Friday, March 2, 2012

Performance Jitters

First two bars of Etudes Op. 25 No. 1, by Chopin

This week I attended my first piano performance workshop as a participant, at Crestmont Music Conservatory.  Although I'd been there once before just to observe and knew that this was an informal event in a supportive environment, I was still really nervous.  It had been more than a decade since I'd sat down to play for a group of other people.

The workshop is hosted by Mr. LaRatta, and his presence was comforting.  I was to play third, after a Haydn sonata, and Piazzola's Milonga del Angel for two pianos (arranged by Pablo Ziegler), which sounded just like the LP recording I'd heard years ago, of Piazzola himself on bandoneon.  It was hauntingly beautiful.  When it was my turn, I stood up and walked over to the black and slightly worn Yamaha concert grand.  I suddenly felt like I was in grade school, at my piano teacher Sheila's monthly Sunday "Play Days", in which we students would prepare to perform a piece for each other as practice and then munch on delicious cookies in her dining room in the late afternoon sun, as reward.  No cookies here!

"I will try to play -" I began, and was abruptly cut off by Mr. LaRatta.  "I *knew* you were going to say that!" he exclaimed, and I turned bright red.  Why did I even say that?  Wow, I was really nervous.  "Now," he continued, his hoarse voice surprisingly resonant even from the back of the hall, "you will play the piece, no questions asked!"  So I began again.

"I am going to play Etudes Opus 25, Number 1, by Chopin."

"That's better," came the rejoinder.  I was so embarrassed, but I could hardly think about that now; it was time to play!

I'd never played on this piano before, but it didn't matter.  I was going to play as well as I was going to play, and unless the piano was truly a mess it wasn't going to make a difference.  Chie, one of my fellow participants, graciously volunteered to turn pages for me and her presence on my left side was comforting.

As I played, I found myself with the familiar feeling of what I call the "parallel universe" that occurs during performance of any kind (speech, piano, dance, what have you), except that it was pretty thick this time.  It was no surprise since I knew I was nervous.  I was grateful, however, that whenever I overshot a top note that broke Chopin's beautiful melody, I made no outward acknowledgement of the mistake; I didn't even feel any facial muscles twitch.  It's key that performers show nothing if a mistake is made.  

It's fascinating to take stock of what errors I make when I'm nervous - they are almost always unexpected.  That's why these workshops are so valuable; I learn where I'm weak where I haven't realized it, and I can strengthen mentally.  Now that I know my left hand, for whatever reason, wanted to skip to the next measure a couple of times, which has never happened before, I can be extra conscious of this at the next workshop.  I intend to play the same piece at the workshop until I feel more secure about it.  Technically, my playing was far from perfect, but I felt that I had infused it with some emotional depth and was glad about that.

After I finished, Mr. LaRatta gave me some pointers and sounded quite satisfied about my progress.  He asked me to hold up my hands, and I did, palms toward the audience. "You have really small hands, dear, but you don't sound like you do!"  I couldn't help but beam.  To be able to play Chopin's sweeping, arpeggiated passages with the right sound is a wonderful thing.  (Just wait until I have to perform Ravel's Valses Nobles, No. 1 - huge chords, huge sound!)

Several other performers played after me, including professional pianist Daniel Glover - what a treat to hear this Juilliard grad play!  He played two Schubert Lieder: Die Junge Nonne (The Young Nun), which I hadn't heard before and is entirely too beautiful, and the famous Der Erlkonig, which is based off of a poem by Goethe.

Having grown up knowing Der Erlkonig and the poem depicting the terrifying tableau of a young boy whose life is taken by supernatural forces in the dead of night, I threw myself into Daniel's hands and went along for the ride.  The hushed, penultimate phrase that announce the father's realization that his boy is dead ("In seinen Armen das kind war tot"), right before the two fortissimo chords of finality, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  If you haven't heard Der Erlkonig before, I swear by the late baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's version.  This still makes me want to cry, after all these years.

(By the way, I love the way Mr. Fischer-Dieskau graciously takes the hands of the pianist afterwards as they bow to each other and then to the audience, with a quiet "Guten Abend".  Such style!)

Performance-wise, I admit it was a relief to see that even professionals miss their top notes, too, and forget their place (a phenomenon I like to call "the brain fart").  We are all works in progress, and even Juilliard-trained musicians have to contend with mistakes and practice.  Of course I knew that already, but it takes seeing and hearing to have it hit home.  I felt so honored to be playing with this great group of pianists, and can't wait to return to the next workshop.  Hopefully my left hand will cooperate this time!