I have been quietly undergoing a mini-nervous breakdown for the past few weeks trying to learn some music for an upcoming recital. This has put the eternal optimist in me to the test and to be completely honest, it was looking pretty grim for a while - so grim, in fact, that an acquaintance of mine actually said to me, "Erica, why don't you just tell him that you simply can't play those pieces?" Oh wow - that question just about killed me! It screamed, "FAILURE" and was complete with blinking neon lights that strobed into every nerve ending. But perhaps hearing that question was exactly what I needed. It forced me to come up with a defense to that innocently presented question and ultimately ended with me declaring that I would turn my Mission:Impossible situation into Mission:Possible.
The pieces in question are two saxophone sonatas, one by Paul Creston and the other by Jindrich Feld. They're great pieces, very different from one another, and I tried to be responsible by looking through the music pretty carefully before I agreed to take on the challenge but sometimes being responsible only goes so far. The problem began when I really started to try and learn the music. Usually I start the whole learning process with a good read-through of all the music so that I can ascertain which movements are going to be more challenging and which ones I'll basically be able to just set aside and read when it comes time to rehearse and perform. So picture this: I sit down, open up the music, start to play and, well, I can't! I can't sightread the first movement of the Creston, which I thought was going to be a pretty straight-forward piece. I turn the pages until I find the second movement. Not so bad. I get through the first page, turn the page and then...eeek! I get stuck again. It's not as challenging as the first to read but still. This goes on for every other movement in both sonatas - 7 movements total. By the end, I want to cry.
So now we're back to where I started the post - with the suggestion that I should just tell the saxophonist that I couldn't play the music. Well, I simply couldn't give up because I don't back out of commitments lightly - I just don't think it's responsible. The only option, in my mind, was to realize that I was going to have to be extraordinarily disciplined, come up with a plan, find some new ways to learn ferociously challenging music, and to just do it. And that's what I'm doing. After a week and a half of my own Mission: Possible, I'm finally getting somewhere.
Now that I feel like I'm making my way out of the woods, what thoughts and questions am I taking from this whole experience?
- Is there ever a situation or a time when a professional musician might decide that he/she simply can't and/or shouldn't learn a particular piece of music because of it's difficulty? Or is it good to push ourselves, even when it's terrifying?
- Being in the field of music provides me with never-ending challenges that might drive me crazy at times but that ultimately keep me thinking and challenging myself.
- Trying to read this difficult music has helped me to empathize with musicians that regularly have trouble sightreading. Not being able to make music because my brain was so tied up in knots was painful, discouraging and really not fun at all.
And most importantly, I believe...
- Nothing is impossible! Yes, I've heard that tons of times before but I'm saying it now with a lot of visceral understanding. After a decent practice session last night I came up with this phrase - "Some things are impossible only as long as they are feared" and that's what I'm carrying with me through these last few weeks of preparation, with the hope that the eternal optimist in me has returned for good. And here are two other quotes I discovered last night about impossibility that I've added to my arsenal:
"Impossibilities are merely things which we have not yet learned." - Charles Chestnutt
"Progress is what happens when impossibility yields to necessity." - Arnold H. Glasgow
So here's hoping this story is going to have a wonderfully successful ending. I encourage anyone that has any stories of similar situations or any suggestions of how to deal with them to share them in the comments section. I think it's important for young musicians especially to realize that the pros have their moments of doubt, fear, and terror too!