There are moments in a performing artist's career that are truly terrifying. It is part of the essence of live performance that anything can happen - from sublime moments of absolute genius to complete and abject failures, all happening in real-time. When an audience is there to see you perform, and especially when they've paid for that experience, there aren't any real second chances. Oh, sure, every now and again you'll hear of a performance that gets off to a terrible start and everyone agrees to just begin again, but that's truly rare. For the most part, performances go roughly as expected - there are things you would like to have another shot at and such - bobbles, intervals you didn't quite make seamless. etc. - but usually you get to the end with no real harm, everyone claps, and it's on to the next one.
Sometimes disaster strikes.
In the past year or so, I had two moments of real disaster. Both were during the most important concerts of my life, and on both occasions I had to come back and play a show of equal importance the very next day. The first involved a memory slip and the second a technology problem and both needed to be overcome, or the next days' shows were going to be absolute hell. What happened and how did I deal with it? Well, let's get to it, shall we?
In November of 2014, I gave the world premiere of Jeremy Gill's "Notturno Concertante", a concerto for solo clarinet and large orchestra. There was a Saturday night show, and then a repeat performance Sunday afternoon. Jeremy and I did a podcast about this here - it's one of my favorites. Because I am an idiot, and an aggressive one at that, I decided that giving the premiere of a brand-new super-difficult 23-minute concerto from memory was truly prodigious, and so I went for it. I had a lot of time and a big memory, plus I would absolutely play Mozart or Nielsen from memory, so why not this? I drilled and drilled and drilled. I made a strict work schedule: a serious workout of a warmup in the morning, a long session working on the technical spots and smaller sections, and then one more session later which was all runs of longs sections (and, for the last month or so, the whole concerto) from memory. In fact, as soon as possible I was practicing without the music all the time, even for detailed technique work. I would say I spent the last two months without looking at the music. I had it cold.
Rehearsals with the orchestra went well, though I immediately decided that I would never ever try to memorize a concerto premiere again. It was almost unbearably intense. I thought the nerves would come from standing in front of an audience, but in fact it came from standing in front of the orchestra, in front of a hundred or so of my peers. They were totally cool, by the way. As any orchestra would, they approached a new piece and an unfamiliar soloist somewhat gingerly at first, but the piece is really great, and I'm not an asshole and clearly knew the piece in and out and was tagging the shit out of it, so we got along just fine. Still, I did not expect the level of pressure from myself to do well in front of my colleagues. It's hard to explain.
Saturday night comes. I'm ready. Dress rehearsal had gone well. Let's do this. I had to wait through the opener, Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story". Great stuff, only I'm not listening, really, besides noting where they were and how much time I had left. Got my focus on, repeating a mantra I've had for a while which slows me down and gets my head in the zone: "focused, and in control". I say it a few times to myself. Focused, and in control. I hear the Bernstein end, the applause. It's on.
I go out, and I'm sailing through. I have this thing where I don't remember details of my best performances - I mean, I know I was there, and I know what generally happened, but I won't be able to recall whole movements or any specific moments. I don't remember shit about the first half of the performance, so I think it was going well.
And then my memory failed.
It was somewhere in here, a section in 9/8 which moves out at an insane 100 clicks on the metronome:
My non-musician friends can probably look at that and generally tell that's an unfriendly section. My musician and clarinet friends can tell that it's even more unfriendly than you think, due to the chromatic AND wholetone stuff, plus a lot of going over the top break, and oh yeah it's fast.
Anyway, somewhere in there I fucked up.
I have no idea what happened. None. I do know that I found myself on stage with literally no idea where to put my next entrance or, after a second or two, what notes to play at all - it just happened so fast, and I was just there, going Oh My God. What do I do? I noodled. I know it was 10 to 15 seconds, tops, but it felt like fucking forever. I recall my thought process somewhat:
Where am I?
I don't know.
What should I do?
I dunno, do something!
Ok, how about this?
That does not appear to be working. Try something else
How about this?
I don't know, maybe?
I knew the long whole tone run at the bottom was coming up. Does it end on a double high Bb? You bet your ass it does, and thank god for it. I decided the timing felt right and went for the whole tone run, knowing there was a big orchestra moment there, and if I was right we'd hit it and if not, I was going to hang on to that high Bb until they caught me. Lo and behold, I'd guessed right and thankfully I joined the orchestra correctly. Doubly thankfully, I only had about another 45 seconds of playing before a long break. Then I'd have a little while to recover, maybe as long as a couple of minutes. I made it, hanging on for dear life.
I still had 10 minutes left.
I caught my breath. I drank some water. And then I had to straighten myself out but quick. I had to forget it. One of the things I lean on heavily is sports psychology. High-level athletes deal with incredibly high levels of competition and pressure to succeed. What separates the great from the good is the head game, the ability to be mentally stronger and better-prepared than your opponent - or even yourself. In that moment, I thought, "Tiger Woods would forget this (I was obviously thinking of Tiger in his prime - an incredibly focused athlete). A great cornerback would forget this". Great athletes do completely whiff sometimes. But if you dwell on that whiff, another is sure to follow, and then another behind that, and then you're done. Tiger would occasionally shank a drive, Richard Sherman gets burned for touchdowns. It's bound to happen when you're doing difficult shit on a high level. What makes an athlete like Tiger in his prime special is the ability to truly leave mistakes behind. So, say Tiger borks a drive into the woods on the left. When he approaches that ball, it has become its own singular and particular problem. It no longer matters how the ball got there. It's there. How do you solve this problem that now presents itself? In the same vein, a cornerback or safety must let go of a great play or a blown coverage, because the opposition will assuredly test you again, and you'd best be ready.
So forget it. And I did. Played the rest, went fine. Took my applause, sat in the audience for the second half like a good boy, and got the fuck back to my hotel room.
I was devastated. I had spent so much time, and LOVE on this thing, and I couldn't believe I had dropped it like that. I called my wife, and I broke down and wept. I felt like I had let Jeremy down. I left like I'd let myself down. I had truly done everything I knew how to prepare for the moment, and I had dropped the ball. I couldn't believe it.
And I had to do it again tomorrow.
How? How should I prepare myself to overcome the memory slip and go out and tag it in my only other opportunity? Sports psychology had saved me in the moment, so I returned to it. The first person to enter my mind was Lebron James. Say what you will about him, but Lebron exists (and excels) on the highest plane of high level athletes. Yet he will miss more game-winning shots in his career than he will hit. He will occasionally have a 12 or so point playoff game, which for Lebron is throwing a big bag of bricks down a well. But an NBA player has an 82-game regular season, not to mention Lebron is usually playing in the finals, so add another 20-odd games onto that. That is a ridiculous number of times to have to get ready, be prepared, and have your head straight. So, I thought, what would Lebron do after a poor game in, say, game 2 of the NBA finals? He's going to have to come out well in game 3, especially with the opposition trying to seize an opportunity to take control of the series. I thought, he probably trusts his preparation. He probably trusts his routine. Everyone has an off night. Shooters keep shooting. That was it. Shooters keep shooting. The ball will go in. I thought, here's what you do. You forget about tonight. You get a good night's sleep. You get up, you get a good breakfast, you do your routine because you trust it, you check out the spot you failed on, but not too much: you actually know it, so just make sure the corners are swept out, and then just go do it. You know it. You didn't leave any work behind. Go do it.
And you know what? I did! I'm not going to say that no bricks were shat as the moment approached and then....PASSED! I definitely gave myself a big mental high-five, and the tiniest fist-pump on earth, and then got back to the business of finishing the piece off proper-like, which I did. It was a great success. Jeremy was happy. I was, for a moment, happy. More than anything, I was proud of my mental game for getting past the disaster of the previous night and delivering like I knew I could. I'm not sure I could have done that a few years ago.
Cut to this past October. I had two opening nights for Open G Records at National Sawdust, which, I'm proud to say, has become one of "the" places to play here in the city. It was a huge opportunity. I had two full variety shows of my favorite players, the guys on my label. All living American composers, some of whom were there including Mario Davidovsky, Steven Stucky, and my dear friend Ed Jacobs, who will become central to this story. Full lighting and amplification setup, two-time classical Grammy winning producer Adam Abeshouse running the live sound. I set up the concerts, I had four of my players from the label in town for the show, plus I played during the shows as well as emceed the entire evenings from a microphone at the side of the stage. In short, a big deal.
One of the pieces I played was by the aforementioned Ed Jacobs - a piece he'd written for me called Aural History, which I had premiered and recorded, and was very excited to give the New York premiere of. This is it here, with me and my boy Xak:
So, the piece has a lot of pages, which I often spread across a few stands. In this case, we were making a film of the concert, so in order to present a cleaner look for video, I transferred the piece onto an iPad with a page turning app, which I connected to a bluetooth pedal.
I had gotten the pedal some time before the show in order to get used to it, and it did take some getting used to. It's a pretty simple idea though, right pedal turns forward, left turns back. You could read a book this way if you wanted to. After a while it became second nature, plus it worked like a dream. I was a total convert.
Cut to the middle of the first show. It's going great. It's a long, super crazy day, especially to be in charge of, but it's really going. I play Reich's New York Counterpoint, which I'd just recorded with Adam Abeshouse, we have the New York Premiere of Stucky's violin/piano sonata, I do a bit with my friend Jason, and then it's time to play Eddie's piece. It's a hard piece, but I really love it, and I'm pretty sure that I've spent more time overall on it than any other piece in my lifetime. Xak and I had recorded the piece and know it well and we're both ready to go, especially after I hit the gas pedal hard and really rocket us into the start of it.
It's pacing along really well - Ed marks the beginning "on the edge", and I think we're really living on that edge. That's where I want it to be, and I had put in another level of work on the piece to make it so. First page turn comes, no problem. Kick some more ass, looking to rain down fire in the 3rd page. I have three measures of rest at the bottom of page two. I hit the pedal.
I hit it again. Nothing. Oh, man, this is real trouble. Still, you can turn the page with your finger. I do so during the rest. There is no rest on the bottom of page 3.
What. Do. I. Do. Now?
I play, trying to not lose focus whilst navigating a briar patch of notes and gestures, much of which happens in unison with the piano - not exactly a good time to collect my thoughts, much less formulate a plan. I'm just hoping the pedal had a hiccup and it'll be no harm, no foul and let's get to the end. Here comes the bottom of page three, and...
Xak goes on. He has to. That's what the piece does, it goes on. But I'm hopelessly fucked now, because I've had to take a couple of seconds to swipe the page (to my recollection it took two tries) and then get my hands back on my horn, and then where the fuck am I? I know I'm on the top of page four out of five pages of continuous 16th and 32nd notes. Other than that, you got me. I have to stop Xak. "Let's just go at the top of that section", I say. A quick look confirms my knowledge that there is a two-measure rest at the bottom, and I'll be able to finish this movement without another incident. I know I will not be so lucky for the next two. I finish the movement.
Fuck. I have to figure this out (or not) right now in front of an audience. What can I do? This is happening right now whether I like it or not. I'm a little fortunate in that I'm generally a funny guy who can at least be somewhat witty when the chips are down. The chips are down. I'm not sure what I say, but I say something like, "hey, sorry folks. Excuse me for a second while I check out a technical issue I'm having". And then I pick up the pedal. Seems fine. I press the pedal down with my finger. Nothing. I try the page back. Works fine. Try the forward again. Nothing. Wiggle it a little bit. Nothing. I put it to my mouth and blow on it, which is a call-back to part of the bit I had done earlier with Jason (clarinet players are always blowing shit out of their horns in rehearsals and performances - it's kind of our calling card). Secretly, I'm hoping it actually works. It doesn't. OK. So now I've spent about a minute doing this and that's about all I can afford, especially as I can't seem to even start troubleshooting the issue. I have to go on.
I go on. Second movement is slow. I still have a page turn. I deal with it as best I can. I know the third movement is fast, at least two fast page turns. Fuck. I stumble through them, the last coming before maybe 20 last seconds of music, all of which is pure hell, just one of those times where you know you aren't on but there's not a damned thing you can do about it, so have a big bite of that shit sandwich for the road.
It's done. Xak and I take the applause, I point to Ed so he can get some applause. I walk over to the microphone to introduce my friend Scott, who's getting ready to play some Boulez; and also to vamp a little bit while the crew moved the piano offstage and did some resetting in the hall. So, now I have to spend four or five minutes chatting with these folks when really, truly I'd rather be in the green room throwing up. My instincts say to address the problem, but I have no idea what I'm going to say. I just start talking. I say something like, "hey, everyone, thank you. So, I had a little technical SNAFU there, I'm sure you noticed. Trying something new with new technology, sometimes that happens." Then I smile a bit and say, "if you'd like to hear a COMPLETE performance of that piece, you can hear it on my CD, available for sale in the lobby!".
I'm gonna switch back to past tense now, ok? So I finished my spiel about Scott: best friends forever, great player, good dude, yadayada. I was trying my best not to really look at Eddie - it was too hard. I caught a glance or two. There he was, all supportive looking and smiling. That made it worse.
Even after I finished speaking, I STILL had to stay out in the hall, because I was assisting Adam with the quite extensive technical part with the Boulez that Scott was playing. No hiding for me; not one moment yet offstage to even sigh. I sat there, trying to focus intently on the music, trying to be at my best for Adam and Scott (and Boulez). I did my best, I really did, and it was fine. But humming behind my eyes was a brewing sadness. Of all the pieces to have a problem, the last one I wanted was for it to be Ed's. See, Eddie is special to me. When I showed up at East Carolina as an interim professor in August of 2001 (I'd get the job outright the following year) Eddie was the first person to try to connect with me - in fact, he took me to dinner my very first day on campus. I latched on to that, and we became fast friends. We played poker, we lunched several times a week, we got high and listened to Radiohead (sorry, Eddie, hope that don't cause problems for you, but you're a full professor - fuck em), he shepherded me through the ends of a couple of disastrous relationships. Real friends. And we made music together, the cornerstone of which was the piece that had just eaten some shit on its New York premiere. Damn. Damn damn damn. As I sat through the twenty-odd minutes of the Boulez, I sank further and further into a plush couch made of melancholy. I knew it wasn't truly my fault, but it had happened. I had let Eddie down. I have an interesting artifact from that moment. As I mentioned, we were making a film of all of this, and the crew had placed a small camera on Adam's desk.
I know I'm probably not showing what I was feeling. I can look at myself, though, and really feel it. Damn.
So, the concert finished. Had to shake hands, meet and greet, do the thing, be the guy. Stayed at the front because Ed was in the back. Eventually I made my way back there. He was talking to a couple of people I knew had shown up just to hear his piece. Damn. I shook his hand, told him I was sorry. He was cool and totally supportive, as I knew he would have been even if it HAD been totally my fault. It didn't make me feel any better. I knew it had to be a disappointment, even if he wasn't really going to show me. I tried to believe everyone when they said I dealt with it with elegance and humor. I guess I did, but again, it didn't make me feel any better. To this day I have trouble dealing with it. Eddie and I normally speak or text quite regularly - maybe every couple of days, at least weekly. Since the concert I have basically ghosted the shit out of him. It's hard for me to get over. I feel the disappointment still.
I shook more hands, I went to the bar, I got all my guys into a car back to Manhattan, and then I Googled the living fuck out of the pedal issue until about 2:00 in the morning. It was working again. What the hell? I decided that it was a bluetooth pairing issue, and that it had tried to randomly pair with someone phone and somehow screwed my connection. See, here's the problem: I had to come back the next day and play another show. I had planned to use the pedal because the piece I was playing (Davidovsky - Synchronism 12) stretches across five stands when using paper (it's not some odd format or anything, it's just that it's 14 pages over six minutes, and no time to turn pages - you just have to kind of lay them all out in a row). Again, that looks like shit on video. I fixed the problem with the pedal. I tried it over and over. 100% success rate. I went to bed. I woke up. I tried it a few more times. 100%. OK, the bluetooth was the problem. I'd just add a part to my talk where I ask everyone to turn off the bluetooth on their phones, boom. Problem solved.
Cut to 5:00. Show's at 7. It's been another crazy long day. I only have time to run through the Davidovksy, because we've spent all day getting good takes of Boulez with Scott. It's important, the run-through, because the Davidovsky has electronics and there are always issues of balance, etc. Check the pedal again. No problem. Sweet. Start the rehearsal, it's going fine. I go for the first page turn.
I lose it. I really lose it. Not AT anyone. Not TO anyone. But the emotions of the last couple of days, not to mention the months of planning that had gone into the damned thing, erupt out of me in the form of a lengthy, deeply blue, and oddly specific FUCK YOU to the gods, to the universe, to anything you might have on hand. Even on everyday occasions, I can swear with the best of them. Now I really pop the top off, like a barrel full of illegal fireworks. I have to get out of there for a second. I go out onto the street. A late October wisp of a mist is in the air, and it feels good. I take a few deep breaths, walk up and down the block. I gotta figure this out. I call my wife, tell her to bring my sheet music. I walk back in.
While I've been gone, the crew has figured out a jury-rigged solution to the problem: the left, or "page back" pedal, has always worked. They disconnect the cable from the right pedal, extend it a bit, and run it to the left. It works like a charm. That's the solution (and the source of the big "X" in gaffer tape on the photo at the top of the page) Should I trust it? I did mention before that I'm an idiot, right? Meanwhile it's 6:15 and Davidovsky has arrived and he'd like to hear the piece, because of course he would. Well, here's a chance for at least a real-world test. I play it, everything works fine. I'm rightly nervous about the tech, and it shows a little, but basically everything works. He tells me to play softer in spots. Cool. He doesn't know there was a problem. What problem? Time for the show.
Show starts and it's going well. It's becoming apparent, actually, that it's going REALLY well. It's like the stress and effort of the past couple of days fall away and we all say "fuck it" and just go out and play, and that's when the good stuff usually happens. The time approaches for Davidovsky. I wait backstage, clutching my horn and my pedal. Please work. One time.
I go out, make an intro at the mic, and then walk to center stage to do the thing. I start by myself. The electronics enter. The first page turn comes really fast. I cross my fingers (figuratively, obv) and hit the pedal with my foot.
Oops. I make a mistake because the fucking thing actually works! Can't do that. I turn my focus to executing the piece, and everything turns out well. Everyone seems happy with it. I am relieved. I hit the mic again, introduce Scott, and sit down to assist with Adam. As I do, I see Eddie in the audience. He comes to both nights even though his piece is one on the first, because he's a mensch. I put a big smear of regret across my relief. Still, the concert finishes well and is an actual good time (I know, at a classical show! Shock!)
Cut to now. I return to speaking in past tense. So that's what happened. Two instances where I had to deal with truly difficult issues pretty much in real-time. The first key to overcoming things like that is preparation. Without hard, dedicated preparation you can never really get to the second key, which is trusting yourself. Without those two things, you can't achieve the end, which is to be able to forget mistakes or problems and be the best player and person you can. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not sure I could have gotten past those things so quickly when I was younger. I find that it's a skill like any other, and gets better with practice. Be prepared, leave mistakes behind, and be better in every moment moving forward.
I'm going to finish this one with a thought that's so good I wish it was mine. It's actually from Adam Neiman, who is a fabulous and wise pianist. As part of his preparation, he does as many full runs of pieces (that is to say, he starts at the beginning and plays all the way to the end without stopping) as possible. For some pieces, including concertos that run 30 to 45 minutes, his full-run repetitions number in the thousands. Pianists. . .Anyway, that is (almost literally) insanely prodigious. So I asked him about why he goes for that level of prep. He said (and I'm paraphrasing - it's been a few years), "well, everyone gets to that spot in a performance where you go 'oh, shit. What's next?'. The thing is to have the answer to that question".
The thing is to have the answer to that question.
And, Eddie, I'm not done with our piece in New York. Not by a damned sight. It's the next thing to overcome.