A while back I performed at my first classical concert for a long time. In my early 20’s, while at university, concerts meant STRESS! They meant months of practice worrying about the tone of each note, they meant critics watching from on high dissecting every misplaced breath; they meant competition. And it got to the point where every time I picked up my flute I felt negative because the end point, the thing I was working towards, was not fun anymore.
But I didn’t feel like that about other kinds of performance. When I was singing in dive bars the audience weren’t critical; at best they were supportive and interactive, at worst they ignored me and got on with their night. Which was fine by me! The other musicians weren’t competitive, they were a community and they helped each other out. And mistakes didn’t matter, every performance was different anyway, depending on how I was feeling that night, where I was playing. When I was jamming with a local Ska band they didn’t care where I was breathing, the Irish band didn’t care about the quality of that semiquaver half way through a phrase 48 seconds in.
So I stayed away from performing in any classical context.
And I’ve stayed away beyond what was necessary. I’ve built up an idea about what ‘classical’ performance is and I’m really scared that the negativity that influenced me five years ago is waiting just around the corner. I’ve re-found the joy I used to feel in classical music; but what if the pressures of a concert hall push me back under that cloud again?
Then Rob and I were asked to play at a local centre for adults with learning disabilities which was kind of…perfect. And the answer to something that I didn’t even know I’d been looking for. We weren’t being paid so there wasn’t any need to fulfil anyone’s specific requirements. There weren’t any judges or critics so there was no need to put any pressure on myself. The set list we’d prepared had been worked on for months, they were pieces that we were both comfortable playing and that were generally well known and loved by everyone; Swan Lake, Gymnopedie.
Not that it was easy. I’d been warned in advance that a couple of the people there were screamers and to ignore any disruptions – but I once sang at Spanish restaurant where halfway through my set they bought out a singing birthday cake, so I figured that that would be no problem!
When we walked in the staff and service users were really welcoming, they all pitched in to help us move the tables, got us drinks, settled the audience down. And when we launched into our first piece, the soaring and beautiful ‘Air on G String’, all the reasons why I loved performing classical music came rushing back. It was different to how it had been in rehearsals. I wasn’t just playing for us, I was playing for all the people in that room and I wanted to let them know how I felt when I heard this in my head.
We were well received. A man at the front gave us a thumbs up every time we finished a piece. When I asked if we had time for another few a woman at the front put her hand up to vote yes, and subsequently did the same thing at the end of every piece after that. Although there were a few screams we later found out that the girl in question screamed when she was happy and it was when she was quiet that the staff got worried. At the end, a woman who played piano gave a speech thanking us for coming.
And it was all just genuinely lovely. No stress, just lovely music played to lovely people. So my task is to remember this in the future and to take this ease and joy into the concert hall. To try and put my own negativities to rest and to just enjoy playing again. If I love the music, and I love playing, why would I not want to share that?
And I will of course be returning to the centre again if they’ll have me, just in case I forget again.
Let me know about your experiences of performance, classical or otherwise!