A high-level administrator of a reputable orchestra recently paid me what I — and I imagine most of my colleagues would have — perceived as a backhanded compliment mere moments after walking offstage: “You played beautifully; all those little things don’t matter,” she cooed, miming a violinist’s left hand in action. “The important moments — they were beautiful.”
Non-musicians might struggle to empathize with or even identify the offending portion of that remark. To those of us in the performing arts, however, “those little things” — the pianist’s right-hand cramp, rendering that night’s passagework ever-so-slightly clumsier than usual; the dancer’s quivering ankle; the poet’s fleeting memory lapse, delaying the next stanza by milliseconds — are specters that haunt us long after we’ve left the stage. We can be showered with applause, begged for encores, praised to the high heavens in national news publications; but in the moment, “those little things” (which, by the way, we’re painfully aware of without anyone else bringing them to our attention) can feel like billboard-sized scarlet letters, branded indelibly not only onto that one performance but upon our very souls.
And yet when Administrator delivered that morsel of faint praise in the hushed, conspiratorial tone of a fellow musician, rather than descend into a post-concert shame-spiral, I let the sting wash over me briefly, and then, for perhaps the first time in my long history of backhanded-compliment-collecting, I decided to believe her. I chose to acknowledge the condescending bit, catalog it for a future practice session, and then move on to embrace the untainted portion of her congratulations. Because she was, after all, correct: “those little things” truly don’t matter.
I will be brutally honest: I have never once in my life fancied myself a Great Violinist. There are people for whom playing a musical instrument appears to be a physical extension of their own bodies — it must be something to do with their anatomy, the way their arms engulf the wood or metal of their chosen tools. Playing seems natural for them, effortless, like it’s something they could do in their sleep, and — particularly frustrating for folks like me — sometimes even without much in the way of practicing. This may be purely illusory, and I’ve known different types within the “effortless” category: those who have had to work as hard as anyone else to achieve their level of proficiency, and those who simply don’t need to practice all that much. The latter will forever hold mystical appeal to me.
I had incredible first violin teachers, bizarre and endearing characters who urged me to find my voice, experiment with tone color, and read about/listen to music with a voracious appetite from the age of five. Learning how to hold a bow effectively and without tension, however, was not high on their list of priorities. I wasn’t properly set up until a good nine years into my musical studies. I was cursed with The Shakes until the age of 19, and with chronic upper back and shoulder tension until several years after that. It wasn’t until I discovered yoga at the age of 23 that playing the violin — the physical, mechanical process of putting bow to strings — began to make sense to me on a cellular level.
The feedback I received about my violin playing from family members, random audience members, and critics alike was always fairly consistent, even from a young age: “You’re very musical.” “You really connect with the audience.” “You sure looked like you were having fun up there!” “The slow movement was beautiful.” None of these comments were or are even remotely cause for disappointment, yet I always interpreted them as consolation prizes, inserting a mental “It was technically disappointing, but…” before each of them. Despite my best efforts — up to 7 hours of daily practice in high school, fanatical study of the great violinists of eras past, decades of an obsessive daily warm-up routine designed to tackle my greatest technical insecurities — I’ve never once felt capable of dazzling a room with my violinistic showmanship. I’m not known for my third movement of Tchaikovsky Concerto (tubby), or Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso (meh), or Paganini Caprices (NEVER AGAIN).
But I look back on all of the “goosebump” moments I’ve experienced as a listener, and I can’t remember a single one born out of the above pieces, or really any showpiece, for that matter. Instead, I can recall vividly Arnold Steinhardt’s achingly beautiful downward slides in the Cavatina movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 130. The shimmery warmth of Kreisler’s thirds in his own Caprice Viennois on an old LP. Claude Frank’s slow movement of Schubert’s B-flat Sonata, during which time stood still and every heart in a five-mile radius of Field Concert Hall throbbed at the cosmic shift he had set in motion. And I think to myself, “That stuff matters.”
Mr. Frank had at least one hefty memory slip that night. Kreisler’s intonation can often best be described as “imaginative”. Mr. Steinhardt has been remarkably candid over the years about the slight tremor he experiences in his right hand when his nerves flare up. But to me, the listener, not only do these issues not matter, they actually serve to highlight these musicians’ invaluable qualities. Humanity. Complete emotional investment. An insatiable need to tell both the composer’s stories and their own. These artists can’t help but be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand.
The other day as I slumped under the florescent lights of my local nail salon, trying not to inhale the fumes of the acrylic being fused to my sad, splitting nails, I found myself drawn to the playlist streaming through the speakers: an odd mix of Frank Sinatra, Top 40 hits, and The Bee Gees. As the latter’s “How Deep Is Your Love” (one of my favorite songs of all time — seriously) started up, I found myself the teensiest bit annoyed that it wasn’t the beloved recording from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but rather a live rendition. Barry Gibb’s intonation had some wonky moments, and as with any piece or song that one has internalized, I realized how used to the prepackaged recorded version I was. Within moments, however, I found my snotty observations giving way to a thorough enjoyment of the performance, as well as genuine curiosity about how Barry might execute the coming turns of phrase. Mostly I was struck by the sound: familiar rendition or not, this was unmistakably the Bee Gees. It could be no one else. What point would there be to a sterile, or worse, unidentifiable performance? What point is there to music that bears no trace of the performer’s relationship to the material?
The Bee Gees are but one example out of millions of musical groups and solo artists. Frank Sinatra, Björk, Louie Armstrong, Mariah Carey, Radiohead, Bing Crosby, Stevie Wonder: every one of these people or ensembles has a sound, recognizable within nanoseconds of listening. If you were to attend any of these artists’ performances, would you feel jilted if they sang a little bit off-key, made up a few lyrics, or even — audible gasp — had a memory slip!? Would you refuse to clap, or ask for your money back?
Why should classical music be any different?
Ahead of one set of performances I gave a few weeks ago, I was asked to complete a written interview for a local news source. One of the prompts was regarding my political stance, which I had made fairly transparent on social media in the weeks following our presidential election. As I began to craft my response, decorum quickly went out the window and I launched into an unabashedly liberal rant with a focus on the artist’s responsibility to communicate to his or her community, particularly in times of turmoil. I had forgotten the extent of my potentially inflammatory logorrhea until the interview was published a few weeks later, and reading it back, I felt a sense of satisfaction that I’ve rarely experienced reviewing my own work. I realized that I do indeed have something to say, and when I put my mind to it, I am reasonably good at saying it. It’s taken years of trial and error, not to mention countless articles published in which I’ve made about as much sense as Sarah Palin, but this article made me feel — dare I say it — proud of myself.
As I forge my way through the beginning of a new decade, I must admit that I have become less bothered by my violinistic limitations. This is not to say that I don’t make it my daily mission to stretch the boundaries of what I am capable of; having had the perspective of an active concert violinist now for nearly 15 years, I feel that I am actually becoming more adept at honing in on the specific areas that demand improvement. But my priorities have begun to shift. I will woodshed for weeks on end to get that pesky passage up to a respectable standard, but now if I tank it in performance, I think — I hope — that my reaction will not be one of irreversible despair, poisoning both the remainder of that night’s performance and my morale for the next several days. Instead, I will acknowledge my oops-moment, vow to work harder for next time, and refocus my energy on telling the story at hand.
There are literally hundreds of violinists who can whiz through the Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky concertos more proficiently than I can. I admit this fact freely and without self-pity, and I am humbled by it. But I know that I am able to communicate, if not through jaw-dropping displays of technical dexterity, then during those more introspective moments when I can explore the bounds of nostalgia, despair, or ecstasy. I am confident in my ability to effectively convey joy and gratitude for the opportunity at hand. I am honored to be able to connect with the teenager in the masterclass who, until that moment, had never thought to exhale before setting his bow on the string. I delight in my ability to get a roomful of squirmy children quiet and focused on a Bach Sarabande. I am lucky to have writing as an outlet, to be able to pen this unnecessarily long essay and possibly, hopefully, have it strike a chord in someone out there. I may not be a Great Violinist. But I do have something to say, and I hope it’s audible.