You know that feeling you get when you haven’t exercised in a while, when unexpected soreness reminds you of the existence of muscles you forgot you had? Or maybe you know the feeling you get after the first spring afternoon spent outside after a winter of being cooped up inside? The exhilaration of a beautiful day can lead to exhaustion since the fresh air and bright sunlight are so intense all at once. Your stamina just hasn’t built up yet. Even good things like exercise and sunlight are taxing and require an easing into.
That’s what it feels like, coming back to performing after two years off. Yes, I technically did play in two musical theater shows this past year, and yes I did play a single piece at a small, casual concert back in September. But yesterday’s concert was the first of its kind that I’ve performed in since December 2019.
In contrast to playing in the dark or behind the scenes in a pit orchestra, I was on stage. Instead of playing before an audience of forty, I played in front of six-hundred. Instead of playing a part that mostly blended with the other instruments, I played parts that were mostly exposed. Instead of playing a single piece or taking long breaks between pieces, like in a musical, I played seventeen pieces in a row (with a short intermission.)
So many things were different from two years ago. Though I was working with the same director, the group was slightly different. It was smaller. Many people I knew and had looked forward to seeing didn’t come back this season. There were some new people whose names I didn’t know. The venue was different. The piano was different. The set-up was different. I was playing much farther from the chorus and director than before due to the limitations of the new space. Though the piano was fed through the sound system and the ensemble could hear me, I couldn’t hear them very well and I couldn’t tell how loud I was playing in relation to their singing. I had no choice but to completely rely on the sound technician to mix it right. There was a lag time between the sound of the chorus and myself and the rest of the instrumentalists. At times, I had to rely on my own sense of time and hope that the ensemble and I were in sync in the ears of the audience. I could barely see the director as the afternoon sunlight streaming in through unshaded windows backlit her conducting patterns. The angle was all wrong. I had to turn slightly left to read the music and slightly right to look at the conductor. Using my peripheral vision wasn’t even an option. I was very happy I had given up on getting used to my bifocals months ago because they just would have made everything much worse.
All through the concert (and the dress rehearsal the day before) I coached myself: listen to this, don’t listen to that; look at this, don’t look at that. I was tuning in and tuning out at the same time. And, of course, I was also focusing on playing the music correctly.
In short, I was using mental muscles of performance concentration I hadn’t used in a very long time, and perhaps never to that extent.
It was exhausting.
Usually, a good performance produces mixed feelings of being spent and energized at the same time. I know I’ve given my all, but I also normally want to talk about how it went and go out to eat with my family. But last night we picked up a falafel salad and headed straight home. I made such a mess eating because I could barely coordinate getting the fork to my mouth. I felt like I had been hit by a truck.
I should have expected it.
I have long told my students that learning an instrument, learning a piece, auditioning, and performing are all different skills – and they all need practice!
I’ve been out of practice performing. Even my feelings of performance anxiety returned.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with performance anxiety. But in my personal experience, that has lessened the more I have regularly been up in front of people. I got used to it. I “practiced” performing. I became comfortable with being on stage, knowing what to expect, where to go, how to stand, the brightness of the lights, the various physical sensations of performing, and what to do if I started shaking or feeling dizzy. But, in the week leading up to yesterday’s concert, the stomach twisting and the feelings of panic showed up from time to time. Yesterday, while I played one particular piece, my fingers started shaking and I internally yelled at myself, “breathe, Breathe, BREATHE!” until it finally subsided.
As we dragged ourselves into the house after the concert last night, my husband said “What a grueling weekend.” I answered, “But wait, there’s more!” And there is. More new, more firsts, more performing: my first concert at my new school tonight, and my first concert with an ensemble I’ve never performed with before (my first season with them was cut short by COVID) and a premiere next weekend.
Yes, performing has begun again for me, and it is starting with a bang! I hope I limber up quickly!
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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.