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.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

One musician's painful dilemma

© misu -
I am writing this post because I want to be honest and because the subject I'm about to bring up is one that is often shoved under the carpet. Thankfully, I think more and more musicians are starting to open up about this topic which is leading to more information being made accessible. But even with this new sense of openness, I have to admit that I am still hesitant to write about what I've been dealing with the past few months.

All right, enough procrastinating.

Who knows when it all started. What I do know is that I have had two years of playing and performing piano with virtually no break at all.   I have also been accompanying too many people. I now know that I have, without a doubt, a limit. This is where it starts to get a little embarrassing. I should've known. I did know that I had a limit. But in all honesty I didn't know what to do.   I love playing, I love experiencing new music, I love working especially with young musicians, and I absolutely adore performing - it's all downright addictive to me. I also suffer from what I think a lot of other accompanists suffer from - the overachieving accompanist syndrome.  I live in a small town with two colleges music departments in my backyard.   It's like living in the musical equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.   Yet there aren't many pianists in the area that can or will take on the work.   We collaborators also typically love to swoop in and save the day - it's in our genes.   And I don't want to leave out the economic side of all of this. I am a freelance pianist and an adjunct professor; my husband is in the beginning of starting up a private voice studio after his struggles in academia.   We have no full-time job between the two of us so each musician I say yes to accompany becomes part of the patchwork that is our income.  It is not easy to say no to work and it doesn't help when I happen to love what I do.

Back to my story...

This past December, as most people were headed to vacations and celebrations with family I was crazily putting together a solo piano recital since I had applied for a full time teaching position at the university where I've been working the past three years. I (wrongfully) assumed  that I would make it into the final round of interviews (that's good fodder for another post) and would need to give a recital so I had one month in which to throw something together.  At the same time I was preparing for that, I was also having to learn music for the upcoming onslaught of student recitals, which totaled around 25.  (I am now letting out a groan in complete awareness of how I dug my own grave.) Since it was also my daughter's vacation I was doing my typical thing with her which more often than not consisted of wrestling and tickling each other.  It was during one of those times that I felt something happen in my upper back and shoulder. I didn't think much of it at the time and I don't know that it would have become an issue had I not also been practicing so much, but it quickly became a problem and I started getting this horrible pit in the bottom of my stomach as I recognized that I would soon have a dilemma on my hands, pun completely intended.

Perhaps I should've stopped then.   But it's so hard. I had agreed to play for over 20 recitals and countless other juries and smaller performances.  It's not so easy to just call everyone up and say, "Sorry folks, can't play!"  (I actually did call up a colleague to ask for help but she couldn't come up with any alternatives either.)  This was not a simple matter - that's one of the things I want to get across in this blog post.   I think it can be easy for people looking into a situation like this to simply shake their heads and dismiss a musician such as myself saying something like, "She did it to herself.  She should have known to stop."   One side of me agrees with this but when it's your life, what you love, your sole means of providing income for your family and when there aren't many, if any, that can do what you do?  And then there's the fear that if you tell people what's going on you'll never be asked to play again.  I'm telling you right now it is downright terrifying.

I chose to plow on as carefully as I could. I immediately found a chiropractor in town that I trusted, I told her my situation and she understood.   We set up a plan to meet on a regular basis so that we could hopefully slow down and avoid any further damage. I also stopped practicing once I was done giving my solo recital.   For the entire semester any playing I did was for rehearsals and performing.  I did not see a doctor and I did not go to physical therapy -  I relied instead on my chiropractor, advil, and arnica while religiously doing exercises that I learned from the chiropractor, the Internet, and from physical therapists I have had in the past.

Why did I not go to the doctor or to see a physical therapist?   I have dealt with similar issues twice before,  once when I was still in school and another time as an adult. The first time I had to stop playing I returned home to consult with a world-renowned hand doctor and surgeon in San Francisco.   He referred me to physical therapy but after months of doing that and being miserable I still didn't feel any better. I returned to college, was approved to take non-musical classes while recovering and started seeing a chiropractor who also happened to be the organist at our church. In a month of seeing him my problems started to go away. By the next semester I was playing again pain-free.  Later when I developed issues I again saw a chiropractor who was able to help me within weeks.  That is why I didn't go to the doctors or to physical therapy this time.  I hadn't had success the first time so I didn't want to potentially waste the time or the money.  Keep in mind neither my husband or I have full-time jobs.  Difficult choices have to be made.

© lily -
So here I am not feeling better yet, not playing very much, not sure what's going to happen next year, and afraid to even type.  (This is the maiden voyage of me using Dragon Dictation to write a blog post!)   Obviously this is not a great situation.   But to make lemonade out of lemons, I'm learning a lot about my body, I'm working on understanding how I can use my body better at the piano, and I am having to start thinking outside the box again, which in my mind is always a healthy activity.   I don't know exactly what's going to happen in the next year although I have already reduced my playing commitments significantly.   I'm trusting that in the end I will have a delicious, refreshing pitcher of lemonade by my side as I once again take to the piano to play my little heart out.

With all this said, I would ask that folks reading this be understanding and to not make comments that beat me up for how I've dealt with this most recent situation.  Trust me - I've had plenty of that already from myself!  Thank you.

For any musicians reading this who are experiencing pain while playing, know that you are not alone.  There are a lot of resources and wonderful helpful people out there right now - find them, ask me, or look at the comments below!  I am happy to help if I can and I'm hoping that people in the know will make some suggestions right here.

Here's to healthy playing!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The myth of the perfect performance

© RedDaxLuma -
I will insist on continuing to work with young musicians because it is from them that I get a glimpse into their minds and reminders of what I so often take for granted as a more seasoned player.  Such was the case this past week as I was rehearsing with a singer in preparation for the ever-so-popular jury week.

Rehearsal after rehearsal, performance after performance, I am amazed at how young singers evaluate their own performances.  So often a "successful" run-through or performance means one thing and one thing only - they have sung all the correct words in the correct order.  Who cares if it was heartfelt, gripping, and musical?  If a word gets jumbled or, gasp, made up, forget it!  Throw in the towel!  Vow to never perform again!  Beat yourself up!  Sure that might sound dramatic but that's what a lot of young singers feel which means I end up spending a lot of my time trying to convince them otherwise.

Which brings me to the rehearsal this week.

We were rehearsing and she had the inevitable word stumble which caused her to stop mid-song.  Seeing as juries are right around the corner I decided it was time for a little intervention.  I said to her, "Don't worry about mixing up a word or two in a song.  It really, really doesn't matter once you get out there onto that stage.  It happens to every singer including all those teachers that will be hearing your jury next week.  They've all messed up words."  Her response to me?  "Right. I need to remember that most professionals forget a word once or twice in their career." 

Did you catch that?

"Once or twice in their career."

At that point I saw in my mind's eye a giant, neon flashing sign that said, "LEARNING OPPORTUNITY!!" 

Smiling I said, "Oh my...try once or twice in every performance!  How's that for a mind-blowing fact?!"  

She genuinely looked surprised at this little reality check which then provided another reality check for me.  It is so easy for professional musicians to forget that we are, in essence, fooling our audiences a lot of the time, especially when we're truly wearing our hearts on our sleeves when we perform.  That is the magic of great performing, right?  The little details no longer matter when what we're delivering is the gift of live music-making, great music, and ourselves.  But the problem with this can also be that young musicians have no idea how human we are, that mistakes are an inevitability, and that much of our skill as professionals has to do with not sweating the things that aren't "perfect."  I'm not quite sure what a solution to this would be.  Perhaps we could have a scoreboard onstage and at the end of every piece it could show the percentage of notes and words we got correct but then that's focusing on the wrong thing, isn't it?  Because it really doesn't matter!  

I think that part of the solution is for professionals, especially those working with young musicians, to be transparent with their students about their own performances - to share what might not have been "perfect" but to do so without attaching any guilt or remorse about it.  I also think it's important for us to focus on the things that do matter more when we're reflecting on performances, either our own or someone else's.  Did we feel like we connected with the audience?  Did we enjoy the music ourselves?  Did we make music?  Did we have fun?  It's the answers to questions such as these that can lead to pride and a feeling of success which can then lead to a desire to get back onto the stage to experience it all over again...and again...and again.

In an effort to help students get a more realistic view of my own performing I have, for the past three years, required my accompanying class students to turn pages for me multiple times during the semester.  Backstage I am very honest with them about which pieces are more troublesome than others and that make me a little more nervous; onstage they have the opportunity to see how many notes I leave out; then offstage again I share with them how I feel about the performance, not in a nit-picky way, but in a more general way.  It's been rewarding for me to do this because so many of those students seem to have gotten  better in their own performing with just going on no matter what happens.  They genuinely seem less freaked out about not being perfect which means they can focus more on what really is more important.  I think that's a better alternative than going up on stage hoping that "once or twice in a career" mistake doesn't happen.  

So let's all get a little more honest about our performances so that our students don't have the mistaken impression that we aren't human.  We would all benefit, I think, from us allowing ourselves and young musicians to be human so that music will become music again...not just "perfect" reproductions.