Sunday, October 24, 2010

This is a test. This is ONLY a test?

The screech preceding these words vibrates through my bones like a dentist's drill. I can't ignore it. That's the idea. I'm supposed to be alerted, alarmed, and aware that my life could be in danger. The reminder that this is only a test is designed to calm down my excited nervous system so I can return to enjoying the scheduled radio programming of classical music.

Today my mind is unable to move beyond the words only a test. For me, the word test is rarely an only. It is a challenge I am required to meet, or a determination of my skills by an outside judge, or, even worse, a recital.

When did I develop the idea that playing for others was more of a test than a pleasure? I suspect I connected tests to performances on my own as a young student. I heard the older students play and wanted to measure up. I don't remember my first piano teacher ever referring to a recital as a test.

Undergraduate school was a different matter. I was introduced to the jury process. A jury is a measure of a music student's progress from year to year, and it involves playing for faculty members. In other words, it's a test.

One of my wise friends asks the questions, "If this is a jury, who is on trial? What is the crime?" Taking that analogy further, I ask, "Am I the defense?" Usually, in my own mind, the answer is yes. I am defending my interpretation, my tempi, my dynamics, my pedaling. The problem is that I don't know what charge I am defending myself against until the verdict - the jury sheets or the critical feedback - are handed to me. It is only then that I know what laws I have broken. Thanks to the uncertainty of the sentence, I can become alarmed, alerted, and aware that my musical life could be in danger. All because I am playing classical music!

Reframing this experience to something more generous and more satisfying is part of my process, especially because I work in an undergraduate school. I am around the nervous - and often judgmental - young students who are laying their musical lives on the line for juried performances. It is part of my task to help them present confident musical performances, knowing that they are also required to survive the tests built into the structure of music school.

I remind them that music is a means of communication. Even the occasional mistake in speech and writing can be understood, as can the occasional mistake in musical performance, if the performance is NOT only a test.

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