuff because it’s just ingrained in me. It’s very different worlds but everything kind of knits itself together in some weird ways.”
Ideas flow at the keyboard
Lebita’s love of music extends to trying his hand at composing. At his recital he premiered a trio version of his original jazz tune, “Sugar Tooth”.
Like so many great ideas, the hook of the song came to him when he was singing in the shower. The rest was built from that initial idea. Hear Lebita describe the composing process.
“Sugar Tooth” is his first major composed tune, but Lebita said he composes on the fly all the time – when he’s improvising, that is. What he’s listening to often informs his musical motifs.
His main inspiration when soloing comes from everyone he’s playing with. That’s the difference between solo piano playing and jazz – the latter is a language between people on stage.
“I tend to draw inspiration from all the people that I play with, and every little bit of every person who I can communicate with,” Lebita said. “Every interaction. It keeps me going – this is why I want to play music. It’s to engage and interact with people on a deeper level.”
Learning from others
Lebita credits professors and doctoral students at UNL, as well as various jazz artists with his great progress during his time at the university. And with the big competition behind him, he is already slotting out his hours carefully to optimize the opportunity to practice.
“I’ve taken myself way more seriously, and have become way more expressive, more nuanced as a player. I know what I want and what I play,” Lebita said. “I’ve changed greatly and, wow, it’s only been one full year and half a semester. I feel completely changed.”