Monday, October 19, 2009


Part of why people do anything is to be recognized. They want other people to notice them.

One reason for the letdown after a performance is the feeling that you haven't gotten enough applause. I know I've been disappointed in reactions to my playing. With regard to my piano playing, those who know me well seem to expect me to be good at it, maybe because I'm the most expert music person they know. I can put a lot of work into learning a piece and play it for a family member, and the best they can say is, "That sounded hard."

Sometimes what is missing is self-recognition. Two years ago, I played a concerto with an orchestra. This was actually a big deal for me because I have never done anything like win a concerto competition or been chosen by a conductor to solo in a really big piece. I did play a Vivaldi concerto with the school Baroque ensemble when I was at CCM, and even performed the piece several times on a tour of Japan, but this is not one of those pieces that you study for years that is a backbone of the repertoire, and the director of the ensemble coached me on it down to every little ornament and wrote all the cadenzas, so it didn't seem like my piece at all.

I started learning the Saint-Saëns A minor concerto when I was about 15, and then "finished" it as an undergrad, so it's been part of my life for a long time. It's not the most difficult piece in the cello oeuvre, but it is one of the great Romantic concertos for cello. When the conductor of the TCO asked if I'd like to play a concerto with the orchestra, that seemed like the best choice.

So it was arranged, and then I immediately was filled with self-doubt. I had an almost visceral antipathy to putting myself through what I knew would be months nerve-wracked preparation. All kinds of imagined teacher recriminations floated through me, boiling down to: How could I possibly do this without practicing 4 to 6 hours a day?

As it turned out, I practiced a good, solid hour or so most days for 4 months, and it went fine. I mastered my stage fright and played musically, expressively, and in tune, with good tone. I had one little flub in the last movement, but considering everything, I should have been happy about it. I was, until the day after the concert when I listened to the recording. It was so draggy! It didn't have the sparkle, the joie de vivre, that it should have. It sounded like the conductor added an extra beat before each of my entrances (probably because I had pleaded with the orchestra not to push me). You can hear the first movement here:

Saint-Saens Cello Concerto, First movement

For a long time afterward, I berated myself: Why did I go through all that to end up with this mediocre (I thought) performance?

Why, indeed?

In the 2 years since that concert, I've come to terms with it and now look on it as a tremendously worthwhile experience. It forced me to tap back into all my training as a cellist and a musician, and I did it on my own, without a teacher or a coach. I developed an interpretation and came up with a strong performance, without shaking hands or wobbly bow.

I did get recognition from others for that concert, too. Everyone paid me a lot of compliments. But without the recognition from myself, it seemed it didn't mean much. There is sometimes a fine line between realistic self-esteem and delusions of grandeur. We all need to stay on the right side of that line.

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