Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nerves (Ch.13 Pt.4)

Erick Friedman's words haunted me. "Let's imagine a surgeon patting himself on the back after an operation. 'I did everything I could and followed procedure', the surgeon gloats. 'It was a success. Unfortunately, though, the patient died.'"
I had laughed at first. Mr. Friedman had a knack for dramatizing. He occasionally launched into a soliloquy replete with theatrics at our lessons. "The surgeon's attitude might be analogous to a teacher who has taught a student to play but not to perform. What good is it, Margie dear, to play well if, in the end, you can't face the public? If you walk on stage and experience a sudden burst of adrenaline, how do you over-ride this?"
I nodded my head without saying a word. I loved studying the violin and wanted to learn all I could about music. But the pressure for becoming a soloist was mounting with competitions on the horizon. I was beginning to have doubts about a lifelong career. I glanced at my mother, dutifully scribbling notes in the corner, but kept my thoughts to myself. The last thing I wanted was to let her down, for her heart was set on my becoming a concert violinist.

"Do you ever think how many talented artists fall into oblivion because they cannot get over their fear of public performance?" Mr. Friedman picked up his violin. "Learn to balance and guide the bow properly or this could happen—" He drew the bow so that it trembled uncontrollably from frog to tip. I recognized immediately one of the crippling symptoms of stage fright. I had recently viewed a performance of the Beethoven Concerto with violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, whose bow ricocheted along the strings in what was supposed to have been slow sustained passages. The audience granted him a standing ovation nonetheless, as he was a legend. Was Menuhin's disease in late life the result of improper training, undiagnosed childhood trauma, or a medical condition?

I had never really thought about anxiety till that point. As a matter of fact, in all my youth, whatever tremulations I experienced on stage might have been classified as garden variety nerves. In the past, I had weaved the technique known as visualization into performances. I didn't know what I was doing, but I invoked composers and made up libretti to help set the varying moods. I conjured up seasoned performers, such as violinist Joseph Silverstein, alongside of me on stage. They were guides, so to speak, and their imagined presence helped to soothe and calm. I'd then lose myself in the magic of the moment. But at these lessons, I had fallen under Erick Friedman's spell, and absorbed the flow of his words like a sponge soaking up an unstoppable leak. It occurred to me, suddenly, that perhaps I never understood what it was that I was doing in all my years of playing. Whatever confidence I had in myself was beginning to evaporate. I was no longer merely a pupil of Mr. Friedman's, but a stricken patient in dire need of rehabilitation. Perhaps my disease had progressed too far.

I listened to Mr. Friedman with rapt interest, as if in an altered state, hoping to cling to any cure. My eyes never left his when he spoke. I tried to memorize his face, for it was one I loved.
"There is nobody more high-strung than Jascha Heifetz," Mr. Friedman said with conviction. "I can recall when he sometimes played passages for me at lessons that his face would flush; can you imagine? He was obviously grappling with anxiety. But Heifetz always played perfectly because his muscles were so relaxed and controlled that he could surmount any discomfiture. As a matter of fact, when I watched him I was almost afraid to breathe; I thought I might blow the instrument right out of his hands. Nathan Milstein was the same way. Whenever you find a great player, you'll find a relaxed player, and one who understands the instrument."

Looking back, Mr. Friedman's observations were both liberating and crippling. I learned to practice in a state of hyper-awareness with relaxation as a goal. Passage work became effortless as a result. My left hand began to unclench; the fingers moved with precision and ease. I could play faster than ever before. But keeping the inner control to draw the bow slowly and delicately produced terror in my heart. The seed of fear had been planted in my brain, and I couldn't shake it loose. It dawned on me that to have a solo career would be like exposing myself naked to the world; I was hardly an exhibitionist.

I won the Boston Symphony Young Artist Competition performing the Paganini Violin Concerto. The competition was mainly an audition for conductor Harry Ellis Dickson, who had selected me at the age of ten to appear with the Boston Pops at the Esplanade. To perform for Mr. Dickson by this time, at age sixteen, felt as if I were playing for an old friend. I wanted him to hear my progress. The following day Mr. Dickson telephoned the house and, according to my mother, spoke of my audition with keen admiration. He was delighted to learn that I had made a switch from the Galamian factory of violin playing to Erick Friedman, a concert artist whose approach to teaching might prove refreshingly unconventional. Mr. Dickson reminisced about the collaboration between  Friedman and Leinsdorf during the recording sessions of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto with Boston Symphony for RCA in the 60's.

I was engaged to perform at a youth concert at Boston's Symphony Hall as soloist on November 7th, 1975. Mr. Dickson had requested the final movement of the Paganini, which I had barely learned. The young audience, he felt, would grow restless with a lengthier composition. And he assured my mother, who by this time had soared up to the clouds, that he'd offer a glowing recommendation to Boston Symphony's music director, Seiji Ozawa, for future performances.

Meantime, I checked off the days on the calendar as my debut at Symphony Hall drew near. At school, my heart pounded every time I thought about stepping on the venerable stage. My blood ran cold as I imagined performing for an audience of thousands, even if they were mostly screaming school children. I understood what Mr. Friedman was suggesting in terms of conscious relaxation, but wondered if I could put his remedy into effect during the heat of the moment. I felt that everyone would be disappointed if I failed to succeed: my parents, Mr. Dickson and my beloved teacher.

I wanted out. I wanted out of becoming a concert artist. Or at least I wanted a choice. But after all the years of sacrifice, the hard won praise, the family quarrels, the commuting back and forth to New York from Boston, I dared not tell a soul, least of all, my mother.