Problem-Solving Series

You Know, When You Start, Whether You’re Actually Playing

Nicole Dieker recommends reading You Know, When You Start, Whether You’re Actually Trying to Solve the Problem before reading this post.

(You should probably read You Have to Practice Playing, too.)

I should tell you that when I played for L last weekend — the performance I was referring to in my review of The Courage to Be Happy, in which he sat quietly at the end and let me tell him what I thought of what I’d just done — well, I wasn’t really playing.

And I knew it, pretty much as soon as I started.

Probably before I started, honestly — because I began that particular session less focused on creating an experience and more focused on exceeding the experience I had already created.

The one from a week ago, where L told me it was the most incredible thing he’d ever seen me do.

The trouble is, sitting down and thinking I want to exceed my previous performance doesn’t work. It can’t work, because to exceed is not a playable action. (I went to theater school, so I know all about playable actions — also, it’s very interesting that they’re called playable.)

The other reason it can’t work is because thinking “I gotta do this better than I did it the last time” is — well, it’s unspecific (thinking “I’m going to give every note the chance to be heard” is a much better option) and it takes you out of the experience you’re trying to create because you’ve already started evaluating it before you even had the chance to start.

AND NONE OF THIS IS PLAYING.

NOR IS IT FUN — and that was the worst part, to be thirty seconds into a fifteen-minute piano movement and realize I wasn’t having fun.

Which meant that my audience wasn’t, either.

I need to write more about this, because the fact that playing is enjoyable — that play is play — is a huge deal. I’ve done so many performances where the dominant emotion is uncertainty or anxiety or that crossed-fingers-gritted-teeth hope that I would somehow get through it (and that people wouldn’t notice the one part that was still unclear, which of course they wouldn’t, because the thing about an unclear, unspecific, not-magic performance is that people very quickly stop paying attention to it and start daydreaming instead) that to really-truly play, after all these years, is incredible.

Probably the most incredible thing I’ve ever done.

I’ve also done a lot of performances — particularly choral and orchestral performances — where the dominant emotion has been boredom; where I’ve daydreamed my way through for one reason or another, and I need to put some time into thinking about why that happens. (How much of that boredom comes from me, for example, and how much comes from the way the ensemble is being directed? Does a conductor literally have to conduct people into a shared experience of play, and can that only happen if the conductor is not anxious or uncertain or bored? Or is it one of those deals where, if there are people in the ensemble who haven’t done the work or don’t want to be there, the entire performance falls short of magic?)

But I’ll stop here, because I need to organize my thoughts on play and work and fun and connection and commitment (and giving yourself playable actions, and discovering that you can never play the same piece in the exact same way twice [so you might as well try to make something new out of it every time], and everything else I’m thinking about right now).

Tomorrow, you’ll get a guest post from poet Allie Rigby — which is also, coincidentally, about the art of performance.

More from me on Thursday. ❤️

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