Re-addressing my classical past
Also did my first "pseudo-classical" concert in really over 11 years. I've been sort of battling "classical demons" for some time now, ever since I left Indiana University with my B.mus in Classical Piano. As I've recounted before, my teacher was definitely uncompromisingly "old school"; he had little tolerance for someone who was interested in the dreaded "j" word - jazz. My experience was so unpleasant, in fact, that he in a sense sort of "chased me" into jazz (or at least away from classical music); and I'd stayed away since then, ie. for the past 11 years, until this concert this past July. To make the situation more "symbolic", the concert was with my actual first piano teacher, Dina Namer, with whom I studied from the age of 6 (when I could barely sit still for the hour lesson and, in fact, often had to leave the lesson 3 times to go to the bathroom!) til 18, when I went away to college to study at Indiana. And to top it off, this first classical performance in years was in my hometown of Ottawa, AND was being recorded by CBC radio, for eventual national broadcast.
I think I regarded this concert, then, as a way of exorcising demons; of re-addressing classical music, but this time on my own terms; with myself being the one this time who decided my feelings on the genre. We focused on 20th century duo piano repertoire: Milhaud's often-played Scaramouche; Stravinsky's very neo-classic Sonata for 2 pianos; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue; a piece by Hovhaness which we (both!) improvised on, and a new work I wrote with this occasion in mind entitled "Round and Round Variations" (a version of this piece, called "Round and Round", also appears on my new solo album).
The first thing which was interesting to me was the sheer amount of rehearsal required; I had forgotten about that particular type of discipline involved (the jazz world certainly requires preparation, but it's not so much about mastering my instrument technically anymore as it is about inputting as many different influences aurally as possible, and about psychologically always working to harness "the moment" when I play). It was nice because my former teacher Dina and I, who have kept in touch these past several years, both really got to come to terms, in a way, with the past, and to deal with each other's genres in some way, so that we could in a sense find some "common musical ground". Along these lines, I deliberately wrote in my original piece a section for her to improvise on, sort of an "ad lib" cadenza; I was very surprised when she dived right in like she had been improvising for years. I also wrote the bulk of the piece in a driving 7/4 time a la the last mvt. of Prokofiev's Piano Sonata no. 7 by which it is inspired, except that the piece was really a sort of "disguised blues", with essentially "written out extemporizations" for Dina to "blow" on. I later heard that she was quite nervous about such sections, about getting the rhythm just right, and that she worked very hard to make sure she nailed things, which she certainly did, at the concert.
My experience re-addressing classical was similarly nerve-wracking. At first, it was painful just dusting off some of the old repertoire (and memories) in preparation. But as I continued to practice, what I actually discovered was that somehow miraculously my technique felt better now than it did when I gave classical music up. I guess there was something so psychologically freeing about playing jazz these past years that my approach to the piano had just become more organic. Still, I think til literally just before performance time, I harbored the rather presumptuous notion that I would just sort of go up there, let the adrenaline kick in, and essentially approach the concert as I would any jazz recital.
What I had forgotten, however, was just what it felt like to be a classical performer. It had rained that evening, and the church was exceptionally hot and humid; the keys were literally dripping with moisture. The performance took place in a church in front of some 800 people, a packed house, as is always the case, it seems, at these Ottawa Chamber Music Festival concerts. And from the first note, I was surprised that my overriding emotion was one of actual nervousness (vs. the adrenaline I was hoping for, or the excitement/the sense of adventure I often get when doing more improvised performances). Sitting there at the keyboard playing the first movement of the Milhaud, the obvious notion suddenly occured to me that I had to play exactly what was written, whether I liked it or not, regardless of what I was feeling at the time. I felt immediately constricted, and self-conscious, and began playing all manner of mind games as I went along (hmmm, I wonder if I'll now make a mistake right here - whoops, there we go...). I was so distressed, in fact, that I couldn't get myself to listen to the recording made of the evening's concert until just today, 2 months later.
But now that I've had time to reflect, I realize that while the concert was far from perfect (though the audience, I should add, was very warm and responsive, particularly to the Gershwin, my original piece, and the "encore" of our "improvised" Hovhaness), it was probably an achievement just to do it, just to get through it, just to re-explore, if only preliminarily, the whole classical world. What it's done, I think, is in a way to give me new-found respect for the sheer dedication of hours and practice involved to really internalize a work, so that one can then comfortably "depart" from it, or really enjoy the process of performing live. Would I want to repeat the experience? I think the perfectionist in me is dying for another crack at that concert; I tend to be a fast learner, and now that I can anticipate the atmosphere, and have a better understanding of the type of preparation involved, I think it would go vastly better the next time, and I could actually truly enjoy myself as I played, which in a sense is always the goal, in part, for me. But I have to ask myself: do I really want to devote the time required to learn repertoire, in a sense, "by rote", to internalize someone else's music enough so that I can then have the confidence to add my own musical "spin" to it, my interpretation, as it were?
I think for me it's probably better to attack the classical world from a different angle - namely as composer, and I think this concert in a way newly-motivated me in this regard, ie. to write larger-scale works. I have great respect for the classical composers (and still have spent the majority of my life studying and playing their music). I guess I'm just realizing that it's time to start focusing on as direct a form of expression at this point in my life as possible. And this means original composition, though certainly some of which will be for orchestra, and will include my extensive classical background in influence.
Whether I've put the shadows of my classical past behind me remains to be seen. It was in a way so disconcerting to actually be "nervous" at a concert that it sort of "threw" me for a while in subsequent jazz performances; there's still something about the classical world which brings out a certain self-consciousness in one's technical approach to the instrument; something about the requirement to have perhaps a too-conscious hold on exactly how one handle's one's instrument on a technical level. But hopefully what the concert will ultimately succeed in doing is to make me less afraid of my classical past; less afraid to integrate in a more conscious way the lessons I learned playing classical repertoire, as I continue with my own writing and playing in my own musical world (and hopefully create new "hybrid" worlds of my own).