Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Is Consistency Evil?

With just 10 days to go before my next recital (which is on Sunday, June 30th in Champaign, Illinois, if you are interested--more details here) I now have a new set of things to worry about, as I should. Today it's not about whether or not I can play the music (mostly) or have it memorized (mostly), it's about whether it will go well in front of an audience, and whether those little technical slips I make here and there can be banished and with enough confidence that when the chips are down they will stay banished. The way to take care of that is with practice, and more practice. Concentrated practice--and repetition.

Along this little journey I've shared a few bits from Mr. Gottschalk's life, some looks at how I practice, worries about how little time there is to prepare, and next week--I promise--more about why this project is so interesting, as we get closer to show time. For me, as much fun as this was and will be, a lot of time is spent in the arena of the distinctly not-so-fun. In fact, I'm starting to get a little tired of what I'm playing, having heard the music so many times just in the past few weeks. I'm starting to be able to sympathize with Mr. Gottschalk, actually, when he writes of the numbing repetitiveness of touring in his "Notes of a Pianist:"

"All notions of time and space are effaced from my mind...if you ask me what time it is, I will reply, 'It is time to close my trunk' or 'It is time to play The Banjo' or 'It is time to put on my black coat.' These three events are very nearly the whole of my daily existence. I console myself by thinking that I am not the only one of my species."

Of course, I'm not traveling thousand of miles by train every day--I'm not even on tour at the moment; I'm here in the comfort of my own back yard. I shouldn't complain. But I do envy him a little; he must have played "Banjo" so many times he could just walk out on stage and nail it (fantastic jumps, repeated notes, and all) with no practice (which he probably didn't get anyway while on tour, never mind spending 18 hours on a train in the freezing cold and then having to play all of a sudden). But then, he'd been playing it for at least a decade by then, and he had played it an awful lot of times.

Which brings me to tonight's grand question--(I love being able to pose the grand questions)--what is it about the nature of consistency that people love to hate so much?

There used to be a television commercial in which the announcer opined that "amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can't get it wrong!" Over the last few days even the most intractable portions of the most difficult pieces on the program are starting to go pretty well--I'm getting it right, finally. The question is, can I keep at it until I can't get it wrong, no matter what I feel like at 3 in the afternoon on a Sunday (and having played three church services and with a two hour choir rehearsal to look forward to I probably won't be at my rested best)? How many times will it take, and what sort of mental conditioning will I have to do to make sure it comes off no matter what? After all, I can't assume that after an hour of practice, feeling rested and with no audience, anything I can get right will automatically transfer itself to the concert. I've been around the stage too long to fall for that.That road keeps going, and the hill gets steeper as you ascend.

But consistency is hard. In anything. And not very glamorous, which makes it all the harder to achieve. Anybody can roll out of bed and decide to train for a Marathon. In fact, the first day or two, the very excitement of possibly being able to achieve this great thing might keep you going through all the hurting muscles. And at the race itself, with all the people running alongside you, and the festive atmosphere, and the close proximity of achievement--these are all powerful motivators. But what about in between, when you are just sore, and you've been training for a couple of months already and the race is still several months away and it's a Tuesday morning and it's hot or its lightly raining, or the hill is kind of steep and nobody is watching you anyway and you really don't feel like it...that's when you are really running the Marathon. That's when you are really training your mind to be able to do it and do it well no matter what obstacles come your way. That's when you are conditioning your muscles to handle the distance and your mind to know what it is supposed to feel like every step of the (sometimes agonizing) way, and your will to overrule your desire for comfort and taking the easy route. And nobody really cares. And the results won't show themselves for months. And you have to do it anyway, because it won't happen any other way. Just makes you want to jump up right now and do it, right? Can I sell it or what?!

This difficulty might, in theory, bias people against it. I mean, most of us aren't really into all the sacrifice it takes to do something really well really often. We can conceive of maybe doing it once, or under the right circumstances. That's what got me thinking about all of those stories, television shows, movies--ones where the underdog beats the big bully. In Star Wars the big bully is the Empire, and Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star because he closed his eyes and really focused for that one miracle shot that instantly destroyed everything the bad guys had been building for years. Actually, that line he delivers earlier in the movie about shooting womp rats back home shows he has been practicing a little, and adds a bit of realism to the achievement if you're paying attention, but still--it's in that one moment that everything pays off.

I was watching a sitcom recently where two guys were in a boxing match and the good guy was predictably getting destroyed by the much better trained bad guy and finally the good guy throws that lucky punch like you know he will when the bad guy is too busy gloating to block and it knocks him flat all in one blow. This isn't new, it goes back at least to David and Goliath, when David fells the Philistine with one shot of his sling because there is no way he would have survived hand to hand combat. Also he gets to avoid to taint of seeming too much like a professional.

I can see where they're coming from. Because "The Banjo" is starting to seem less interesting than is was, and I'm still working out the details, bit by bit, laborious minute by laborious minute. I have to remind myself what I loved about playing it in the first place, back when it was rough and raw and I could hear music in it even if no one else would have if I'd played it for them. But that's the cost of getting it right, and six months from now I can listen to it again after I haven't played it in a while and enjoy what I was able to to do with it--to make it mean something--even if I practically have to suck all the joy out of it in order to get it there. It's not for me now, anyway. It's for my audience.

I can't compress everything into a 30 second video montage with inspirational rock music in the background. That works in the movies, not in life. I've got to be in the practice room every day working it out. So I am. Ten days from now it will matter.

In the meantime, I'm kind of enjoying this perverse fun. It's a skill. You have to really learn how to keep your sanity, and keep it fun. Sometimes its like trying to get meat out of lobster tail. But you know, I'm sort of a strange fellow, and it works for me.

So for now it's all about the training. I'll try to make sure at the concert you don't notice. I won't even complain about it. We'll just enjoy the music together. But I had a teacher once who told how a woman came up to him and complimented him on his playing and said, "you must have suffered a lot!" and he said "you have no idea!"

Right now I think I know what he means.


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