Monday, November 22, 2010

On Piano, Performance Anxiety, (Im)Perfection, and a Pattern...PLUS the big announcement! (Not Pregnancy) :)

On Piano, Performance, Perfection and a Pattern

I experienced my first performance anxiety when I was in junior high. I was playing the piano in a recital at our church. I had practiced for weeks and perfected the piece, I thought. Then suddenly I sat at the piano on that big stage, in front of that big audience, and I panicked. I got halfway through the song and my mind went blank and the notes on the page turned to an indecipherable blur. In slow-motion agony that felt like reliving my worst nightmare, I fumbled, stopped, and started over. I got to the same point and couldn’t find my way out of the abyss and just jumped to the next section and finished the piece.

I remember the mortification I felt to this day: Unable to face anyone in the audience, I slipped out the side exit, rushed down the hall and out the door and walked all the way home.  The house was locked, so I climbed through my bedroom window and hid in my room, for hours. I could not bear the thought of making such a colossal mistake in front of so many people.

In the meantime my family had no idea where I’d gone. They had been looking for me everywhere, and started to worry I’d been kidnapped. My family eventually realized I was home, and all was well. But this experience marked the beginning of a longstanding pattern of piano performance anxiety that has been, at times, crippling for me: 

I practice. I perfect. I perform. I panic. I make mistakes. I can’t recover. I am mortified. I want to quit. Or disappear. 

Ironically, during that miserable performance, my mother discovered I had a germ of talent as a pianist. She didn’t focus on the mistakes. She focused on the potential. A day or two later, after most of the sting had worn off, she told me I had played very musically, with beautiful technique and great expression, and was ready to audition for the big leagues. She took me to play for two of her former teachers, including a wonderful retired concert pianist from New York named Becky Almond.

Here emerges a new phase in the pattern, which I didn’t recognize until years later: I practice. I perfect. I perform. I panic. I make mistakes. I can’t recover. I am mortified. Some surprising and unbelievable good results from this painful process.

Because I thought so highly of Miss Almond, I practiced even harder than before. Miss Almond also helped a little with my performance anxiety, teaching me how to perfect a piece phrase by phrase, making sure I could play each section “six times -- perfect” before I went on. If I made a mistake after #4, I had to start over until I got six in a row. For some reason six was the magic number. I eventually had to play the whole piece “six times -- perfect.” At that point, you can almost play it on auto-pilot. You practice exactness.

She also taught me not to wince or make a big scene, if I did make a mistake. She said everybody — even concert pianists — make mistakes, but they know how to recover and keep going. They don’t get rattled; they maintain their dignity. You practice honor.

Another performance, years later, completely altered my perspective: 
In college I was asked to play for my cousin’s missionary farewell. We were close, and I approached the assignment prayerfully, selecting what I thought was the most beautiful music imaginable, a piano transcription of Faure’s Pavane. My mom wrote a flute obbligato for my younger sister. The addition of the flute made me slightly less nervous. A new-and-improved pattern emerged. I was well prepared. I prayed. I performed. It wasn’t perfect. But I played my heart out. Then something happened that still drops my jaw whenever I think about it.

There was a little reception after the meeting, and while we were all milling about, a man I’d never seen before approached me. He looked a bit ragged, and I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t sure what to think of this stranger at first. But he spoke a sentence that taught me the power of music and changed my life. He said, and I swear these are his exact words, “I was contemplating suicide, and your music gave me the will to live.”

That was one of those moments where the world stops. Freeze-frame. And then everything adjusts to surround this new paradigm.

I realized that my perfectionism was getting in the way of my performance. That genuine expression can eclipse a few false notes. And that acknowledging my imperfections is not the same thing as embracing mediocrity. It’s humbling. And pushes me to try harder each time, hoping.  

Today I had to accompany the church choir for our Thanksgiving program. The pieces were difficult...Rutter. I practiced. Every day. For weeks. Starting slowly. Working out the difficult passages. Counting the ledger lines. Gradually speeding things up. With a metronome. Eventually I had both pieces seamless and up to tempo.

But there’s that darn performancy anxiety again. Literally anything could happen if I panic. I pray. I’m prepared. I perform. It’s not perfect. It’s never perfect. I make mistakes. Every single time. But I recover. I play my heart out. And I hope somebody who needs to hear it is listening. 

I’ve decided this new-and-improved pattern is a lot like life: I’m not perfect. Not even close. I keep making mistakes, no matter how hard I try. But like Peter, if I panic, I sink. I pray. I recover. I live my heart out. And I hope I manage to reach someone who needs me. Then watch for some unexpected good to happen.

* * * * *

And now for the big announcement:
First...the winner of Luisa Perkins’ wonderful cookbook, Comfortably Yum, is The Mom, from Outnumbered. I just know you’ll love this—I could tell from your comment that it’s a perfect fit.

Now...I loved your gift lists, especially the ones who took the time to type out something extra thoughtful. Thank you. I really do wish I could give ten books to every single one of you. But chose only one. So finally, the winner of a copy of What Think Ye of Christmas for every person on your gift list goes to: Happy Mom, from Hunyville Happenings. When her smile first showed up on my list of followers it made my whole day. She has a wedding going on over there, and I’m guessing this gift will relieve some stress. Congratulations!

Winners: Don't forget to send me your mailing addresses. And acceptance speeches are always welcome.

Note to the rest of you: Be not dismayed. You can order the book on my website, and still get a killer deal! If you order ten or more, the quantity discount lets you steal these books at less than $8 apiece. On top of that, if you enter the discount code CHARRETTE you get an additional 5% off your entire order, reserved only for my blog friends. So go crazy!

Also, there's another giveaway going on right this very minute from Steph over at Diapers and Divinity. I always love her sense of mission, and am excited to see what she has to say today.


Jessica said...

Wow, this is truly an example of how "art saves lives" (a category in my blog)! And, how funny, Happy Mom won the book from my contest too!

Lara said...

I LOVE this. (except that I didn't win. :) )

I am always telling my students that the difference between a good performance and a great one is never technique. I have seen too many technically perfect performances and left completely unmoved and untouched. That is not what music is for. The difference between a good performance and a great one is always soul. To play/sing your heart out, as you said. Nobody will ever notice the little mistakes when you put your soul into it.

And your example took my breath away...what an extreme example of how music really does save lives. And how lucky you were to be told. Wow.

Kristina P. said...

I need to remember everything you wrote. We all have cringe-worthy moments, and I've had some recently. But I need to realize that it's OK. Everyone does.

Barbaloot said...

I used to get performance anxiety---thenI started telling myself (more like lying to myself) when I performed that I was the best pianist in the room, and that no on could play the piece better than I could. I still get a little nervous...but it does help some:) Plus, knowing I had put hours into preparing, that was actually true confidence to back up the fake confidence.

deb said...

thank for these words, for this perspective.
I am just dipping toes in words and photos and am already feeling stuck, feeling intimidated by the real life versions of my heart .
but if someone felt touched, isn't it the point?

congrats to the winners... I was so late to all of this I wasn't sure of the dates and times in the end. I just want you to feel my excitement for you. for the book.

for feeling a little bit that I know someone who saved a life... and who may yet save others.

Luisa Perkins said...

I love that story and the new way that you retold it. It means a lot to me, especially today.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Friday is the day I am shopping for Christmas. That's when I'll be ordering my boatload of copies for all of the lucky people on my gift list!

Dedee said...

I need to read this post over and over again.

Shari said...

Oh my goodness, I can so relate to your performance anxiety. I played for the primary program yesterday and I swear I couldn't even get through the Primary songs without messing it up! Ugh!

On a lighter note, congratulations to the winners!

(Hope you got my e-mail with my address. 'Cause I'd be so sad if you didn't and had to give my books away to someone else. :()

Happy Mom said...

Your story was stunning! To have that said to you, especially after the trauma of past performances is heart stopping simply to read. No wonder it was a pardigm shift!

What a good analogy for life! The joy that you bring to your blog, to your art, and obviously to your life is a beautiful thing!

I NEVER win blog contests. In fact, I've quit entering them. But the pictures were so lovely that I decided to try one more time and I clicked over to Jessica's blog and entered there for good measure. I confess that I feel a bit guilty winning them both! But you're right, they will help with the wedding stress, and will be enjoyed by my whole Christmas list!

Thanks so much! I'll email you my address!

Steph @ Diapers and Divinity said...

Jana, you saved a life!! How cool is that? I feel the exact same way whenever I have to teach for EFY. I get so nervous, I sometimes get physically ill, but when you hear that one young person say something like, "today I decided to go on a mission," you can't do anything but forgive your mistakes and praise God.

The Mom said...

Whoo hoo! I love winning things! I am so excited for this cookbook! Thank you!

--H said...

As I was cleaning out some boxes last week I came to an old talk I gave at some unknown past sacrament meeting.

It talked about how trying to be perfect makes us focus only on ourselves, rather than focusing on Christ, which, in turn, makes us focus on others.

We can never be perfect in this life, but being like Christ will bring us closer to it than anything else. So...basically, just the opposite of what "trying to be perfect" does.

I wondered when I gave this talk because I don't remember it, but I needed it that day. And every day.

--H said...

That comment makes no sense, but I think you know what I mean.

The Crash Test Dummy said...

I loved the book. It is bee-U-tiful. You are sooooooo gifted. Thank you for letting me read it and feel it through your eyes. I am posting about it tonight so I will link back to your website and tell people to order it.

Kimberly said...

Oh the wisdom in never cease to amaze and inspire with it.

I feel a sudden urge to go practice at my piano...

L.T. Elliot said...

It doesn't surprise me that you have so many talents--not the least of which is saving lives. Your words have saved mine. In one of the darkest moments I've ever experienced, an email from you saw me through it. You'll never know how often I read it and reminded myself that someone else knew where I was, and survived it.

God bless you, Jana.

Rachel said...

I love how you spread joy and peace and beauty and zest for life where ever you go. I didn't notice any mistakes in the music. But I did notice the Spirit. Enough to almost not notice the busy children in the bench in front of me. You know those minutes when the music speaks calm so everything else doesn't matter. Thank you for that.

I also wanted to let you know how impressed I am with the feeling you put in to your painting. We often have chaos here, yet the Lord sends little pieces of peace for me to hop from (just like rocks in the river) to keep me from being engulfed. Your thank you note with such a pretty painting of the mountains and the lake was one of those. I had it above my stove for quite a while. (Of course, in true life fashion, it fell in a pot of boiling water. So now it is beautiful and warped.) I appreciate all the sparkle that knowing you brings me. Thanks.

Mrs4444 said...

I think that that how musicians handle their mistakes can be as impactful as the music itself. Heart shines through, either way.