Why They Call It Live Music

Jonathan Bellman

It’s after 1:00 AM, and I’m blogging the performance.  In general it went quite well, perhaps half-plus of the sellout crowd giving us a standing ovation, etc.  Yes, they are very supportive here.  They also understand the privilege of attending a premiere, I guess.  In any case, it generally was very successful.  I found a new idiotic mistake to make, which I rectified after three bars or so BUT I STILL SCREWED IT UP GODDAMMIT, and . . . I don’t know if anyone except Michael knew the difference.  My partner-in-crime Kiyoshi claimed that he made a similar error.  I don’t believe him, in fact—he was rock solid, and for the alternate ending, the one by Mendelssohn, we were perfectly together, which we never were in rehearsal.  He was probably fibbing to make me feel better.

Never mind.  It was a very successful concert; people loved it, apparently nobody knew about my unforgivable slip (Michael: “That’s why they call it ‘live’ music”), they were very interested to register which ending (the Mendelssohn or the Moscheles) they liked better, and they were engaged as all get-out—I got many personal thanks, faces alight, the whole bit.  Here in Georgetown, TX people seemed to understand that they had an opportunity to really hear something new, and they loved it, were excited by it, etc.  Does it get better than this?  The conversations afterward centered on how to make this available to more people, what publishing it might involve, how interested people might be.  Immediately after a concert, I should explain, is when performers are at their most vulnerable.  A half-hour after we’re importuning the heavens—“WHY THE HELL DO I DO THIS?  WHAT WAS I THINKING??—we’re gleefully hatching projects and making plans.  It’s a sickness.  And a blessing.

Now, an admission:  I chastise students when they focus on their errors and lose sight of the bigger picture, and here I am doing the same thing.  It must be something in the performer’s mentality‑to acknowledge every popped note so as to establish that we feel guilty for our imperfections.

What the hell is wrong with us?

As I said, never mind.  The audience clearly understood what I, a thickskulled pianist, can’t.  And that’s  the point.  Feeling pretty good after three scotches, though.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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6 Responses to Why They Call It Live Music

  1. I’m glad it went well!
    Those three measures? They are about five seconds of your life.
    There are a hell of a lot of worse ways to spend five seconds.
    Again, I’m glad it went well. Sounds like you brought happiness to a lot of folks last night.

  2. Tod Brody says:

    It is quite remarkable how a little slip can end up HUGE in our memory of the event, along with the mass of correctitude and even outright brilliance which is TINY. I’ve done the post-concert agonizing over one bad note, which shone as a beacon, completely overshadowing thousands of good notes. Anyway, few are immune, especially when the performance is of great importance to you. Sounds like a major success. Congrats!
    Tod Brody

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    What the hell is wrong with us?
    A good question. For me I think it’s that those inevitable brain farts fill me with fear of a total train wreck; if I can lose concentration in a passage I know well–which is where it generally happens, my mind loses traction and skids for a measure or two while I remind myself how to read music–who knows, I might suddenly drop to the floor and bite the bench, or just come to a complete, mortifying halt. I believe the remedy–not available to most of us–us to perform the same pieces, before live audiences, a LOT of times; eventually a performance will be brain fart free, but it might take a long while.
    Meanwhile of course (as others have said) you’ve done something altogether wonderful, for the music and the listeners, and it’s true, nobody noticed the slip-up except you.

  4. mark says:

    Congrats, Jonathan. Your elation is palpable. Yeah, it is strange the zoning in on minutia of the performer, but that’s probably what makes you good.

  5. It wasn’t always this way in history. There is a letter Schoenberg wrote to Steuermann claiming that it was rare in history that a wrong note was not played here and there, and the one should not aim to achieve such perfection. It that letter, if I remember correctly, he argues that ‘conviction’ in performance is far more important.
    Perhaps it is the existence of recordings (see Robert Philips) that made us paranoids…

  6. amber says:

    existence of records, and the fact that as musicians, we’ve spent years and years in lessons being told what we’ve done wrong, and thousands of hours in practice, listening for the slightest mistake. It’s old habit by the time you perform.

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