Stages Are Magic

TOMORROW’S THE DAY. I’m giving a recital! Of music for bassoon! And sometimes piano! Some of which I wrote! And it’s open to the public and I have heard Reasonably Authoritative Rumors that there might be Real Actual People there! Which is very exciting! And also very nerve-wracking!

And yet, despite the fact that I can already feel the jangle and buzz of pre-performance anxiety, I’m pretty confident that come 3:00 tomorrow, I’m going to be fine. 

It’s all about the head game. Much of my thinking on this can be traced back to Jeff Nelsen, who gave several master classes on performance anxiety when I was at the BU Tanglewood Institute Bassoon Workshop in 2009, but over the years of living it in my own performing life, I’ve added my own wrinkles and drifted into ways of preparing that work for me. (I’ve also picked up a few handy shakes from the Bulletproof Musician blog, which I highly recommend following if you’re a performer yourself.) The core of it is this:

Nothing can go wrong on stage.

This might, at first, seem preposterous. Of course things can go wrong on stage! Everyone who’s ever been involved in any of the performing arts has their horror stories, and even when nothing explodes or catches fire, smaller slip-ups are everywhere. Surely I’m not saying I’m going to waltz out in front of the crowd and play an entire hour’s worth of solo repertoire without a single flub!

And indeed, I am not. I’ve been working on some of this music for over a year, and I am intimately familiar with every note of it. As part of that familiarity, I’m also keenly aware of where the perilous passages are. They’re not the only places I could possibly make a mistake, but they’re the ones where it’s considerably more likely. I truly do think I’ll manage to pull some of them off flawlessly, but I’m not so naïve to believe that I’ll do that with all of them. Somewhere, I’m almost certainly going to slip.

For the purposes of a performance, it doesn’t matter. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by acknowledging a mistake. Absolutely nothing. For any given mistake, some people are going to notice it no matter what you do, and some people are going to miss it entirely (indeed, some people in the audience will notice even the slightest imperfection, while others won’t suspect that anything’s wrong unless you literally stop the show and say “wow, that was super bad, let me go back and start over . . . ”) — acknowledging a mistake in performance is only going to move people from the latter camp into the former, and that’s decidedly not what you want. When I say that nothing can go wrong on stage, I don’t mean that in terms of an outsider’s perspective. I mean that in terms of what’s going on inside my head.

This is, in many ways, a willful act of self-delusion. It involves talking myself into believing, ardently and unquestioningly — at least for the duration of the show — that everything I’m doing is exactly what I mean to be doing, that I am a shining beacon of flawless intent.

It also means being ruthless about the past. It’s so tempting to dwell upon mistakes, to fret about What Went Wrong. If only I’d used more air/been counting more carefully/practiced that a few more times slowly/. . . This is not helpful, at least not in mid-performance. It happened, you can’t fix it. Move on. There is only the present and the immediate future, the stuff you’re doing now, and the stuff you’ll be doing soon. Those are the only things you can do anything about. But of course, if nothing has gone wrong, then there’s nothing to get caught up on! You can face each new passage confidently with a clean slate of success. (After the concert is another matter. At that point, it’s often quite helpful to go over everything and figure out if there are things you’re consistently stumbling on. I’ll be a mess come 4:00, but all I have to do at that point is eat nibblets at the reception, so the stakes are just a trifle lower. Cookies are notoriously non-judgemental.)

This takes practice. Just as I practice technical hurdles, I practice the psychological ones too. I don’t spend all my practice time taking things apart and running the problem spots under tempo, out of rhythm, backwards, etc; I reserve certain practice sessions for running the program, training myself to keep going wile projecting an aura of being calm, collected, and in-control no matter what my fingers do with this preposterous instrument we call a bassoon.

I’m not perfect at it. As with any skill that takes practice, there’s always room for improvement. Perfection may be unattainable, but with practice, you can up the odds. Just as drilling its technical passages increases my chances of making thru the Gigue in one piece, working on my performance face increases my chances of pulling out of a train wreck with a brazen, winning smile. I can’t be perfect, I can only do my best.

So that’s what I’m gonna do. On Saturday, I’m gonna walk out in front of the crowd, and I’m gonna do my best. And the whole time, I’ll be thinking to myself:

Nothing can go wrong on stage.