Perfectly managing imperfection
Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.---Vaclav Havel
I am listening to seventeen-year-old Olivia play her college audition pieces: a Chopin Ballade and a Bach Prelude and Fugue. I am not her teacher; Olivia has an outstanding mentor at a renowned music school in our area. Olivia is playing for me because she hopes that "playing for someone scary" will help cure her of her jitters. While I don't think of myself as scary, I am happy to oblige. Olivia and I are members of the same church choir; I am an alto who hums along and Olivia is Head Chorister of the trebles. I admire and like this young woman.
Olivia is in the throes of music school auditions. Quirky stumbles and stutters recently marred two of her already completed auditions. Two more remain. While Olivia wants to be a conductor, she is applying to be a double piano/theory major at each school. She is frustrated by her inability "to show them my true musicality" due to the persistent slip-ups.
Olivia arrives for our after-choir-rehearsal meeting at 9 p.m. looking exhausted from an already busy day, week, month, and year. I encourage her to play for me anyway. "Choose the piece you love most. Sit for a moment and remember the first time you heard it. Where were you? What drew you to the music?" Olivia begins.
For five years I have watched Olivia grow as a musician. When Olivia sings or conducts, she involves her whole body in her music making; she performs with exquisite sensitivity. In her piano playing, which I have not heard before, I also experience power and fire. In addition, Olivia works hard at whatever she does. She knows every phrase of the Chopin and Bach well and has listened to and practiced all of her teachers' obviously well-thought-out directions for technical precision, articulation, phrasing, tempo, dynamics, and musical architecture. If I thought Olivia were having issues due to lack of work or because she didn't know the music, our conversation would have been easy. If I were a therapist, I might also have some relevant insight. But I am only "the scary person."
"So what spooks you," I ask?
"I want to play this music perfectly."
I think for a moment and then say, "Oh my! Well, don't expect to do that!"
She looks surprised. I, too, am a bit surprised by my answer.
"Why not?" she demands.
"Because no one ever plays perfectly. We are human, especially when we are playing in a situation where we will either be accepted or rejected because of one performance. Our best hope is to stay as connected to the music as much as possible, to improvise our way out of any musical detours, and to leave the stage with our head held high."
"I should expect a mess-up here and there?"
"Within reason, yes. We sing together every Sunday. Has the choir ever sung perfectly?"
"But we do sing extremely well, wouldn't you say?"
"Definitely. We are a well-known choir!"
"What do we do if a few notes or rhythms start to go awry?"
"We keep going until we get back on track. We keep our minds on the music and try to keep singing expressively."
"Exactly. The only mistake we could ever make would be to stop—to give up."
Olivia laughs at this. "Well, even I think I could keep that from happening when I play!"
I then tell Olivia about my daughter's experience at a graduate school audition. My daughter had the misfortune to draw a young staff accompanist who simply couldn't play the music my daughter was singing. The audition resembled a Charles Ives work—two bands playing different songs at the same time. Throughout two agonizing Lieder, my daughter stood in the rubble of notes and sang, even when the poor, freaked-out accompanist quit in the middle of the last song leaving my daughter to solo to the end.
Olivia looked horrified. "What happened?"
"She got in. While the faculty certainly couldn't tell a whole lot about my daughter's interpretation of these particular songs, they did hear her exceptional voice and learn about her grit. In addition, they apologized for the accompanist, a fine pianist, who had not expected to have to play such difficult repertoire at sight."
I then tell her my own experience, one that forever changed my view of performing. In graduate school I played the Mozart Trio in E-flat, K. 498, at a Ravinia master class taught by János Starker and Rudolf Büchbinder. Büchbinder served as my page turner, hovering over me as I played and dropping ash from his lit cigarette onto the bass keys. Starker spent half an hour on ways to unify the turn in the opening phrase of the first movement. His intense—I think they were green—eyes terrified me.
As I walked away from the stage, an older man came up to me and said, "For my money, the Mozart was the most beautiful performance today." Being a young graduate student, I began to list my "mistakes." I guess I wanted him to know I was aware the performance was imperfect, that my standards were higher. The man stopped me mid-sentence, touched my arm, and said, "Ah, but nothing perfect has ever moved me." He turned and walked away. I later learned the man was Starker's father.
Olivia still seems to be listening, so I continue. "After all, playing perfectly without any mistakes usually means we didn't risk passion. Such risk—a calculated one taken only after we have done all our work, like you have—gives the music life. Trust the long hours of study and practice you have done both with your magnificent teacher and on your own. Trust the power of the music to speak itself through you. Stay with the music moment by moment, and you will play without the stumbles and stutters of your interrupting fears. If you make an honest mistake due to your passion, make it and move on."
Olivia hears me, but looks skeptical.
Several days later Olivia's mother reports that Olivia was a part of a disastrous duet performance two days after our meeting. Although she and her partner were using music, Olivia's partner spaced out and stopped playing, not once, but twice. Olivia kept on going! Eventually, mid run, Olivia pointed to a place where they could reunite. Together, they played well to the end.
Is this success? I think it is the beginning of it. Olivia told her teacher, "At last! I was the one who kept going and saved the day!"