nos. 4 & 5 | On relief

we made it–the last leg of hackneyed devices, in Columbia and Paris. thank you for following along. what a journey it’s been.

If you judged how my Paris performance would go based on the performance track record leading up to it, one of your eyebrows might hang suspended while your upper lip might purse in doubt. D.C. was haphazard at best, an exercise in containing the panic long enough to emerge whole. Princeton was unexpectedly marvelous, albeit pretentious and gray. Toronto was exhilarating, alien, and exhausting: 24 hours sprinkled with a hyper-eager audience, cotton-candy sunrises at 34,000 feet, scrumptious octopus cassoulet, and the genesis of a cough that would persist for three weeks. And Columbia? Less than ideal, aside from a movingly-supportive audience: the creaking piano more resistant to Prokofiev’s razor-edged, acidic sound than French gastronomy is to change; the muffling floral-patterned carpet resembling a dried-out Upside Down.

The red-eye to Paris was similarly frustrating, as the cough’s force seemed to tear my body at the seams, and sleep remained infuriatingly elusive. The restlessness was both a reflection and a curse of my mental state. It was an ominous and degrading mix of feeling as if the whole world weighed upon the next five days, and a massive urge to not give a shit.  So what if everything falls apart? harmonized menacingly with you’ve worked your bones to the ground for six months, you can’t afford not to care now. 

It’s shameful to admit that ten years + counting of combating performance anxiety had nothing on how I felt the days leading up to the Paris performance. It was like every dull pulse of fear in my intestines radiated to my fingertips, lacing my nerve endings in icy poison. It is painful to admit, no matter how many times you’ve done it before, no matter how much people believe in you, no matter how hard you try to calm a drumming heart or how many times you wipe your palms, it never gets easier. It (the reality of your agitation) simply becomes more readily-accepted as harsh and true.

Even so, I wandered the winding mazes of old haunts, exuberantly rediscovering a favorite cabaret, crêpes of gravelly sugar punctuating a spritely current of lemon, flaky escargot pistacheRenoir’s Jeunes filles au piano, chandeliers in the Opéra so polished they seemed to splinter into shards instantaneously. Nothing had changed, yet every door seemed to have been repainted, every awning replaced. Notre Dame stood with solemn finality under a grumbling sky, the Seine lapping at its banks as the bells groaned and clanged. The Tuileries’ trees had now woven shades of amber and mustard into their leaves; the faces of the marble statues flanking the garden’s edges seemed more immortal than ever. The tagine agneau at Le Petit Bleu and the tarte tatin at Le Comptoir were as delicious as I remembered, yet–was I imagining it?–the lamb’s gaminess leaned a tad saltier, the apples’ tang was a bit less friendly.

I greeted these leftover parts of myself, strewn across the arrondisements, as one might an old acquaintance who carried a profound significance that time has only recently uncovered. I walked the broad boulevards the way water sloshes over a footprint carved into the sand just enough to leave a reminder, a memory of what once was.

I wanted to create some emptiness in my mind before ascending the stage. It had been so over-saturated with emotion, and montage after montage, that I had virtually no room in my heart to accept further critique, to assume a social visage. I stopped practicing and went for a walk. I meditated with a friend, and met new ones under beautifully-ornamented apartment ceilings. It had been so long since I had the privilege of wandering wherever I wanted, for however long I required.

After a six-month-buildup to meeting the Prokofievs, I no longer knew what to expect. My worst fear was that they would label me a fraud (irrational, in the grand scheme of things). It was coupled with anxiety that all the work I, and the work of the entourage that worked with me, would be futile (rational, painfully so). I wondered if Serge Jr. (grandson of the composer) could feel my fingers shaking against his firm handshake, his Einstein-esque alabaster mane wild and energetic. I prayed Lina and Nika (the great-granddaughters) would never know how I trembled underneath their cobalt gazes, their eyes spitting images of their great-grandfather’s. I gulped at the way Irina (Serge Jr.’s wife) set her mouth in a straight, ruby-lipstick-shellacked line.

I willed myself to concentrate. To breathe. Adrenaline coursed through my veins like Christmas lights blinking alive. Be bold, my teacher’s words rung in one ear. Find your center, my mentor whispered in the other. Serge Jr. sat so close to me I could reach a hand out to touch him. His face so resembles Sergei Prokofiev’s that it is no exaggeration to say Prokofiev’s ghost lurked in the hall that night. I could almost hear it snicker with every note I missed. Taunting me with every tremor. I willed it to leave me alone. I struggled through the first half’s program as I had the previous four times; the way it felt was not unlike an exorcism.

I couldn’t help catching a glimpse of the Prokofievs coming up from my second bow, though I promised myself I would avoid eye contact. Something about it seemed too déclassé. They applauded with none of the French mild-mannered-ness of thirty minutes prior; rosiness flushed their cheeks, Nika mouthed, “Brava!” Their enthusiasm was too warm to be feigned, their smiles too broad to be forced. I felt relief surge from my hairline, doused in sweat, through my hands, beneath the arches of my feet. I have done what I needed to do.

At dinner after, Serge Jr. asked me to sit next to him, with me correcting his English and him chuckling at my (what passed for) French. “Ça va?” I asked. “Ah, magnifique, excellent,” he replied, clutching my hand. “You spoke his language,” Lina said. “It was like…we became the music with you.”

I slept soundly on the plane home, making a beeline straight for thesis seminar after landing. Then, as now, I have struggled to describe this experience because it feels too impossible to share. I know I’ll carry it within me, tucked into some cozy velvet tent for as long as I live. I watched a dream and a passion project unveil themselves in front of my eyes, I felt all that which I had not allowed myself to feel before: the glow of satisfaction, acceptance of my faults, celebration of my strength, and, above all, consuming relief. I have always maintained that playing piano is about so much more than technique and facility; at its core is communication, and the artist bears the enormous responsibility of rendering such expression genuine, and therefore universal. I’m grateful for the audience for reminding me of that magic, and how desperately we must cherish it.

The following is an email from two days ago:
I heard from Serge Jr on Thursday almost immediately after I had written to thank him for coming & for dinner. He was just over the moon happy with the concert. Cindy, he wrote, “totally conquered” them with her playing, candor and sincerity. They are so grateful to her for honoring Prokofiev’s legacy.

thank you for following along (and making it to the end of this post!). your support has meant the world to me. 

other posts in this series
on Prokofiev’s Second Sonata
on Prokofiev’s Toccata
on Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata
nos. 1 & 2 | On performance anxiety
no. 3 | On gratitude…

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