Letting Go II: Beethoven, performance anxiety, and the art of playing shortstop

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Indeed, what does a Beethoven sonata have in common with a prayer from a 13th century monk? Beethoven certainly was no saint himself - especially later in life he was irascible, moody, anti-social and a tyrant to cooks and housekeepers under his employ. He was deaf and in constant bad health. Yet amidst all of this his later works, written in his fifties (he was to die at 56 years) are some of the most sublime and spiritual works of western art. If you get a chance listen with your eyes closed, without distraction or disturbance, to the second movement of his last piano sonata, opus 111 (if you can, get the recording played by Mauricio Pollini). This is not the work of a man in a bad mood, bitter over his deafness and isolation, angry at the world. This is the work of a man who has LET GO...let go of his disappointments, his pain, his decaying body. In the words of St. Francis he has died to self, and in that music is an earthly resonate touch of the eternal.Which brings to mind another form of letting go, that of musical performance. I know a bit about this, having taken up classical piano in my twenties, studying and practicing intently for 10 years until carpal tunnel pains and the realization that I had more important things to do caused me to quit the obsession. I started late and was not a natural talent, but I reached a modest level of skill and in certain moments, always when alone, was actually able to not only play, but be the music. Those moments, small as they were for me, had their own sublimity. But perhaps more importantly, going through this phase in my life taught me to hear, and to appreciate the difference between a really authentic musical performance and one less than authentic.Classical musicians for the most part are highly and strictly trained, often practicing 6-8 hours a day on their instrument above and beyond their other studies. This high level of discipline has a danger, that of turning the musician into a technical virtuoso without heart and feeling. I suspect this is why most people don't listen to classical music - it can sound cold and soulless compared to a good Zydeco band rocking out with joy and passion. On top of that comes the issue of performance anxiety, one I'm intimately familiar with. When performing in front of people the classical artist becomes self-conscious, aware of an intent scrutiny from the audience totally lacking in a rock concert, where the primary expectation is a good dance beat. Most of the audience knows every note to be played, every nuance in the score, and probably has a particular favorite performance locked in their memory. This can freeze a performer in the vise of judgement, which might push some deeply buried psychological buttons from either childhood or even, in the case of inexplicable phobias, from past lives (is it possible that, having been tried and executed in a past life one might carry that fear of judgement forward into later incarnations? I'm not one to answer that definitively).So, when you hear a stiff, soulless classical music performance, you may be experiencing the musician's inability to LET GO, let go of self or self-consciousness. In such a case the best course of action is to be compassionate, it could be you afterall! And when you hear Mauricio Pollini play Beethoven's late piano sonatos, you will experience two people simoultaneously who have let go - Beethoven and Pollini.Somehow, this discussion of performance anxiety and self-consciousness has brought up an experience of mine in adulthood, an experience of dying to self on a children's playing field, and the discovery of a personal experience that illustrated a phrase in Dostoevski's "The Brothers Karamozov" - to paraphrase, it's not miracles that create faith, but faith that creates miracles.To be continued.....