The Hardest Piece I’ve Ever Played

The Hardest Piece I’ve Ever Played

Let’s agree to agree that Disney songs are some of our most recognizable tunes. If you’re my age, you sang the Aristocrats with your 5-year-old friends until your mom reached for her drink. If you’re the age of the kids I never had, you were golden: you belted out Beauty and the Beast, then Aladdin (then Tarzan, then Lion King, then Frozen…). These tunes are tonal, singable, and downright beloved. And we’ll come back to them.
Let’s also agree that at “a certain age” (that age being whenever it is you start putting “a certain age” in quotes), the concept of “memory” hits you in the face. Having it, keeping it, losing it. Even something as simple as trying to remember where you put your car keys doesn’t feel like, shit, I’m going to be late. It feels like, shit, I have dementia.
I think we can agree to two more universal truths (at least they are true in my universe). The first is that most physical feats are harder to perform fast than they are slow, feats like throwing a ball, skiing downhill while staying upright, or playing an excerpt. The second truth is easiest to put in pidgin-caveman: Hit big thing easier than hit small thing. In fact, some feats aren’t feats unless they involve a small target. Archery would be even more boring if the archer only had to send the arrow on its way.
So why am I talking about these random concepts when the putative subject of this essay is ‘what’s hard to play?’ I’m getting there. To review: fast, small, and memorized. Playing many notes in a short amount of time with teeny-tiny glockenspiel bars for targets while not looking at the music. The only way to push this over the edge, to craft a solo that would cause me to nearly seize with performance anxiety induced shaking, would be for this solo to sound frightfully similar to the Disney tune, “It’s A Small World.” Enter Magic Flute.
Mozart’s Magic Flute is a wonderful opera. Audiences love it—check any list of the most popular operas and it will fall in the top 5. It’s got child-spirits and threatened suicides and serpents and magic bells. Mozart originally wrote the magic bell part for a keyboard glockenspiel, an instrument similar to a celeste. (A celeste is like a piano except it looks tiny and sounds tinny.) Playing the part on a keyboard glockenspiel is not extremely difficult. The player’s fingers, touching the keys, supply all the feedback necessary to play the correct notes. When you play a real glockenspiel, or any mallet instrument, there is a stick in your hand between you and the keys you’re hitting. You’re relying on muscle memory and sight. Again, in caveman: fingers easy, mallets—nope.
Some opera companies own a keyboard glockenspiel, some use celeste, some use a synthesized version. I decided that after having played it for auditions I might as well try it in the actual opera, so I volunteered to play it on an actual glockenspiel with mallets.
I could do this. There was no more—and certainly no less—anxiety in my personal practice time leading up to the first rehearsals. Over the course of the rehearsal period, however, I noticed my anxiety was getting worse. I was taking Inderal for rehearsals but it didn’t seem to be helping. Knowing my hands would not shake didn’t calm my head. Disaster scenarios played out—stopping in the middle of the “It’s a Small World,” getting fired, ending up in a mental institution, banishment to the island of misfit musicians—all seemed plausible. Not realistic, but plausible. And that was because I had entirely too much time to think.
Opera percussion is all about waiting. I had a colleague who called our job “islands of terror in a sea of boredom.” To varying degrees, we were always waiting a certain length of time to play an excerpt with a certain degree of difficulty. Magic Flute stretched the graph in both directions. The first entrance (the ‘Small World’ one) occurs 1 hour and 15 minutes from the top of the opera. As opening night approached and we began running straight through the opera I felt, for that first hour and a quarter, like I was in a waiting room. I’m sitting there minding my own business, trying to concentrate and prepare for what’s to come when the door opens and in walks Catastrophizing. Once he’s there, it’s as if a floodgate opens and all his degenerate friends come rushing in: “my colleagues can play it better” sits next to “negative visualization;” “what if?” cheek-by-jowl with “all or nothing thinking.” After a few minutes, it’s standing room only. Pounding on the door, furious at being left out is “you will be humiliated in front of 3000 people and P. S. they can ALL sing It’s a Small World.”
Of course a professional musician knows better than this. I know that obsessing about these “negative outcomes” is the worst thing I can do. I know I’m supposed to be visualizing how I want it to go. But the effort that’s required to push that thought out of my head is monumental. Trying to not think about it is thinking about it. Waiting to play a hard part makes playing the hard part harder.
One night I was out to dinner with friends. These were uber-intelligent, non-musician friends, exactly the kind of friends who ask the most interesting music questions. They had just seen me play in a performance of Messiaen’s opera St. Francis of Assisi and wanted to know if that was the most difficult piece of music I’d ever performed. It was a very logical guess. St. Francis is an opera that is so long we started performances before the dinner hour and finished after the bars were closed. It calls for 11 percussionists, 5 of whom are on the side of the stage playing solo mallet parts. My xylophone part was so thick I was actually unembarrassed, for once, to show it to the string players. Its many, many notes were played quickly on tiny wooden targets. But Messiaen was not recognizable—after 8 months of practicing, 6 weeks of rehearsals, and 6 performances, I still wouldn’t be able to hum a line of it. It was a different kind of hard. With so many notes going by so quickly it involved a lot of preparation and a lot of concentration. I was nervous, but nervous in a normal excited kind of way, the kind of way I imagine normal musicians get nervous for hard pieces.
No, I told my friends, it wasn’t the Messiaen. It was Magic Flute that was my sine qua non, the “without which” I would not have had to discover a layer of performance anxiety that caused me to turn to Xanax. Xanax and its buddies—Valium, Ativan, Klonipin—do for the mind what Inderal does for the hands. It’s not fun to admit, in fact, it’s the opposite of fun—it’s embarrassing. But I had begun to think about Magic Flute all day long. I woke up anxious. I went to bed anxious. After I’d been telling my shrink that the rehearsal period leading up to the first performance was getting unbearable, he suggested I try it. I resisted until the day of the first performance when I took a pill.
Initially, it was similar to the first experiences I’d had with Inderal. It was pretty magical. I enjoyed the whole run of Magic Flute, all 7 performances. I wasn’t 100% perfect but I was close.
The opera came back only a few years later. I already suspected the Xanax honeymoon was over but it was confirmed when I played Magic Flute again. Not fun anymore. My nerves did an end-run around this new drug and I began obsessing about how easy it would be to have a memory slip in the middle of the piece.
The next time the opera came around I didn’t volunteer to play. They used a synthesized version of magic bells and a pianist. I remain a little bit tortured by the idea that there are great percussionists who probably don’t have convulsions while about to play this. I’d love to be one of them. I actually loved playing it for the short time my neuroses gave me a respite—loved it until I didn’t. I could only walk on eggshells for so long. In the end, I didn’t ‘just say no’ to drugs. I just said no to Magic Flute.