If you’re not used to playing from memory, then a major memory slip can be disastrous to the performance and/or to your willingness to get up off the mat. But if you’re a seasoned traveler down memory lane, then crashing and burning in performance is nearly always salvageable. In any event, it’s how life goes. It happens because we’re human. And yes, I have heard hotshots in the profession nearly derail in performance. They, too, are human. But the rewards from playing from memory outweigh the task of cleaning up a train wreck on the spot when things derail.
I think I get more unnerved listening to someone else get lost than I do when I get lost. I grunt and sweat and fidget along with them, willing them back on track. But that applies only to people I don’t know, oddly enough. I wasn’t concerned when I was listening to a mentor perform the Franck Pièce héroïque. Somewhere in the middle, it turned into what a dear friend of mine later called “Pièce chromatique et traumatique.” But the performer’s extended “save” was fascinating (if a little long). I have heard another mentor pretty much improvise the entire Bach Passacaglia. Not sure what that was about, but it was interesting to listen to. Too bad the program didn’t say “Improvisation on BWV 582.” (I have also heard people sound like they were improvising that piece, with the score on the rack! But that’s for another post.) Finally, when classmates and I would listen to each other perform in studio class, the crashing and burning was expected, but it was also mighty entertaining. We took solace in the fact that it was only studio class, thank goodness.
Well, on to my own crash experiences. They don’t happen very often. Not because I’m a genius but because the way I memorize is so detailed that there is always a familiar safe house not far beyond a crash site. But every now and then, I do have one of those moments where I can’t see ANY refuge ahead, and I just keep going, carrying my guts in my hands and looking for an escape hatch. Three such moments come to mind:
1. In 2002, I improvised the entire transition passage just before the variations of the Duruflé Veni Creator. That passage is notorious anyway, and I was hopelessly lost for at least a page.
2. In 2004, I reduced the fugue of BWV 541 (G major) from four pages to one. One pedal note sent the whole thing spiraling. One hand was ready to follow the pedal, and the other knew better. That was the worst crash of my career to date. And I had been playing that piece from memory for seven years!
3. Just yesterday, November 3, 2013, I nearly crashed and burned in BWV 550 (the other G major). I had allowed myself to be distracted by a sore finger and by the fact that I had forgotten to take the Wind Stabilizer off. Crash, bang, boom. But I kept going and eventually found the station.
There are several morals to this story: 1) Always respect Bach’s ability to derail you, apparently. 2) Don’t play Bach in G major (apparently). 3) Let go of little things like wind stabilizers. 4) Tell organ builders to make wind stabilizers settable on pistons. 5) Get BWV 550 cleaned up before next week’s recital.