The Wakeup Sandwich

Porgi amor

Yesterday I accompanied a whole bunch of singers for voice juries.  Juries are basically final exams for music students – each student prepares several pieces, then gets ten minutes to perform in front of the voice faculty while they look intimidating and write things on clipboards.  If you’ve ever auditioned for anything, it’s a lot like an audition – brief but very stressful, and in this case, the student’s grade for the semester is riding on it.  As the pianist, it’s not really stressful for me, except that the singers’ anxiety does tend to rub off.  It’s more a matter of endurance, since it’s a lot of playing for a lot of different people.

Heading into the third hour of juries, I was playing “Porgi, amor” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.  This is one of the loveliest arias in the soprano repertoire, full of sorrow and love and longing.  So there I was, playing away, and I caught myself thinking very deeply and in great detail about… a sandwich.

A sandwich?  Really?

Okay, so I understand that the RA and the RA meds can interfere with my thinking and make concentration very difficult.  I also understand that the prednisone taper I’m doing probably had a lot to do with the subject matter.  And it was a really GOOD sandwich – prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and pesto on artisan bread.  I also know that most professional accompanists would probably admit to plenty of mind-wandering while playing, especially when they’re playing pieces they’re played hundreds of times with dozens of singers.  (“Porgi, amor” falls into that category for me, as did most of the pieces in yesterday’s batch of juries.)  Some might even take some pride in it – the music is so engrained that they can play on auto-pilot while their minds are completely free to do something else.

But still.  A sandwich?  Doesn’t Mozart deserve better than that?  Doesn’t the singer?  Don’t I? 

My friend Meg, one of the most gifted musicians (and people) I know, has recently started a blog.  The other day, she wrote a post called “Are you HERE, OR NOT… Attention MUSICIANS and EVERYONE ELSE TOO!”  You should really read it, whether you are a musician or not.  It begins with this quote: “I told a student today, look, if you are going to play this piece, you have got to go all the way, give it your all, no holds barred…if you do not want to do this, don’t bother!”  She went on to write about the experience of learning to take the music in fully, breathe with it, listen and connect deeply.  When she was younger, she says, music actually hurt her.

When I was younger, certain pieces of music used to stir up a wild longing in me that I called “howling at the moon.”  In graduate school, I remember being in the listening library late one night when I first discovered an opera that would become one of my lifelong favorites.  At the end of the listening session I rushed from the library, heart pounding, got into my car, and drove around in the middle of the night searching desperately for an open record store because I HAD TO HAVE IT.  I used to make mix tapes of pieces of music that pierced me to the heart – strange, eclectic groupings that crossed all kinds of genre lines.  I would hear a piece and have to make it my own, and it would play in my head constantly, keeping me awake at night.  I didn’t always have the discipline or the patience to work like I needed to, but sometimes I did.  At any rate, I had the passion.

When RA came along, it brought fear with it.  Fear that my hands would become deformed and stop working.  Fear that I no longer had the stamina or energy to do the work I loved.  Some of this turned out to be true – I really don’t have the stamina anymore, and have had to cut back a lot.  Some of it has not yet come to pass – my hands and wrists have only minimal damage – and who knows if it ever will?  But the fear had an interesting effect on me.  Because I was afraid that my music would be taken from me, I launched a pre-emptive strike – and took it from myself. 

I am still a working musician, even if I work a lot less now.  I am still out there, doing things like yesterday’s juries.  My career, though smaller, is by no means over.  But here I am, thinking about sandwiches while the heartbroken Countess from Figaro pleads with the heavens for her wandering husband – “Give me back my treasure, or let me die!”  I have quit before actually quitting.

It’s true that my technique is not what it used to be, and that there are some things I just can’t play anymore.  It’s true that I can’t spend as long at the keyboard as I used to.  Let’s say that my fears come true, and in a few years I am unable to play the piano anymore.  Shouldn’t I make the most of what I am doing now?  Shouldn’t every moment spent doing this work be precious and joyful?  Even if a piece is simple, or even modified, can’t I still play it with everything I’ve got, as Meg describes?

My physical therapist was annoyed that I insisted on playing for three hours yesterday.  She was right on one level – I’m in a lot of pain today, and I know that yesterday set me back – but I made a commitment to the singers and had to honor it.  I have promised her that I will not play at all for the next few weeks, and I will honor that promise because I know that I need to focus on my health right now and not risk permanent damage. 

But here’s the thing – I want it to HURT me.  Until yesterday’s sandwich wakeup call, I wasn’t feeling much of anything about having to stop playing.  I want to feel restless, eager to get back to playing.  I want it to make me work harder at my physical therapy.  I have been shutting myself off from music, not allowing it to move me, and I have been wandering around half-dead.  When I cut myself off from that part of myself, everything becomes flat and colorless, and depression isn’t far behind.  For the next few weeks, I won’t play the piano, but I want to listen to music, breathe it in, sing, move, long for it.  And if the day comes that I really can’t play at all anymore, I don’t want to go gentle into that particular good night.  Music deserves my grief.

This morning I was supposed to go to my water exercise class.  Instead, I decided at the last minute to go see the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD broadcast of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman, which was showing at a local movie theatre.  For four hours, I drank in gorgeous music, beautiful scenery and costumes.  And I don’t feel that I fell off my exercise wagon; I can go to the class anytime this week.  My body may need exercise, but my soul needed this.

Thanks, Meg.

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1 Comment

  1. Helen says:

    Thank you for this gorgeous post.

    We must grieve so much when we live with RA, and it is true that we often begin to grieve, or to give up on, the things we love before they are gone from us. I’m so glad you’re giving that music back to yourself. You deserve it, and it deserves you.

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