The Pianist Will Never Be Defeated!

Updates (and confessions) from behind the 93-page score of
Rzewski’s ‘The People United’.

Having plenty of nervous energy can often be a good thing. It’s what propels me to bounce around the many faces I wear in the week (tutor, lecturer, conductor, teacher, supervisor, Rioter and – oh yes – pianist!)  Colleagues – mostly those that do a wonderful job cleaning our offices and studios – will have seen me cramming in a few hours of practice in the hours before my students turn up for the day. Fellow teachers will have received emails from me at bizarre hours in the night (the only time I have to send them). I’m not complaining. After all, I’m responsible for the challenges I set myself, which include the Grieg Concerto next week, a recital at Sussex University at the end of the month and the then ‘The People United’ in the second week of November in Chichester, London and Brighton.

That feels good!

That feels good at the moment!

Mostly, I’m not complaining because – at the moment – the practice is going very well. Even Rzewski’s metronome marks are beginning to look realistic. But however much progress I make, playing a piece that includes instructions such as ‘struggling’, ‘as fast as possible’ and ‘violently’ is bound to take its toll on the nerve endings.

So things came to something of a head last week. After a particularly busy week in (it seemed) every professional guise except pianist, I sat down at 5pm on Friday evening feeling rather tired to do two hours of piano practice on ‘The People United’.  Then, at 7pm, I ran over to the Chapel to play in the tutor’s opening concert of the year, performing a piece I have played countless times.

Sitting and listening to colleagues, I knew that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t focus and felt my stomach churning.  I just put it down to eating the wrong stuff.  Then it was my turn to play.

On the very first page I felt myself heave and the notes in my head and on the piano (and, in fact, the entire room) seemed to spin. I contemplated the possibility that this could be the most memorable performance of my life – the one where I vomit into the £100,000 Steinway. Fortunately for everyone present, the ‘technicolour yawn’ didn’t materialise. Instead I performed a huge edit and struggled towards a final cadence. I took my bow, left the room and texted my colleagues to apologise. They very kindly said that they hadn’t noticed.

Needless to say, I felt rather embarrassed. So why am I writing this down for you to read? Well, there are several important things I have learnt from this incident that I’d like to share (so I can try to remember them myself in the future):

  1. No matter what the occasion, the most important preparation is to eat and sleep properly. No amount of practice will defend against this.
  2. Breathing is surprisingly important before concerts. Closing your eyes and going through the scenario in detail – including arriving at the concert hall, talking to people, walking on stage, speaking to the audience and performing the piece – is crucial, and…..
  3. ….. all of these things take time. So no matter how things may pile of top of you, it’s vital to create a ‘window’ to allow your mind and body to cope with the pressures of performance.

I expect that many of these things sound pretty obvious, and perhaps I should find most of them second nature at the grand old age of 34. But I’ve taken a lot of positives by reminding myself about these simple rules, and perhaps others will too.

And, to those that see me in the coming weeks, please do not be offended if I need to clear a little ‘window’. It really is the only way that the Pianist’s, (brain, eyes, ears and fingers) United, Will Never Be Defeated!