Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A curious phenomenon

I've performed for quite a lot of people in quite a lot of venues (aside from school recital halls and churches, I've played solo and chamber music in places like the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall). Admittedly most of my performing experience has been with the cello, but even on the piano, I have been brave enough to play in front of a number of audiences with a certain amount of musicality. But what has proven to be a high hurdle is playing my brother-in-law's Yamaha upright in his music room while the family listens. Somehow, when I sit down at that piano, bungling is the name of the game.

We were over there yesterday for Christmas dinner. I brought my carbon fiber cello along to show it to them because they had been curious about it:

I played a little Bach and a holiday-themed request ("O Holy Night," by ear, in C major), and then put the cello away and repaired to the piano. I pulled out the Villa-Lobos piece I've been working on (the Preludio from Bachianas Brasilieras No. 4). At home I can play it from memory, and even at my lessons I can play it pretty fluently by now, but here, even with the music in front of me, most of it was a disaster (my husband very helpfully asked "what happened?" as we were driving home later). My sister-in-law's innocent comment was that it was "scary" -- coincidentally, the same thing she said about the Brahms I played for them at Thanksgiving -- not exactly the vibe I'm going for! I followed up with some Bach, and that went better, but I was still stumbling over myself in a way I don't elsewhere.

What is it about this situation that causes me to regress to an almost nonperformer level? Part of it is the piano, which is serviceable but not inspiring (it has such a light touch that there's almost no resistence -- it booms if you breathe on it), and the bench, which is too low for me. Part of it is the negative feedback loop of hearing bad sounds that causes my playing to deteriorate as I go along. But another part, the more interesting one, is my awareness that I'm playing for people who listen mostly for the melody and who understand nuances subliminally at best. When you play the piano, the supporting material is usually what is difficult and also so very tempting -- all of those countermelodies, inner voices, bass lines, and special effects -- but listeners generally don't care about all that. They don't appreciate all of your struggles; they just want to hear the tune.

When I play for fellow piano students, or even for my teacher, I know they empathize with the difficulty of what I'm trying to do. Or when I play on a better piano in a bigger room with the audience farther away, the physical situation is more forgiving. But I feel it's a real weakness that lack of these things has such a powerful effect. I keep imagining that a true artist at the piano can compensate enough to have a musical experience no matter what. So if I can ever figure out how to play well at the in-laws', I will feel confident that I can play well anywhere!

No comments: