I have encountered—and mostly overcome—three pitfalls this week as I prepare the concert. The first was a familiar one from other rehearsal periods where I am filling the dual roles of pianist and coach/artistic director. As I devote myself to preparing the singers for the performance, I am prone to slipping into the schlubbiness of a rehearsal pianist. This means that I might allow myself all kinds of little short cuts, skating around the tricky passages and playing the “For Dummies” version of the piano part. My focus is on the singer. And the result is my own performance starts to slide into almost irreparable disrepair.
I was so determined that this would not happen that I practiced almost obsessively for months before we started rehearsal. This led me to pitfall number two: digging an interpretive groove so deep that I would put the singers in a straitjacket when it came time to collaborate.
All of this came to head for me today when we welcomed a visitor: the pianist Gracie Francis, who had been one of the participants in the Caramoor residency last spring. She’s the dearest of human beings and also a terrific player. We were thrilled that she wanted to come see us. But I privately feared that I might clutch when she came to listen to rehearsal—pitfall number three.
This has nothing to do with Gracie, who is as loving and enthusiastic a colleague as I could imagine. And my rational mind knew that I was on top of the songs, and that Gracie was not here to judge me. But my own self-doubts and insecurities are not always so interested in my rational mind. Gracie knows every single note of these songs, and played them brilliantly a few months ago. Would I keep my head on straight with her in the room?
I did some deep thinking about this and ran through a bunch of positive affirmations (which always make me feel like an idiot—but they’re helpful). As I began the rehearsal I was waiting to see if my fear would kick in, but it never really made an appearance. I played fine—occasionally very well, occasionally a bit on the edge, but with a fairly calm body and an open brain-to-finger pathway. I considered it a big step forward. If I can keep doing that for the next 72 hours, I’m buying myself a present.
Interestingly, it was the second pitfall that manifested itself today. I’ve accompanied singers for so many decades that I am rarely out of sync in a significant way. I have always prided myself on my deep level of collaboration with my colleagues. But I sensed that something was ever so slightly off when Sam and I did his Mahler song. “Any notes for me, Sam?” I asked, only half-facetiously.
“Well, there was one little place where we weren’t quite together—a spot where I like to take a little more time…”
A small comment that was a big wake-up call for me. It was time to reawaken the sense of flexibility that was my stock in trade until Covid cut me off from live collaboration.
When we ran the Mahler again, I was in full communion with Sam, not stuck in my own head. This kind of musical communion had been lurking within me the whole time. It is who I truly am as a musician. But it had gotten slightly obscured by a kind of pianistic Repetitive Action Syndrome: obsessive practicing. I am so glad that Sam had the courage to ask for it, in his gentle way. The fog lifted instantly, and I was back to my true self.