It carries a frisson of taboo, an inversion of the voodoo idea that having your picture taken will steal your soul. Does acknowledging failure make it my domain? But that’s my point… it is part of our domain. Along with cameras and souls.
Whatever the answer, I have more time to write about failure because I missed my plane to San Francisco even though I arrived three hours before my flight.
Up at dawn, packed and struggled all my gear into the already shimmeringly hot car (my lovely little blue jelly bean mazda 2) and was on my way to the fantastic independent coffeehouse (Augie’s) in Redland with the first morning light, and then on the highway to L.A. hours ahead of schedule. I returned the rental car and hopped on the shuttle bus and shuffled through the check-in long line carrying two thoroughbred bassoons (my 6-year old Heckel and a sparkling new “Superior” model Püchner) and pushing my music/tool/art/clothes-crammed suitcase, then jostled my way through the security line and finally stood in another line to buy a $11 tuna sandwich and a $6 yogurt (failed to examine prices before lining up to buy them) and then flopped in a sweaty, slightly pensive heap at my gate. I looked at my boarding pass. Yup. Gate 73. It did say ‘gates subject to change’. Whatever. I was so early that there was lots of time to double check the gate.
Whipped out computer and (again) posed the question to self/world:
Is it interesting to write about failure?
The little voice inside my head says ‘shut up’.
I’ve ignored that voice before.
A much louder voice rings in my recent came from a new/good-hearted, truth-bellowing friend who both believes in me, avers admiration for me, and after hearing me crash during a first-time performance-from-memory of RV 483 this week, said, ‘Why play from memory? You’re a great player… you don’t have to prove anything! Why risk it?’
He wasn’t looking for an answer but I gave him one (several) anyway. I said that I want to play from memory. I want to play all of my repertoire from memory. Just like my rock-n-roll idols. And I do perform from memory. In this case, I wanted to add a new piece. After all, that is the great joy of my life, to perform virtuoso concerti for bassoon. This is one of the things I love doing. Love.
This time I added a new concerto on short notice, one that I know very well and previously performed once (4 years ago) and recorded (2 years ago).
In retrospect, I should have done many things differently leading up to the concert. Life is complex and requires constant adjustments. During the concert (unexpected-for-me completely open-air, sporadically amplified), I effectively lived my worst performance nightmare with the sensation that I was a microsecond behind the strings at all times and it was confusing. Despite the memory drop-out moments (or worse, belated, sodden flailings at the effervescent virtuosic arabesques), there were still a few tiny flickers of living-the-dream (playing fabulous music with lively string players for attentive people in a remarkable setting). And my second piece went very well, also memorized but music in front of me in the dark.
To sum up, some things I know for sure:
It is more fun to play from memory. So much more fun. WAAAAAY more fun. I have done it since the beginning of my career when the only concerto that bassoonists played was the Mozart. I continue to add concerti and I want to have this pleasure with every concerto that I add to my repertoire. And sonatas. And other people tell me that they feel the same way and that it gets better. So this is why I do it.
The first performance must be done, come what may. Repeat performances must be done. The sooner the better. The closer together, the better.
Memorization is a graspable, quantumly-expandable skill that is enhanced with practise, so once you have successfully performed from memory, you start to have a sense of how to do it on successive performances but it is not something that can ever be taken for granted. And it really helps if the repeat performances are close together (did I already say this??).
Memorization is a multi-sensate, perfectible skill and each performer has to discover how best to accomplish their goals. To be secure in memorization, I have to have the piece visually memorized. Some people can do it without this but not me. If I can see the notes in my minds eye, I can never be thrown. Sound and feeling are easy and natural for most musicians. Adding another sense (sight) makes it secure for me.
Live experience is the best teacher though sometimes a harsh one. Even when I am on top of it, the excitement is much greater when performing from memory. Which means I should give up coffee well enough in advance to not feel any extra nervousness. I need multiple, lower-pressure pre-performances before a first major performance from memory of a new piece. Just because I can memorize fairly quickly does not guarantee that I can anticipate the effect of nervousness and other distractions.
Diligent preparation does not always mean success if some aspect of preparation has been overlooked. Systematic imagination is the best tool to check the reality of the particular situation.
Ambition is the fuel for originality and accomplishment but it must be tempered with planning. If there are many demands on your time then the preparations must be started well ahead of time. If you are asked lat the last minute to present a concerto, choose one that you have done may times. I initially did this, then I looked at the programming and saw that much of the concert would be in C minor. That seemed potentially discouraging for the audience. I thought that I had enough time to add a new memorized concerto. I didn’t. But even though I shat all over it, I still have it memorized now! Ego is bruised but brain is stronger. Mind’s eye is also stronger.
Every situation is different. Experience is valuable. Imagination is also valuable.
While I am in the process of exhausting this topic, maybe it is valuable to point out that this applies to any skill.
One of the most inspiring stories I have had from a colleague is Leslie Ross’ account of her first experience of extended live-performance circular breathing. A gifted performer, improvisor and composer, she signed up for two sets at a Looping Festival. Already a circular breather, she had never played for such an extended period but was willing to try. According to Leslie, she staggered through the first 20 minute set, flushed with effort and distress and not at all sure if she should take the second set. After a brief rest, she did the second set. I don’t remember how much time passed but it was the same day. And she said it was if someone had waved a magic wand… she could circular breathe in and out as easily as if a bassoon were not attached to her face. In the gap between the two performances, her body had processed the experience and added all the missing elements to her skills. She said that her ego wishes the first set had never happened, yet she knows for a fact that it gave her a full skill that would never have come so quickly without the brush with ‘failure’. This is a true story.
So, back to the airport… writing and thinking (staring into middle distance), I suddenly looked at the clock… 1:15 and my departure was slated for 1:27. The flight number had not changed at my current gate. Panic and mortification. I raced to look at the departure information and saw that my gate was indeed in another wing of the sprawling airport. So grabbing both bassoon cases, I bobbled frantically to gate 61 and arrived just as the doors closed. I neither wept or gnashed my teeth. It was my own fault. The nice lady put me on standby for the 4:00 flight. I rented a cart for $5 and wandered the terminal, and by chance, ended up in a long, snaking line at the United Customer Service where people were changing their tickets. So I stood there for an hour, behind exhausted mothers, a valiant grandmother, a weary angry woman my age and a twenty-year old who had days of travel ahead of her. When I got to the desk, I looked at the woman behind the counter and said, “You have a really hard job”. She looked at me briefly and gave a small smile. I told her my story, adding that it was my fault entirely, but I needed to book a ticket rather than be on standby. She looked at everything for about five minutes, then found room to book me on an evening flight that would still allow me to catch the last flight to Eugene. She printed the boarding passes and handed them to me with the words, ‘Now you’re all set’. I tried to slide my credit card towards her and she repeated the words more firmly, looking me straight in the eye , “You’re all set, now go!” I clutched the boarding passes and told her very quietly that I loved her. Her lips twitched towards a smile and she waved me away. Hours later, when I went to board the plane, I was not on the passenger lists, but somehow the fact that I had boarding passes helped me negotiate my way onto both planes with two bassoons, landing after midnight in the sylvan berg of Eugene. Life works.
To sum up, I get better at things I put my full attention to, including playing all my concerti from memory and checking the departure monitors more than once. Not taking things for granted. Failure is a vivid teacher. The only constructive response is to take all the information and just keep going. Done is better than perfect. Being alive means both taking some risks and also planning in a serious, rosary-bead checking kind of way. Taking some risks means bombing on occasion. Planning means taking time. Being smart means collating that experience into something that produces your best work. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes I rock. And I have one more memorized concerto in my repertoire!
I am always grateful to the kind souls who still hear my best efforts through the fog of derailed intention, to the beautiful students and bright angel colleagues (John Steinmetz, Nicolasa Kuster, Christin Phelps Webb, Carolyn Beck, Saxton Rose, Ryan Romine) who look in my eyes and remind me that my efforts have taken at least partial flight. Thank you.
If you want some of my ideas about how I do am working on this, please read on. Despite my painful dissatisfaction with my recent performance, I actually do have a process that works. It now is a wider process. Some of you will have some great suggestions (besides ‘use the music’) and I would love to read them.
-estimate how many days/weeks/months/years it takes you to fully memorize a work (if it’s your first time, allow one year – at the end of your career, you would have all of the Vivaldi concerti memorized though more is possible since the skill grows with practise)
-this process can always be forced and speeded up if you are clear about your process.
-visual memorization (see &/or be able to write all notes without bassoon) in addition to aural (knowing the sounds of the piece) and kinetic (knowing how it feels to play).
-practising from different points in the piece (back, middle) – I know one pianist who practises literally backwards… this bewilders the crap out of me.
-low-pressure performances (for friends, family, dog) and rehearsals with piano or small string group in the weeks prior to concert (these can be in addition to one directly before the concert but never only one directly before concert when in early stages of presenting a new concerto.
-perform at least once in your concert clothes prior to show.
In advance of the show:
-all parts corrected, page turns considered, bound and bowed – this keeps the string players calm and feeling respected and saves valuable rehearsal time.
-include a check list of instruments so that the organizers will be sure that every instrument has a part.
-include a score or two
-bring a second set of all of the above because someone will forget their music or maybe never receive it in the first place.
-check with organizers to find out locations and times for all rehearsals.
-Request a timed rehearsal schedule (I always time my rehearsals to the minute and include a break for the string players…. without this, you always run the risk of being behind)
-Confirm the day before the first rehearsal. Confirm if there will be a sound check at the venue. If not, do your own sound check and decide on placements.
-confirm address of venue and exact nature of concert… outdoors? amplified? soundcheck? bugs? how big?(kidding)
-use your big beautiful mind to imagine the possibilities and to prepare for them while being fully aware that life will offer something infinitely more complex.
At the show
-lift your head and play your heart out. if you bomb, you’ll live to soar again. I am 100% sure of that.