Picture a bleak place where the only thing that pervades your senses is the overwhelming presence of shame and an uncontrollable hysteria of inner-guilt. For one seemingly eternal night in my childhood that was what I experienced riding home amidst the dark backseat interior of my parents’ car. Everything seemed to loom larger than life for me at the time: my disappointment, my parents’ consoling efforts, the never-ending commute home. I even felt the glances of judgment from strangers in passing vehicles. What was a kid my age supposed to do? Wallow in my own self-pity? Endlessly obsess over my imperfection?
On another typically nice California autumn evening, I walked in front of a small but cozy audience prepared to play two short Beethoven Ecossaises. It was an informal house recital, very casual; parents and teachers were innocently and unassumingly in attendance to support their sons, daughters, and students. But through my 7-year-old eyes, it was something of much greater magnitude. I fantasized the deep echo-y acoustics of an enormous concert hall, the fancy designs of the towering balconies, the feverish sounds of anticipation emanating from the crowd… even the intensely radiant spotlight enveloping the piano.
I began to play as I lived out my elaborate performing scenario. Everything felt comfortably routine, yet I still obsessed over details. To a kid whose feet barely even touched the ground when situated at the piano, everything little thing mattered; the bench had to be just right, the keys not too far away, and the music – the music had to be flawless. For whatever compelling reason, that was the most important thing to me at the time. My approach was careful and almost clinically methodical. I made sure to exact my sense of precision on every note and phrase that coincided with my fingers. I was manipulating each intricacy to my heart’s delight, doing just as I had envisioned with the music. Everything was clicking as I pressed on with the confidence of a brazen and fearless super hero.
And then suddenly my mind went blank, as if all the data I saved for the music had been wiped from my mental hard drive, my expression resembling the kind of surprise you might see on the face of an animal, who for the first time sees its own reflection. I froze and panicked, desperately seeking a path to freedom. For what may have only been five seconds felt like an eternity. My face was red and heated with embarrassment and I could hear the anxious shuffling of feet in the audience, a sort of nervous impatience that penetrated my conscience and halted my will to continue. In no time the echoes of a concert hall deadened to short murmurs, the intricate designs became simple drapes, and the glorious stage lights melted down to ordinary house lamps. My fantasy quickly succumbed to reality. By some stroke of miracle I found a way to clumsily end the piece, gesturing my musical white flag to everyone in attendance. Silence. Then there was applause, appreciative, but probably most of it sympathetic. Humiliation. After an awkwardly sheepish bow, I took the walk of shame from the piano to the back room and cried for as long as I can remember.
All in all, as I think back to this memory, the experience was pretty normal – It was certainly not noteworthy in and of itself. What made it significant for me was how a moment of vulnerability helped to shape my outlook and approach to the piano as I matured. Certainly as a child, perfection was the goal I aimed for; it was what made or broke a good performance. But as I grew older, my feelings gradually changed. Was a perfect performance really the most interesting? Actually, no. It was without a doubt the most predictable, yet not the most engaging, exciting and captivating aspect of a performance. It takes many errors and mistakes to learn what truly propels music from being just good to being great. This instance from my childhood was the first of many times I made a mistake on stage and the more it happens to me the more I realize how human it is. It is part of growing as an artist and learning about your personality, your mind, and your confidence. What is wonderfully unique about human creativity is our ability to do imaginative, non- objective things… Attempting to be perfect all the time is a replication of machine capability, but creating nuance, colors, using imagination and inner-feeling – these are the things that transform pieces of music from simple recitations into inspired works of art. We can live out our wildest musical dreams through the impeccable desire to create rather than perfect, and at times even our occasional ‘mishaps’ can occur simply as moments of inspired embellishment.