Recently I participated in an online webinar for pianists—we were discussing the why’s and why nots of memorization, an essential tool for public performance. After that dialogue came the realization that it takes a great amount of boldness and courage plus a huge leap of faith and trust to walk out on the stage and sit down at the piano, exposed—warts and all— for all the world to see. We trust that our memory will work and not fail us and that our fingers will remember how and where to move around the piano. Most importantly, we pray for our hearts and souls to be engaged so we can try and create a magical experience for everyone including ourselves.
And why would anyone want to subject themselves to this trying experience?
Because the artist feels that he has something to say—something to communicate that might touch the souls of those who listen— a personal point of view to share through the music. The English psychiatrist Winnicott analyzed this as the “need of the artist to make symbols.” The poet uses words; the musician relies on sound. Somehow this process allows the craziness of the current world to seem more bearable and to give the artist a sense of mission and fulfillment.
So many of us sit in our music studios and we practice. We follow our nose and keep trying to chip away to get a little closer to the composer’s spirit and to what his music demands. But performing on the concert stage can be a very different experience than just playing in our living room.
Yet most audiences never realize the anxiety that can accompany a public performance. The body doesn’t seem to function normally the day of a concert. Add the problems of travelling and sleeping or not sleeping the night before. And then there is the nervousness that accompanies the backstage waiting. They call it “fight or flight”—the body’s innate response to danger. Most performers know that feeling. I remember wanting to crawl out a window and disappear before one concert began, but there was no window there for my escape. And then by some miracle once I walked out on stage and sat down at the piano, I calmed to the fact that I was going to make music that evening for everyone to hear.
Adrenalin affects each of us so differently. Performers learn to cope with it and try and make it their friend. Adrenalin can certainly help to make any performance much more exciting with faster than normal tempos, usually the result of a more rapid heartbeat. However, adrenalin must be controlled or else it will take over and be in control. Frequently the performer is forced to learn on stage (publicly and sometimes painfully) how to cope with this friend or foe. Even great artists are not immune to its problems or the disasters it can cause.
I always think of performing as having the courage to go out and do a high-wire act without a safety net. And sometimes the magic does happen and the music soars to the heavens— those are the rare concerts that play by themselves—or so it seems. However, there is always that delicate balance between control and freedom that must be found. Too much control and the performance can remain earthbound— cautious, a little boring and much too predictable. Too much freedom and we can risk a train wreck. But somewhere in between exists that perfect balance where everything functions in divine harmony. And that is when the magic can happen!!
Perhaps that is the addiction—why we need to keep getting back up on that horse to try again—striving not for perfection but for the harmony of all the elements coming together—always in search of that special place where the performer is at one with the music and the composer. And that is when all of us can come close to experiencing that divine moment of creation.
It’s a life-long challenge yet a blessing as well—a true passion that helps us survive even the craziness of today’s world.