Last evening, I gave a truly awful performance. I was playing solo piano at the Jazzlab, and the gig was important to me because I had organised it in order to play alongside Meg Morley, whom many years ago I taught, and who was in town from London where she now lives. My playing was quite sensationally dreadful. The gig finished, my family and I went to dinner with Meg, and we drove her home. I came home and started drinking and wrote an overseas friend an email about it that tells the story:
Tonight I played, and it was abominable. I started out okay, except that I’d heard in Meg’s set that there was a really dodgy high C-sharp on the piano and it had an important part in the first piece I performed; I tried to dodge it but it wasn’t always possible and every time I heard it I got a little thrown. I opened with ‘The view from the desk’, which is slow and which people always like, and although it went okay it wasn’t particularly exciting. It wasn’t nearly as good as the version on the record with Shelley, although I finished it feeling that I’d not done anything too ghastly, only managed to stay a bit uninspiring. Then I went to ‘Our little systems’, from Mickets, which is a composition I’m really proud of and which a lot of other musicians find fascinating and compelling and whatever else. After this I played the ‘Probationary Candidacy Blues’, and it seemed to go all right; I got a bit of outside stuff done while (I think) holding on to the form and not overdoing anything. After this I played ‘In angel arms’, from Sudden in a shaft of sunlight, and I was thinking about how when I played it in Sydney shortly after Al died it made Tab cry. At the end I was almost crying myself, because it’s full of all sorts of stuff as you might imagine. Then I played ‘l.s.’ from with whom you can be who you are, and I’m afraid there were some moments of great ordinariness as I fell over myself a bit. I never know what anyone else can hear but when things aren’t going well I imagine they’re counting the moments until they can pelt me with soft fruit. Then – and this was my biggest mistake – I launched into ‘Generating’ from Freehand. It’s in seven, and it’s quick, and it’s tricky. I had been practising it though, and at home it had been travelling really well. This evening I lost it. I could feel it not being quite under my fingers, and then it fell apart completely. I bashed away resembling what I could pull together of the solo form, but I didn’t even attempt another head out as I knew it was going to be hellish. The whole thing was over-loud and random and thoroughly objectionable. I sat there thinking how I was letting Meg down, how everyone could hear that I can’t play, and I was absolutely ashamed. Then I finished with ‘Covert joy’ from King, dude and dunce and because I’ve played that about a million times since I wrote it, and it’s only medium tempo and fairly uncomplicated, it went by without incident. People were pleased with me when I finished and said nice things but I wanted to run away. We’d sort of organised to have dinner with Meg but I seriously wanted to disappear. When I made that crack on fb about giving music away to be a medical practice manager I wrote it like tonight would be my last gig. It seemed desperately appropriate once it was done.
It is true that a little while ago on Facebook I threw a tantrum and announced a change in career – if ‘career’ is what you can call what I’m doing now (I’m not exactly sure). I am working as Sally’s practice manager, and it takes up most of my weekday time; I have been determined to abandon some of the very unproductive thinking I’d been doing that was provoked by certain recent experiences with music and I feel vaguely liberated by the idea that I needn’t go crawling to venues or festivals for jobs only to have my head kicked. But music doesn’t leave you, nor do I really want to leave it behind, of course – I’m quite fond of it and I’ve worked quite hard.
In any case, the sickly feeling that followed this performance is not one with which I want to develop any greater familiarity. It was genuinely monstrous. The feeling of responsibility for something horrid, of having wasted people’s time and shown them only ugliness, of letting everyone down – Meg, the audience, the venue, myself – was overwhelming. It was almost unbearable, and as I say I set to organising myself a good big hangover for this morning.*
At the same time, I had to face it all. So I started thinking, what if it actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it was; what if people meant what they said when they thanked and congratulated me afterwards. Surely they couldn’t think that I’d meant to play like that, but what if they did? When previously I’ve heard things that I felt weren’t quite coming off, perhaps I was presuming that the musician was aiming for what I expected, when in fact they weren’t. If I knew how ‘Generating’ is supposed to go, perhaps I was the only one who did. (Except that I know I’m not, because Meg has followed my music closely and often talks with great fondness about Freehand.)
Part of my problem in life is that I think bad stuff first, and I get used to it, and I practise it, so it becomes to a degree habitual. I do have (and I shan’t apologise for this) a high standard for myself and I want to do work that is worthwhile, even good. I am critical of my work, and of my colleagues’, in the sense that I critique it, I assess it – and I am always looking for things that will maintain interest over time. With my recent work with the double trio I have experienced an uncommon professional happiness, and I have been pleased and proud. The reaction to our album has been generally very good, and I hope to make more music with this ensemble in the next year or so. The consequences of a bad performance however are really debilitating and I know I’m not going to forget what happened on Saturday night very quickly.
Ultimately what I have to accept though (and yeah, it’s obvious) is that there are times when things don’t go as well as I’d have liked them to. I need to be a grown up and understand that I am not infallible; I never have been and I never shall be. There have been other times when I played dismally; my last end of year recital for my classical teacher when I was about 18 was one such case. Having stunned everyone at the end of the previous year with the first movement of Beethoven’s op. 111, I turned up to play a couple of Schumann’s Études symphoniques and ploughed them. It felt pretty ordinary. There are recordings of me not quite making it with pieces I’m playing in trios, but I never really think of these. I have actually fucked up ‘Generating’ in performance before, although not as dramatically as the most recent effort, and to a degree this makes me wonder why I thought to present it. Here’s the thing though: we keep going. Since his death I have watched a talk given by Richard Gill in which he alluded to the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ So it must be.
*For some reason, this did not eventuate. I am unable to account for my good fortune.