Anything can happen in live performance. As a collaborative pianist, I learned that lesson long ago. I have two stories. The first made me feel darned good about myself. The second came close to ending my career.
It was about 12 years ago. A voice major of the MUN School of Music was delivering her long-planned graduation recital, the culmination of four years of undergraduate studies. She and I got along well and enjoyed fun, productive rehearsals, so we had a great social dynamic in our favour to bring to the stage. She was from Ontario, so I thought the 300-seat performance hall would be nearly empty. It turned out that everyone she knew from her hometown decided to come to Newfoundland for a big party and to celebrate her achievement. The hall was nearly filled to boisterous capacity. In spite of our musical readiness, I was terrified backstage because of this big crowd I wasn’t expecting. The house lights go dark, stage lights are on, the door opens, and we walk on stage grinning ear to ear, looking at each other lovingly, bowing together, she in her long, flowing red gown just dying to sing for her family and friends who had traveled from far away for this one special event, and me in my tux dying for it all to be over.
I sit at the piano, start playing a little stiffly because I’m all bound up with performance anxiety. There’s a solo piano introduction, and then she starts singing. I try to imagine that we’re just in a rehearsal room on a Sunday afternoon and having fun putting it all together. I think I’m playing well, and she’s singing magnificently, even glancing at me now and then with a look that said, “Just look at us! We’re doing SO well!” We loosened up, and the performance was indeed going well. I’m relaxing a bit. It’s almost over. And that’s when it happened.
She was singing this piece by Gabriel Fauré. I forget exactly which one. By the time she got halfway through the second verse she was singing something not at all resembling what was on the page. I glanced up to see her eyes practically popping out of her head, her posture frozen stiff, and this beautiful songstress now completely and utterly lost, making it all up and singing in a language that resembled neither French nor English. She lost her memory, and I had a difficult piano part. Now keep in mind that these graduation recitals are graded. Buried in the audience in the dark are three voice professors who are analysing the performance and assigning a grade. It’s not just a recital. It’s her final exam. She was experiencing a severe memory lapse at the worst possible time. We couldn’t just stop and go back to the beginning, nor could I shout out her words to her. She would get a better grade by figuring out how get off this nightmarish musical merry-go-round and get to the end without stopping. So she kept singing gibberish, until she glanced over her shoulder at me, still singing junk words, and looking like a deer in the headlights. I gave her a big nod of my head, complete with a smile, which to the audience might have read "You're doing great" but which was intended as "Stop singing. Right now." She got the message, finished her made-up phrase, and I managed to find a good place to leap in the music to a short piano solo part. I played that very purposefully and loudly, and delivered her cleanly into the next verse when she heard the familiar accompaniment and returned to form. What lasted about 10 seconds or so felt like hours. The recital ended, the crowd cheered, and she and I averted a public meltdown.
It’s customary for university music school performers to meet their audience backstage. Her family and friends all lined up to shower her with hugs and flowers. Then came the three voice professors who, one after another, said to me, “Nice save, Dave.” Because of that terrifying moment, I unwittingly developed a reputation as a saver. Not the most technically proficient or artistic pianist, but someone who can dig a young performer out of a rut. I ended up with lots of requests the following year to accompany. Voice, trombone, trumpet, bassoon, flute, oboe, violin. So the following fall, I had heaps of work, which for a freelance pianist is a dream. My piano was stacked with wildly varied music and I was spending most of my time at the university in rehearsal. Add to that a lot of choir accompanying, private students, church fill-ins, and festival adjudication, and I was making a decent living without ever having to advertise. I thought I was set for life, never thinking that getting older might get in the way.
Three years ago, in the heat of summer and windows open, I rolled over in bed to lay on my right side because that way I couldn’t hear the early-morning traffic outside that was keeping me awake. It was a subconscious act, really. The night before, my wife was coming to bed shortly after me. I told her she forgot to set the motion sensors, which count down for a minute of high-pitched beeps. She stopped and stared at me, saying, “It’s setting now….” I sat up, and then I could hear it. I lay on my right side again, and couldn’t hear it. Turned on my left, and could. Not one to deny the obvious, I made an appointment with an audiologist and it was confirmed: I needed a hearing aid. For a few weeks, I felt like I aged 40 years, turning my head away, or standing or sitting to the left of friends so they couldn’t spot it. But I soon came to terms with it, and realized that it’s no different than wearing glasses, which I’ve done for 30 years already. Not to mention that it’s quite liberating turning on the aid.
But because of it, there was a big readjustment I had to make in my music work. In rehearsals, I was told I wasn’t playing loud enough. That was never a problem for me before. It turned out that I was now underplaying because everything was amplified and I thought I was playing piano much too loudly. So for a while, I had to re-learn to accompany, to rediscover my balance so to speak. There was one other issue creeping into my work at the same time: involuntary cracking knuckles and soreness in my hands. Arthritis. Awesome. Earlier this year, out of one of my knuckles grew this grotesque, incredibly painful arthritic cyst that needed a minor day surgical procedure. Between performance anxiety, hearing loss, arthritis… and don’t get me started on my progressive lenses and how I can’t seem to pull the piano bookrest close enough to my face… It’s like the gods of music were screaming at me to give it up once and for all and fade into retirement. As if to put a fine point on it, all of those issues converged in one defining moment.
Last spring, I was playing piano for an oboist on her undergraduate final recital. She’s a superb musician and was a delight to play for. Here’s the deal with hearing aids these days. They’re battery-operated miniature computerized amplifiers. They're very discreet and work beautifully, until the battery dies. A battery lasts about a week, and for a few hours before it gives up the ghost, it sends a signal to your eardrum with episodic quick double-beeps to remind you that the battery is dying and needs to be replaced. When the battery finally dies, the signal is different. It’s a series of four quick beeps in descending pitch. The instant those beeps end, the battery is dead and I’m nearly deaf again in my left ear. I don’t mark on a calendar when I put in a new battery. I just wait for the signal or for the battery to die, and it takes a couple of seconds to replace it. There’s nothing to it. Unless you’re on stage in the middle of an oboe recital.
So there we were, flying through a gorgeous one-hour recital. About a third of the way through, I hear the faint “beep-beep” warning signal in my left ear. Pardon the salty language, but I’ll never forget this. I literally thought to myself in mid-performance, “Shit.” I nearly said it out loud. I was distracted for a few seconds, annoyed at myself for forgetting to change my battery, but somewhat relieved that it has enough power to get me through the recital. But about a minute later, another “beep-beep.” That shouldn’t have happened so soon. Uh-oh. Another 30 seconds or so later, the dreaded descending tones…and shut-down. Still more than half of the recital remaining.
Let me tell you, this is far worse than the old lady with the candy wrapper, the guy with the coughing fit, or the cell phone going off. At least everyone on and off stage can hear and sympathize in those moments. What I’m experiencing with those shagging beeps in my left ear in mid-performance is my own private invisible little hell. Remember that Road Runner cartoon where Wile E. Coyote is coated with wet cement, tries to run but he can’t move?
That’s how I felt in that moment. Like my fingers were stuck to the keys, and it felt worse the more I forced myself to keep moving, wanting to get out of there but couldn't. I guess it didn’t translate that way, because the oboist was playing along and I guess I was keeping up with her. But it was in that moment, in the middle of some crazy difficult piano lick, all the while feeling that annoying bandage on my sore finger, I remember saying to myself on stage, “This is the last student recital I’ll ever accompany. I’m done.” And I was. I felt like standing up then and there to announce this to the audience, leave the stage, and crack open a bottle of wine. But I still had some unfinished business. The recital ended, it was apparently successful, and I couldn’t get out of the building fast enough. Over the next week or so, I finished my few smaller obligations to some other kids at MUN I was accompanying, then sent them each an e-mail to wish them well in their future endeavours.
So I’ve thought long and hard about full-on retirement from music. I had just finished my PhD on musicians’ careers and was experiencing some of the same self-reflection, doubt and ailments many of my research participants spoke of. But right at the moment I was walking away from nearly 20 years of student accompanying — and I don’t know if this is coincidence or not — I ended up in decent demand for fresh choir work, solo gigs and adjudicating again. I even played my long-planned solo recital, but on my own terms, as a private house concert for a select small group of family and friends. And it feels good again being a musician. I’m thankfully back playing as much as I ever have, even turning things down now and then. That’s mighty gratifying. But I am also newly alert to the fragile nature of this work and can now personally relate to some of my research participants, all musicians whose work and income depend not just on how successful they are at self-promotion, but also on keeping their bodies and minds healthy.
I wish I could explain why I keep doing this to myself, like I'm some kind of masochist. It doesn't make sense, does it? The closest analogy I can think of is in sports. The top hitters in baseball have averages of about .300 or so. That means they hit safely around 30% of the time they're at bat. Which means they are unsuccessful 70% of the time. And they keep at it for years and years. They accept their fate because they've spent their entire lives since and including childhood trying to get better at it, adapting their bodies to the game, and every triumph rises above all of the misses. I guess that's what it is. I've dwelled here on getting older and some perils I've experienced. But reading between the lines, maybe you can see the triumphs manifested in relationships with other musicians, the standing ovations, the "nice saves," and unsolicited compliments after every show from someone in the audience who is in awe of you. I can’t say that I’m exactly embracing my age and these little natural hazards that seem to go along with it. But I’m adapting. I love playing music too much, relishing those little triumphs even more the older I get, to give it up just yet. I just need to remember to keep Tylenol and a spare hearing aid battery in my pocket. To my fellow independent, freelance musicians out there, take good care of yourselves, and see you on stage.