Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is the founder of Savvy Growth, a noted leadership coaching and management consulting firm, and an expert on wellbeing and performance science. Grace writes a regular column on happiness & leadership for WRAL TechWire.

The last couple of weekends, I’ve had the chance to experience two renowned pianists, the first Yunchan Lim, 19-year-old Van Cliburn competition winner and last Friday, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, acclaimed as one of the world’s best pianists, earned through his wide reaching audience appeal over many decades.

Preparing with anticipation:  Rach 3 and The Egyptian

With both, I listened to their program concertos for several months: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, “forty minutes of finger-twisting madness” and perhaps the most difficult piece ever written for the piano and Saint-Saëns’ beautiful Piano Concerto No. 5, also known as The Egyptian.

This preparation was part of my anticipation process, which can be more fulfilling than the actual performance. The anticipation of a rewarding experience causes the brain, trained from our earliest days, to activate, preparing for cognitive, affective and behavioral strategies to ensure survival in a changing and potentially challenging environment.

On the opposite extreme, dreading a situation can cause a negative affect, potentially leading to anxiety and depression. Due to our innate negativity bias that we are born with for our own protection, we must work hard not to exaggerate how bad a future event might actually be.

Changing the feeling of anxiety to that of excitement has the similar result as anticipation, by positively impacting the prefrontal cortex’s activities (see How Can Stress Bless)

This is why I encourage my coaching clients and workshop attendees to not only list three things each day they are grateful for, but also to list three things they are looking forward to.

A couple of years ago, I had the delight of being fully present three weekends in a row, for stunning performances, fulfilling my long held desire to have more arts in my life!  I learned in my happiness studies that going to a museum increases your well being. The same is true with experiencing music.

I share today an updated version of an earlier column I wrote on the gift of front row seats and anticipation.

Lang Lang: My First Inspiration

Since my piano restart two years ago, an important part of my studies includes listening to the world’s most acclaimed artists. On August 8th 2022, I made sure that I was in queue online a few minutes before10am, when tickets for Lang Lang’s Opening Night performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra went on sale.

Lang Lang (credit: Boston Symphony Orchestra)

I was happy with our Lang Lang seats, middle orchestra, row DD, the best available by the time my transaction processed. There ended up being quite a few taller people seated in rows A-CC who must have had a quicker ordering reflex (or better yet, season tickets), so I did end up having to stretch a bit to see Lang.

I breathlessly soaked in each minute of hearing my musical muse live, in the flesh, for the first time. His performance was so powerful and moving.  As we made our way out of symphony hall after his encore, we saw a cheering throng waiting to see if they might catch a glimpse of him exiting.  There was a sense of fandom in the air, for sure.


Van Cliburn competition’s youngest winner: A family affair

Grace Ueng’s Boston Symphony Orchestra performance view

Then last year, for my sister’s 60th birthday, my nephew gave his family tickets to hear the youngest winner in the history of the Van Cliburn Competition, Yunchan Lim, perform Rach 3 with the Boston Symphony.  I decided to join them and bought tickets next to theirs in row EE, behind where we sat for Lang Lang. While we enjoyed his performance and the chance to be together as a family, it was sometimes a struggle to see and hear the newly emerging phenom.




Up Close and Personal: IWF exclusive

Heading up programs as a board member of the Carolinas chapter of International Women’s Forum (IWF), last fall I reached out to my fellow IWF member, Sandi Macdonald, CEO of North Carolina Symphony, to host a special “behind the scenes” event.

Teddy, my piano teacher, reviewed the season’s programming and told me he held in high regard the French piano soloist, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who would be performing early in the new year.  I decided to work with Sandi to concept an event where we would have the unique opportunity to observe an up close and personal rehearsal of the North Carolina Symphony preparing to perform Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, The Egyptian with this master soloist.

After listening for months to Thibaudet’s interpretation on Spotify, I was prepared to appreciate this special up close experience to the fullest. Fascinated with the role of a conductor (see The Maestro, CEO…Shape a Vision),   I sat at the edge of my seat watching every move of Music Director of the North Carolina Symphony, Carlos Miguel Prieto, who has established himself as a major figure in the orchestra world as well as an influential cultural leader, educator and champion of new music.

On top of all that, he graduated a year after me from Harvard Business School.  While I watched his expressive use of the baton, I wondered if any other graduate of HBS could come even close to what he has accomplished in the music world.

Grace Ueng got an up close and personal view of Jean-Yves Thibaudet
under the baton of Carlos Miguel Prieto.

It was fun seeing the expressive character of Jean-Yves from the start as he came on stage and took a selfie with Carlos before he sat down to play. What a marvelous duo to watch!

What fun to witness the fun banter and interaction between pianist and conductor as they exchanged ideas and then to listen to the conductor in turn, answering questions and providing direction to the orchestra members.  We all appreciated the unique opportunity to have a behind the scenes glimpse into a slice of the final preparation that goes into a concert performance.

Behind the scenes with the North Carolina Symphony

Then the icing on this beautiful cake was a special lunch panel with three section leaders, Rebekah Daley, principal French horn, Jessica Hung, associate concertmaster, Anne Whaley Laney, principal flute, along with the Assistant Vice President of Artistic Planning Kerry Smith.

What an incredible treat it was to have a front row seat into the inner workings of the musical gem we have in the heart of Raleigh, our North Carolina Symphony!

(photo courtesy of IWF)

Front Row: Higher Grades

Research shows that those who sit in the front row in a classroom make the best grades.  This is not due to self-selection, as assigned seats also reveal the same grade pattern.  It just makes sense, you will most likely have the best view of the instructor, the board, pay the most attention, and also be seen and called upon more often.

Being more present to experience life more fully increases well-being.  Sitting in the front row helps us do that.

How can you have a front row seat to life?

Think ahead. I had been looking at Lang Lang’s world tour dates for quite a while.  When the Boston Symphony Orchestra released the date of when his tickets would go on sale, I marked the time off weeks in advance as sacred in my calendar, so I could be among the first in line.

Months in advance, I reached out to the CEO of the North Carolina Symphony to curate this up close and personal event for IWF, after studying the artists and what might fit with schedules.

Be interested. I started listening to the Saint-Saën’s concerto #2 and #5 that Lang and Thibaudet would perform, weeks in advance, to fully appreciate their chosen repertoire. Seek to understand what you will experience.

Being interested is more important than being interesting.  Doing more listening than talking deepens understanding as well as relationships.

Arrive early. This one is hard for me, but I am working on it.  Building in a 10 minute buffer for everything in your schedule will allow you to be more relaxed and therefore more present for each event.

Fully savor the experience.  For someone who struggled with being in the moment, I have been surprisingly more present since my struggles with depression. I am more grateful for each opportunity I have now. I don’t take things for granted.

Seeking out a front row seat literally as well as metaphorically has really helped me fully savor my activities in recent years. This makes a happier experience for you as well as for those around you.

Discuss your experience with others.  Anyone who has gone to a movie or performance with me knows of my insatiable curiosity. I can’t help asking a question during a show. Having the opportunity to ask the actual performers questions, gave us the wonderful chance to discuss what each of us had on our minds.

Later that day and over the next few days, I shared what I learned from the special symphony experience with my piano teacher, my sister, a friend who is a conductor, and now with you!

Express gratitude. Tell the artist how much their performance meant to you. If that is not possible after they exit stage right, be sure to thank the friend who invited you or if you were the host, express gratitude to your guests for sharing the experience with you.
We very much enjoyed the chance to thank Sandi and her leaders and look forward to ways that we can show our appreciation for our state’s musical gem through our patronage over the months to come.

Having “front row” seats to the symphony’s rehearsal was on my “What are you looking forward to” list for many weeks.  Right afterwards, it moved over to my “What are you grateful for” journaling list. After establishing a regular habit of gratitude journaling , adding anticipation to that ritual in the last year has had a positive impact on my wellness.

How, in the coming months, can you take a front seat?


About Grace Ueng

A management consultant, leadership coach and human performance expert with Savvy Growth, Grace has been covered in The Wall Street Journal, Inc., and MIT Technology Review.  Leaders call her when seeking a strategic review of their business, when going through a pivot point, or when they’d like to have a thinking partner to hold them accountable to stretch goals.

Her company offers workshops to improve team effectiveness: Savvy’s Seven: What You Will Learn.

Join her Happiness & Leadership community to be more productive leader: click here