Fear and (Self) Loathing in Avonlea

It all started off somewhat innocuously, back in April, with an e-mail from a certain artistic director I know. He’d landed a pretty cool regional gig and was sharing the news. After I congratulated him, I could not resist putting in a plug for my own, admittedly more pedantic, artistic pursuits…
“Any ‘chance’ I might be able to play some of my Christmas stylings at the theater this year? I can play the same three songs from five years ago, except slightly better.”
“Would you consider playing for Anne of Green Gables?”
Would I? Well, sure. Anne wasn’t even on the schedule until November. Shows that far away are still Exciting and Full of Possibility. Just the idea that the AD would be foolish enough to think I could actually play the show was enough to lift my mood.
Mr. Artistic Director went on to sell the opportunity, “They’re really just simple church hymns.”
Just simple church hymns? Well, hell, I ought to be able to play simple church hymns. After 40 years of crapping around at the keyboard I should be able to fumble my way through a couple of canticles. But was it really just a few ditties from the missalette, or was there more to it?
Fortunately a score was available.
The production manager loaned me the book and I went through it song by song. There were 26 compositions, several with “A” and “B” versions, along with various play-ons/play-offs and so on. About 32 separate pieces of music all together. With a few exceptions, all mercifully short.
I went through and sorted them into Doable, Maybe and I Don’t Think So. Only one fell into the latter category: The CharlotteTown Rag.
There was some question about whether I’d actually have to play that one. In previous productions, the piano player danced to the rag and thus, the music was provided by a fake record player. My piano playing is not going to win any prizes, but I can’t dance under any circumstances. I figured I’d be better off learning to play the rag instead of having to do the dance.
I shared my self-assessment with the music director. He seemed to think, given the long lead time I had, plus the brevity and the overall relative simplicity of the score, I’d probably be able to do it – with the possible exception of The CharlotteTown Rag.
He might have been biased. If I didn’t do it, he would have to, and he’d already made plans to go home to Nebraska for Christmas. Plus he was giving lessons weeknights and Saturday afternoons and could not afford to drop his students for the run.
So on or about May 1st, I opened the score and plunged in. I harbored no illusions. I fully expected that at some point, they would wake up and realize a mistake had been made and call the whole thing off. But, I figured the pressure to practice would do me good regardless of whether I ended up playing an actual show. Worst case, they’d use me for a few rehearsals.
It’s a long time between May and November. Six months give or take. So you’d think I had plenty of time to master a handful of easy pieces. That’s because you’re unfamiliar with my rate of piano piece adoption. The way it works for me is: If it’s real easy, I can sort of get it right away, but not really get it for, oh… about three years. This presents some problems as far as being of any use to anyone. But give me three years and I can play an intermediate piece pretty darn good.
I didn’t have three years, I only had six months. And I didn’t have one piece, I had about 20, five of which were in the Intermediate area and one of which had parts that were… “tricky.”
I bought a spiral notebook, set up a few pages for each piece and made notes about “issues” I had encountered. For The CharlotteTown Rag, for example, one of my “issues” was “measures 45 through 60” (I could play the rest okay though!) I also made use of a video camera. I figured I’d “tape” my performances every couple of days or so and be able to see if I was improving over time. Also, having the recorder on makes me real nervous, so it was a good approximation for singers and audiences and stuff like that.
By August, I was starting to feel like I could play most of the pieces well enough, but there were still those 16 measures of The CharlotteTown Rag that remained elusively outside my command. I probably spent 60-70% of my time practicing that section, an allocation I would come to regret later. Although I got pretty close at times, I never got that stretch up to a level fit for public consumption.
In October I found out the music director was not quite as busy with students as he once was, and was now able to play the Saturday and Sunday shows. Being a vastly superior choice to me, he was quickly drafted for the weekend performances and my slate was cut to weekdays only.
I had some mixed feelings about this development. Reducing the number of shows I had to play from 32 to 14 was actually a blessing in disguise. I had the weekends off and most of my days I only had to play one show (on the weekends they do a matinee in addition to the regular evening performance.) However, I suspected I would soon find my involvement reduced further or, worse, I’d be given a one-time “charity” opportunity to play, which I really didn’t want to put the cast through.
Regardless of my misgivings, and accepting that I might ultimately only play for a couple rehearsals, I really had no other course of action than to just soldier on and let the chips fall where they might. And, since the “real piano player” was doing the dance, I would not, under any circumstances, be playing the Rag.
Rehearsals were originally scheduled to start early in October, but they were pushed back a couple of weeks. The first week and a half of rehearsals were held in a smallish multipurpose room at an Anaheim public park, which also served as a base of operations for the area homeless. The “piano” in said space was a cheap keyboard with spring loaded keys and a faulty sustain pedal.
My first couple of days in rehearsal did not go well.
Pieces I thought I could play blindfolded, failed to materialize. Missed notes, flubs aplenty, bad tempos, and just generally crappy playing abounded. And this was on the ‘Easy’ songs.
I told the director that I was sorry and offered to quit. I’m not sure if they couldn’t tell how much I sucked or they didn’t have any other options, but they refused to fire me. On the third day, I brought my own electronic piano from home. It weighs a ton and is a pain to transport, but it plays nice and sounds nice. Its weighted keys and my familiarity with it helped somewhat.
But, there was still a huge gap between how I sounded in my living room, and how I sounded when it really mattered. It was at this point that the learning process really started.
Given the show was scheduled to open in less than three weeks, and I knew that my playing was not going to cut it, I desperately focused my attention on figuring out what my problems were.
Fortunately, I came up with a few things right away.
Clearly, lack of experience was a factor. And nerves.
Nerves were a big problem. I was a wreck. I realized that when you are terror stricken there are parts of your brain that do not work anymore. Like the memory. Think you had that piece memorized? Forget it! You’ve memorized nothing! And probably won’t either, because you’ll be just as petrified on opening night as you are in rehearsal.
And forget “muscle memory.” There’s no muscle memory when your heart is racing along at 200bpm, sweat is squirting out of your armpits and your vision is reduced to a small tunnel, about the size of a roll of quarters. All your muscles want to remember is how to run home, crawl into bed and pull the sheets over your head.
I had inadvertently memorized a lot of the pieces and I’d been looking at my hands instead of the pages for months. When I panicked, the memory went out the window and it was like I was looking at the sheet music for the first time. So, I had to re-learn to play from the score.
Another thing I discovered was there were sections in nearly every piece that I could not play! How could this have happened?
Oh, I could almost play them. Close enough that I convinced myself that I was actually playing them, even though I clearly wasn’t. My hands were moving around and my fingers touched some of the keys involved, but more often than not, they were not the right keys, and if they were, it was just a fluke. This was a disturbing development. I realized there were countless other pieces I thought I’d been playing lo these forty years… that I really hadn’t been. The only good news is that a new layer of my ingrained ineptitude had finally been revealed to me, and at least, now, in the cold harsh light of the rehearsal hall, I was able to distinguish between actually being able to play something and just fooling myself.
There was one last phenomena I noticed. The more difficult the piece was in my initial assessment, the more likely I could actually play it. I was having the most difficulty with the “easier” pieces. Partly because I had spent less time practicing them and partly because each had measures that were not, in fact, that easy.
So with a couple weeks to go I applied my newfound self-knowledge to the task at hand. Drills were initiated, troublesome measures were trotted out and beaten into my brain – think Rocky training montage, except it’s a piano instead of raw meat and no one’s gonna get their ass kicked. I did run up to the library at one point, but it was to return a book and it was only like three steps.
I’d like to be able to say that I remedied all of my deficiencies by the dress rehearsal, but, this is real life and not the movies. I had some minor and not so minor flubbery right up to and including my public “debut” a week after the show opened. I dumbed down a few pieces, got lost on a couple, hit a few wrong notes, skipped some stuff here and there and generally limped my way through the first two shows. Nobody noticed or they were all nice enough to keep it to themselves. (There are a bunch of very attractive young ladies [and lads] out there singing their hearts and lungs out, so the attention is not directly focused on me.)
The heightened anxiety associated with performing the shows helped shine the bright light of reality on my level of ability across the various pieces. Where I did not have the notes down cold, it showed, and I had a very accurate assessment of places where I needed additional work.
And work I did. I had six days in between my two show debut and show number three. I used that time to address the rough patches I’d encountered on my first day. Unfortunately, I came down with a bad cold in the week leading up to my third show. Conjestion, sniffles and abject terror nonwithstanding, by show three I showed some improvement flubwise, even as I remained teetering on the brink of disaster.
About a half hour before my fourth show, an eerie calm (are there any other kinds of calms?) settled over me. Rather than bolster my confidence with Xanax, I told myself, “Self, you can do this. You know the damn songs. You’ve been playing them for nearly seven months! All of the neighbors want to kill you! Just go out there, put your frigging head down, and play the effing songs!”
And so I did.
Oh, it wasn’t perfect by any means. But it was close enough. I started connecting more with the singers, the audience, the flow of the show. Hardly any anxiety. I did have a few moments as I approached the end where I worried I was gonna blow what was shaping up to be a grand slam. But I didn’t.
Just as nobody seemed to notice when I was straddling the abyss, neither did they notice that I’d dodged my demons (for at least this one performance.)
Well, except for me. I noticed everything. Good, bad or otherwise.
Seven months is a long time to spend getting ready for anything. I spent less time training to run a marathon. In retrospect, it seems pretty extravagant. Yes, depths were plumbed, failings faced. Still a tough call whether it was worth it. I’m still pretty terrified in front of an audience.
Besides, if I hadn’t spent the summer playing that score (over and over again), I probably would have done some motorcycle meandering, repertoire refurbishing or recommended reading, most of which I would have soon forgotten. Each distractions of equally dubious distinction.
What’s done is done and no matter what happens the rest of the run, I’ll always have show number four to hang my hat on.

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