Fairly recently, I had an opportunity to play the prelude from Bach’s cello suite VI on the violoncello da spalla to a small crowd in a modest suburban church. The pressure was almost non-existent; I’d played some cello duets there in the past and I was already familiar with this sanctuary. Not many classically trained musicians and experienced listeners were there. Many of them were just kids…! It was a very good chance to start playing Bach solos on the spalla for someone. I was even going with five full synthetic strings to make some technical elements more forgiving, although my preference to gut strings hadn’t diminished a bit.
But something was up in my psyche. It was my first time playing the Bach solo in semi-public. I knew how I wanted to play, but at the same time, I obviously knew I don’t have the technique to play the flawless prelude. I felt the strong fear of exposing my lack of ability— and I got stiffened. I lost control. My double-joined left pinky locked up at a high position. After playing this five-minute prelude, I had the disgusting sensation of self-loathing. How typical of me…!
This past Thursday I took a day trip to Marlboro Vermont. It was basically all business— I needed to grab some music that might require some Marlboro musicians to do pre-season preparations. But driving all day long, with just 90-minute work in the music library in the middle, could be a bit too much. Making a big detour to Cambridge MA on my return trip to see a good friend of mine seemed to me an exciting and attractive option. I haven’t seen her in years— perhaps I can catch up with her, stretch my legs, and take George Washington Bridge on the way back, well after New York traffic hours… Can this be a smart move? But then I realized that I was needed in the office the next morning, and that I had the concert duty that Friday evening. If I don’t return to Philadelphia tonight, I won’t be able to practice the spalla for two full days, and I’m playing another suite VI movement at the church on Sunday… I contemplated. Eventually I decided to drive straight back home, using Tappan Zee Bridge to avoid the NY traffic entirely.
On the way back, driving slightly impatiently as the large orange sun shed shallow light through the wind shield, my thoughts were on that self-loathing experience playing the prelude on the spalla from several days ago. Will I have that terrible feeling again on Sunday? Can I ever avoid it? …And something hit me with this notion that when the performance becomes all about self-satisfaction, you never enjoy performing unless you have confidence in your own ability and technique. And sadly I know I would never gain confidence in my own playing. Someone once told me that I was selfish and inconsiderate to dismiss my own playing, as is a chef to slam his/her own dish after serving it. The self-loathing comes from my selfish notion that I need to sound impeccably, when I myself admit that I’ll never be good enough to my own standard… It was just all about me, me, me.
By the time I was driving down NJ turnpike after dark, I was able to find tiny inner peace. Perhaps I could still play without feeling like digging a hole to bury myself afterwards. After I got home safely, I played the allemande through very softly on the muted spalla that night. I tried to focus on the meditative aspect of the allemande… that it is my prayer, for anyone who may appreciate what they’re listening to.
I don’t know if I can keep that small inner peace when I play the allemande in the same church on the other side of the shuteye that I’m catching right now, but I will see. I am going to indeed try not to be selfish and inconsiderate.
[Post script, posted after the allemande playing]
I wasn’t perfect obviously but I enjoyed playing it very much. I was able to give more in my playing. Have I just found a solution to my long-time problem as an instrumentalist? I don’t know, but we’ll see.