Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Performance Pacesetter

Performance Pacesetter is Heidelberg University’s annual competition for high school students. I competed in it last year (placing third) and this year. A year ago, I was still at the point where I was terrified of all things resembling performance, making the competition a paralyzing experience, to say the least. My teacher, Dr. Pierre, has told me that I am a very musical person, but I fall apart in performances. A few months ago (I’m not sure when it really came to be), I completely overcame performance anxiety. I recognized that I begin by expecting failure, and decided that whatever happens, I get up there and have a good time. I began having some of the first performances of my life that did not evoke nerves and needless mistakes. I haven’t been truly nervous at a performance since.

So, there I was, waiting outside the doors of Ohl concert hall, drinking green tea, and listening to the pianist who was competing before me. It was one of those moments where I had to stifle the urge to think of it as a competition. When you hear a phenomenal pianist, also your competitor, and sincerely wish him all the luck in the world, you have succeeded in seeing the success of others as an inspiration rather than a threat. I was remarkably relaxed. One of the best things I ever learned about performing is to appear confident, and begin with confidence, no matter what you’re feeling. If you pull it off well enough, you actually become confident. I walked across the stage with an ease I didn’t know I possessed, bowed, and took my seat at the piano.

I began, starting with a Spanish piece by Turina. The entire piece went smoothly, and I was having a good time performing by the time I reached the end. After a comfortable pause, I began my Beethoven sonata. Beethoven sonatas have always been my greatest weakness, or rather, the memorization of them. For some reason, I can memorize thirty pages of Ravel in a day, while five pages of a Beethoven sonata could take weeks. The real problem is that all Beethoven sonatas have sections in which a simple note or key change takes you to an entirely different passage. This usually means that I end up going in circles. However, I was completely comfortable with the memorization of this sonata. I had memorized it hands separately, and could easily explain, entirely from memory, how the different passages connected.

There are certain instances in which a performer who has a piece memorized without flaw fails to think ahead to subsequent passages and, hence, goes in a few circles. This was my downfall. The second time a certain forte came around, I started to get a little concerned. When it came around a third time, I became slightly worried. Had I been nervous to begin with, I would have ceased playing and run from the stage. Instead, I thought positively: I know this piece, and I need only think of the next passage and how to get there. To my vast relief, I smoothly progressed to the next passage, and ended dramatically. I bowed, forced myself to smile, and left the stage.

When I re-entered the concert hall, now as an audience member, Dr. Pierre told me that I had played very well. I was greatly surprised to find that my sister, a fellow musician who must have listened to my Beethoven five hundred times, had not even noticed my memory lapse. To all of the audience except my teacher, it must have been invisible. I expected it to remove all chance I might have had of placing, but for some reason, I didn’t really care. I had an excellent time (for the most part) listening to the other performers, several of which were absolutely incredible.

In the end, I placed third. By the close of Pacesetter, I was in a state of complete indifference about the whole thing.

During the trip back, I perused my judging sheets. I had to laugh when I read one of Dr. Bevelander’s comments:

“You recover very well from mistakes.”

Note: The title picture is a bookmark I got for placing. It’s actually worth like three bucks at the Heidelberg store. I might be chagrined if a check weren’t coming. [If I cared that much about anything at all.]


  1. Have you truly memorized thirty pages of Ravel in a single day? 0.0
    Wonderful post though. I've adopted somewhat of the same attitude for performances... although admittedly I still get a bit tense, depending on who my audience it.

  2. 25 pages, actually. I'm very good with memorization of patterns, which would be Ravel. His concerto. Since the pages include the second piano's orchestral accompaniment, it should be considered less. :)