When I was a young lad and taking piano lessons with Mrs. Lutz, she used to tell me that a little birdie would listen outside my window to see if I was practicing. And then report back to her. Being a Santa Claus believer, I thought, “Why not?” and was convinced that the bird was listening when I played. I remember sometimes opening the front door in warm weather so the birdie could hear me better.
And so last night’s solo piano concert. I wasn’t nervous and that felt good, but it made me think about why. Part was a small audience of mostly folks I knew. Perhaps had it been Carnegie Hall, it wouldn’t have been quite the same. But why not? What does nervousness imply? That you’re not prepared to publicly share? That you know people will be judging you and you don’t want to fall short? That you’re scared to be vulnerable? That you’ve been trained to think of music as merely hitting all the right notes that someone else wrote? That you’re walking the tightrope of finding your own improvised notes and can never be sure where they’ll come from or if they’ll come? That a little birdie is going to report back to your teacher?
For me, things get weird if I’m playing to try to impress someone or playing to try to sound like Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans or what have you or if I’m trying to prove a point. But if I can sit in the center of the music, feel as if I’m alone in solitude and it’s a conversation between me and the music and the piano keys looking for the right silences as well as the right notes, then things feel right. And better than solitude when I can feel the audience listening with the same intensity, can sense the charge in the room when there is magic afoot and that rare moment arrives (as in can in poetry readings, Zen lectures, Orff workshops or concerts) that we are all listening “as if our lives depended on it” and we are blessed by a collective grace.
I hit a couple of moments like that last night, especially going from a Scarlatti Sonata into Cole Porter’s So in Love. Another moment of encouragement that although I’m too late and not qualified to be the “talented” performing musician who has lived and breathed and practiced rigorously music 24/7 for year after year, I have stumbled into my own way of playing that sometimes connects and touches people— including (so surprisingly!) a few virtuoso genuine musicians. It does need more practice and intention and experience, all of which I’m edging toward as time permits. But it also needs the practice of habitual vulnerability and commitment to having something to say beyond flash and dazzle. My aspirations rightfully are small, but whether it be at a local Senior Center, in an Orff workshop venue or in some small concert hall, that desire is urging me forward. If nothing else, it keeps things interesting.
Thanks to the folks who shared the evening. And I hope my little birdie heard it and reported the good news to Mrs. Lutz, wherever she may be.
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