Glorious Mistakes

One of my Facebook friends is the double bassist and critic Chantal Incandela, who blogs at Mahler Owes Me Ten Bucks and writes for Nuvo in Indianapolis. It’s an interesting professional double life she leads, as an active freelance musician also reviewing performances in the same market.  I’d be uncomfortable writing reviews of my fellow musicians; on the other hand, the composer Virgil Thompson managed to do it quite well for years.

Friday,  Chantal posted a inspiringly-honest post about an audition gone wrong, and I wouldn’t have noticed it except for it coming up in my Facebook newsfeed.

I don’t think I would have had the courage to be so honest about this sort of experience.  I’ve certainly had those kinds of experiences; at auditions and in competitions, it was often as if boxcar of Eric Kryptonite had been opened, and all my powers and skills, whether inherent or learned, vanished.  Here I am, 55, well established as a musician and teacher, in a secure, named-professorship chair at a terrific university–I don’t think I’d audition for anything ever again, even though I’m playing better than I ever have. So I really have to hand it to Chantal, both for going for it, for putting herself out there, in front of colleagues she knows personally, and for writing such a beautifully authentic post about the experience.

Inspired by her openness, here’s a story about my own mini-disaster this morning.

I’ve been playing very little lately. I injured my right arm last spring lifting weights, and it has been slow to recover.  I finally took about five weeks off from playing, because it seemed to slightly aggravate the situation.  Just over a week ago I started playing again, because I was playing on a concert this past Wednesday.

This morning I played in church.

I chose a Marcello sonata in F major, one I first learned when I was is 14, I think, from the gloriously inspiring Nelson Cooke. It’s great to play when I’m out of shape or don’t have time to practice, and I still use the copy my mother bought for me back then, with Mr. Cooke’s fingerings and bowings still penciled in in his bold writing.  (I now ignore many of the markings, some of which don’t fit with my historically-informed-performance-practice influences.  I found myself wondering, though, if I might be defaulting to fingerings that came to me when I was in the eighth grade.)

I’d invited myself to play at this particular service because the three children of friends of mine, Mac and Anne, were being baptized and I wanted to be part of that in a special way.

Like so many middle-aged guys, I repeat myself a lot.  I’m always reminding my students that Christopher Small asserts in Musicking that there’s no inherent meaning in a musical work, or at least that there isn’t a fixed meaning that’s common to all performances, and that the most valid question we can ask is, “What does it mean when this performance [of this work] takes place at this time, in this place, and with these people present?” He also says that the real meaning is in the human relationships at the performance.

Well, there’s no more clear illustration of that than in a church service.

I got my cello back out so I could sit in the choir loft and make music with my friend John (the organist) and not only participate in the celebration of this rite of passage, but by so doing say to the parents, “I am here for you bringing the best gift I have to give.”

It’s amazing how you can love someone you don’t know all that well.  How is that?  I care about and have affection for and wanted to be sure I was there for a special occasion in the lives of people who I know only from brief conversations after concerts or at coffee hour after church.

They didn’t know I was going to play.  The bulletin didn’t list the prelude music.  John and I began, and I heard Anne give a slight gasp of surprise. From my perch was able to see her turn her head around, and look up to the loft to see that it was me.  I hadn’t realized it was going to be a surprise, but what a lovely moment it was.

(Geez, this is starting to feel a little narcissistic. But I’ll soldier on, telling you my experience.)

I thought I was playing pretty well, time off from the cello or not.  Meanwhile, though, I’d noticed the president of the university sitting in a pew, and for some reason that made me a touch self conscious.  Some part of me still fearing the disapproval of an authority figure, or wanting to impress one. (“The only difference between you and Yo-Yo Ma,” my beloved tells me, “is confidence.” I don’t think Yo-Yo spends much time worrying about being judged.)

This sonata is in the standard sonata da chiesa four-movement form, slow-fast-slow-fast.  The third movement is quite short, and serves more as a prelude to the fourth than as a stand-alone piece.  So I’d chosen to play the third and fourth movements as the prelude to the service, the first movement as the reflective offertory, and the second movement as the energetic postlude.

By the time we got to the offertory, there’d been a whole lot of scripture reading, psalm singing, sermonizing, and baptizing going on. I was no longer warmed up, and my inner nervous eighth grader, wanting to impress, or not screw up in front of, Mr. President, was annoying and distracting my confident wise-almost-old-guy self.  An first-position e slightly out of tune–oh fuck!  (Mr. Cooke, so long ago, told me that once you know all the positions, first is the hardest to play in tune, and he was right).  We channeled some really special energy, BUT IT WASN’T PERFECT, and I felt a bit frustrated.

As the service approached its end, I was a bit distracted by emailing a friend who was going to show up for the end of the service so she could be there for coffee hour to meet someone who she and I had decided would be perfect for her to press into volunteer service.  Then I decided to play along with the final hymn so I’d be warmed up and ready to dazzle with the postlude.

Well, I TOTALLY FORGOT that we were playing the second movement and not the last movement for the postlude.  So I gave a cue and started playing the fourth movement, while John played the assigned second movement, and, oops!, it didn’t work.  He realized what happened and started playing the fourth movement, after a noisy flip of pages, just as I realized the situation and turned back to the second movement.

A bit more cacophony as we got sorted out, and then we remembered differently as to whether we were repeating the first half of the movement. I did, he didn’t and so I played unaccompanied for a measure or two while he found me.  THIS IS SO EMBARRASSING! I WANT TO HIDE! said the eighth grader.  This is a blast! said another part of me. We played with a lot of energy–I felt I was overplaying, a touch mortified and greatly amused all at the same time.

There was great applause at the end of it all.  My friend and colleague sitting on the choir side of the loft gave us a big smile. “Glorious mistakes!” he proclaimed.

So there we were, so totally fallible and human, doing our best while screwing up, making it work even when there was confusion, and embraced and loved while we did it.

That’s why I volunteer to play in church, but I haven’t played an audition in years and years.

 

 

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