Friday, November 27, 2009

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. 

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