• Charles

Being tense: past, present and future

People of an introverted nature cannot help but enjoy cancellations. Of course, these last few months have been rather extreme in terms of social inactivity, even for me. But now that there is a palpable and crackly sort of energy to life again, the subtle internal tautness that comes with the apprehension of an impending social gathering becomes noticeable, especially when it then relaxes a notch or two upon receiving news that your evening’s itinerary has flapped off into the breeze.

I always love being in the company of other people, sharing stories and ideas and perhaps a garlic bread, tearing pieces out of articles that we’ve read and chewing on them for a while (or, more recently, considering how our plans and ambitions may or may not be derailed). But, at the same time, people are rather tiring and, especially as my job and my social life are so closely linked, solitude is quite a reward.

Some days, my timetable is inundated with people, and then the tide of conversation recedes to allow the comparative stillness of independent monologue. My weekly workload is incredibly inconsistent, so paradoxically, I find greater stability in that. Though this timetable — if you can call it that — has become increasingly efficient, I still need to work on an underlying tension which simply doesn’t need to be there. My way around it actually comes directly from the way I practice the piano.

Stress, for me, is usually to do with either my own perceived proficiency or how much work I have to complete. As I have said in a previous post, I spend as much time trying to become more adept at my work as I actually spend working: practising, researching, writing, taking lessons, and finding more things I can’t do yet. When I encounter a pianist or a teacher or a writer who can do something more skillfully than I can, I feel that this simply won’t do, so I adjust my ambitions to surpass their level of expertise. It doesn’t work immediately, but because I am looking at a specific skill, the improvements come quite swiftly. You can’t be stressed about not being good enough because there is time and knowledge in abundance.

If I’m stressed about having a lot of work to do, I remind myself that, actually, I am really looking forward to doing it. There's no point in thinking about everything when I can just enjoy what I'm working on at that moment. When my list of tasks is long enough to roll up into a burrito it makes me feel very much alive to have quiet, simmering sensation of stress, but there is another way to look at it. If you turn stress inside out, its inverse looks rather a lot like excitement. Stress makes every motion tight and inflexible and jerky — I imagine this is quite like how it feels to be a camel — but once you are excited about a project, there’s very little that can prevent you from completing it. If you forget about the money, you find the flexibility to fit your camel through proverbially tight spaces traditionally associated with haberdashery.

This week I have been concentrating on aspects of my piano-playing technique because, after the last two months, I finally identified the source of a rather vague problem. The physical manifestation of the problem was nervousness during my live streams. Being nervous when performing a load of music I supposedly know well is the stupidest type of stupidity. Performance is what I built my entire career on, and to feel some sort of inhibition towards it is to initiate confusion on an existentialist level. Nervousness brings physical tension, and leads to random inconsistencies and wobblinesses. It’s awfully unpleasant, like sipping a nice cocktail whilst in a dinghy on a rough sea — a circumstance in which you can't quite convincingly retain an air of jovial sophistication.

I never used to become terribly nervous when I was performing because I was working within my comfort zone. Recently, I have rather forgotten where my comfort zone was supposed to be, having spent an uncomfortable but educational amount of time outside of it. I thought that by performing a couple of live-streamed concerts of familiar music I would be able to return there. But even though the music itself sounded reasonable, the trick fundamentally didn’t work and I felt like a bit of a prat.

I needed to find out what had changed. Now, to understand any subject, I usually write an essay on it so that I can quite literally spell it out to myself. I won’t bore you with the finished piece, but it amounted to this: stop mucking about with technology you don’t understand, sit down at the piano, and build up your confidence in what you’re actually playing.

For example, the fact that my wrists gave up after just one hour of practise and another hour or performance (and only two hours’ playing the day before) suggested a failure of technique. 1,800 words later, I pinned my resultant nervousness and RSI down to insecurities in a small number of basic aspects of my fingerwork, all of which were to do with strength, tension and clarity.

Most of this remedial work was essentially an aspect of Alexander technique, putting myself in the same relaxed and neutral position regardless of such circumstances as musical style, tempo or complexity (including when the red light is illuminated). I have had only one Alexander session in my life so far, about five years ago, but the experience has stayed with me. Even though I only know a little about the technique, some of my pupils find even a broad description is helpful to think about, especially when trying something stressful and novel, like improvisation. It’s as much about mental space as physical positioning.

The most promising approach for a good performance is sounding confident in your own style. It’s an approach that I teach, too: you can really own your performance by being assertive about what you are playing, intentionally concentrating on clarity and touch before speed or spontaneity. Natural confidence emanates from a genuine interest in diligent practice for the purpose of a blazing performance. Doing it the other way around allows self-indulgence, which is surprisingly noticeable to an audience and makes them wonder why they're there. A diaphanous veil of confidence is okay if you’re well-rehearsed, but insufficient in density to cover for limited practise time. I think you have to work hard at home, then let the muses take over and surprise you with their innovation in concert. It's not in their job description to cover for you all the time.

This approach to music practise and performance extends into the rest of life. As an everyday example, cycling is my primary form of transport, though most of my individual commutes would total only a few miles a day if strung together and wound around a single bobbin. During the weeks when I am content to take time off to hurtle through the drizzle and the countryside and not return until the mid-afternoon, my commutes are effortless. When I can’t be bothered going out for a ride, every practical journey becomes an effort; this, I have discovered, is not just about glycogen reserves, but more to do with efficient pedalling technique, breathing, and possibly being accustomed to planning extra stops through the day to shovel in reserves of coal and water.

When I sort out the fundamentals — like learning how to cancel out stress with simple self-assurance that I know what I'm doing, and trusting myself to make time to learn the unknowns— everything is perfectly achievable. As long as I complete something each day, and a bit of everything in each week, that’s sufficient progress for me.

I'll be back with the recordings and the live stuff in a week or two.


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