Saturday, April 10, 2010

on pop stars, Olympic ice skating and piano recitals......

Last week someone remarked to me that for those who are not lifelong concert artists, there can often be a strong fascination with the details, moods, experiences and activities of a performer or musician, and (in that person's estimation), this fascination played a large part in the initial popularity of Twitter because young fans of pop stars could now follow their idols' every move or imagine more closely their daily lifestyle. This person went on to suggest that more of us "classical musicians" should likewise share our experiences from the "onstage view" and I thought that made sense, so here is my first installment on that topic.

Over the past three days, I have performed the same solo piano program to three different audiences, in two different venues, so I thought that this experience might be a good place to start.
First of all, I would say that all three audiences were equally appreciative and excited afterwards when coming up to speak with me, although among the two recitals held in the same venue, those two audiences were actually very different in the way they seemed to listen and the level of "energy" that came back to me onstage while performing. This could have had something to do with the time of day for each concert (as this affects the audiences even more than the performer, in my opinion) as well as the overall age group in each audience.

I was also intrigued by the fact that after each of the three concerts, as people would come up to tell me what piece was their favorite, there was always one piece that got more votes than any other - but, that "audience favorite" piece was different at each of the three performances, even though all three concerts had the same program. And none of the pieces named by audience members as their "favorites" ever matched the ones that I myself most enjoyed performing at each concert! There are many different discussion topics or potential "psychological insights" that could probably arise from these observations, but for now I'll simply move on because today (rather typically of most performers, I am sure) my adrenalin and brain cells are rather drained :)

Two of the three concerts were recorded for potential broadcast. People often ask me if there are any surprises when I hear a recording of my live performances or if the interpretations sound indeed exactly as I hear them "in my head" while rehearsing or playing. Having just today listened to the recording of the first concert, my response would be that pretty much everything sounded exactly as I "heard" it while performing, except for one thing - the very fast pieces always come out sounding much much faster than I "feel" I am going at the time. I am sure this is a reaction akin to that of tennis players viewing tapes of their successful matches or shots when they felt they were "in the zone" - so many players have said that the ball seems to be coming at them in "slow motion" and that they are not aware of how rapidly they are responding or moving.

And perhaps also akin to a tennis match or a golf tournament, I never expect to have an absolutely technically perfect solo-recital performance over a 90-minute program encompassing maybe 300 pages of memorized music from a wide variety of composers. I have no doubt that many of my colleagues do achieve this, and repeatedly - but my hands are some of the smallest in the concert world (they barely reach an octave, even though some of my best reviews have been for Rachmaninov, Brahms, and Chopin) and when under the adrenalin rush of live performance, they can sometimes betray me a bit and hit two notes at once or misjudge a leap - just occasional things like that.

Pianists also have the added technical challenge of not being able to bring their accustomed instrument with them to each venue, so it would be like golfers having to use completely foreign clubs at each competition - or tennis players never having any choice in their racket or competing ice skaters having to wear used skates that were handed to them at the competition day itself. There is a level of technical comfort that is just simply not possible sometimes in these situations, because certain pianos have an action that is unexpectedly heavy or light, or one that works great for Debussy but not Brahms, or have a key that doesn't repeat, or any number of other challenges. Personally I quite enjoy these added challenges (and often joys) that come with discovering new instruments (with their own potential tone colors) at each venue, but that doesn't diminish their existence.

My reason for mentioning all of these factors is simply to share that in assessing a live performance (my own or others') , technical perfection does not rank as the No1 consideration in my overall feelings about that concert, and some non-musicians who greet me after concerts with "Wow that was amazing- I didn't hear a single wrong note the entire concert!" are often surprised when I assure them that yes, there were a few wrong notes, but hitting all "right" ones is not the ultimate goal. They then sometimes ask me, "well then, what is?" . Keep in mind, I am talking about a few tiny glitches or clinkers here and there - obviously if someone has a "bad night" for whatever reason and the piece becomes a complete and total mess technically, that is a different story akin to an unexpected sporting disaster.

But for example, my own personal goal over these three concerts this week was to recover a level of "abandonment", fun, and "emotive freedom" in live performance that I recently concluded I had partially lost, at least in comparison with the first performances of my career as a child, probably due to the increased focus on technical perfection as a professional. Again, I am sure this is totally normal for most lifelong performers and there are as many causes for this phenomenon as there are people in the performing world, each with their own history and experiences. But the dilema became clear to me only a month or so ago, while watching the ice skating championships during the Winter Olympics and listening to the commentary of the ex-Olympians who were comparing the skaters, their practice routines, and their goals. The winners in this instance were those who practiced the hardest in order to be as physically, mentally and technically ready as possible so that they could "let go" in performance and inspire the world with the beauty, freedom and expression of their interpretive artistry and their heartfelt (as opposed to intellectualized) "presence" during their skating. They still had occasional tiny glitches, but it didn't matter - at their peak performances it was as if there was no separation between the skaters, the music they were skating to, nor the feelings they (and that music) were expressing through their physical movements - they seemed to become the music, and their movements on skates became the physical expression of their hearts and souls. Watching them, I realized that this, surely, should be my goal as a concert performer as well. I know that seems obvious, but sometimes we need to be woken up and reminded of such things!

So - with that as my focus during the intense rehearsal sessions leading up to these recitals, was I fortunate enough to meet my personal goal in these particular concerts? I am happy to report the answer is Yes! Does that guarantee I will be able to do so the next concert, and the next? Possibly not.....
But this particular concert program added to my enjoyment as well. Many people do not realize the great amount of planning, rehearsing, deciding, re-rehearsing, changing, and re-deciding that goes into the final creation and deliberation of the concert program that is ultimately handed to the audience members as they enter a venue. In this particular case I decided on the theme of a "round the world" tour, with the composers as the tour guides. This program approach and the "travel commentary" I provided before each piece, proved extremely popular with all three audiences. More on that topic, and my feelings about classical piano music as the World Music of its time, in another blog post.
For now, it's time to do as any good but exhausted post-Olympic athlete eventually does, and get some sleep!


  1. Hi, Donna:

    I found your reflections interesting and the information valuable.

    You make a fantastic point about practicing technique to such a level that during a performance you can actually free yourself from technical worries and be at one with the music and the moment. I imagine that with that level of practice, "mistakes" become "happy accidents".

    Could it be that whatever incorrect patterns your hands actually play "in the moment" are simply other acceptable results that came from the intense practice of many different pieces?

    Also, it is good that the broadcast recordings provided proof that the performance that you intended was actually heard by the audience. That is a significant achievement in itself!

    -- Jim O.
    Livermore, CA

  2. Donna, Thanks for the insight to performing from a professional to a closet musician.