Friday, April 9, 2010

Nerves and Muscle Memory

Of all the things I may be good at, music, or getting up in front of people--or maybe it's the combination--are not among them.

I can be okay with that.

I prefer not to be the center of attention, I prefer to quietly observe in a situation, until I feel comfortable.  So performing on stage, even though I had my high school acting phase (but in that situation you're somebody else, so who cares?) is not usually my first impulse.

Yet I actually like giving presentations, like the one I have to give tonight.

I must like it for the challenge though, because even when I think that I'm calm and that by god I do have confidence, my body still sweats double and shakes and my heart flutters and I end up doing whatever I'm doing in front of people at about twice normal speed.  But yes, I do like a challenge.

So, I've been trying to play George Winston's variation on Pachabel's Cannon in D for about four months.  Merely competently, of course, not with all the flourishes.  Even so it is somewhat above my level, but I can manage it on the home piano when nobody is around.  Loving the challenge, I set myself a goal:  I will perform this song at the no-pressure just-for-fun math recital of my alma matter.  Since I'm a graduate, most people won't know me anyway.  I practiced and got, oh, I dunno, 90% correct most of the time, so I figured I had, a tiny shot at it anyway.

Leading up to my turn, I tried to act like it was no big deal.  It was a math department recital:  half the acts involved juggling or calculus jokes or math-adapted lyrics to popular songs.  I had played the song hundreds of times, and when I was taking lessons, oh, ten years ago, I'd always managed competence at the obligatory biannual recital.  I'm not generally lacking in confidence, not anymore, so I should have been able to walk up there with the self-assuredness of someone who is quite happy with herself and her abilities.

Yet my hands shook wildly, the sweat poured out, and as soon as I sat down and began I knew I was wrong.  For one thing, the seat was too short, so my muscle memory was slightly fooled, used to going through the desired sequence with my hands a little lower than that, thank you.  But I did okay, until I didn't, until I missed a note and couldn't just plow through because the muscle memory flow was interrupted, and even though I'd always been 100% on that sequence, I suddenly had no idea where my hand was supposed to go.  I said, "oh no!", got mutters of sympathy from the audience, and just started at the beginning of that sequence.  But my nerves were done for by then (I was sitting too far to the left too, I daresay, having been too nervous to take the time to get comfortable before starting) so I had to pause a few more times throughout, skip some parts completely that I knew I couldn't land in the state I was in, and plow through a succession of not-right-at-all flubs just to get to the end.

So I had set a goal for myself.   Learn a song, play it at the talent show.  And I followed through with that goal.  And then, I wouldn't say I failed miserably, because I did play it, after all, rather than chicken out.  I don't even wish I hadn't done it, because I wanted that challenge. 

I had thought myself better at mastering nerves than that, however.  


  1. I have some experience with this myself. I took a piano class my last semester and we had to play in front of the class every week. I didn't realize that shaking, nervous thing was going to happen until the first week I played. I hadn't been particularly worried about it or the class as I was just taking it for fun, but as soon as I started to play it was like nothing worked right anymore and I couldn't think straight. My hands shook uncontrollably. I've done all kinds of stuff in front of much larger audiences, but I don't think my hands have ever shaken as much as they did that first day. So I, like you, made a goal for myself. My goal was to know the song to be played soooo well that that wouldn't happen again. I would practice songs so much that I could play them blind folded, but the shaking never stopped. Each and every week my hands shook without fail. I talked to Alex about it and asked him if his hands ever shook. He told me that they don't anymore, but they used to shake really badly. I asked him how he made it stop and he told me it just took several months of playing in front of large audiences.

    Just as an aside, we were at home a couple of days ago when he got a phone call at 10 minutes to eight asking him to play piano for a big band at a concert they were having at a local restaurant at 8. Their original piano player's car broke down and they desperately needed him to fill in. He knew the band director, but he didn't know anyone in the band and he had never played with them before. What's more, he had never played any of the music before. In spite of that, he was able to walk into the restaurant, sit down, and calmly play. Of course his hands didn't shake. I've seen him do things like this before many times, but it never ceases to amaze me.

    I guess the point I'm trying to make is that it seems that piano is a different kind of experience. I think even the most confident people would have shaky hands the first few times they play piano in front of any audience.

  2. There is such a thing as over-practicing, as well. It needs to flow naturally, not be a nerve-wracking intense process.