Friday, November 26, 2010
Facing the Fear
Facing demons is nothing new on the way to a performance. Tapping deep into the emotional content of the music also puts me in touch with the loose ends in my current emotional life - things that don’t feel quite right, but I don’t know why; things I’m not comfortable with but have decided to live with for the time being; nightmares of the past, triggered by events in the present.
Plagued by panic attacks, meltdowns and sleepless nights I had been ready to cancel the upcoming performance at the Concord Community Music School, which had been my work place for seven years. As much as I was looking forward to reconnecting with former students, with colleagues and friends, the fact that I would be playing for them put a considerable amount of pressure on the situation. Supported by good friends, I had decided to follow through, especially after a conversation with my teacher had helped me to better understand the personal reasons behind my fears.
I had survived a tryout, but it hadn’t done much to boost my confidence. It didn’t make sense. I was well prepared, I had lived with the three Preludes and Fugues for a considerable time, I had performed the romantic music on the program only two weeks earlier at Amsterdam House. I was playing that part of the program from memory this time, but I felt secure and convinced that it was a good decision
When things are this bad, there is usually something wrong with my practicing. The thought had occurred to me before, but I had not been able to figure out what it was. I went on my Sunday morning walk, and spent some thoughts on the practicing I had done the previous week. I had tried to pay equal attention to all pieces on the program, and I had played it through every day.
Suddenly, I had an idea. The program was almost an hour playing time, and what scared me most were the three turbulent minutes of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. I love the piece and had continued to work on it ever since I played it for the children at my friend’s school in the spring. Over time, I had mastered it to a point that seemed to justify a public performance, but it was something I had never done before. The concert date only a week away, it felt like reaching for a level I didn’t own yet.
Was it reasonable to put everything else aside, and spend the greater part of my practice time on the etude? The shortest piece on the program? If everything else went well, people might even forget if I screwed it up! Or should I take it off the program?
Fear isn’t reasonable, so I put everything else aside. Once more, I took the demon apart, dissected it, looked at every detail. I practiced short sections, two measures at a time, established “starting points”, played hands alone from memory, and corresponding sections back to back. I refreshed my awareness of the harmonic structure of the piece - it does make me feel better to know what key I’m playing in, and where I am on the map.
After just one practice session, my confidence got a boost. What’s the second-scariest piece on the program, I asked myself?
When I performed in Concord last Sunday, the etude still cast its shadow over the rest of the program. I had to remind myself to breathe, and my mind was hanging on to the music for dear life, trying to fend off intruding thoughts, especially the mean little voice that keeps telling me I can’t do this. Surprisingly, my hands did their job, as if they hardly noticed the struggle.
“The Chopin rocked, not because of your 'fingers', but because of your 'soul' ", wrote one of my former students enthusiastically. What do we learn from this? You’ve got to face your demons if you don’t want them to rule your life.