I’ve skimmed over quite a bit of the actual piano playing I did during my undergrad/graduate years, mostly because so much of it was skill acquisition. Before it sounds like I either spent all day in the practice room or playing Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and subsequently calling myself a “concert pianist,” I want to highlight several events that changed the way I thought about myself as a musician.
It was during my junior year of college that I developed a love for collaborative piano. I worked closely with another student on his junior recital, and the experience of learning the repertoire and putting it all together was like one big warm fuzzy affirmation that I’d made the right decision regarding my major. I also accompanied the Hope College Chapel Choir during rehearsals that year. I’ll be honest: I was a terrible accompanist. I couldn’t sightread anything, especially not multiple staves, and choral literature took a back burner as I prepared my junior recital program. After being reamed out by the choir director one day for being unprepared at a rehearsal, I went boo-hoo-hooing to Charles, who didn’t mince words when he told me that my reputation as a pianist was on the line every time my hands touched the keyboard, and that the director had every right to be upset with me. I’ll never forget it. Though I won’t say that from that point on I showed up to every choral rehearsal with my music learned upside-down, I no longer made excuses that “I just didn’t get to it” or “Your tempo is faster than the one I practiced” or things like that. If I wanted to call myself a pianist, I was basically “on call” whenever I was asked to play. It was an important lesson for me to learn.
I sought out accompanying opportunities at Peabody, but my teacher mostly discouraged me from collaborative playing, saying I needed to focus solely on my technique. In my typical fashion I ignored her, justifying it by saying I needed more playing experience and to learn more repertoire. I’m not sure who was ultimately right, but playing with other Peabody students greatly improved my accompanying skills and sealed my love for musical collaboration. My experiences at the time included playing for an outstanding mezzo-soprano for the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions, accompanying a young cellist as she played for numerous competitions and recitals, and premiering an exciting piece for piano and percussion at the Baltimore Composers Forum.
I struggle with competitiveness; it’s in my nature to want to be the BEST at something, but as I’ve mentioned before, self-doubt is my worst enemy, and I have an unfortunate tendency to crack under pressure. In order to perform beyond required recitals, however, it was necessary to put myself out there and audition for opportunities to play. I played in a few concerto competitions as a teenager, but at Hope I had the chance to audition for the annual Bach competition, the DeVos Showcase concert held every year in Grand Rapids, and the concerto/aria competition. I was successful at all of those, though I have absolutely NO memory of playing the first movement of the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor with the Hope College Symphony. NONE. (If anyone reading this blog has any memory of that performance, please, share it with me, because apparently my subconscious decided to block the entire experience out of my mind to protect my fragile ego from further trauma.) In early 1999, I learned the rest of the concerto and played my junior recital program for the Music Teacher’s National Association (MTNA) regional competition, right around the same time I was playing all of my graduate school auditions AND learning my senior recital program. Did I mention a left shoulder injury?
In 2006, I was teaching at Sacred Heart Academy in Buffalo, and though I was playing piano all day long, it wasn’t anything terribly substantial. I had stayed in touch with Nancy Roldán, the professor I assisted at Peabody, who was now at the helm of a new music festival and competition in the Baltimore/DC area, associated with the American Liszt Society. She encouraged me (well, actually she TOLD me) to apply and audition for the American Pianist division, which required preparing a Bach Prelude and Fugue, a sonata movement, and an étude. I drove down to Baltimore several times for lessons with Nancy in preparation, and was ultimately selected as a semi-finalist. During a month-long trip to Scotland to visit my cousin and her family, I insisted on practicing whenever and wherever I could. We took a week-long sojourn to the southern coast of England, and desperate to keep my fingers somewhat in shape, my cousin and I even went so far as to knock on the famous folk musician Billy Bragg’s front door to ask if he had a piano I could use! I’ll give my cousin full credit for having the chutzpah to spearhead that mission.
The competition was in September 2006, held at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, and I spent the week in advance preparing for that performance like I’d never done before. Lessons, practice, rest, good food, more practice, tears, frustration, elation, pure unadulterated fear–that week was such a roller coaster. When it was time to perform, I played my heart out on a gorgeous Fazioli in LeClerc Hall, possessed with a focus and sense of calm I’d never felt before. I ended up winning second place in what is now called the Liszt-Garrison International Festival and Piano Competition.
Unlike any other performing experience until that point, the Liszt-Garrison competition proved to me what I was able to accomplish with the proper focus, work ethic, and support system in place. Obviously at that time in my life, it was unsustainable; I had a family and a demanding full-time teaching job, and I wasn’t about to dump all of that and hit the concert circuit. But in terms of how I viewed myself afterwards, everything changed. Whereas before I never saw myself as a performer, I was able to assimilate that role in future performances, almost like an actor becomes a character on stage. I was able to detach myself from playing; no longer a slave to thoughts such as “what happens if I mess up” and “what do people think,” I started seeing myself as simply doing a job, expressing the composer’s intentions. It sounds like the exact opposite of what most people view as the essence of music-making –isn’t music by definition a reflection of the human spirit, with all of its tumultuous emotions? But I found that if I allowed those emotions to get in the way of the more practical aspects of playing, I was ultimately less effective at communicating those emotions.
I’ve mentioned Sacred Heart Academy a few times; this wonderful institution was my professional home for eight years, and the tale of how I ended up as their Director of Music from 2004-2012 is a good one. I started my musical career wanting to be a high school choral director, but that path changed significantly over the years. Now I was about to find myself doing the exact thing I set out to do at age seventeen, only with no formal training. It was time to improvise!