Living my Fantasy

My friends –

It has been way too long since I have written.  Yes, I’m still alive, which is more than just a flippant comment these days. I’m fine, just remaining recluse and healthy.

Back in May of this year, a dream came true for me. I was invited to perform my “Fantasy for Flute and Strings” with my team, the Newport Symphony, in December.  “Wow!”, I thought, “that’s great!!!”  And then I thought, “OMG, I’m just a lowly second-chair flutist. How the heck am I going to get up at the front of the stage and play a concerto???”  I had some work to do.

And work I did.  The first step was to memorize the piece.  Just because I wrote it doesn’t mean I know how to play it. I had loosely been learning the piece, but now I knuckled down and finished memorizing it. You know how, when you’re learning a piece of music, you sometimes wonder “why did the composer write it that way?”  I found myself thinking that a couple times and then had to tell myself, “oh wait, that would be me.  Why did I write it that way?”  The fun thing was, hey I’m the composer, I can change it if I want to!  For the most part I left it as written, changing only a few articulations and note lengths, maybe a dynamic here or there.

The rehearsal schedule for this series was very unusual for us. It was a mid-week performance on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.  Rehearsal was the day before, morning and afternoon, and that was it. Our conductor had called me over the summer and pointed out there would be no time for correcting and reprinting parts, so I went over the parts several times, both looking at the whole score, and reading each individual part as though I were playing it.  I often see details when I’m reading the parts individually that escape my eye when I’m looking at the whole score.  I made a few corrections and went over them again, and shipped them off to our conductor and librarian for dissemination to the team.

For my work, once I had the flute part memorized, I played through it every day from memory, with my computer playing the string parts for me. It was sort of a flute karaoke exercise.  I decided I would play the piece only once per day, to train myself to have one shot at it and not be able to “correct” afterwards, simulating the performance situation.  Each day I recorded myself and then listened to the recording and made some notes on what to work on. The next day I did that work first so that I was well warmed-up, then recorded my single play-through, listened to it, and made some notes for the next day.  I had several months of that.

The second step of my preparation was to work on specific performance skills. These things are not taught in music school, at least not when I was there. They really should be.  I did some serious work with my counselor, as well as reading some interesting books about performance anxiety. I highly recommend The Performer Prepares by Robert Caldwell and The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris. These provided some nuts and bolts exercises for preparation which I found immensely helpful. Here are a few things that I learned:

  1. Fear is my friend, not my enemy. It is impossible NOT to have a fear response (“fight or flight”). It is hardwired into our brains, so stop trying to get rid of it. It is a survival skill and is meant to be helpful. Your job is to change your relationship with fear. Invite it in, be with it, learn how to manage it rather than letting it control the show. Don’t be afraid of your fear.
  2. One way to manage fear is to tune in to all your senses. What are you hearing, smelling, seeing, tasting, feeling (tactile) right now?  This helps reduce the fear to one small part of your reality along with everything else, instead of being your entire in-your-face reality.
  3. Fear makes my heart beat faster, and actually pound sometimes.  My heart is my “cor” (Latin), my “coeur” (French), which give us the English words “courage” and “encouragement”.  Therefore, fear brings its own courage. When I feel my heart pounding away just before going on stage, that’s my courage pounding away in there. Fear and courage are inseparable, two sides of the same coin. They are my friend; they bring me energy and stamina and focus and will help me through this.
  4. Learn to ignore the chatter in your head. This is a skill that, like any other skill, gets better with practice. Here’s a big one: it is completely unimportant whether the thought is true or not. What is important: is it helpful to your performance to be having this thought right now? Answer: NO. Learn to ignore the thoughts (“I’m not good enough”, “what if so-and-so is in the audience?”, “what if so-and-so is NOT in the audience?”, “what if I completely blow it and all my colleagues lose their respect for me?”, “oh that phrase went well”, “stop thinking that thought!” etc, etc), and ignore the thoughts about the thoughts; it’s all just chatter.  You have a task at hand which demands 110% of your attention. The next note, the next phrase, the next breath, how’s your intonation? Are you ahead/behind the beat? Vibrato, articulation, what tone color do you want here, what dynamic, keeping track of the roadmap, here’s the B section, here’s the recap.  Frankly, there is no time for any thoughts but your mindful continuous guidance to your fingers, your body, your instrument.  Learn to ignore the chatter. If a thought, or a thought about a thought, grabs your attention, drop it immediately and refocus.  You’ll have time to think about it later.
  5. The notes are not important. It is more important to deliver an enjoyable musical experience than to deliver a technically “perfect” execution. If you are playing with energy and focus, interpreting the music in a meaningful way, providing this shared emotional experience which we call live performance, no one will remember that you played an F instead of an E, or for that matter even notice. What they’ll remember is the beauty you created and shared, the emotions it evoked, your poise and energy on stage, the excitement in the fast movement and the tenderness in the slow one. Forgive yourself in advance for being human.  All musicians are human. We all make “mistakes”, also known as “giving character to a live performance.” The notes themselves are not important.
  6. Everyone in your audience is a human being just like you. They have pain and joy in their life just like you.  Have compassion for them.  It’s hard to be afraid of people for whom you have compassion.
  7. Take a look at Power Posing.   Do that in the wings as you wait. It won’t hurt.

On Sunday evening of my performance week, my sister flew in to Portland from Vermont. Tuesday morning we got up early, loaded the car and headed off to Newport. When we got to rehearsal, my piece was first on the schedule.  “Here we go!” I thought. I have no words to describe the thrill I was feeling finally hearing my music come alive on real instruments. “This sounds so fabulous!!” That was the first thought I had to ignore in order to focus on playing.

It was kind of surreal, being the soloist. I felt I had been cast in that part in a play. Here I am at the front of the stage, between the conductor and the concertmaster, playing my part.  You know how this goes; you’ve seen it done.  The first rehearsal went well. By the afternoon rehearsal the novelty had worn off; I was more relaxed and having more fun.

My brother and his wife were on the road up from California and met us in Newport for dinner Tuesday at the Sylvia Beach Hotel.  We had a table for just us four; other tables were far enough away to feel comfortable for COVID safety.  We had a wonderful evening reconnecting and reminiscing.

Often, a guest artist joins us for rehearsal Saturday morning and then plays the concert that same night.  In my case, I had the luxury of a full night’s sleep between the rehearsals on Tuesday and the concerts on Wednesday. I was pretty excited and sleep was a bit elusive. I just kept practicing my skills of ignoring the chatter and tuning in to my senses, and yes, I did get some sleep.

Wednesday, concert day, finally arrived.  The hours seemed to go slower and slower as our 2pm matinee approached. Finally, it was time to get dressed and go to the PAC.  Waiting in the green room, finally time to be in the wings waiting to play.  Finally, finally time, the moment, to walk on stage and smile at my audience.  At long last, the downbeat, the music begins, my music, my Fantasy comes to life. No more time to think about any of that now; gotta focus on my job.

I felt pretty good about the matinee. I think my focus wandered only twice and I jumped right back to it. I have no idea how obvious the glitches were. As I walked off stage I felt sky-high.  “That was pretty darn good” I told myself. The audience loved it; they were on their feet at the end. Wow.  I did it.

My siblings and I had an early dinner together (take-out in my room), then back to the PAC for the evening performance. I was a little alarmed at how calm I felt. It wasn’t until the piece right before mine began that my heart finally started beating a little faster, and I felt relieved. “Ah, here is my friend, my fear/courage, to help me through this,” I thought.

I have to say, I rocked the evening performance. Absolutely perfect “inner game” – my attention stayed exactly where I needed it, the chatter was just a little background noise in my brain and I didn’t get snagged at all.  I was “ON”.  It felt great.  

Because of the pandemic, there was no party afterwards, no reception for the soloist, no mingling with my audience.  After the matinee, friends from Florence, about an hour south, who had driven up to see me perform, and waited for me outside in the parking lot to speak to me. That was the extent of the mingling. After the evening concert, when it was all over, we four went to my sister’s hotel room and had our own little gathering.  My siblings procured some beverages, chocolate, snacks, and we de-compressed together. I am so glad they were able to be there with me, to share that moment.

I am not normally a thrill-seeking type of person.  Sky diving and bungie jumping have no attraction for me. But I would play a concerto again.  I almost crave it now.  That altered state of mind when all your attention is focused on one thing, and only one thing, when you are called upon to bring all your years of training and experience and musical abilities into play, and to be alive like never before. I would do that again.  Sure. In a heartbeat. Or perhaps I should say, in a lot of very fast heartbeats.

Another performance skill no one ever mentioned to me was dealing with the “postpartum” depression after its all over.  You spend months and months preparing, training, practicing, then the big event happens, then nothing.  You’re exhausted and wondering what’s next; all your visitors have gone home and you’re back in you own little mundane life.  

This is where the flowers someone gives you on stage come in handy.  Mine are on the dining room table, still blooming.  Its great to be able to look at them and remember, and be content. I know they’ll fade soon, but they’ll last long enough to help with the transition from “rock star” back to “normal”.  They’ll help set me down gently, on my feet, ready for the next adventure.

Published by Adrian Dee

Flutist, composer

One thought on “Living my Fantasy

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