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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Performing a piece of music for the first time

A colt's awkward first steps remind me of how I often feel
on stage at a first performance.
Image from Wikimedia Commons
We all have to perform a piece of music for the first time.  There's no way around that.  Yet how often do we do approach a maiden performance as if it was our one shot at it?  I found myself falling into this mentality for much of the first part of my life, especially when I was young and in school, spending hours in the practice room surrounded by others just like me and very unaware of the world outside the hallowed halls of the music institution.  Pieces were in and out of my life with each jury that I successfully passed and the thought that I might someday repeat some of the same repertoire rarely, if ever, crossed my mind.  Working with young people on a regular basis now, I see that I am not the only one that has had this attitude.  It amazes me how many students never ask me for their music once we're finished a project together.  Some even graduate and move away without a peep, leaving my pile of unclaimed music growing at a shockingly rapid pace.  Do they really think that's it?  That there's nothing more to be extracted from a piece of music?  I was there myself a few years back but now I find that kind of sad. (Lest you think I'm a bad person, I do try to return the music to their owners but that can be harder than you might imagine!)

Anyway, I digress.  What I want to share in this blog post is my relatively newfound attitude that I have about playing music for the first time.  It's quite simple, really, but it might help in relieving some of the performance anxiety that we all feel from time to time, especially when we're performing a piece we've never performed before.  So here's what I've learned -  
The first time is always challenging and is usually nowhere near where I would like it to be either physically, technically, or musically.  

I truly think this experience is unavoidable.  No matter how hard I practice, how long I spend with a piece, or how thoroughly I learn it, the first run is always a bit of a let-down.  But in my book that's ok because it's no wonder - playing music isn't an easy thing to do!  And what's the hurry?  Is it really our only chance to get it right?  Does the piece disappear from existence once we've had our way once with it?

Nope.  Don't think so.  At least it doesn't have to be that way.

In light of this revelation, here are some things I think about now when I'm sitting backstage feeling a little nauseous about a first-go at something:

  • I acknowledge the reality of the situation and accept that the performance isn't going to be as comfortable or as satisfying as a performance of a well-seasoned piece.
  • I remind myself that most musicians end up performing the same piece several times in a lifetime.  This one performance doesn't have to be "it."  In fact it shouldn't be unless I decide afterwards that it's not a piece that I want to do again.
  • I look forward to getting the first time out of my system and to the next time I get to work on the piece, knowing that it will feel completely different - easier, more natural, and marinated with my own personality and understanding that only comes with time and experience.
  • Since I don't expect technical perfection, I strive instead to relay to the audience and to the musicians with whom I'm working the overarching feeling I have for the music.  I think more in abstracts and in big pictures, knowing that eventually the details will fall into place and that with time and further visits with the music, I will become more familiar with the tiny, wonderful details that make the music what it is.  If I attempt to focus on the details at this point in the game I get frustrated and find myself in the wrong side of my brain - the overly analytical side and when that happens it's never a pretty picture.  
For those of us that aren't performing artists full-time, there is something else we can do to help ourselves with this whole issue.  We can get out there and make a habit of offering our first performances to more and more people in a safer, more comfortable environment.  Rather than making your senior recital, jury, or performance at Carnegie Hall your first time performing a given piece, plan ahead, be pro-active, and offer a performance of it at church for the choir, in the local retirement communities, at a school, in your living room in front of friends, at a restaurant - anywhere!  Not only would it get that first performance out of the way to make room for you to go to the next level, you would also see how excited and grateful your audience in these settings are to be hearing live music played by you in a more informal setting.  You might even realize in doing this that the audience doesn't expect perfection or detect imperfection.   Not a bad thing to get in touch with!

So go on...take the plunge and perform that piece for the first time...just go easy on yourself and remember - there can be a next time!