Saturday, February 15, 2014

Who is a musician?

The question posed in this headline has tortured me for a long time and I was given cause to ponder it again after last Saturday, when I performed at the adult students’ recital at the Music School of Westchester in Larchmont, N.Y.

We were nine adults performing individually -- voice, violin, piano -- and an amplified pop trio. I had prepared "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood" from Camelot for my solo singing debut and a Clementi sonatina and Chopin prelude for the piano performance.

Several of the adults -- like myself -- had played when young, been away from music for a long time, and returned in middle age. Several were just starting out, chasing a long-held dream.

The setting -- the music school's reception area, equipped with two Steinway grand pianos -- could not have been friendlier, yet the day before, when I had climbed the stairs and saw the chairs set up in audience configuration, my stomach had lurched.  

At the piano
As usual, the performance terror descended – pounding heart, shaking hands even at the visualization of sitting there, waiting to be introduced, then playing in front of everyone.

I decided to try visualization, seeing a successful performance, but that had limited effect. I just practiced some more and decided to use deep breathing, under the principle that flooding the brain with oxygen would help me remember lyrics and settle the hands. 

The next night, as our group gathered, it was apparent that nerves were affecting a fair number. I could hear one participant obsessively practicing in a rehearsal room.

A couple of us were performing for the first time and had skills that were still developing. I sat next to a nice Frenchwoman who was compulsively rolling and unrolling her music to the extent that I wondered how she was going to set it on the piano.

My song was early on -- deep breaths -- and I had decided to introduce it briefly, since I have no fear whatsoever of public speaking. It's a wonderfully amusing song and it went well, although about ten percent of my best sound got left in the rehearsal room through nerves. But I was very happy and grateful for teacher Mazzelle Sykes and accompanist Vladimir Babadzhan, the school's music director.

The piano -- always the source of greatest joy and greatest fear -- loomed. More deep breaths. A glance at the music since I seem not to have seen it before. Overall, also good, although the Clementi was too fast out of the gate due to the heart racing and there were a couple of glitches. The Chopin was 100%. (Thank you, teacher Nataliya Blidy.)

So why do we do this? How do cope with the fact that there are worlds of players and singers more expert than we are, starting with our teachers? Can we call ourselves musicians?

Well, I never thought I could sing a solo in public when I started voice lessons last fall, and sing it well and creditably. When I returned to the piano, I was convinced my history of musical stage fright would continue and my living room would be my only venue. 

However, I discovered that performing garners respect and several of my musician friends (people I would consider "real" musicians) chipped in with tips and a bit of coaching on technique. "We are now in the same nerves boat," one e-mailed. 

For me, one of the more affecting parts of the recital is in hearing which pieces of music are inspiring my fellow students and hear how they interpret them, how it becomes Joe's Schumann, Seth's Rachmaninoff, Marie Jeanne's Bach -- and sharing my music with them. Solange's Clementi. Solange's Chopin.

I loved both pieces I played. The Clementi (Op. 36, No. 3) revels in buoyant speed and melodies within scale runs. It's just purely happy. The Chopin (Op. 28, No. 20) carries a world of sadness in its dark chords. and yet, with a simple E natural at the top of one chord, literally sounds a note of hope. I find it profoundly moving. I chose the pieces for their contrasts.
Finally, the essence of the evening for me came when Sophie, of the rolled music, came back to sit down next to me. She'd performed a Thelonious Monk piece called "Ruby My Dear," swingy, with pretty chords, but had bobbled a couple at the end.

"That was really nice," I commented to her. She unrolled her music and pointed toward the last few measures: "But I made a mistake here." 

I replied, "Don't worry. Don't obsess over it. You introduced a wonderful piece of music to me and played it really well with your unique feeling. That's what's important." 

I realized that's why we were there - to share, to support, to realize that music holds us, saves us, feeds us and even though we may feel inadequate, progressing slowly due to work and family and adult life, even vowing to quit -- we don't. I realized that the hardest work I do at the piano, even when frustrating and daunting, still nurtures my soul.

Yes, every person in that room is a musician.

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