May. 6, 2019

Leave It Behind

We can't let it "bug" us (photo).
Let's take a hypothetical situation: let's say, it's a well known piece from the standard organ repertoire, but it's a work we don't already know; we've been given a deadline when we have to perform it in public; and, when we do, it's expected that it will be completely from memory.
Let's say further that, based on past experience, we don't have to prove to anyone that we're a very solid player; there is no previous history of short term memory loss but we're getting up in years and have lost some of our natural strength and stamina.
We've spent much time studying this new music, working out the best fingering and hand division, measure by laborious measure; we've practiced it dozens of times at concert tempo over a period of weeks without any serious issues -- without the pages in front of us; we feel we've got this.
The day and hour arrives; we start off fine, but then, right in the middle of the music, we can't remember what comes next; we've drawn a blank -- just like the actor who forgot his lines on live television; we got lost, briefly.
We hesitate but can't get back on track; so, we do the only thing we can to avoid a complete breakdown -- we "ad lib," and it's all very lame; WE know, EVERYBODY knows, we can do better.
There will be another day; we still go home embarrassed and discouraged THAT day -- all perfectly understandable.
If anyone thinks this could never happen to a world-class organist in real life they would be laboring under a serious misconception.
On one occasion very late in his life while he was suffering from multiple health problems and the effects of noxious medications Louis Vierne was performing Bach's "great" Prelude & Fugue in a minor during a service at Notre-Dame de Paris when he got lost right in the middle; he was performing it from memory as he did everything due to the visual impairments with which he was born, and he got lost; according to G. Huntingdon Byles, a British organist who became Director of Music for a church in Connecticut and who attended this service, he [Byles] said he "felt very bad for him."
This undoubtedly left Vierne in a horrible state of embarrassment when in truth he was an impeccable performer, a composer of genius, a master improviser, and sought after as a teacher by some of the finest organists back in the day from all over the world; he also freely admitted that he suffered from performance anxiety all his life.
Advancing age, chronic health problems, the effects of medication, inadequate rest, lack of quality sleep, history of accidents or surgeries that have weakened us, performance anxiety, bad habits, distractions, just not feeling well that day, all of these things and more can affect how our brain and stored memory functions "when the heat is on."
It's all part of the human condition.
Let's say we've performed recently at a 2-day major event like we have many times before, things went fairly well this time, the audience left satisfied with the musical offering we've given them, the event is now history, but the kind of job we did isn't sitting well with us -- something (or maybe a few little things) unexpected happened this time that left us displeased, and, while we know better than to "beat ourselves up" over it, we're still disappointed that the audience didn't get to hear our best work.
This kind of thing is very commonly encountered, and the more conscientious we are, the more we feel it; we've played it many times before and know we can play it well, but we found ourselves this time in another performance situation and had one shot at it -- only something messed up that wasn't supposed to mess up, and there was no way to fix it or rewind the tape, go back, and start over.
This can take many forms: maybe we were all prepared to start the intro to a well known patriotic song and there was a delay in getting started; our eyes left the page for a split of a second to check the floor to see what the delay was all about, our fingers and feet still poised over the keys, and suddenly the cue to begin was given; knowing that if we didn't begin immediately the song would be preempted, we launched into the intro before our eyes could catch up to the correct spot on the page, and we wound up stumbling all over the keys, making a dissonant mess of things; we recovered after a few beats, but the fact that it's already a blemished performance has us a little upset.
This HAS happened.
Here's another one: let's say, despite hours of practice beforehand, we lose our place during choral evensong after committing the cardinal sin of thinking "this is going pretty well;" things were also made worse when, after the organist broke down and came to a stop, the director stopped the singing and called for verse 4 to start all over again.
In situations like this it would have been better if the singers just kept going, which would have made it sound like a partially unaccompanied verse -- the organist then could have just rested for a moment, found the right place, and come back in the final moments for the intended finish.
"This is going pretty well" is literally, word-for-word, one of the cardinal sin phrases that the organist or singers should never think during performance because it causes us to relax our concentration and robs us of our focus when we need to be staying right with the moment.
The present moment will save us.
All organ playing is a balance of ease and tension; we need to blend in relaxation and still stay focused, but too much relaxation isn't good either.
At times we're just overly tired; maybe we had to play very late one night and then, after only 3 hours sleep, had to come back and play very early the next morning; maybe we're performing something well known and famous from the solo repertoire, we've played it hundreds of times the right way, but, this time, we manage not to play the right pedal octaves in the right places with the full organ during the closing bars; it still sounds pretty good to the uninitiated, but it just isn't the same as the composer wrote it, and it can leave some of us shaking our heads on the inside and feeling a bit undeserving of the applause being offered to us. This too, HAS happened.
These are easy mistakes; we're human -- we've all made them or done something like them; we've all had our moments of dissatisfaction with ourselves; the more we're involved, the more we've all experienced our horrors in one way or another -- no one is immune to it.
In one situation, during the closing hymn of a public ceremony, the Bb key in the bass octave of the Great manual decided to remain depressed after it was released, causing a "stuck note" that sounded like a cypher; the music soon came to a stop on a big final Ab Major chord with an unwanted, added 2nd in the bass octave (the stuck Bb) which, of course, continued sounding after the final chord was released and could only be silenced with the General Cancel. This as well, HAS happened.
In another situation, during practice, the porcelain face of the general 12 piston below the Swell manual decided to fall off and get wedged at the back of the tenor D key on the Great manual, thus causing this key to get jammed down for a moment until the key could be freed using the blade of the organist's pocket knife.
Granted, these and similar experiences with malfunctioning older and well-worn manual keyboards are extremely rare, but indeed they HAVE been known to happen.
Many years ago an organist was asked to sub for the regular organist who accompanied the chanters; all the director told him was that they we're going to do such and such a choral number in the usual way for the final song; that was until, during the performance, the director took the singers into a different key "the usual way" without seeing that the organist had the right music in front of him, leaving the latter stranded and still playing accompaniment in the original key, two keys going at the same time -- which sounded loverly.
Since the director had all the singers together in their own key, that left only one human being (the person presiding at the instrument) who sounded to the audience as if he were reading his music upside down; nothing of the kind was going on, only it sounded that way, and it reflected very poorly on that organist, who happened to be a very solid player.
What started out as a well performed choral number went off the rails with the last verse and ended up a train wreck -- an entirely preventable one. This nightmare scenario HAS ALSO happened.
When the director left the scene of the accident without saying a word to the organist (sometimes the less said, the better), it was all the latter could do, just to keep a lid on his anger and subdue his passions; as people were filing out of the room he was observed to stare at the keys catatonically for at least two minutes afterwards, his eyes gazing motionless, simply concentrating on remaining calm; only the touch of a warm hand on his shoulder from someone in the audience and the words "it's okay, my brother" spoken in his ear in a low tone snapped him out of it, finally.
No society is perfect, and, as long as we're living in a world full of imperfect people and imperfect situations (which is everywhere), stuff like this, while it is rare, is bound to happen with a certain frequency.
Yes, it can have us leaving the building feeling defeated in expectation; yes, it can also have us going home in a state of disgust; yes, depending on what happened, it can even have us embarrassed, if not mortified; and yes, it can even have us rightly provoked and our ire aroused, all for good and sufficient reason; it can leave us chewing our teeth; it can be any or all these things, in any combination.
It's also a big part of how we learn.
Life is full of interruptions and disruptions; we can show up well practiced and prepared, then find that the final verse was mistakenly printed twice in succession before someone caught the error, and the last verse wound up getting sung twice; we can misjudge which verse is the final one and insert the 32' reed too early, in the wrong place; we can receive the cue from the director to begin playing the intro to a choral song only to be told to stop immediately by the frantic director a few seconds later because it wasn't yet time to begin.
It happens to the best of us; all we can do is keep our sense of humor about it and resolve to do better next time; it's not the end of the world.
We've all been there; we just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and carry on; we learn to laugh and just chalk it up to experience; all we're trying to do is make some beautiful music: no one's life is at stake -- no blood will be lost -- no one will be maimed or die -- if something in a public performance "goes kaplooey" when it wasn't supposed to.
When something unexpected pops up and doesn't follow the play book, it's simply a part of the game; if we happen to get hammered over it, the thing to do is keep going, make it to the goal line, rub it off, be determined to learn from it, pull ourselves together, LEAVE IT BEHIND, and get back IN the game.
This world is full of surprises, not all of them are disappointments, and knowing in our hearts that we've done our best to make the most of what we've been given to work with -- and that we've learned from the consequences of the decisions we've made, the actions of others, and whatever else has come our way -- is what really matters.