More curb-jumping — the Deadly Choke

Unfortunately, I’ve hit the point with “Bethena” where I’m starting to space out when I play it and let my hands move automatically. Great recipe for a choke disaster; when one can play a piece without thinking, one often finds that one can’t play it with thinking. You start to tense up, and *poof!* out of your head it flies, because it was never in your head. It was in your hands, and now that one can’t stop thinking, one can’t get into that instinctive zone.

Amateurs worry too much about how to get in the “zone.” The best performers can still knock it out even when they aren’t. I recall an article about Joshua Bell where he talked about getting a lovely review in a newspaper for a performance … which he concluded by taking his final bow, walking off-stage, and puking in the wings because he was sick as a dog. You can bet that young man wasn’t in any kind of a “zone” while he was performing. But he was good enough to do beautifully well even though things weren’t inspirationally perfect.

That’s the difference between pros and amateurs. Amateurs wait for inspiration to strike and excuse flopping by saying that they weren’t in the “zone.” Pros certainly enjoy the “zone” when they’re there, but they don’t wait for it. They don’t rely on something as tenuous and out of their control as entering a mystic state of being on command. They are good enough that they can make it happen even if they are bored, annoyed, or dog-sick. You can’t be inspired all the time, and you won’t be. Relying on that is a recipe for spotty performance.

And a pro is someone who is reliable. An amateur can afford to suck when things aren’t Just Right.

That means that their music doesn’t just live in the “zone” that they have to enter by blind luck if everything else in life is perfect, just to access it. Pros grab the music and drag it out of the “zone” and into the ordinary world they may inhabit if they are on stage and nearly puking, dealing with jet lag, worried over an unpaid bill, or irked at a fight they had with a loved one 15 minutes before walking out on stage.

This is what I need to do with “Bethena,” and what I successfully did with the Ginastera before I let it decay. I could play it away from the piano in my mind start to finish, without moving my fingers. I knew exactly where the notes were with my eyes. And I rarely to never choked on it. I had technical issues, sure. But choking? Not once. I also retained it for a long, long time before disuse made it rust, and I trust I could get it back more quickly than other pieces.

Grab the music and haul it kicking and screaming out of the “zone.” We don’t live in the “zone.” We live out here in the imperfect workday world. That’s where the music must live, next to us, if we’re to perform it reliably.

I’m back into writing at the moment, so I’m not going to be able to do this, which bugs me. In many ways, my musical life was much less complicated before I discovered that I could write music. But that is absolutely the ticket at this point for “Bethena.” Playing it slowly, hands separately, and staring hard at and identifying each chord as I play it, verbally and out loud, until I can do it start to finish. Eradicating the laziness and automaticity that feels so seductive, but drags the deadly choke in on its coattails without exception.