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TECS Book Club: A Soprano on Her Head


We are excited to introduce the TECS Book Club! Each month, we will read a book and write a short response! Our first entry is Eloise Ristad's A Soprano on Her Head: Right-side-up reflections on life and other performances.

Eloise Ristad deals with the complex problems which torment and cripple so many of our most creative and talented people, and she does so with compassion, wisdom, and wit. Methods for dealing with the problems of stage fright, self-criticism, preparation for performance, releasing creativity, and more.

Musicians of all types, as well as teachers, parents, and authors exclaim below how Eloise's unique approach has helped them and others.

(Summary from


Ristad, Eloise. A Soprano on Her Head: Right-side-up reflections on life and other

performances. Moab, UT: Real People Press, 2012.

(Image from


Performance anxiety --- the nefarious villain in the story who wishes nothing more than to see our diligent work from the practice room transformed into a less-than-satisfactory result when the time has come to finally share it with an audience.

Eloise Ristad’s “A Soprano on Her Head” provides many brilliant takeaways, and one that particularly resonated with me is the idea that enjoying the process – the continuous journey towards musical achievement – is as crucial to ultimate success as the arrival at our destination. In my undergraduate days, I often found myself wishing to entirely defeat the villain that was performance anxiety. The dream was that one day I would wake up, and I would suddenly be in complete control of every variable in my performance, which would culminate in a flawless performance that everyone would enjoy. One day, however, I received one of the most interesting comment to date from a musical mentor that changed my entire outlook on this topic: “what would you do if I said that you will never be able to truly ‘defeat’ performance anxiety and that it will always be present in your life, but that you will always be strong enough to fight against it?”

I had to repeat the phrase to truly process its deeper meaning. It was a new possibility that I had not considered. The villain, the dragon – perhaps it isn’t meant to be slain, but simply kept at bay with constant success. I was seeking absolutes. Full measures. All or nothing. Full control indicated no surprises. However, the more I repeated the words, the more it became clear: would entirely removing performance anxiety truly allow me to achieve a flawless performance such as in the dream? Is everything truly flawless in the practice room as I seem to believe? And if so, does achieving a flawless performance guarantee that my audience will enjoy my musical product simply by extension of its perfect nature? The more I pondered these questions, the more I realized that even if I were to slay the dragon, this on its own could never be the ultimate solution to my success as a performer.

In my individual case, I have adopted the belief that while the destination may be elusive and an eternal quest, the presence of performance anxiety in my life need not impede me from achieving success in the journey. Perhaps by removing the idea that there must be a final destination, we begin to accept, embrace, and truly enjoy the constant process, thus placing more of our attention on the fullness of the musical message we want to convey rather than simply on perfection. And the villain? If it is an internal extension of us, maybe it is time to make peace with its existence and come to an agreement that we dictate. Here is to shaking its hand, giving it permission to watch the performance, but letting it know that when it does, it will be watching from the sidelines. - Juan Alonso


It would stand to reason that problems within a creative process require creative solutions. In this loosely structured profile of Eloise Ristad’s teachings, she establishes the precedent that teaching is an art form. Her teaching is a process- constantly evolving, changing with new information, tailored to meet the specific needs of her students. As the title promises, her techniques are unique and they do work around problems. She is acutely aware of the problems, the way students learn, and the standard pedagogy they are relying on to try to solve the problems. Her methods are a way of making students focus on the solution, not the problem.

While didactic, the anecdotes she uses reveal there is no formula to her teaching. It would be naïve to think that there is one way to solve the same problem with each student. If you are looking for a step-by-step guide to thinking outside of the box, this book may not be what you are looking for. The information is interesting, but I interpret this more as an invitation to allow our teaching to stray from standard pedagogy/ techniques and evolve with the influence of extra-musical influences and experiences. -Nick Beltchev


Permission is a concept that pervades music education. As young musicians, we often ask permission to interpret our solos a certain way, to play certain repertoire, and to partake in various musical activities. We even ask our mentors permission to “try again” when we feel embarrassed by our performance. Eliose Ristad details the struggles of aspiring artists and shows the need for artists to give themselves permission to enjoy the artform they commit countless hours toward.

We often pursue music due to our child-like enjoyment of play. We have to remember to enjoy ourselves in the peaks AND the valleys. This is an essential read for those looking to create a welcoming environment for their colleagues and students. -Matt Kundler

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