Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday in the Park

A Warm Welcome

Christmas Carols

Free Jazz

Photo Shoot

Sun Bathing in November

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Thanksgiving Story

I went for a walk after returning home from the Thanksgiving Dinner last night. It had been a surprise invitation - Maxine works for Steinway, and we had only met once before. Two days ago, she called, and when she heard I had no plans for Thanksgiving, she invited me on the spot. The warm welcome, the pleasant afternoon in friendly company still before my mind’s eye, I walked through the dark and quiet streets. Thanksgiving is for the US what Christmas is for Germany - it really shuts the country down. I wondered whether the 24-hour drugstore a few blocks from here was open and I could pick up some cat litter for Cappuccina. 

The store was open, and surprisingly busy. The holiday spirit that prevailed in the city had run a little thin coming out to Irvington, it seemed. No people in festive clothes, with smiles on their faces, carrying flowers, and bowls and pans wrapped in aluminum foil. Business as usual at the drugstore, hectic even, some folks merely hanging out, it seemed, the security guard in his place by the entrance. 

Two registers were open, long lines gathering in front of them. An old woman was first in the line next to me. She wore simple black clothes and a black hat. Her face looked weary and tired, her mouth was toothless. I wasn’t really paying attention, lost in thought. The old woman was talking to the cashier and several people behind the counter. Bits of the conversation intruded into my reverie. My line moved. 

The man in front of me handed the cashier his credit card. He had only picked up one or two items. Though the evening was chilly, he wore a light blue summer jacket that hadn’t been to the dry cleaner in a while. The beige chinos were too short and worn out. The conversation at the next register continued. Slowly, the old woman put items into her shopping cart. Something about the man in front of me caught my attention. I couldn’t really see his face - maybe it was the warm confidence in his voice. 

Still engaged in his own transaction, he reached into his wallet, took out a $20 bill and handed it to the cashier at the next register, who was dealing with the old woman. For a moment, everybody  who witnessed the scene fell silent. She didn’t understand. “It's paid for,” people explained. At last, her face brightened, as if lit from within. Still shaking her head in disbelief, smiling, calling blessings on her benefactor to last him a lifetime, she left the store.

The holiday spirit made it to Irvington. It was just traveling incognito.

Fight or Flight and Facing your Demons - Preparing for a Performance

The countdown begins when the date is set. That was in October. Now, I have four days to go until my recital at Winchester Gardens, a retirement community in Maplewood. On the program are the Prelude and Fugue in g-minor from WTC II by Bach, 6 short piano pieces op.19 by Schoenberg and Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata op.111

I’ve played the piece at the Concord Community Music School in January, so it’s “recycling” - if there is such a thing as “recycling”, especially with Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata. The piece is enough to keep you busy for a lifetime, and I only started to learn it two years ago. Every new performance is an attempt to bring the piece to the next level. Some technical issues are still “under construction” and there is no end to trying to decode the “meaning” of the piece.      

After the performance in January, I continued to play the piece for my own pleasure, reviewed memory and technical issues when it became inevitable, but not taking them too seriously. With the performance date ahead, “maintenance” turns into focussed, goal orientated practicing. After so much time with a piece, the fingers tend to remember, but muscle memory alone is not enough to rely on when playing in public. Even though I can still play the piece, I have to rediscover its structure, make clear to myself what the harmonic relationships are, sharpen my awareness of technical details like hand division and fingering, and, my least favorite, but probably most important exercise from a practical point of view - practice starting points. 

Those are “landmarks” throughout the piece where, eventually, you have to be able to start at the drop of a hat and find your way back into the piece, if someone wakes you up at 2am. Ideally, you know them out of context, like individual pieces of a puzzle. There are about 20 in the first movement of the sonata, 8 pages of music, lasting barely 10 minutes. 

I don’t like practicing starting points at all, because of the way it chops up the piece.  It’s so unmusical, exactly the opposite of “being in the music”, the ideal state of mind during a performance. Still, the safety net of starting points will hopefully catch me if the thread of the memory breaks, or if I miss a passage I’ve never ever missed before. Practicing starting points is practicing “breakdown and recovery”.

I’ve played the piece for friends. I had a performance at my lesson some time ago which was almost ideal. There were just a couple of details to go into. Two weeks later, I didn’t play so well. I hope I haven’t peaked early. Suddenly, other details need attention - it’s a never ending circle of taking the piece apart and putting it back together, sometimes, both in one practice session.

“Demons” have shown up along the way, they always do. Life issues, present and past that have been slumbering peacefully, but apparently unresolved, suddenly knock at the door and demand attention. Those are important insights, but I’ve made a rule to leave them alone before a performance. The trouble is, I don’t always stick to my own rules.

As if the recital wasn’t enough to deal with, a million other things suddenly demand attention, challenging my need to practice and to get some rest. The mailbox is full of unanswered messages, appointments need to be scheduled, ads to be renewed, the phone is ringing all day, the fridge is empty, Cappuccina is down to the last can of cat food, the laundry hamper is full and the windows look dirtier than ever. It’ s always like that before a performance, and it used to throw me into fits of frantic activity. In the meantime I have had the experience that there is life after a performance, and learnt to make better decisions as to what needs to be done and what can wait until later. 

Being super alert and much more sensitive than usual to everything within and without are just two more facets of the  “fight or flight” reaction, Phyllis Lehrer pointed out at her lecture at MEA. It’s always good to hear one more time that I’m not the only one going through this. Also, being a little more advanced in age and life experience makes it easier to take a step back, recognize performance anxiety for what it is, accept it like another ghost you’ve met before and draw comfort from the fact that you know it will pass.   

“Why do you still take the trouble to perform and put yourself through all this?” a friend asked me some years ago. “You ’re successful as a teacher, why don’t you leave it at that?”  

There’s a thrill to it. I like to have highlights in my life. I like the challenge, and I know the victory has to be earned. Living with the anxiety is part of it. Musical performance is the artistic equivalent to mountain climbing and car racing. One wrong move and you’re in serious trouble - you could be dead. Performing is not the goal, it is the result of practicing. After exploring the music for months, often years, I want to share it with an audience. It’s the difference between talking to yourself and having a conversation. When everything goes well, there is a closeness between the performer and the audience that is unique. It’s an exchange of energy that can bring out the best or the worst in you. Which ever way it goes, there is always something to be learnt. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

Letting go

The hardest part of the creative process is letting go. Letting go of the image you created, the character in the story, the melody that came to your mind. 
Maybe the character of the story will become the hero of a different story, the melody become a new song, but for the moment, you have to take leave. You were just getting used to each other, and letting go is hard.  
You put in time and energy that appear wasted now. All you have created is another dead end, it seems. 
You get attached to the things you create. If you don’t, your heart isn’t in it. Nothing thrives without passion and commitment. 
Sometimes the fear of having to let go can prevent you from setting out on the journey in the first place. 
You bring an idea to life, and you have a concept of how it ought to work and what it ought to be. As it grows, it develops a character and a life of its own. You can’t force it into being something that it is not.  

Monday, November 2, 2009

On Crooked Paths in Central Park

There is no express bus on Sundays, so I have to catch the 7:35 in order to make it to choir rehearsal in the city by 9:35. We get into Port Authority at 8:30. That gives me 55 minutes to walk from 42nd and 8th Avenue to All Souls at 80th and Lexington. That’s 38 blocks north and 6 blocks east. It takes me about a minute to walk one block, so I should have plenty of time, if I can resist the temptations on the way: Street Fairs being set up on 8th Avenue, the little coffee shop at the edge of the Central Park at Columbus Circle, and, greatest temptation of all - the park itself. There’s got to be a way to cut across, straight to East 79th street and 5th Avenue, and the last three blocks over to church are a piece of cake. 

The trouble with the shortcut through the park is that I haven’t found it yet. So, most Sundays see me rush up the stairs to the choir loft last minute or later, grasp a hymnal and whatever is left of today’s music on the table and participate in the first work of the rehearsal without taking off my coat or my backpack. Usually, I mumble something like “Sorry, it’s a real challenge to get here from New Jersey on Sunday mornings” towards the choir director.

He sent us an e-mail this week:

“ Remember to set your clocks back before you go to bed on Saturday night -- since you will have any extra hour of sleep, there is no excuse for anyone to be late!  I need every singer possible there for rehearsal at 9:25 since we did not have our usual Wednesday rehearsal this week.
Also, be aware that this is Marathon Sunday!” 

Marathon Sunday! I could take the subway to church, to be on the safe side, but it’s just too tempting to walk and look for evidence of the marathon. Do runners warm up, like pianists and singers? 
8th Avenue is quiet. No runners. A quick “Hi” to Columbus at the corner of the park - it’s not even 8:45, but I’ll skip coffee today. The coffee shop is out of reach anyway, disappeared behind bleachers and an open-air stage. 59th street is closed. 

The park is quiet. The runners I meet appear a little too relaxed to be  participating in today’s event. Maybe they’re warming up for next year’s Marathon. Dogs and people in the dog run, as usual.  A woman carrying pieces of red cardboard under her arm asks me whether I have anybody in the race. Sorry, no, I’m running my own race - against the clock. Just stay on the main path, don’t get sidetracked, I remind myself. The main path winds, but it goes in the right direction, and it does lead me right to 72nd street, where I decide to abandon the park experiment for today, reach the church gate at 9:20, a personal record. 

The Marathon reigns the city. It’s the topic of the sermon, and even the hymnal has something to offer: “Guide My Feet.” We’ve never sung the hymn before, and it hasn’t been a great loss. Hopefully, we’ll only sing it once a year.

When church is over, I enter the park at East 79th, Mile 25 of the race. Whoever has made it this far is bound to cross the finish line, somewhere around West 72nd Street

The crowd’s in a good mood. “ Go man, go. Smooth, keep it smooth, no puffin’. Downhill, it’s going downhill, you’re almost there.”   I find out what the red cardboard is for. It would be fun to have someone to cheer for. Maybe I could talk some of my athletic friends from Germany into running the New York Marathon.

The cheering crowd is just as much fun to watch as the runners.

Not everybody is focussed on the race.

If I were in it, I’m sure I would care less what I looked like at this point.

I hate to glance at my watch, but it would be good to catch the bus at 12:50. With a lesson tomorrow, a tryout on Tuesday and a recital in a month I should do some practicing in the afternoon. So,this is the moment to cut across the park and catch the subway at Columbus Circle. I’ve done it this morning, after all - only now, my former shortcut is part of the racetrack. 

Confidently, I follow a small trail that leads into the woods. 
It’s surprisingly quiet, just a few steps away from the race 

After a very short time, the cheering comes closer again. And sure enough, I’m back with the race. That was quick. It’s  strange that I can’t recall seeing the buildings behind the trees back there on the West Side, though. Slightly confused, I turn around and recognize a sign a little further up the road that I remember from the place where I stood five minutes before.
 I’ve come full circle.

It’s probably safer to follow the path of the race all the way down to 59th street, and cut across there. More runners, and more spectators.  “Coda” announces a sign at mile 26. It’s good to know there are other musicians in the crowd. Columbus Circle is already in sight, and with a slight feeling of regret, I realize it will be time to disappear into the subway in a moment.

So close to the finish line, nobody is permitted to cross the track. Sturdy metal barriers separate the crowd from the runners, closely monitored by security personnel. So much for being on the wrong side of the road. “Entrance West”, says a sign on a fence. The sign is pointing East.  

A wide detour leads back to the racetrack around West 63rd Street. I’ve watched the marathon before, but I’ve never taken the time to see anyone cross the finish line. Since I’m this far already, I might as well take the chance - it can’t  be much farther. I send a telepathic note to Beethoven, the piano and my cat, saying that I’ll be home and take care of them eventually. 

The path along the track ends abruptly in front of a fence and a gate. “East Side Bleachers, tickets only” says a sign. “East Side Bleachers?” We’re on the West Side, I’m positive of that, and I don’t have a ticket. I follow the fence, which connects to other fences, and finally, seamlessly, joins the fence on the far side of Sheep Meadow. Here, in the middle of the park, it is possible to get a glimpse of the place on the East Side where I watched the race more than an hour ago, while the wind carries the cheers from the finish line all the way across from the West Side. The gate to Sheep Meadow is closed. No shortcuts here, either.

When the path finally rejoins the racetrack, we’re already past the finish line. High screens covered with blue transparent fabric line the path, mercifully shielding the faces of the runners from the view of the curious crowd. Wrapped in white and blue aluminum blankets, the winners mill about like a crowd of seagulls, all sense of determination and focus spent in the race. If the security personnel didn’t keep everyone moving, some of them would probably plop down right there and then and not take another step for a long time.    

The Japanese have a saying that bad spirits can’t walk a straight line. For this reason, many bridges in traditional Japanese parks  have angles. The bad spirit can’t make it across and falls in the water. Since the first time I’ve been to Central Park, I‘ve noticed that, when I leave the park, I’ve always left behind whatever may have been weighing heavily on my mind when I walked in. Not a single path in Central Park is straight, I’m sure that’s why. 

The bad spirits crash into the rocks, slam into the trees, drown in the lakes, and whatever is left is absorbed by good vibes of the park. I wonder whether that’s why the marathon ends there - so that the runners can forget the agonies of the journey and limp home with an unclouded sense of joy and pride at their accomplishment.     

P.S. Today, many athletes were taking their medals for a walk through the city. They were particularly abundant around Central Park.