Listen to that pretty sound
The piano man
Piano is life
Okay just most of my life,
I’m happy with me!
Piano is cool
I travel a lot and play
I’m gay and happy
On the road again
Piano gives him an escape
I love piano
Performing is my escape
Then I came out, yay!
Adam Tendler was a cutie
Talking about baking bread instead of piano
His story was very touching
Struggle with gender
Supportive family, friends
Weight off his shoulders
His talent is clear.
Sense of humor is quirky.
He is brave and bold.
Worried to come out
But he finally did it
More than happy now
could not be honest
used piano as a release
now exposed himself
Sexual urges arise
Travel in the car
A soul in turmoil
Playing piano to sooth
A song kept secret
an amazing pianist
he said silently
Sad words depress
Happy face enlightens
Eyes full of hope
Need to find yourself
Journey throughout the world
Out of the closet
End of tour
To everyone’s ears
Please play that song,
Piano man Adam
Go after dreams
Piano is a release
Being true to him
Adam and his piano
Traveling the states
He plays piano
He also is an author
So many talents!
Adam “piano man”
New York pianist
The melody of music
in his heart
He traveled the US
Then came out of the closet
while writing a book
Express yourself how you want
Happy as can be
Hiding can cause fear
Touring all fifty states
Acceptance is bliss
Creative and fun person
Share interesting life experiences
He’s good at the keys
Plays through discrimination
Adam Tendler speaks
I loved Adam’s book
I get where he’s coming from
Just want to be liked
The sound Christmas Day
Nine years ago, I prepared to embark on a 50-state tour. With no plan, no budget, and no grant support—just my Hyundai and an atlas—everyone told me it would be impossible to pull off. I was in the closet, fresh out of music school, floundering as a pianist, and I thought the tour would settle everything. This is the story of that year on the road, a story that every agent and publisher since then has told me is too risky to sell. So it’s simple. We prove them wrong.
PART I: HER
Juilliard, 1967: She walks into the audition room, her hair as black as the piano waiting at its center. A panel of faculty says nothing, gestures nothing. Like the piano, they just wait. She sits at the instrument—the lid raised, no desk for music, only terrifyingly open space exposing a golden inner body and copper strings extending nine feet ahead, incarcerating the white hammers below them, ready to strike, waiting. Inwardly, she scans the names of the composers whose music she has prepared. Beethoven. Bach. Chopin. Khachaturian.
Her father, an Armenian (last name Minassian) who fled Turkey in the years surrounding the Genocide, who raised both she and her sister after their mother (last name Kassabian) passed away, was also her piano teacher. He coached her mercilessly, with celebrations to reward her successes and guilt trips that could last for days to punish her failures. He hand picked her audition program, and though he was no fan of modern music, his daughter, a full-blooded Armenian, would play an Armenian composer. Khachaturian would appear alongside the great classical titans, as strange as his Toccata might sound. When family visited—all Armenian—he would march her before them. “Play the Khachaturian.”
"Play the Khachaturian," says a voice. Is it real? It comes from either a few feet away or a mile. Her mind feels tethered to her father, wherever he’s waiting, and the thick fog of expectancy he inhabits. A self-taught pianist himself, he wanted his daughter to receive the fabled Juilliard training he never had, to realize his unfulfilled dream of becoming a concert pianist.
"Or you can begin with something else," that same voice says.
But the voice doesn’t know that all of the music has disappeared into that fog. These names—Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Khachaturian—are now only names, tabs on suddenly empty folders. Ice surges from her heart to her stomach, from the tops of her thighs to the tips of her fingers. The room tilts, darkens. Her breath quickens. She can barely see the glow of the strings anymore or the whites and blacks of all those foreign, meaningless keys. Instead, she sees a montage of family gatherings, her father leaning against the living room wall watching as she dutifully plays the Khachaturian. She tries to go deeper, to seize some sensory element, something to capture and bring back to this nightmare moment, something she can use. But it’s watching a silent movie, and right now it may as well be about someone else. She can’t recognize herself then, nor herself now, frozen at the keyboard.
But the music has disappeared into that fog of expectancy. These names—Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Khachaturian—are only names, tabs on suddenly empty folders. Ice surges from her heart to her stomach, from the tops of her thighs to the tips of her fingers. She room tilts, darkens. Her breath quickens. She can barely see the glow of the strings anymore, or the whites and blacks of all those foreign, meaningless keys. Instead, she sees a montage of family gatherings, her father against the living room watching as she dutifully plays the Khachaturian. She tries to go deeper, to squeeze some sensory element to capture and and reclaim and bring back to this nightmare moment, but it’s a silent movie, and right now it may as well be about someone else. She can’t recognize herself then, nor can she recognize herself now, frozen at the keyboard.
Play the Khachaturian, she says to herself. Play the Khachaturian.
But she doesn’t. She stands up and walks out. Out of the room. Out to another life completely. In this new life, she becomes an elementary school teacher, marries and divorces her high school sweetheart, and alone raises their three kids in Vermont. Two girls, and one boy.
PART II : OUR
Many pianists snicker at the mention of Khachaturian’s Toccata from 1932. It was training wheels for some in the new music community, and conversely, as modern as many some others would ever get.
Like a riptide, the Toccata has dragged many a pianist into the world of modern music; they view it as an old friend. ”I love the Toccata,” a pianist idol of mine said recently. “It was my first modern-sounding piece, and totally opened my mind.” A composer I talked to who played the piece when he was 15 years old (over sixty years ago) called it “visceral music,” and Khachaturian not only “an icon of the major seventh” (referring maybe to the Sabre Dance), but as the black sheep of his intellectual Soviet contemporaries. “He was the ‘n****r’ of the group,” he said. I gasped. “And he knew they thought that.”
Well, whatever his colleagues thought, Khachaturian had the biggest blockbusters of the bunch. The ballets, from Gayne to Masquerade to Spartacus, were all triumphs. His Violin Concerto is still a standard (often even played by flutists), and the Piano Concerto became a virtual jukebox hit after William Kapell championed it. And yes, the Toccata, our subject, is pretty ubiquitous amongst pianists. It seems nearly everyone has played it.
This doesn’t do it any incredible favors. “It’s such a student piece!” a colleague noted. One former-pianist (now he plays bass) told me that he’d performed the Toccata as a kid. “You look at your hands and you’re like, ‘woah, I’m good!’ But really it’s pretty easy.” And so it goes. Few would call it a work of art, even if, like most classical music hits, it actually is. No, to many, Khachaturian remains an inelegant, rhythmically driven, “visceral” composer of pop classical music—not his intention, by the way, nor really his fault—and so his music, or at least his Toccata, remains banished to barrooms and student recitals, the regrettable territory of “look what I can do!”
Furthermore, to many Armenian pianists (or non-pianists who suffered lessons through adolescence), the Toccata is almost a rite of passage. In an Armenian household, playing the Toccata of Khachaturian, that Armenian titan of classical music, is almost a non-negotiable. Nevermind that the piece is something of a longing, frenetic, furious nightmare vision.
Yes, nevermind, because amidst all this noise and baggage, the piece almost ceases to exist. Does anyone actually program this Fur Elise of modern music? The answer is kind of no. We might like it, might teach it, might reminisce or wax poetic on its unique qualities, but for the most part, we pianists who dare call ourselves professional won’t dare play this “student piece” in concert.
Too bad, because for one, a lot of these students are out there playing it badly, which is to say, before they’re ready. And while I think that very few people actually ‘get’ it, many would argue with me that there’s anything to get in the first place. They call it child’s play, while I say it’s not for kids.
Might we entertain the notion that Khachaturian’s Toccata was hijacked by its own popularity—the sum of its appealing sound, playability, and cultural positioning? Does anyone else agree that the Toccata, taken by itself, is actually a pretty fucked up little piece?
PART III: THE
Since the late 1500s, toccatas have tested the techniques and interpretive strengths of performers, with composers laying musical gauntlets that, on the whole, were supposed to sound improvised in performance. The toccata form grew from its experimental, single movement and improvisatory origins into a multi-sectional work of great sophistication and emotion by the time Bach composed his own series for organ and harpsichord around 1710. From there, the toccata continued to evolve, coming to represent something of a one movement, moto perpetuo showpiece in the Romantic era, with Robert Schumann’s solo piano Toccata of 1836 setting the bar; he considered it “the hardest piece every written.”
Liszt, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Debussy (oh, and Robert Palmer) among others, followed with solo piano toccatas of their own—all hard as hell. And then of course there was Khachaturian’s of 1932, composed while he was still a student in Moscow. It follows the modern toccata style with its one movement form and dazzling technical passagework, and yet perhaps it harkens back to the earlier toccata formula in that it balances fast fingerwork with emotional depth and sections of varying tempi. Khachaturian’s Toccata, for instance, has at its core a slow, mournful, lyrical section, and on the whole, the cascades of notes in the outer parts seem less about impressing the listener and more aimed at building shimmering, if melancholy, harmonies within what we might now call almost minimalist textures. The rapid-fire B-flats that serve as transitional material splinter with “wrong notes”…
…only to explode into a cosmic soundworld of lilting, incessant, almost baroque-sounding suspensions.
That’s how the dissonance of this piece works, moving away from the percussive, ear-shredding variety we might expect from Khachaturian’s Soviet contemporaries (see Prokofiev’s fiendishly Toccata) and more toward harmonic subtlety. Far from unpleasant—and some might say, too pleasant—the dissonance of this piece serves to bend pitches, drag harmonies down or sharpen them up, an homage perhaps to the Armenian street music Khachaturian grew up hearing, and more-or-less the best he could do with an intonationally inflexible piano.
His Toccata’s heart-on-its-sleeve emotionality, its extroverted panache, and pianist-friendly writing, launched it into the popular canon of modern piano literature, making it something of an instant 20th-century classic, even though Khachaturian actually intended it as part of a three-movement suite, the other movements of which are still relatively unplayed. I’ve never heard them.
PART IV: MY
The Toccata was the first piece of modern piano music I ever heard. An older, Armenian piano student played the piece at an informal studio recital that my teacher put together. I was probably playing "Coke Is It" at the time, but still remember the Toccata completely bowling me over. Its opening march combined harmonies that seemed uncombinable, the thick booming chords that followed shook me to the core, the subsequent flurrying passagework and left hand melodies had me mesmerized, the middle section seemed suspended in time, and most notably, those rapid-fire repeated notes seemed to go on forever.
I didn’t know music like this existed, that piano music could do what the Toccata, in my mind, dared to do. It also sounded hard. Really hard. Even as the piece remained in my mind as some kind of amorphous thing defined by fast notes and that weird section with repeated notes, and even though people told me how “easy” it was, I never played it. Looking back, the first really modern repertoire I ever played was actually ten times harder than the Toccata, music by Prokofiev and Copland. Still, I thought about “the Khachaturian,” with my emotions hovering just about where they were when I was eight years old and listening to it for the first time. “What the hell was that?”
So one day, while visiting home from college and digging through some of my late grandfather’s scores, I found the Toccata tattered and pieced together with ancient Scotch tape. I memorized it in a couple days, and the piece was like a playground, full of clean patterns and aching beauty. I felt like the first person who had ever played it. An explorer. I’d expected mindless fireworks and flash, but instead discovered a subtle tapestry of pathos, pain and drama, echoes of the 1915 Genocide that no doubt had touched Khachaturian’s life and left him feeling, like many generations to come, angry and powerless, not to mention incapable of expressing the chasm of grief it opened.
Only about fifteen scarce years separate the Genocide from the Toccata, and as I played, I could hear it everywhere. I heard rage. I heard cries. I heard reverie. And I told myself that if ever I played it in public, I would play it with as much care and respect as fury and abandon as it merited, a performance washed in the blood of my murdered ancestors and those of a million others.
If ever I played it in public.
But—I mean—of course I wouldn’t. And risk my reputation? No. I abandoned the piece as quickly as I took it on.
That was years ago. Then, a couple of months ago, the AGBU (Armenian General Benevolent Union) approached me to participate in a concert for previous scholarship recipients at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall. Even as a half-Armenian with a Polish last name (and middle name), AGBU supported every year I spent at IU. I accepted the invitation to perform without hesitation. It’s tomorrow, and will be my first time playing in Carnegie Hall. They’ve asked me to play the Toccata.
Talk about chatter. Part of me believes that I have five minutes to represent a hundred generations of Armenian culture. Another part fears that everyone in the audience will know the Toccata note for note and will weigh my (admittedly unique) performance of it against their twelve year old nephew’s. And then finally a part of me feels a tremendous sense of pride, because even if I freeze up whenever a fellow Armenian when a fellow Armenian smiles and says “inchbes es,” this staple of Armenian classical music is, once and for all, finally mine. My Khachaturian.
Armenians by nature have a fierce sense of pride, a symptom, if nothing else, of our tiny country, rich and insular culture, and a history shaped by persecution, mass murder, and the rearrangement of national borders by outside forces. As a kid, I grew quite used to looking at maps and globes that didn’t include Armenia. If someone asked where Armenia was, I’d search a map, apologizing all the way. “Hm, well it might not be here…”
We’ve also earned a reputation for guardedness. We lower our voices when mentioning the atrocities that have come to define our resilience, unless of course someone, or a government for that matter, dares to deny they actually happened. Virtually any Armenian you meet has lost family members to the Genocide—I did—and in a way it still hurts too much to talk about. [For a brilliant look at grief in the Armenian family dynamic, read Peter Balakian’s Black Dog of Fate.]
It might turn out that music is our best way to communicate our grief, and Armenian music indeed has its fair share of minor keys and dissonance, of sour and sweet (in that order). Yes, it might turn out that, instead of discussing our troubled past at the dinner table, we have every Armenian kid who plays piano learn the Khachaturian Toccata and let them tap into that soundworld of rage and sorrow and hysteria for themselves.
We go into the music to connect; that’s where we tell our story.
And in the end, it all collapses onto an unresolved, almost exasperated E-flat-chord (no third; not major or minor) stabbed with a clashing F-flat. Khachaturian asks the pianist to let this chord ring under a fermata, and in the resonance, we’re forced to make some sense of it all.
That, my friends, is how our flashy Armenian showpiece ends. We hope you’re impressed.
[Adam Tendler will perform Khachaturian’s Toccata at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall on Saturday, December 7th at 8 p.m.: info here]
working on Cage’s Winter Music, rainy NYC night, 12:30am
My last relationship before coming out was with someone I met over Craigslist. It was summer of 2006, and I’d just finished my fifty-state tour. I was watching my sister’s apartment in Malibu for the summer, working at a veterinary clinic, and Craigslist seemed like the safest playground for cruising. He and I met for lunch after exchanging a couple pictures and chatting over Yahoo, another closet go-to for me in the early-to-mid 2000s. I actually really liked him, and we dated for a little over a month, my remaining time in California before I would move to Texas.
Still, throughout our sex on the beach (better in theory, by the way), our dinner dates, our phone calls and invitations into each other’s non-closet worlds—he met my sister, for instance—I never actually had his phone number. When he called, “Unavailable” flashed across the screen. I met him thinking his name was Jason. Later, he told me it was John.
When I left California, we sort of said we’d keep in touch. Everything with him was sort of. And I felt embarrassed admitting to myself that I would actually miss him, something I’m sure I never confessed out loud.
But we did keep in touch. In Texas, he kept me abreast of his ever-changing email addresses and Yahoo screen names. And when I visited L.A. again that year, we met up and I even almost spent the night. Almost. Sort of. When I told him about how I would make my Houston debut at the Rothko Chapel that spring playing John Cage, he said he would come. I thought he was joking until a week or so before the performance when he sent me his flight information. We still had known each other less than a year, and these days rarely communicated, but I would be hosting him before the week’s end. After some fancy footwork, I had my visiting sister and mother staying in a Houston hotel, and he, who I described to them as a “visiting friend,” staying with me.
He did come to Houston. He did come to the concert. But he didn’t stay with me. Instead, he booked himself into a bed and breakfast nearby. The night of my performance, he almost stayed over, but retreated in the wee hours of the morning to his rented room a few blocks away. The next day, he explored Houston as I went on a trip to Galveston with my sister and mother. I was miserable and they couldn’t understand why. I’d just had a successful concert. They were visiting. I had a friend in town. What did I have to mope about? I couldn’t tell them the truth, which I could barely bring myself to comprehend: I was finally, undeniably, living a double life, and this is precisely when, through the years, I told myself I would come out. I moved to Houston with the personal resolve to no longer lie about my sexuality. That is, to no longer tell people I was straight. Still, I wasn’t necessarily ready to call myself gay. I just wouldn’t answer the question if it came up. But I always told myself that once I started really, truly lying to my family, once I was no longer just hooking up but rather conducting deeper and longer-lasting side-affairs, that’s when I would do it.
And here it was.
Later that night, John and I went to a Greek pizza restaurant and I told him about the crossroads at which I’d arrived. It didn’t go well. “I don’t need to label myself to feel better about myself,” he said. “It’s not such a big deal to me.” And I would argue back, “But you would never tell your family about me, and you would if I was female. So it is a big deal to you.” And on it went. He’d tell me that I was pressuring him to categorize his sexuality, and I would ask him incredulously, “Is this working for you? This kind of secret life? Because it’s not for me. Not anymore.”
It was the first time I’d said such a thing out loud to another person. It also hurt me that this guy, this John, would rather conduct our relationship behind a closed door than even consider joining me in the open. It felt like a personal affront, like I didn’t mean that much to him. “I just flew across the country to see you,” he said. “And you want evidence?”
We didn’t even try to spend that night together. He went back to his room and I returned to my apartment. My sister and mother, banished to their hotel, had no idea a war was being waged in Montrose, Houston’s gay ghetto where I, of course, had opted to live earlier that year.
The next day, John and I awkwardly roamed the city’s parks and attractions. I barely said a word, still infuriated about how he could misunderstand the boiling point it had taken me years to hit and understand myself. He called it a need to label, I called it a need to stop a very tired and tiring masquerade. There was a difference. He couldn’t see it. Finally, I could. He left that afternoon, I think on an earlier flight than he’d originally booked.
That month, I came out to my family.
John and I exchanged a couple sporadic emails—I apologized in one of them for my behavior that weekend—and he even once sent a letter. He called around Christmastime. It had been at least half-a-year since we’d communicated, and we talked as I drove my car down Kirby Drive in Houston. When I told him that I had a boyfriend who would join me in Vermont for Christmas, he fell silent for a nearly-imperceptible moment. It’s a moment frozen in my memory, because after we hung up a few minutes later, he vanished from my life. Emails bounced back, and I’d lost the letter he sent, so I didn’t have an address. I couldn’t find him anywhere on the Internet, and wondered if I was searching for him using what had always been a fake name.
I was puzzled. I mean, had we been dating? Were we exclusive? Did this person, with whom I had such critical differences, still think of me in some way as his companion? How I could I have missed that? Perhaps just as I’d failed to see the depth of his gesture when he’d visited Texas, maybe I’d also assumed too little about our legacy after that rocky but revealing weekend.
Another little part of me actually felt as if, in coming out, I’d somehow failed him. He was strong enough to stay in the closet, so I told myself, and I’d gone and “labeled myself” and was now doing big gay things like having a boyfriend and bringing him home for Christmas. The closet always retains a kind of irrational, exotic appeal, and it never quite loses its contagious power.
He was gone. But I never stopped looking. In L.A., I’d peek into every car looking for his face, and once I joined Facebook, I would look for him every couple months. Always nothing.
Then two winters ago, riding home from a teaching gig near Newark on a PATH train, I saw him. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was seated, talking to some professor-looking guy. On the opposite end of the train, I paced, I circled, and I contemplated how fucking weird it was to run into my California boyfriend who I’d been searching after for years on a PATH train in New Jersey.
Finally, I interrupted their conversation and said hello. He stared blankly into my greeting, as if he didn’t recognize me, then feigned some kind of familiarity. “Well, good to see you,” I said, resisting the urge to shake him, to remind him that he’d once, only a few years prior, bought a plane ticket to visit me in the Lone Star State, his first and, I can assume, only time there. But I didn’t do that. I didn’t even say his name, still wondering if I was using the real one. I wouldn’t want to embarrass him in front of his friend.
On the Journal Square platform, John and the professor said goodbye, and then he came over to talk to me. He still acted as if the memory of us was too distant to verily recall. He didn’t remember my name? He didn’t remember dating a concert pianist? He didn’t stalk me online like I did him?
"You visited me in Texas," I said bluntly. "You saw me play John Cage at Rotkho Chapel. You can’t tell me you don’t remember that."
"Yeah…" he said, as if still emerging from a fog. "Well, we should get together. Do you have, uh… you know, a boyf—, a boyfr…"
"Yeah, I do," I said. He nodded, again looking a little sad. And again, I felt a little embarrassed.
"Well, yeah let’s meet sometime for lunch," he repeated.
"Absolutely. What’s your number?"
There was silence. He squirmed. “How about you give me yours.”
"Really?" I said in disbelief. "Really?"
"Yeah… just give me your number."
And as I acquiesced and watched him enter my number into his flip phone, I thought a couple things: that either he hadn’t changed and was still in the closet, or that he was protecting himself from me because once upon a time, I had really hurt him. He closed his phone, and I knew I would never hear from him again.
It’s sad. I would have really liked to catch up.
this is my iMessage cover of Steve Reich’s Different Trains
A little less than twenty years ago, I got my first paying gig playing services at a little white Methodist church in the neighboring village of Williamstown, Vermont. Like most church gigs, I had to prepare some preambulum and postlude music, as well as a number of assigned hymns, usually no more than four or five. The pay was $40 for the hour. Not bad for a twelve-year-old.
I practiced for these services all week, terribly nervous for what felt like a high-stakes performance. My mom, overhearing flubbed chords and wrong notes, would remind me about the seriousness of my new role. “You can’t make any mistakes on Sunday,” she would say. “This isn’t like a lesson.” Knowing she was right, I practiced harder.
All in all, the gig lasted about a month. Though I don’t remember any real disasters, maybe the congregation still sensed my nerves as they manifested in shaky rhythms, unintended dissonances and false starts. I was, after all, learning the ropes. “So I play the last line of the hymn first, and then the congregation sings?”
I distinctly remember one time, maybe my last time, when the minister sprang a new hymn on me at the last minute. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. My piano teacher, who scored me the gig in the first place and who (astonishingly) came to each service I played, swooped in to the rescue. Maybe he came for exactly this reason, to help in the event of an emergency.
He sat at the upright and played the hymn without hesitation. Perfectly. I watched in awe. How did he do that? He played it better at first glance than I could have if I’d had all week.
On the drive home, in a dark-hued state of disbelief, I said to my mom from the passenger seat, “I can’t believe he could just look at the hymn and play it like it was nothing.”
"He’s been playing piano for a long time, Adam," she said with the tender yet unbudging tone she’d no doubt learned to adopt whenever I sank into one of my self-deprecating funks.
"I wish I could sight read a hymn that."
"Well," she said, "someday you will."
"I loved watching you play!" she said, and I should have just thanked her. Instead, I rattled off a series of excuses, a glimpse of my punishing inner-monologue. I should have just shook her hand without telling her about how this season I’m playing only music I’ve never before performed in public. I should have just pretended to be as happy with my performance as she and everyone else
was claimed to be…
…claimed to be, claimed to be, claimed to be…
"Well, it’s like sex," she said, matter-of-factly.
"After the first time you sleep with somebody, you always want to do it again. You’re still learning about each other, and neither of you knows how the other one really works yet." She shook her head. "But it just has to happen, that awkward first time."
I laughed, but this off-the-cuff analogy between searching first performances and virginal self-consciousness helped to depersonalize, at least for a minute, the guilt over not living up to the illusion of my practice room potential.
The audience, whether they like it or not, always assumes the role of that unpredictable, expectant, essential “other,” the other you want to please and who, innocently enough, only wants to be pleased, or challenged, or nibbled lightly. It might result in fireworks or fumbling—we’ve all experienced both the first time—but either way, in the performance realm, one emerges from a first time wondering where all that time spent practicing actually went. Did it help? Did it hinder? Did it do anything?
The practice room, a chamber to which we retreat alone, repeating the same motions, perfecting passages that under stage lights seem suddenly foreign to the touch. I’d like to say that the more I practice, the more I’ll learn the art of recreating a sense of practice room security onstage, the art of control, especially with a new piece. But in the wake of a performance, especially a shaky one, practicing seems about as essential to mastery as masturbation is to great sex.
Ask anyone who’s ever prepared a fugue how it felt to finally play the opening subject in front of a room full of people, and they’ll tell you how new it felt, how the mystery awakened, the thrill returned, and how every subtle turn of the phrase swooped like a subtle crevasse of a body.
I’ve spent many post-performance evenings in agony, replaying each precise millisecond of fuzziness, each hesitation, thinking: What did my audience hear right then? Who’s onto me? Like a child, I still function under the impression that no one has trip-ups onstage but me, and that maybe I don’t belong here.
This season in particular I’ve had, and will continue to have, the opportunity to confront how to approach new pieces in concert, since virtually every two weeks between mid-October and mid-December, I’ll present a different program of music I’ve never played before. Along the way, I’ve had to move out of my comfort zone and explore how to best get around that staple first “bad performance.”
Pianists practice—the notes don’t learn themselves—but for the first time in years, I’ve started to play more and more for friends. Where I used to fiercely (and insecurely) protect my process, preparing in secret, these days I treat/submit willing allies to profanity-laden trial runs, and while playing for one person doesn’t recreate the full-on adrenaline rush of a stage and an audience, it actually comes pretty close. The fingers still tangle up, the pulse races, and foggy pockets of reveal themselves where one least expects them.
I focus on the toughest passages and practice them at inopportune times. For example, when I just wake up or just before bed, or little slivers of time between lessons. And at the other end of the spectrum, I do as much away-from-the-piano study as I can, usually on the subway. I’m still apt to stumble over a tricky rhythm just as I would at the keyboard, but if I familiarize myself with it by going over the passage a few times, it eventually loses the ability to surprise or confuse. Thus, I diffuse its power to mess me up later.
In mental practice, I even notice my mind stopping sometimes to, believe it or not, try a passage again, as if I could read it better a second time. This reveals that I’m actually used tomessing up certain spots, to practicing certain phrases several times, and that this expectation of error creates the mistake far in advance. I read through that passage again and again, ironing it out until the hiccup disappears, which directly and for-the-better affects the fluidity of that passage when I finally return to the piano.
All of this helps with a new piece, but at the same time, these techniques will help strengthen any piece, not just something new to my repertoire. Again, practice is built into a pianist’s life, and everything else is, by default, positioned in relation to it. I’m eating a sandwich…and not practicing.
In my most recent performance, a fellow pianist turned pages for me. Before the concert, I’d asked where he went to school, and inquired about his repertoire. Turns out he’d just earned his Doctorate and had previously earned a Masters at Juilliard. One of his specialties was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I’m a Bach guy,” he professed. A million alarms went off in my head; the insecurity of having only earned a Bachelor degree, the idea that he specialized in Bach when one of the pieces he would turn my pages for contained a “lively” fugue (on three staves) and lots of counterpoint. Silently, secretly, I started to freak out, and when we both sat on stage, as cool and confident as I may have acted as the performer, inside I regressed. Suddenly he wasn’t my page turner, he was my teacher. Suddenly I wasn’t 31, I was 13. When I almost went in the weeds, I wanted to apologize not to my audience—I’d nearly forgotten about them—but to him. When we walked offstage he shook my hand. “Awesome playing,” he said, but it was impossible for me to believe him. I still don’t.
Conversely, I recently turned pages for a pianist who I idolize. She played brilliantly, and when she finished, the audience whistled and shouted. The moment we left the stage, she said to me, “It just never goes how I know it can go,” shaking her head and trying to laugh off this typical, almost expected but still profound sense of disappointment, one that borders on betrayal. I generated all the assurance and encouragement I could, but of course was helpless to change her mind. An hour later, after I performed, our roles reversed and I was the one shaking my head offstage, trying to laugh. I wished, as usual, for another chance to play the new pieces again. If I could have done it that minute, I would. If it meant waiting months or a year, fine.
So maybe we musicians must come to accept that the act of performance is the truest and more effective form of practice. Just like the stage, not really the practice room, teaches a performer how to play, so I can only hope that a season of presenting new pieces, program after program, will train me to perform these works better the first time, not just the second or third. This, in itself, can perhaps become a skill. Sometimes it will work out and things will go “how we know they can go,” and other times not. But then, I suppose this danger, this drive, is in part what keeps us musicians playing on the ledge. And quite simply, without this energy, no one comes.