Concert Reflection – Making Mistakes

I originally posted this on my Facebook page as a morning-after reflection. It received a lot of nice feedback, so I’m posting it here.

I have one high school student in Princeton. In our last lesson, she was getting ready for a recital, and I talked about the difference between preparation and performance. Bobby Previte formulates this as the difference between being a (responsible) financial planner and a firefighter. One is trying to methodically lay the groundwork for good future results, the other has to jump from one immediate decision to another based on current conditions.

After hearing her play, I told her that there are two kinds of mistakes in performance, and that most audience members are surprisingly adept at sensing the difference between the two. The first are “I am prepared and committed, and something just got past me while totally going for it.” NOBODY cares about these, except for pedantic classical fetishists. Definitely non-specialist listeners don’t care.

If you are not willing to make these mistakes, you are probably playing scared. All of your energy is diverted towards getting to the next plateau without too much deviation, which neuters the sense of spontaneity and surprise that inhabits most kinds of music making ever invented. None of the people who wrote the music you are working on played it that way. Worse, people’s sense of classical music as a fussy, precious genre comes largely from this attitude.

The other kind of mistake is “I’m not fully prepared, I don’t quite have a grasp of this material.” This kind manifests as indecisive and indistinct. The listener loses the line and intent as the performer’s focus dissipates.

After she ran through her program, I helped her see which mistakes fell into the former category, which the latter. We honed our work to refine and polish the program, and to never fall into the quicksand of murky intent and indecision.

Last night, Sō had a great concert here in Vilnius, Lithuania. We played Reich’s “Mallet Quartet,” which we will also be performing at PASIC next week. It’s a piece we’ve played many times, was written for us, and which we first recorded. I had a total “prepared and going for it” mistake, a memory slip in a moment where it has never happened before. My first instinct was to obey my neuroticism and berate myself for being uneven and flawed. This piece is well known now, a ton of people can play it really well, and we are supposed to be setting the standard.

One of the most rewarding things about teaching is that, when formalizing and spelling out convictions to a student and asking them to believe you, you unavoidably make yourself accountable to the same principles. I remembered vividly how I evaluated the student’s performance in terms of commitment, focus, and bravura, and not in listening for mistakes.

If, after decades of performing, I still make mistakes, I might as well accept that this will always occur and enjoy myself. If the world still decides that it’s ok for me to be up there onstage, perhaps I should believe that the resulting equilibrium is acceptable.

Further, I’m convinced that mistake-fetish culture comes from everybody playing the same small number of very old pieces over and over and over again. The best part of that culture is observing what happens when layers and layers of interpretation pile onto and interact with each other, the way that literary and religious traditions do. The worst is that the frozen texts generate a kind of terror at approaching them, as if by picking them up you could also shatter them.

I’ve never felt this way about Mallet Quartet, but I can see it creeping in. The very part that I’m playing is written the way it is because I worked directly with the composer on it. The notes and chord voicings would not have been the same without my input. I of all people should feel comfortable in my own skin here. But I’m aware that, 8 years on, it is already “classical.”

Paradoxically, I need to be willing to shatter the music in order to bring it to life. Maybe not as an ongoing intention, but at least as a possibility.

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