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 Random.org 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.
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