I hear this excuse a lot, particularly at this time of year when it’s recital and jury season. I know why students say this: they’re ashamed, defensive, afraid of disappointing the teacher. I often had the phrase on the tip of my tongue myself during my student days, although I don’t think I ever dared to say it out loud.
Now that I’m the teacher, I wonder if anyone really does sound better in the practice room than in the teacher’s studio. Could it be that we actually sound the same, but that our self-listening is better focussed under pressure than it is during daily practice?
Under the glare of stage lights, or the glare of a teacher, everything one does seems to matter intensely. Mistakes that audience members would instantly forgive, if indeed they noticed them at all, take on gigantic importance. One’s mind starts to buzz with that nasty little monologue of self-criticism, that incessant and pointless jabber of “You did it wrong! Can’t you do anything right? You should have practised more!”
Often, when I’m performing, I feel as if time has slowed down. In a recital last September, my hand sweated so much in the final, frantic section of a difficult modern piece that my bow slid out of my fingers. This dreadful moment seemed to last an age, as I saw my bow fly away from me in a perfect arc, my right arm extend, and my hand stretch out, claw-like, to clutch the bow back. Some days afterwards, when I forced myself, cringing, to watch the video, I realized the moment had been so short and my reaction so swift that it was barely noticeable if you weren’t watching out for it. It reminded me of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, in which a single moment of anxiety is stretched out into half an hour’s drama. (A less gory version of Erwartung, I hasten to add, where there are no corpses. I find it useful, in moments of stress, to remind myself that in contrast to many professions, no one dies if musicians make a mistake.)
If only we could set up performance conditions in the practice room to recreate these Schoenbergian moments! Since we can’t, we can at least work towards a more mindful practice of self-listening during practice. That is, we can avoid teaching ourselves to play consistently wrong or off-key pitches by glossing over mistakes in the practice room. For this, we need a focussed mind and few distractions. Incorporating audio and video recordings into daily practice wouldn’t hurt either, so that we can self-assess and make changes before presenting our work to anyone else.