My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Staring down the musical version of Mission: Impossible

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!


  1. Thanks Erica. I am taking piano lessons at fifty-one years of age and hearing you confess to hitting a sight-reading wall lifted my spirits. Plus your show of empathy towards those of us who overcome major obstacles to learn even simple pieces. Bless you.
    As far as your situation, why not be honest with your soloist. Tell him/her that the piano part is a bear and ask how important it is that the piece be precisely played. Maybe they actually would rather play something easier anyway. And if the soloist is anal about a perfect reading, they will take the hint and maybe someone else can do the gig who's already played that music.

  2. Many thanks for your comments, Brighton. And congratulations on taking lessons again - I know that takes quite a lot of bravery and determination but I'm glad that you're adding that back into your life! Music certainly gives us an excuse to keep learning and it has the added benefit of being an enjoyable way to pass one's time - at least usually :-)

    And thank you for your suggestion. I was seriously considering it but have decided that I need to try. I know other people have played both of these pieces and are still alive to tell the tale so I'm determined to get through it all and to learn some life lessons in the process. Oh, and I should also add that I'm extraordinarily stubborn so that plays into my decision as well.

    All the best to you, Brighton. I look forward to hearing more about your piano studies!


  3. Kudos to you for persisting!

    At some point in your life you may need to sacrifice a commitment or two for your own sanity, but it sounds like you're doing just fine. To weigh in on one of your questions, there are different seasons and circumstances in life when it is better not to try to push yourself so hard. So learn new stuff while you can!

  4. LaDona,
    Oh I totally get what you're saying about having times in your life where it's better to play it safe but I'm finding it hard to know when those times are. I have typically seen myself as a very safe person so the fact that I've been taking so many risks lately has sort of caught me off guard. We'll see how long I can keep it going!

    Thank you for reading and for your encouragement.

    All the best,

  5. Erica - Once again, I appreciate your providing a glimpse into the mind of a musician like yourself! Very interesting. For what it's worth...remember the line from the show: "Your mission, should you CHOOSE to accept it...." If you decided to not take on the challenge, I wouldn't necessarily equate that to failure. It may just be a prioritizing of your time and the many other musical (and non-musical) projects you have going. That said, I have no doubt that a challenge like this can stretch your musicianship and end up being very rewarding for you.

    I'm just impressed with how plainly you acknowledge your "moments of doubt, fear, and terror." I think that's healthy, and really even empowering.

  6. Ha ha, Bob. I like you quoting the show. The funny/sad thing is that I looked at the music pretty thoroughly, or so I thought, before agreeing to take on the mission so that was part of the problem. I felt like I really couldn't back out by the time I realized that this music was going to be extraordinarily challenging. When I look back to my time evaluating the scores, I think I even sat down to try some of it out but for some reason these particular pieces tricked me, silly music.

    In all seriousness though, I like what you say as well about acknowledging our challenging moments and feeling empowered by doing that. I think that's why I've been blogging about all this lately - it is empowering and I think helpful for others to see that they too can just be human, just be themselves yet still get on just fine, or possibly even excel thanks to such challenges.

    Many thanks, as always, for reading, Bob. I appreciate your comments and insights.

    All the best,