This late September I took my morning walk with the dogs down the road and marveled at the sparkling patches of frost not yet melted by the rising sun. Five days ago 90 degree heat and high humidity were bearing down on me during a concert performance which happened at 4 pm; the hottest hours of one of the hottest days in more than a month. A week before that I stepped on stage in my new job at Keene, with short notice, and performed before the provost and other important folks in the college. Both concerts went well. Both concerts were extra challenging for different reasons, and I transcended the challenges with nearly opposite approaches. Ferocious determination and stepping into my power for the one, and surrender, acceptance and letting go of ego for the other.
At the end of summer when the dam was released at the Zoar Gap in the northeastern slopes of the Berkshires, I put on a wetsuit and plunged down the white water in a raft with my brother, his girlfriend, a childhood friend and two young men I’d never met. We arrived at a class three rapid, called Dragon Tooth. The last time we had done this run I had been thrown out of the raft. I was bounced out of the boat into the waves of the rapid, then caught in the current, luckily remembering to go feet first, so as not to hit the rocks with my head, until my brother in law pulled me out by my life jacket. At the time I was exhilarated and laughed it off. But this August I felt fear. Maybe I should skip it?
The guide encouraged me to be courageous. Courage not being the lack of fear, but the choice to do something anyway. As we faced the pounding river waves and the white water hit my face, our guide yelled to keep paddling forward hard. Something primal was released at that moment and I let out a low and tremendous roar, a dragons roar, and cut through the water with furious strokes. I looked that river in the face and said under no uncertain terms would I be defeated, that I had a right to be and that I was a strong warrior. The river brought forward my power to meet it and we navigated through the rapid with perfection. The others in the boat were inspired by my roar and affectionately called me dragon lady for the rest of the day.
Later on the stage as I stared down at a highly technical musical piece, containing several class three and four rapids, that river came up to greet me. The memory of my encounter with dragon tooth brought forth my ferocious primal power and I navigated through the performance nearly flawlessly. Aside from a few folks who approached me afterward, the audience seemed to be fairly neutral in response. However, I knew it was a success and was thrilled.
One week later, in the 90 degree heat I felt utterly defeated. My sense of control or power was undermined by the unpredictability of shifts from a sticky fingerboard, and beads of sweat dripping off my body,causing me to slip off. My cello was sweating, and the piano was going increasingly out of tune from the humidity. While playing I focused on being present to the music fully, but it took great effort. I drank electrolytes and wiped my hands and cello between each movement.
Most of the hundred people in the audience were lost in the music, but my several adult students suffered with me, they felt my pain. To survive the concert I had to accept the unpredictable, and be humbled by the limitations of my physical existence, and give myself 100% to the music, even if the offering was flawed by missed notes and technical struggles brought on by circumstances. This hurt my pride and I suffered from this as much as the physical oppression of the heat and the mental malaise and trouble focusing that it caused. When we finished the audience lept to their feet. After an encore we were brought back for a second encore. I didn’t understand. Was it pity? Did 100 people pity me all spontaneously at once? Surely it wasn’t such a great performance. The hosts and recording engineer seemed to reflect my reality, mentioning what a good and forgiving audience they have.
I suffered for days afterwards wondering if I’d humiliated myself, until I broke down and listened to the recording, figuring I’d just look my epic failure squarely in the face and get it over with. It’s true, I heard the bloopers, which seemed much larger in the moment, and an ever more out of tune piano, which helped explain the feeling of confusion. But most of all what I heard was a beautifully performed recital, with virtuosic, passionate and transcendent playing from both of us. I was shocked. Really shocked. I know my experience on stage isn’t always a clear picture of reality, but this disparity was the biggest I’d ever experienced. Listening to the recording I heard thousands of hours of practice, the power of our duo connection and great music by amazing composers. I didn’t hear the sweat or suffering. A brilliant reminder that, even when feeling defeated, if we keep giving and offering music, our devotion and passion will help us transcend our pain. Such a clear reminder that music is much greater than me and my little worries.