I hope I play the piece better than last time. Oh, there’s the music critic. His most recent review of me said I was overrated and oversold. Also, this is going to be on live radio. If I make a mistake, about 3 billion people will hear it. It wouldn’t be the first time.
In interviews, I often read things like “For me, it doesn’t matter whether I’m playing in my living room or onstage,” or “Performing is my life,” or “Oh, did you like it? Well, thanks—I’m really only a medium for the voice of the composer, though.”
Are classical musicians lying when they say things like that? Not exactly. Most of us really do love our jobs, the music, even, a lot of the time, the concerts we play. Hopefully we wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. But it’s a long way from loving what you do to doing it with the real lightness and positive autonomy that healthy confidence breeds. How to get to that point, and the hiccups along the way—that’s something we may talk about with friends or colleagues, but under no circumstances with the audience.
And why is this exactly: Why don’t we talk more about what’s really going on in our heads? Why is it taboo to admit when we have problems, or to talk about the pieces and situations with which we’re struggling? In interview after interview, we smile and hold our tongues, try to make things seem better than they are. But do we really think that the image of the untouchable musician god will help us sell more tickets and CDs?
Recently, I had a concert in Vienna, at the Musikverein. A violinist—the queen of violinists, actually—was pictured on the cover of the annual program book. She was radiantly beautiful; she looked much younger than her years. And the title on the booklet was: “The Flawless One.” On display was an elegant musician, who plays to the highest standards of perfection—her only objective was to show the composition in its sublime, noble beauty, which she will do without breaking a sweat, the image promised. There’s no sign of inner conflict or doubt. But still, I felt bad for her. Keeping that up has to be stressful and scary.
Maybe this desire for perfection has something to do with classical music itself. When I play Bach or Mozart, the first feeling I have is reverence. Then I start to feel very small. I know that I’ll never be able to come up with an interpretation that truly conveys all of the greatness and beauty of their compositions. But then I don’t talk about this tension or effort—which can be productive and serve the music—either. I don’t want to give people the impression that I’m simply not up to the challenge. So I fall into line.
If I’m asked about a concert, I’m “particularly excited about it.” (I probably don’t even really know where it is, much less what it’ll be like.) Paganini is an “exciting challenge.” (I’m scared.) “If I played the violin, sure I could be more virtuosic, but I like the dark sound of the viola…” (How could anyone ask such a stupid question?)
Personally, I’m more interested in weirdos: musicians who aren’t afraid to be eccentric, who put their hearts and souls into a piece and aren’t afraid to let it show. Ginette Neveu, the violinist who died tragically young in a plane crash, played Brahms’s Violin Concerto with such deep desperation that every single note sounded like it might be her last. Radu Lupu’s Schubert is so melancholy, so private, that my main concern when listening is that I don’t disturb him. It’s an honor to share even a moment of that magic. When a performance is palpably human, that—not the perfection—is what casts the spell.
Musicians, let’s talk about things: What our careers are really like; our sometimes-unrequited devotion to our craft; the contrast between beauty and ugliness and how each has its place; the mixture of objectively ludicrous self-confidence and equally unfounded despair that motivates us. Let’s talk about success and failure both. And let’s not be ashamed of the latter. I couldn’t put it better than Cate Blanchett, who once said, “If you are going to fail, then fail gloriously.” ¶