I guess the first few weeks of 2008 with their leisurely, almost worrisome pacing have finally given way to a virtual flood of work: auditions, auditions, and yet more auditions. Over the past two weeks, I have found myself sitting at a different piano, on a different bench or chair, in a different studio from practically one day to the next. A variety of shows, styles, people and situations. Lots of changes and adjustments, and a bit of self-appraisal along the way.
From the multitude of self-help and self-image books lining the best-sellers shelves, it seems (and reassures?) that all of us go through times in our lives and in our careers when we begin to question the Why, the What If, the Is It All Really Worth It aspects of our Existence, of our Happiness. Well, I guess I’m going through one of those phases right now. Rather, I’m coming out of one of those phases right now.
As one best-seller states in its title, "Don’t sweat the small stuff." But what if your Life is made up of the "small stuff"? What if your daily routine centers around deciphering small black dots and lines of ink on a page?… Of trying to read words printed in newspaper-sized typefaces under dim lighting that still somehow manages to cause a glare?… Of determining whether that was a nod to start playing or just a simple breath?… Of wondering if that smile was genuine or simply polite?
I will be the first to admit that I do not do everything well, that I do not play everything well – in the brief life-span of this blog, I know I’ve already stated that a few times. We all have our specialties, our comfort zones, our limitations. I will be the first one to turn down a job when I know I will feel like a fish out of water the whole time I am in the room. I hate being uncomfortable when I’m sitting down at the piano, and if I know that I am not able to fully contribute to the process at hand, then I would rather not be there. Alas, due to the nature of my work, and the nature of the biz, sometimes what looked like a "comfort zone" on paper, turns out to be anything but comfortable.
I’ll spare the specifics – the small stuff, as it were – but I will say I recently had one of those days. It’s natural to have those thoughts of I can’t play, I’m not good enough go through my head whether or not I happen to be playing at the time – I could have just been listening to some music rather than playing it. But I happened to find myself unexpectedly put into a situation where those thoughts, those doubts were just reinforced and, in a sense, amplified over the course of a few hours. At the end of the day, I could not help but feel a bit disheartened, small… Helpless and Non-Helpful. Nothing was said directly to me at the time, even though my own mind was filling in the blanks throughout the day, however, the coda for my day consisted of a pleasant phone call, followed by a not so successfully suppressed flow of tears on the subway ride back home.
What could I have done? It’s not like I was hired blindly for the gig – someone thought I was good enough, the right person for the job. And for a portion of the day, I was "right", I was more than "good enough". Then came a part of the day which had me summoning up a skill set I have never had to use, I never studied, and, frankly, never wanted to use nor study. But I was the one who got the call that day, who was sitting at the piano, so I did the best that I could do. I even voluntarily abstained at times when I knew any contributions from me at the piano would hinder rather than help – at least I had enough knowledge to discern when those situations would arise. Alas, getting that phone call confirming my "lack of ability" (the quotation marks are mine) did nothing to ease my own self-analysis of the day’s proceedings. Even though I fully understood what was being shared with me at the time – and, in retrospect, it allowed me to take a very real sigh of relief – the phone call just confirmed, albeit falsely, the thoughts and doubts that had been lingering in the back – and sometimes in the forefront – of my mind throughout the day. I can’t play. I’m not good enough. And worst of all: I did not help today.
It’s amazing how fine and malleable the line between a "Can" and a "Can’t" can be from situation to situation, from moment to moment. The Mind is most certainly a powerful Thing, and sometimes that power is used for Good, sometimes for Bad, and sometimes for the In Between. Lots of gray. Now that I’ve had a few days to process everything, well… Maybe "process" is not exactly the proper word. If anything, I’ve "displaced" what happened, or "re-placed" it. The whole situation was unexpected and new to me. In a sense, it was also new to the people who had hired me: they had never seen nor heard me using the skill set that I was called upon to use that day. In fact, after my work for them in the past, they had assumed that I could play Everything, and play Everything well. Now they know. Now I re-know. (And this was truly not a case of, "You know what what happens when you assume?…")
When I was in college, there was an inevitable sense of competition – some would call it jealousy! – between piano studios, between teachers, between students. Comparisons were unavoidable due to the closeness of the practice rooms and the not-so-soundproofing of the studios. Sometimes, I would even go as far as accompanying someone else’s solo piano part in a concerto through the cinder block walls. Or, if I was feeling particularly feisty that day, I would play a song accompaniment at the same time – up a half step! My teacher was a wonderful Polish woman who came to the States in the 1960s. She was – and still is – a fine Pianist and fine Teacher. Growing up and training in Europe at the time that she did, she was very familiar with the "Russian School" of piano playing that was personified by Emil Gilels, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lazar Berman, Vladimir Horowitz. She, too, was a part of that pianistic royal lineage having been a pupil of some Star Pupils both in Poland and in the United States.
My first lesson with her was not really a lesson at all. It was an interview. A two-way interview. After she had asked me some questions about my musical and personal preferences, she then asked me to ask her some questions. At first, I didn’t know what to ask, what I wanted to know, so she started off by giving me some answers: 53, married, two sons, two dogs (standard poodles), New England Conservatory, Catholic University of America, Prokofiev piano sonatas, Purple. Needless to say, I was caught off-guard by her frankness, her openness; consequently, I was also a bit in shock to inquire about anything else personal, musical or pedagogical at the time. However, that first lesson perfectly set up the Teacher-Student dynamic for our time in and out of Studio B-16 over the next couple of years. She had already begun planting, nurturing and insuring(!) the Idea that Music is not and can not be isolated to the piano studio. Whatever else was going on in our Life would most certainly affect our Music. It was all connected. Music was an integral part of our Life, but not Life itself. -She even required that we take at least one class outside of the Music Building each semester: she would not allow her students to isolate themselves figuratively, academically nor geographically.
I believe one of the greatest lessons I learned from her – as if that were not great enough – was that there was a difference between being Good and being a Virtuoso. Being Good ultimately results from one’s own honest self-appraisal. Being a Virtuoso is a label applied by someone else. Yes, one could be Good and a Virtuoso, but one did not have to be a Virtuoso to be Good. I did not have to be a Virtuoso. I did not have to work, to strive for something I was not meant to be, for a goal I never really wanted to achieve. It does sound very pat and simplistic – and maybe even a cop-out to some people – to say that someone knows how they fit in the larger scheme of things, but there is never anything wrong with Honesty. It truly does take all kinds. Just because I was not playing the Liszt "Transcendental Etude" that I could hear coming through duct work, did not mean that I could not still enjoy the Music that was being made.
So, as the proverbial dust settled from the events of earlier this week, and as I realized that the tears that I cried were a result of that situation and many other smaller matters preceding it, I remembered and was reminded (with the prompting of a very dear friend) that I am Good. It was the luck of the draw. It was not a matter of being "good enough" or "not good enough". I was simply the one who got the phone call to come in and play, when I would have been happier in the hallway listening through the door that day.