My ritual before every concert is to arrive an hour or so before curtain time, in my street clothes. I then go on stage to make a few sounds before the audience comes. I never know what to practice on the day of the concert. Usually, I try to follow a proper routine; it makes me calmer and more in control.
A concert day usually starts with a morning dress rehearsal, followed by an afternoon rest in the hotel, an early dinner, and a quick warmup. Today I am a nervous wreck. I am trying out some new repertoire. My mind keeps traveling back and forward, trying to focus. Tonight I need it to work as a laser. The dress rehearsal did not go well, and I feel vulnerable and lightheaded. I am a little bit sleepy, which I know is healthy, your own body’s way to deal with the adrenaline that will come once you walk out on the stage.
I look at the empty hall. All the lights are on. I listen to the sounds of my piano, magically traveling through space, reaching the ceiling, hugging the velvet seats, bouncing from the walls, hiding in the dark corners, and returning to me. It is hard for me not to think about what the concert will feel like once everybody is seated and the hall goes dark. I am in a trance.
There is a ball of lead in my stomach. It is so heavy that I am having a hard time walking back to the green room. I wave at the backstage crew.
There are 30 minutes to showtime. Someone comes to confirm the program, the set up of the piano, asks if there is going to be a recording, and how long the intermission will be. There is water on the table.
They leave me alone.
Music is my only religion now, my connection to the higher powers in the universe. Once in a while, I wonder, it is a careful thought, about the relationship between music and God. I wonder if art comes from somewhere else, outside of humanity, because it is too beautiful, too perfect to be entirely human. Other times I think of it as science, an achievement of the human mind. This thought brings me more comfort.
I am backstage in the green room where I wait. Time has stopped.
I stare at the mirror and look at my face — makeup time. Sometimes I have someone do my hair and makeup. Not tonight. Tonight I am alone. The woman staring back at me from the mirror is a stranger. I look at her with interest and examine her features. She is older than I am, her face is elongated, her cheeks are hollow, there are small wrinkles around her mouth and eyes. Her hair is smooth, and her skin is pale; I see the skin under her eyes is bluish, she seems tired.
Earlier I went to the department store to get new makeup. The lady at the counter at Clarins is excellent at what she does: she sells me eye cream, day cream, serum, and night cream in addition to all kinds of makeup. It all smells good. She quickly tells me all about my skin. In short: it needs care. Listening to her, I feel comforted and calm. All I need is to follow the steps. She applies the creams on me, explains what the ingredients are, how they have been tested, and created. She is motherly; her advice makes sense; it calms me and reassures me. If I put the right creams in the proper order and then cover them up with the right makeup… Everything will be fine.
I always liked makeup.
It covers the fear.
You would think that I would have gotten used to it by now, after so many years on stage. I have had so many performances. Some of them decent, some good, a few total disasters, but also a few close moments, oh so close, to perfection. Still, I am petrified tonight. I try the different mind tricks I have been taught over the years.
I try to remind myself that I am only truly alive when I play. I try to think of happiness after the concert and how empty I feel when I am not performing. Still, part of me wants to escape, to leave, to run away, and never to return.
Some of the best times are the times spent away from the stage.
I love practicing early in the morning and getting a lot done before lunch. I am a morning person. By the time it is 8 a.m. I am bursting with energy. The act of making music is deeply satisfying. I love the physicality of it, the satisfaction one feels from the fatigue after hours and hours of work, precious time spent with Bartok, Berg, and Beethoven. My hands become their hands.
I must go to the bathroom. I always have the urge to go, right before I get on stage. I better do it now … with 20 minutes to go. I don’t like to get dressed too early; I don’t want to wrinkle my dress. Often I wait until the very last minute to slip it on.
I also have to check that I brought my shoes. I never forget them, but in the frenzy of preparing to go on stage, there is always a part of me freaking out about seemingly unimportant things. I have had so many shoe disasters over the years. Once a shoe got stuck to the pedal, once I slipped and almost fell, leaving the stage.
What do I do with my wallet? Take it on the stage? Or risk losing it. I better take it onstage somehow. I was robbed once while performing. My purse was stolen from the green room, together with my passport, wallet, and green card. I am not the only one. The most famous backstage theft happened to Huberman. His Stradivarius was stolen. Twice, actually. The first time from a hotel in Vienna and then, a few years later, from the green room at Carnegie.
I have a small pocket in my concert dress where I can fit my wallet and my passport. That way, I will have one less thing to distract me when I am on stage.
I am playing from memory tonight. I am trying not to think about being a nervous wreck, to focus on other things. My hair, my face, the music I am about to play. I close my eyes and think of the starting bars; I imagine myself taking a bow, calmly, and then sitting at the piano. It is always a little cold on stage. My hands are never warm enough. Unexpected things still happen: did I forget to zip the dress up? Why is the standstill inside the piano, didn’t I tell them to remove it?
I never get so nervous when playing chamber music. Having friends on the stage with me is incredibly comforting, knowing that we are in it together, we are too cool to be nervous, we are professionals.
It must be that my mind is getting worse now that I am older. I forget things. I get lost. Once I had a total blackout.
There are so many expert opinions on memory slips and how to recover from them. How to memorize so they don’t happen. I improvise my way out. I fear them, but I think that they don’t happen to me often. That’s encouraging.
Once is enough.
The fear possesses me like poison; it never goes away. I try to fight it and think about the music. I imagine myself surrounded by snakes. Sometimes that helps. They are crawling all over me, trying to get to my head. To boost my confidence, I remind myself of the many hours of preparation behind me. Or rather … the many years.
I think about Bach and Beethoven. When comparing the great composers of the past, I keep thinking that, in theory, it is these two that everyone agrees, have reached levels beyond all others. And then I play a Mozart sonata, the Berg chamber concerto, the Bartok two-piano, and percussion sonata. And I know that I am wrong. The meticulous discipline, the divine inspiration, the absolute beauty, the fantasy, and the daring force behind this music … if ever there was a reason to be alive, it is now, and it is through music.
10 minutes to curtain.
I wonder how many in the audience know anything about classical music. Sometimes I am horrified to talk to people who come backstage after my concerts. I don’t want to hear the crazy things they say — some of them.
“I don’t like Opera, but I enjoy the piano very much.”
“Mozart is French, isn’t he?”
“Prokofiev made my wife feel a little sick. She had to go home.”
There are also the know-it-all philosophers. I can’t stand them. There is nothing more disturbing than a guy who insists on giving me detailed analyses of the complete Beethoven sonatas in a loud voice backstage after a concert. He comes in with a bang like he owns the place and makes sure that everybody can hear how much he knows and how many books he has read.
I hear the sounds of the audience, laughing, coughing, making noise. Are they excited? Do they know how scared I am back here? Trying to get it together. My make up is on. It sits on my face like a mask. My dress is on, passport, and wallet safely tucked in the secret side pocket. My shoes are here; they do not slip or stick to the pedals. Everything is ready and proper.