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January 5, 2003
Vol. III, No. 1

"Fight or Flight"
I ran out of steam at the end of last year but I'm slowly getting back in the groove. Here finally is the last installment of my recital saga.

Sunday, November 24: I arrived at St. Thomas Church a tad early so I deposited my suit and backpack in the music office for safekeeping. All day I had been experiencing what I call Pre-Recital Blankness. On the surface it's a sort of helplessness that everything is on hold until after the recital. Can't get involved with anything; can't focus on anything. Digging a little deeper, I think being locked into the inevitability of the recital, knowing that this thing is going to happen and I have no choice in the matter, triggers a kind of panic, which in turn instills a natural urge to escape. Combine those feelings with the thrill and anticipation of performing and the result is a form of paralysis, like a deer caught in headlights. Capable of little else, I went back outside to kill time. I strolled down to Sixth Avenue and then back to Fifth Avenue. I stared up at the buildings comprising the surrounding cityscape.

During 4pm choir vespers, I was permitted to practice in the choir room. The organ was small but I was glad to be warming up finally (although that's a relative term because the room is kept quite cold). I finished a run-through and then gave the G Minor Fugue an extra turn since it was first up on the program. Once choir vespers had ended, I moved my belongings to the organ alcove and situated myself, setting up my music, punching in my memory level, and adjusting the bench. I still had a few more minutes so I busied myself by staring vacantly at the memorabilia displayed in the "backstage" area.

The time to begin arrives without fanfare and suddenly you're on the late side. I got myself out to the nave and took my bow. I had spent a lot of time over the last two nights standing in that "bowing" spot, communing with the space and the acoustics, however I was no longer staring out at empty pews.

At the organ, I hopped on the bench, took off my jacket, loosened my tie, and popped in a piece of gum. My vision was to begin the recital quietly with the G Minor Fugue so I needed to take a few moments to shake off the feeling of motion from my walk to the console. Then I hit my piston, positioned my right hand, sang the opening bar in my head to set the tempo, paused, played, and...nothing happened. No sound. Huh? I double-checked the memory level, punched the piston again, paused, breathed, played, and...nothing. Hmmm.... Suddenly I realized that the manual transfer tab had been changed. Luckily I'd noticed it in rehearsal the night before and figured out what it was. The Great can be assigned to the lowest of the four manuals or to the third-lowest manual, which was how I had rehearsed. The tab had been reversed by the organist I followed on Sunday. With a sense of relief I changed the tab and began again. Not a particularly comforting start for a recital but I managed to maintain the quiet, calm, measured mood I was looking for all the way to the end of the fugue. I even made the page turn without incident.

Relieved to have my first piece finished, I took an inventory and realized that I wasn't feeling great and wasn't having fun. I felt warm so I took off my tie. My sleeves were already rolled up. The gum helped but I really could have used a sip of water. Unfortunately, these feelings of discomfort only intensified during the Prelude of the B Minor. I was feeling tired, wanted to be done, to do something else, wanted it to be over. My fingertips were sore and I was hot and distracted. My brain was declaring "Never again, no more recitals!" I didn't feel in control. I felt like I couldn't even really see the notes. If I hadn't known the piece so well I would have been in even bigger trouble.

The car was bearing down and things were not going well for this deer. In an attempt to improve my situation, I tried to gain control of my internal dialogue:

"Try to focus on each note."
"You played that really well."
"(So and so) will be enjoying this."
"Sing along in your head."

Tragically, two-thirds of the way through the Prelude, my feet went out of sync with my hands. There was at least a measure or more of chaos where I teetered on the edge of collapse before recovering. The derailment shook me up but I tried to avoid slipping into a negative momentum, where more and more things would go wrong. I escalated the dialogue:

"I'm sure no one noticed unless they know the piece really well."
"Watch that part coming up."
"That went great but don't relax just yet. It's not over."
"Don't get sucked into negative feelings."
"Don't be a coward!"
"You're a wuss!"

The end of the prelude couldn't have come soon enough. I took the in-between time to try to pull myself together. During the fugue, a subtle change of tone in my dialogue hinted that I was beginning to regain control:

"Don't waste this opportunity."
"Don't wish it away."
"It's your only chance to do this, right here, right now."
"Make this experience a good one."

Whether I succeeded in shoring myself up verbally, or started relaxing into the recital, or finally warmed up, or all of the above, I don't know. All I do know is that the fugue definitely went better than the prelude and I was glad of it.

I gained even more ground with the G Major Fantasia. It might have had something to do with my comfort level with that piece, having played it for so many years. By the time I got into the D Minor Toccata I was definitely in control, at least emotionally, but I also knew that I was on borrowed time. I was still hot, still thirsty and even more tired than before. Fortunately, though a few places went a little haywire, my adrenaline level enabled me to push through to the end.

The whole experience reminded me of when Popeye gets in a pinch. Right before things go from bad to worse, he somehow manages to get to that spinach and kick Bluto's but I don't want to stress the physical aspect because it had really been a mental struggle. I had overcome the urge to flee; I had stayed, fought and conquered.

I had had some anxiety about my choice of registrations. For one thing, I was concerned about the balance of the pedal against the other divisions, which I'd heard was an issue at St. Thomas. I always pass on having someone help me check the balance in the hall because I can only play for myself at the console. If I have to hear a bad balance so that it sounds good in the hall, I'm out of luck; I just can't do it. The sound of the organ is part of what inspires me to perform and express myself. If it doesn't sound good from where I am, I can't put my heart into it. Also of concern to me was that, in general, my interpretations and registrations aren't always "conventional." Again, I can only do what makes me happy. Otherwise, I'd have to quit.

In the end, I think my choices were validated by (1) my feeling of satisfaction after my performance and (2) the reactions of those in attendance. Granted, people rarely come up to you and say "Boy, that really stunk!" But even if there were some who felt that way, I'd have to give more weight to the comments of people who enjoyed it as a positive and uplifting experience. Even if they're just being glass-half-full, I'd rather live in their world.
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Updated Pages
Articles Library:
Researchers Find Brain Center of Music Appreciation
Friday, December 13, 2002, WASHINGTON (AP) -- Sounds from the radio slip into a melody and suddenly your mind skips back to an evening of moonlight and romance and happy times. It happens to everybody, but until now science was unsure just why. A new study by researchers at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, suggests that recalling that melody is the job of a part of the brain known as the rostromedial prefrontal cortex. It is the part that remembers music and is even able to recognize a sour note in the midst of a familiar tune. (Read more at the link below)

Have a great week!

Dan Long

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