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A Case of Nerves

See the Man With Stage Fright…

by DAVID YEARSLEY

How did I get into this? That’s the inevitable question of concert day, one that has been gnawing at the performer’s nerves through the preceding night, perhaps for days before.

You’ve practiced for weeks on the piece or program you’ve got to play, not to mention the years spent practicing fundamentals of technique. You assure yourself that your interpretations of the works to be performed are finely tuned. You’ve run the pieces countless times at performance tempo. You’ve slowed them down to glacial pace to detach the digits from their muscle memory. At this more moderate pace, the trusty foot soldiers that are your fingers can sometimes doubt their next step. Wherever they falter, you drill the spot again ten times. You play the piece in sections out of order so that you’re sure that in case of momentary setback the forces can be regrouped quickly rather than routed for good.

These and many more training exercises are undertaken until they serve as battlements to enable the performer to hold his or her position against the heavy bombardment and ensuing cavalry charge of the concert. The natural inclination is to throw down the flag and run screaming, leaving Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms face down in the mud behind you.

On concert day, before is always worse than during.

During my teen years an annual piano competition for a small scholarship sponsored by the main Seattle piano dealer was held once a year on a Saturday afternoon. My organ lessons happened each Saturday morning, so that when the day of the piano contest (into which my piano teacher had entered me) rolled around I always had several hours to kill, wandering the streets and occasionally ducking into the old Seattle Public library where I would sit miserably in a carrel, imagining I was at a piano and running the piece through in my mind, checking that my memory of it was intact. Whether that memory would hold up during the event itself was another question, though I can’t remember now any cataclysms. Perhaps that view of the past is itself a service that memory provides, letting the disastrous outings slip forever from view. During these seemingly endless hours of waiting, time slowed down so much it seemed not to be moving forward at all. Aside from the intervals in the library, the nerve-racked me liked mostly to keep moving. This probably explains why I still prefer to walk to a concert I’m playing, even though I’ve stopped getting too nervous – at least most of the time. If the venue is too far to reach by foot, I always try to take the air just beforehand, rain or shine.

After accepting my fate and going ahead with the performance rather than fleeing in panic, I usually experience a hugely heightened sense of being in the moment, often so much so that I seem to be hovering outside myself watching and listening as the music unfolds as if in slow motion. It is exhilarating and dangerous to hover for too long in that space, for you risk drifting too far from yourself. Things can go badly wrong very quickly in the real world of fingers and keys, feet and pedals. Best to be slightly outside but still crisply engaged, focused in a way I’ve experienced only in musical performance.

As of yet I have not died in performance, either figuratively or literally, but playing in and waiting for my own concerts seems increasingly like a kind of rehearsal for death. After being mired in the thick, gooey, seemingly immovable time leading up to the ordeal you find that the dread thing is actually happening. You are both in the experience and outside of it. And then almost miraculously it is over. Doubtless this view of a concert stems at least partly from my study of the art of dying in Lutheran Germany of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Believers were enjoined to practice for their deaths every day, often learning uplifting hymns to shore up their faith in salvation in the hour of their death, when the devil would be clawing at them, trying to pull them down to damnation. A lifelong obsessive practicer, I’ve watched helplessly as the so-called responsibilities of adulthood have cut massively into the undisturbed hours of youthful keyboarding; it is that formative experience that now gets me through the still sometimes terrifying test of a concert.

A rational look at concerts tells you that the performance is not a matter of life and death: the world will go on even if you fall off the organ bench. But rational thought never truly clears the elemental fear. That atavistic panic coupled with the most intense concentration produces (or is produced by) a powerful mix of chemicals. There must be something addictive about being in this state, otherwise why would one find oneself asking again and again: How did I get into this?

Having been introduced to music by my parents, I told myself that my own children should have the same opportunities.  Lessons were begun. Practice was encouraged, then enforced, just long enough to make it strangely fulfilling to the young musicians.

And then your own children are suffering the awful nervousness of concert day.  You watch the kids go pale, turn away from food. They wonder out loud why it has to be this way. Ultimately they always accept their lot. But you know full well that this is a form of torture for them. You convince yourself that it is good “life experience”: excellent training for the school presentation, public speaking, examinations. But then in the end the only thing that keeps them from revolting from this bizarre ritual is that after the concert is over they claim to have enjoyed it. The memory tested in the performance has already forgotten the preceding agony, expunged by the euphoria of watching yourself riding the knife edge between disaster and glory and living to tell the tale.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com