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Yesterday, I started writing a story about what should have been a proud day in my young life – a day when my 16 year old self performed the Mozart C minor Piano Concerto with a real orchestra for the first time. A day which should have ended in celebration and feelings of pride.
I am contemplating finishing this story, with all the relish of someone who has left cleaning the cat litter trays to the last task of the day. Or maybe a better analogy would be someone preparing to dig out a large, hoary splinter from a particularly sensitive part of their body…
It was 10 minutes before the rehearsal started, and my boyfriend and I were driving around in farmland without the slightest idea where we were.
No need to panic, I thought. We’ll just retrace our steps to the last junction and I’m sure all will become clear. The said junction had three or four exits. I knew which one it definitely WASN’T, so we took the next likely road and continued to drive, both cautiously optimistic. Sadly, the optimism didn’t last long – the road dwindled and narrowed until it was barely more than a track.
3.25pm now. Rehearsal starting in 5 minutes.
We turned around with difficulty, and now all my cocky airs and graces had vanished – I was wide-eyed with panic and tension. Not a sophisticated, glamorous young woman – just an anxious little girl, who had not listened properly to her father’s directions.
We took the only other road left to us when we reached that hated junction again. But just a few minutes passed before we realised we were actually going round in circles, and heading back towards our point of origin.
“The first road must have been the right one!” I exclaimed a bit desperately. “We must have turned around just before we got to the venue.”
So we turned and went back along the original road, through the hayfields – beautiful in the early summer, but nightmarishly lonely and isolated in my eyes.
There were no such things as mobile phones. A year later (possibly prompted by this event), my parents would buy a huge cuboid of black metal, weighing roughly 2 kg which, if you plugged it into the car’s cigarette lighter, would reward you with a crackly, hissing line through which people’s voices were indecipherably, uselessly distorted – the mobile phone #1.
We couldn’t look up where we were. We couldn’t phone anyone. We couldn’t even stop anyone to ask for directions – we were in the middle of the emptiest, flattest landscape I’d ever seen, uninhabited by houses, shops or other cars. We drove, insanely fast, past the ‘Oxfordshire’ sign, and continued for miles and miles and miles.
I was crushed. I could barely breathe. The rehearsal had started – a rehearsal that had been scheduled especially for ME, in order to make sure the balance was right and the piano was positioned correctly – and I wasn’t there. Something as catastrophic as this had never happened in my narrow, sheltered universe before. My boyfriend was no longer a smiling, suave guy – he was as terrified as I was. We were just kids.
Words cannot express the horror of that car journey, as we dashed from one road to another, trying previous roads in case we missed something, going in the wrong direction on purpose simply because we hadn’t tried that road yet… as the seconds bled away and my confidence shrivelled to a tiny, intensely hot point of self-loathing and regret.
It was almost possible to believe we had somehow fallen into an Edward Hopper painting – flat, featureless, and sinister – that we were trapped for all eternity, driving in circles, as terror and adrenalin poisoned my blood, and my heart threatened to explode out of my chest.
I have no recollection of how we finally arrived, but it wasn’t relief I felt as we drew into the car park. Life was immediately going to get much worse from this point, for so many reasons, the first of which was the appalling fact I had missed the entire rehearsal.
I stumbled out of the car, and my boyfriend drove off, with one last anguished look at me – already horribly late for his football match – and I fell into the arms of my father who was waiting on the steps.
“We got lost!” I gasped, and then broke into a storm of weeping that I just couldn’t stop.
What makes me cry now is remembering how gentle my dad was with me. There were no recriminations or harsh words. He always knew when to stop talking. Whatever else his failings, that was his gift as a parent.
He must have been sick to the stomach. The conductor of the orchestra phoned my parents when I didn’t show up for the rehearsal. My dad had actually rung around the local hospitals to see if there had been any road traffic accidents.
5 o’clock had come and gone. The rehearsal was over. The orchestra had packed up their instruments and were strolling back to their cars, looking at my tear-ravaged face with curiosity and mild disapproval. Not the triumphant entrance I had imagined a few hours previously.
The next hurdle was going home and coming face to face with my mother - I think I was actually shivering with dread. I knew I deserved every accusation of childishness and irresponsibility, but I really couldn’t take any more. I was very grateful when my dad shielded me from her frustration and anger, and with a stern shake indicated that no more was to be said then.
I changed into my concert clothes, but I felt limp and ragged. I could barely lift my head. How was I going to play in the biggest concert of my life? I’d been through the mill, but the most taxing challenge was yet to come.
Fast forward. I’m sitting on stage. I’m waiting for the usual calm to descend over me as I get into that ‘performance zone’. But today it won’t come. After the ignominious events of the afternoon, I felt stripped of all my dignity. I felt shredded to the core – that I was sitting there in front of a monstrously huge audience (I’m sure it wasn’t) flayed open and raw to the bone. Nothing in my previous experience could have prepared me for how intensely vulnerable and exposed I would feel. I had no more adrenalin left. Nothing came to save me.
The orchestra started the exposition and I sat staring at the piano keys, as if I had never seen them before. Instead of their usual comforting pattern, all I could see was an inimical landscape of potential mistakes.
I don’t remember much from the performance, but one phrase is burned like a brand into my memory. I coped quite well with the fast passages, but in one slower passage involving a big leap of nearly two octaves, my mind went utterly blank. I couldn’t remember which note to land on. I couldn’t rely on muscle memory, because my muscles were quivering like jelly, and tension had shortened my tendons by about 30%. I landed wrongly – an awkward note marred Mozart’s perfect harmonies and every consecutive note in that (mercifully short) phrase became displaced.
I frequently practised without music at home – because I thought that was how one learned to play from memory. I was wrong about that. The only way to play convincingly from memory is to know every note, harmony, phrase and sequence in minute, analytical detail – cerebrally, in other words, rather than relying on physical memory. Muscles in pressured situations are notoriously unreliable.
Anyway, sitting in the debris of a fast-unravelling performance, I realised I didn’t know the music at all. I could play it at home, but I had not given any consideration to the piece’s structure, to its building blocks. This is partly because I didn’t like it that much – the concerto I had REALLY wanted to play was the D minor, but there were no clarinet parts scored so I’d been coerced into playing the C minor instead.
At that point, I hated everything – the piano, my parents, my teacher, and most of all, myself.
Looking back now, I can see that many of my neuroses stem from that black moment on stage. I vowed I would never again allow myself to experience such a nightmare – even if it meant coasting through life, wrapped in a figurative duvet of mediocrity. Every concert I have ever played in since then has been haunted by that pale, despairing incarnation of me – even the successful ones, and I DID redeem myself in my own eyes (and that of my parents) by performing the D minor concerto whilst at University 3 or 4 years later.
There is a recording of that performance, and I should probably listen to it if I really want to be free from this memory’s stranglehold. I suspect it’s not nearly as awful as I’ve built it up to be. The audience have no doubt completely forgotten about listening to a rather lacklustre performance of the C minor concerto, so it’s not on THEIR account I may have stunted my future career.
I was fragile and weepy for many days after the concert, unable to even lift the lid of my piano, questioning whether there was any point in continuing as I was obviously not cut out to be a concert pianist. My mother observed this wallowing from a frosty distance for a while, and then eventually told me to pull myself together. I was not due any sympathy, she said, and this dithering and grizzling wasn’t going to help me to move on. She was right. Life had to go on.
That’s when I put the experience into a strong box, sealed it within an inch of its life, and dropped it in the ocean.
Now that I’ve opened the box, barnacled and stained with 25 years of wear and tear, I can see the contents aren’t really as fearsome as I had imagined. Put succinctly, I wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the concert, and I unfortunately missed the rehearsal because I got lost. That’s all.
I’m not sure that a simple blog post can tie up the loose ends of this particular memory, but at least I’ve opened the box. That’s always the first step. If it’s in a box, in a dark and murky place, it has power over you. If you open it, you know what you’re dealing with.
Let’s start there…