It’s spring, so you know what that means. Baseball is underway, open season has been declared on the LA roadways, and my students are dropping like flies, starting with the recital.
I like to have at least 2 recitals a year for my students. As taxing as they are for me, I know that giving my students an opportunity to perform (and hence prepare to perform) is important. Many teachers give lessons in a vacuum and then marvel at the collective plateau in progress and interest their students display. At the very least, an upcoming performance adds fire to the routine and makes a seemingly solitary practice relevant.
So I organize recitals. And students go insane.
They quit, or self-sabotage, or wrestle with their darkest personal demons, right in front of me. I have one student who is at a very high level. His technique is clean, and his devotion to the cello spans nearly a lifetime. He is active in lots of ensembles, where he usually ends up taking a leadership role. I wish I could take credit for his proficiency, but he came to me with a whole lot of ability, and the work we do is the impossibly time consuming and nearly inarticulable combination of polishing his technique and massaging his approach. It’s hard for my advanced students; they come to me to improve, to be propelled to the next level, and all I seem to talk about is the fact that they don’t breathe, or that their mental game needs grooming. I can almost hear them screaming inside their heads, “Just tell me what to do with my arms! Just tell me!”
And I do. And they resist. So I have to find another way to get them to be more than the sum of arms, instrument, and body. That way lies just beneath the surface, barely disguised: humanity. Imperfection, criticism, self-doubt, loathing, anxiety, depression, ambition, irrationality, distraction, mania.
At our last lesson, my student, after having made tremendous progress on some Bach, had a sort of tantrum that ended with a declaration that he could not play at the recital, and that he was not ready. His frustration was palpable, and I had sympathy for the guy. Bach is, for most, a kind of crucible that has a way of putting a question mark over even the most transparent elements of our technique. Which is what makes it so great. The cello should not revolve around an obsessive quest for perfection, but rather is best looked at as a teacher in itself, giving us the gift (though it seldom feels like one at the time of delivery) of humility and acceptance. Perfection is important in aircraft engines, prescription doses and shark cages. What makes art great is that perfection can actually detract from our visceral enjoyment of it. Vibrato mars pitch, and we love it. Van Gogh skewed his room, and it speaks to something profound inside of us. Gil Shaham’s skittering spiccato bow is thrilling, and he risks everything in each performance, and most of the time, it pays a very precise dividend. But even when a note or two escapes him it is well worth it, because he makes himself so vulnerable to (and is at peace with) the possibility of catastrophe.
Which, of course, is one of the few things you can actually do to avoid it. Knowing that there is a flip side to the coin, accepting the real possibility of failure, transforms the whole experience of risk. The fact that we are fundamentally imperfect, emotional creatures is the genesis of the artistic experience. It is my belief that we would have to trade in the ability to feel in order to make perfection the routine. In fact, it is a common remark: the 18 year old wünderkind who nails each note every night, but wallows in dysfunction when not on stage.
This is not to say that a flawless performance is not possible. Those at the highest end of the game muster a few from time to time. But they are not only the exceptions the norm (because these people devote their entire lives to practice), but exemplify the whole approach even better than the rest of us. In order to get to such a sublime level, one has to get past the idea of being perfect and embrace the lessons music teaches us. Ask any true virtuoso about mistakes and difficulty, and they are the first to offer a humble stance on both.
My student was exasperated. At one point, he said that he didn’t want to disappoint the people who come to the recital. This kind of thinking rattles around the back of most people’s minds, and causes endless anguish. Glenn Gould felt this antagonism so acutely that he retired from public performance altogether. He imagined that the audience was just waiting for a mistake, thirsty for blood. I suppose there might be a few of these soul killers (a term my vocal teacher Jeffrey Allen coined) around, but as Mary J. Blige notes, it doesn’t matter what you do, because they’re gonna hate anyway. Excel, and they’ll destroy you in their minds just for spite. It is all at once terrifying and liberating to realize that what we do on the cello can only illuminate; if we touch someone, what a gift! If we fail, it is a gift nonetheless, our most sincere offering. The game we play is only against ourselves. Performing beautifully requires honest, brutal practice. Look at each flaw and mistake and get to know it. Work it over and over in a non emotional way. Music is hard, and you will encounter difficulty as long as you attempt to play. So over and over, slowly and with patience, as if you were teaching someone else. Then play. Performance is interesting; it’s impermanent as a wisp of wind, but it sure can move the trees if it hits them right.