Monday, November 26, 2007

Finger Kata

I can passably play the piano, which is to say that most of the time I sit down and attempt to sound competent on one I succeed. I started with limited lessons when I was nine (or thereabouts, I really don't recall), but didn't stick with it for more than a couple of months before realizing I just didn't have the patience for it on top of the trumpet. I continued to dabble since we had one in the house but refused to formalize the endeavor.

I stuck with brass instruments for the next several years until the continuing saga of braces (my teeth proudly displayed my recessive British heritage, requiring nine years of extensive orthodontics) curtailed the effort. This also put me into High School, where the physical limitations of the mitochondrial myopathy became dramatically apparent, and the social and familial stresses of the age/environment took their toll.

Exhausted, "misunderstood" (classic teen, eh?), and quite thoroughly frustrated, I approached the instrument differently: it became my release, a loud and dramatic voice of discontent, and from there eventually something a little more beautiful and less abrasive. No less dramatic though, I cite Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, John Williams and Enya as my primary musical influences in composition. If it wasn't dark, or over-the-top soulful (preferably both), I likely wasn't interested. I stuck with my own compositions or reverse-engineered (by ear) themes of the above named composers, increasing in technical proficiency as ambitions escalated.

A few select pieces by other artists came to my attention during this time, and were sufficiently complex that simply picking through it audiologically was not on option: I had to confront the sheet music.

Having played brass and sung for so long, deciphering a musical score was a straightforward process. However, I had only ever practiced this on the single lines corresponding to my instrument or part without ten fingers to keep track of. Learning piano music was hard. Eventually I made enough sense of things to commit the pieces to memory as patterns of sound and muscle movement and was able to discard the sheet music - I can, even now many years later still play these proficiently with very little warm up.

Fast forward to last Sunday, where I'd been asked to play a piece in church. The date had shifted a few times and now landed squarely behind a major point release and new client installation at work, tightly curtailing the amount of time to practice my piece. A new piece that I was still memorizing (sheet music continues to scare me). In the week and a half leading up to the performance where I could scratch together enough time to practice I did so until my back burned from the ram-rod straight posture and my fingers swelled and fingertips ached. I used every trick I know for rapid memorization, engaging as much of the brain as possible and going heavily synaesthetic (incidentally, part of the song smells like mustard, one passage feels like a piece of dry driftwood being pressed into sand before the glass and wire atop it sings, and I'm still not fully satisfied with the transition from the red-orange passage through the white/green bridge - but the folded steel and flash of yellow came out well). Finally I had it down.

Except for the nerves.

I can sing, dance, fight, or speak in front of groups and thrive on the adrenaline: but piano is still an intimate catharsis, and opening it up to share with others is a vulnerable and frightening act. My hands shook terribly throughout the performance, and tunnel vision threatened to turn the keys blue and started to ring in my ears. I played on, latching onto the coming landmarks at the beginning of each passage like life preservers. I did it too fast, made five huge mistakes, three of which affected the sound of the piece (I segued through the other two in-key), with one requiring me to stop, pause and assess, and then resume. My struggle was obvious to the audience of about 400, but in a church setting this is a supportive and understanding group in addition to being small. I am not satisfied with what I gave them - it was not as well as I had practiced.

It took me a few days to shake out of the experience as well: that much adrenaline and the feel of failure brought back many unpleasant memories from childhood and adolescence. I can forcefully re-route my response into a positive, "points for trying" or "good enough" take but I'd rather not: that's cheating. Synthetic happiness is not un-genuine, but it can certainly be counter-productive: I'm planning on beating this thing. First by practicing that particular piece well enough that I can get it by heart instead of by head - hopefully more resistant to the influences of the moment, or at least a more deeply ingrained headspace for me to get into. Secondly, by finding a way to conquer the nerves and be able to play as though in private - I should have taken some time in the couple of days prior to set up some post-hypnotic suggestions to help induce that, but didn't. I'll start there and then try to integrate the sensitivities into a more regular comprehensive pattern instead of having to pull a dissociative sleight-of-hand every time I want to play.

I'm glad I did it - everyone should get scared once in a while and be forced to evaluate themselves honestly from the perspective of the unfamiliar. 'Builds character.

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