Recital Recap (Thoughts on Success)

My recital wasn’t perfect.

This isn’t surprising. I haven’t counted exactly, but I had several thousand notes to play, and there are a lot of ways a note can come out wrong. It can be the wrong note, or out of tune, or not attacked cleanly, or left cleanly, or the wrong length, or not well blended with the notes on either side . . . and that’s not even getting into issues of phrasing and making compelling musical shapes. Playing a note correctly involves an intricate coordination of fingers, breath, and tiny muscles in the mouth, and a minor change in any of those can lead to failure.

So yeah, I made some mistakes. Some of them I noticed in real time as I was playing, and others I’m sure I’ll discover as I spend time with the recordings. In many ways, this is what classical training is: a relentless honing of one’s ability to ferret out mistakes and correct them. I’ve had a lot of that training, and I’d like to think I’m at least halfway decent at said ferreting out and fixing. I have a running list of areas for improvement in my playing, and I’m sure some of those will be reinforced by listening to this recital.

But I think it’s important to note that fixing everything on that list isn’t really a goal I have. It’s very easy to equate technical perfection with musical success, but I think that’s wrong. I don’t make music to show off my technical prowess. I make music to make people feel things.

I want to play cleanly and in tune, but I want to do that only because I think it will allow me to move people more deeply. If I want to figure out if my recital was a success or not, tallying up mistakes avoided against mistakes committed doesn’t give an answer — I have to look to the reactions of the people I was playing for. And by that metric, I succeeded. All four of the pieces I played were claimed as their favorite piece by at least one person, and I could see smiles and hear stifled giggles at the more ridiculous moments. If I brought people together and made them feel more alive, I succeeded; if I didn’t, no degree of technical perfection could save me.

That bringing together is an important part it. One of the things I love most about live concerts is their ability to facilitate community, to open up space and time for people to come together and experience the same thing side by side. It’s a simple, quiet thing, but no less meaningful for that. We live in an individualistic, atomized age, and if I can push back against that in my own small way, if I can help create opportunities for people to come together — including in the strange imagined-community way that a livestream offers — that is all to the good. I would never go so far as to describe my recitals as profound political actions, but the world I want to live in includes recitals such as these, and playing them feels like I can, however briefly, make that vision real in my small corner of the world.

This recital looked a lot like the last one, and had a similar reach. If I weren’t going off to Tisch this fall, I could quite happily imagine myself doing a similar recital every year for as long as I lived here. I sometimes feel out of step for this. Everywhere, there is the urge to be constantly growing, constantly superlative. This will be the biggest yet! More than ever before! Here’s our stretch goal! And another! This restlessness, this hunger for growth, for constant expansion isn’t totally alien to me. I’m going off to study how to write musicals, and I’d be lying if I denied that some part of me wants to write a runaway smash hit.

But it’s not all I want to do. I also want to hold space for the unassuming, the small, the already-the-right-size. Somehow, I think this is a way of grappling with eternity. Growth cannot continue forever. There are only so many people. There is only so much money. Something that needs to be bigger every year will inevitably fail sooner or later as it runs out of room. But something that can succeed while staying the same size can go on as long as there are people to do it. It creates the impression that some good things, at least, can last. I feel latent endings everywhere. The irony is definitely not lost on me that I’m saying this after a farewell recital, but for all that I’ve made my existentialist peace with endings — from the little endings of happy evenings to the heat death of the universe, the biggest ending of all — it’s still a welcome relief to imagine something that doesn’t have termination written into it from the start.

So yes. I played a recital. And I think it was a success.