This Saturday I had, at the tender age of thirty-something, my very first Piano Recital.
It’s not the first I played piano in front of an audience per say but it was the first time, in my memory, that I have had to walk in front of an audience and announce my name and the title of the piece I am going to perform.
“My name is Jessie and I will be playing Brahms’ Intermezzo 117 no 1”
Naturally the first thing I worry about is what I am going to wear. My sister and I envisioned me walking out on to a great stage beautifully lit in long flowing pants and an appropriately flouncy piano top. Reality was that we were in a classroom on the top floor of the Robert Johnson building.
The big question. What to wear.
Well, every video I have ever seen of a first piano recital involved velvet dresses with satin sashes tied in bows and, lacy socks.
Let’s pretend that I tried but just could not find a velvet dress in time.
Let’s pretend that I had to go out and search for the lacy socks.
For the past three years I have been a freelance piano teacher in order to support a dream of living the life of a theatre artist, the life of a theatrical storyteller, a distiller of human occurrences, a life lived on a never ending artistic quest.
A profitable life… if financial profit is not the goal. Sigh.
I am a good teacher. I know this. I see it in the students I teach and, for the younger ones, the response I get from their parents. There is more to it than this though.
Learning to play piano has become a metaphor for life.
A metaphor for how I make art and for how I live and interact and struggle and overcome and and and, well, everything.
So many of the younger ones I work with have little to no concept of process. I know I didn’t when I was their age and I know I struggle with it now. I try to help them take their time to look at mistakes and difficult passages as puzzles, mysteries to be solved. To be little Harriet (and Harry?) the Spies.
Music was just something I did in school and as an after-school activity. I never could have guessed that it would support me. Support me not only financially but emotionally and artistically.
At the end of high school I also came to the end of my piano lessons. Fifteen years of lessons almost all of which were with the same teacher, mentor, friend. But that was it, I was off into the big world and moving away from home and well, I was never going to play professionally so…
Five years of university and I touched the piano probably less than five times.
Then I came home. I got my old upright. The one I learned to play on when I was five, when we lived ‘across the pond’. It made a great ‘wall’ to hide my bed in my little basement apartment. Those first few years were rough. Realities of life decisions sunk in as theatre proved, surprise!, to be a harsh mistress and mental health demons from the past reared their ugly heads threatening to smother me and take everything I had been working for.
When life was *really* bad sitting down at the piano and stumbling through Chopin’s Nocturnes or Mendelssohn’s Song’s Without Words was as good as if not better than any Lithium dose or Hash induced coma I ever tried. I could play for hours.
By myself. Just don’t ask me to play Happy Birthday. I can’t unless you have music for me. Don’t ask me to perform for you. I’m not a real musician it’s just something I do in secret.
I can walk out onto a stage and make something up, improvise, make mistakes, fall on my face no problem but put a piano out there with no music on it and I freeze, I am called out, I am revealed as a fraud.
Then,well, things started to look up. Friends came into my life with music and laughter and love and, most importantly a refusal to accept my refusal to accept my own musical abilities.
All that nonsense of being a fraud and not being able to perform was being challenged by them and, as I grew stronger, as I started to once again get a handle on my life, by my own decision to take on all those parts of my life that scared the living you know what out of me.
This past Fall I got an email through a list serve announcing that there were a few spots left to audition for FREE PIANO LESSONS FOR A WHOLE YEAR.
I had been wanting to start lessons of my own again. My teaching had not only rekindled my love of piano but had allowed me, finally, to access the more theoretical aspects of music I had thought were beyond my puny brain.
All those patterns built into our hands and keys that allow us to understand this instrument as something more than just drilled in lessons and squiggles on paper were finally revealing themselves for me as naturally as if they had always been there. Which they had. I just couldn’t see them before.
I knew that I was ready to push myself and that pushing oneself always goes better faster harder stronger when there is a guide there to help one along.
M and I started working together one hour a week. We examined in close detail how I sat at the piano, how I placed my feet on the floor where I started the impulse to play from, how my fingers worked the keys.
Relax your shoulders. Don’t lean in. Keep your feet planted. Don’t drop onto the keys. Push the sound out. Sing along with yourself. Be strict in execution but always malleable to the song.
I truly don’t think I have ever been this happy with music. I truly don’t think I have ever found a better metaphor for how to live life and make art and make art life and life art.
Next on the list of crazy challenges, tackling Liszt’s Un Sospiro
This Saturday we concluded the lessons for the year. All seven students and their student teachers gathered to show off what they had been working on.
I thought I was going to throw up. I got so nervous getting dressed I almost burst into tears.
I kept thinking of how I would want to breathe when it came time to play. I kept thinking how I tried to breathe when I was doing my theatrical training the summer before. How I was in exactly the type of situation I had worked towards tackling with the SITI company. This was an incredible and powerful type of energy vibrating through every fiber of my being and it would either destroy me or it could make me momentarily immortal.
As I biked to the music building, lacy socks and all, I practiced my breath.
I recited my created mantra that would help me make it through a musical work that was unlike any kind of piano I every usually tackled. Slow, intricate and written by a man with hands probably about twice the size of mine.
How To Get Through A First Piano Recital
*Push* don’t just drop fingers onto keys but rather push the sound out of the piano and into the world. Midwife the sound I suppose!
*Move* literally. Literally, physically move. Rock with the lullaby. From the tips of my feet to the top of my head and through my fingers, move.
*Float* those little arcs throughout. Those moment when you jump and you find that fermata, that pause, that hang time when the world stops – and then you move on.
*Breathe* Above all breathe. For obvious reasons.
“Hi, I’m Jessie and I will be playing Brahms’ Intermezzo 117 no 1 and this is My First Piano Recital so as you can see I’m wearing my lacy socks”
Good lord am I saying this right now? Stop talking. Now. Just stop.
Music laid. Wow, that music stand is higher than I’m used to.
Breathe. Close eyes. See the melody. Rocking. Remember that this song is a lullaby. Sung by a woman rocking her wailing child who looks like the man who is no longer here.
I thought my foot was going to fall off the pedal I was shaking so hard. I thought my quivering hands would be visible from the back of the room. I played two wrong notes. No one but my mother noticed. She would but I also saw the smile on her face when I had finished.
I didn’t get video of the recital itself but here is the video I took earlier. Video I took to help me practice ‘performing’ for someone, ok, something. I played it once more after I turned off the phone. I think that was probably the best one of the day. Go figure. Already my inner critic is ruthlessly deconstructing this play through… Enough.
In all my amateur glory here is me practicing for My First Piano Recital