My Compliments

I have a difficult time receiving compliments.  Maybe I’m not the only one who has that as a personality flaw, but it does adversely affect those who are performers.  It’s not really a “humility thing”; I fully embrace my need for approval.  It’s at the moment of the compliment, that I have no idea how to respond.

As performers, we a taught to bow; the lucky among us are actually taught how to bow.  We are told by our teachers that a simple “Thank You” is the proper phrase when, in a receiving line, we are told how well we did, how much the person enjoyed our playing, etc. etc. etc.  Of course, I can do those things.  But it feels so awkward, and artificial.  I often feel the urge to quickly leave.  Too often, I hear myself transform the compliment of my playing into a comment about the greatness of the piece, or of the composer.

I think the source of my feelings of discomfort is my college undergraduate years as a piano performance major.  I started school with a bang, went through a terrible second year, and found a way out of a slump the likes of which would have been nightmares for Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds.  But first, some background…

By ninth grade, I already knew what my career was going to be.  I loved practicing the piano.  I asked my piano teacher what kind of job I could get that would allow me to practice for hours during the day.  She replied that being an independent piano teacher, as she was, would not be the route to go; she told me that university professors not only were able to practice a great deal, but also were expected to practice and perform.  I wasn’t sure about the performing part, but since I would be guaranteed practice time… even paid for it (!), I knew definitively what my career would be.

Since I am born to naïveté, I had decided that during my first two years in college, I would be the best student pianist in the music department.  Quite a first goal, but it pales before my second goal:  I was determined to outplay the entire faculty by my graduation.  I knew that fours hours of practice per day would get me there.  And, I fulfilled my part.  I was at work at 6:00 a.m. in the food service 6 days a week, went to class, practiced two hours in the afternoon, and two hours after supper.  I practiced on the weekends, and sometimes hid in the music building around 11:00 p.m., so I could practice in the auditorium on the Steinway concert grand after the building closed.  My freshman year was great, and I was simply in heaven.

Unfortunately, in my sophomore year, I never had a successful performance.  I crashed every time.  We had studio performance classes, weekly seminars for all piano majors (in “my” auditorium!), and Recital Hour once each week; music majors were required to perform several times each semester, so my failures were there, for all of music-majorhood to witness!  Many students, in a situation like that, would have changed their major; but not me.

I can’t really remember what was said, or who said it; but I realized that my problem was the way I thought about the whole matter of performing.  My focus was on ME.  What did they think of ME?  Did my peers think I was ever going to be a performer?  I realized that the focus was the problem.  I developed a little mind-game that helped.  I refocused… on the music!  I imagined that I had invited just a couple of my friends, into my practice room; that I had become excited about a piano piece that I LOVED, and I just wanted them to hear the greatest piece ever composed.  Sometimes, I would even focus on certain things about this piece that gave me “goose bumps”; those were the places that I especially wanted my friends to hear.  It was a sharing thing.  I thought only about the music, and… that whole change of focus revitalized my ability to perform.  My junior and senior years were glorious.  I had chances to play with orchestras twice, performed in small ensembles, got into a jazz band, and went on tour with the college orchestra…

I’ve often wondered if my discomfort at well-intended compliments had to do with avoiding a “jinx”.  I was determined that nothing would put me back on the ego track that led to failure.  I’ve not had a bad performance experience since I changed my attitude.  But, back to a point I’d like to make about compliments; I can still remember the time that a compliment touched me, heart and soul.

I am a big fan of “trial performances”.  When I would get near to a recital date, I liked to arrange for small groups of people to hear me play brief sections of that recital.  I often arranged several small groups for each recital portion.  These informal performances were usually held in my studio.  This is the way that I gained total focus; they reinforced my mental game… “Come here, I’ve got this wonderful piece that I’d like to share with you”.

On this occasion, I was getting ready for a recital that included Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  This is a massive, thirty-minute work, originally written for the piano (although perhaps better known as an orchestra piece).  I invited a friend, who was also an adult student of mine.  She taught in the Foreign Language department at the university; she came to my studio to assist me with my “trial performances”, and after chatting about Mussorgsky, and composing of the Pictures, and some discussion about how I prepared my interpretation of the piece, I launched into the first Promenade.  The piece is very easy to get lost in, and I was aware of nothing else for the next thirty minutes.

When I finished, I turned to get her comments; she had been seated behind me, and slightly to the right, where she could see and hear everything.  I looked at her, and she was weeping.  That might be one of the most precious moments of my life.  No words, and no reason for me to respond verbally.  We just shared the moment.  Applause is nice, but it’s formal.  Tears are simply genuine, and they validated for me the musical focus that I chose as a college junior.


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