Pre-Birth (Recital) Anxiety

Pre-Birth (Recital) Anxiety

It is 5:00 in the morning, and I am awoken by a barrage of notes in my head. Snatches of Prokofiev and John Adams compete in my brain for space like a ticker tape running across my forehead. Later, my face is calmly responding to a request for exact change from the checkout guy at my local market, while visions of Erickson dance in my head. Shades of brilliance, you wonder? Is she insane? Does she also hears voices?

No—I’m just getting ready for a big recital. So rather than wake everyone in the neighborhood by running to the piano and playing the development of the Prokofiev 3rd Sonata, I am writing out the thoughts of a pianist who is madly preparing for her next gig—so many notes, so little time! I imagine there are many of you out there who have experienced this. Sometimes, when the soundtrack is loudest in my head, I wonder if this is how composers like Scriabin felt. No wonder he went insane. It’s bad enough to have some pop song you heard on the radio playing in your brain all day, but to have the twists and turns of Prokofiev, or the changing rhythms of Adams (did that section actually start on the downbeat?), or the haunting sounds of George Crumb—it’s quite distracting. And clearly, I’m not getting enough sleep. I can’t wait until my daughter wakes up so I can go downstairs and practice. I could play softly, I suppose, but I really want to go over the tumultuous end of the sonata, and I don’t think that’s a pleasant way for her to wake up. It could have bad repercussions on the rest of my morning, and even pre-recital jitters cannot compete with the demands of an adolescent girl getting ready for school. China Gates might awaken her with a pleasant attitude, but Prokofiev could cause a bad hair day. What to do?

I am just the interpreter of these great works, and I am deeply affected. I can only imagine what it must be like to hear these notes in your head before they reach the paper. I think the feeling must be similar. Preparing for a recital, like writing a piece of music, is like giving birth. The preparation and excitement that leads up to the event can only be relieved by the successful arrival of the baby. And yet, you cannot control all the details. That is, of course, the essence of live performance. All the notes I hear in my head all day will come out on stage, and then be replaced by others for future recitals and concerts. Sometimes, it’s hard to concentrate, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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13 thoughts on “Pre-Birth (Recital) Anxiety

  1. Colin Holter

    visions of Erickson dance in my head

    The image of a dancing Robert Erickson is pleasing to me. Props to you for performing his music, though–I’m a fan. Are you playing Ramus?

  2. sarahcahill

    In this case I think it’s Kurt Erickson, who lives here in the Bay Area. Here is Teresa’s program:

    November 2
    Santa Clara Faculty Recital Series
    Featuring works by George Crumb and John Adams, with a world premiere of a new chamber work for Teresa McCollough and the ADORNO ensemble, by composer Kurt Erickson.
    Recital Hall, Center of Performing Arts, Santa Clara University
    Santa Clara, California

    (Hey, Teresa, you’re getting jumpy now? Your concert isn’t until next month!)

  3. teresa

    Dear Sarah, et al,

    Thank you for clarifying the Erickson–and it is indeed Kurt! It is a premiere of a piece called FAITH for piano, violin and percussion, and features the added talents of Cynthia Mei (violin) and Loren Mach (percussion). Also included on the program are John Adams’ China Gates (wasn’t this written for you Sarah?) and Hallelujah Junction (with guest Michael Boyd, piano) and of course, the Prokofiev 3rd Sonata. Tickets are free BTW, and the concert will be at the Recital Hall at Santa Clara University on Friday, November 2nd at 8 p.m. For directions and more info about the concert call (408) 554-4428 or go to I think they’ve posted a press release there that talks in more detail about Kurt’s piece.

    And yes, Sarah… it does seem early doesn’t it? Many, many days away. Much more time to practice!

    What’s playing in your head these days? Care to share? : )

  4. sarahcahill

    Hi Teresa- I was kidding a little bit about time, since November 2 is only a few weeks away! I too am playing in early November, at the Sacramento Festival of New American Music:
    Pauline Oliveros is featured composer, and I’m playing some of her music with the fantastic trombonist Monique Buzzarte. Also a solo recital on November 6: music by Terry Riley, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Tania Leon, Annie Gosfield, Larry Polansky, Chester Biscardi, Stephen Blumberg, and Colin McPhee/Evan Ziporyn (a two-hand arrangement that Evan just made of McPhee’s Balinese Ceremonial Music for two pianos).

    Your program looks fantastic! Have a wonderful time with it. Yes, John Adams wrote China Gates for me. It’s certainly open to many interpretations. And that Prokofiev Sonata is a knucklebuster.

  5. teresa

    Dear Sarah,

    Your program(s) sound fantastic as well. I played on that Sacramento Festival a few years ago myself, and it’s terrific. I will try and get to your solo concert if I can. Where is it? I would love to hear that McPhee (and the rest). Aren’t we busy?

    Yes–the Prokofiev is a “knuckle buster” and so I must go practice….

    Send out the details of your solo concert. I’m sure everyone would like to know : )

    We’ll catch up eventually, I hope!

  6. sarahcahill

    Teresa, one topic I’d like to get you and other pianists (and composers) involved in is this: Do you always pay composers for new work? Do you ever ask them to write pieces for no fee? I’m curious about this because each composer seems to approach the financial arrangement differently. Let’s get some other musicians in the discussion as well.

  7. joelfriedman

    Hi Teresa and Sarah,

    A couple of comments.

    Sarah, we met at John’s birthday bash at Crowden – I think you played Phrygian Gates? China Gates? Bill/Bob Gates? Anyway, too many gates…

    Paying composers? That’s easy: YES!!! Except when you don’t… Of course we all always get the rates stated by Meet the Composer for commissions (thousands of dollars per minute!)! OK, In my experience the reality is that it varies a great deal depending upon the person/people, the project, the budget, etc. But I think the keys are that it is a CHOICE to be made by the composer, it should be all laid out upfront and ahead of time, and it should never be assumed the composer will do it for free. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to talk about these things, but it’s a lot worse to try and finesse the issue and hope no one “notices” (I’m sure we all have stories of “shifty” people and most of them are bad ones).

    We composers, like performers, have to make choices that involve paying bills, pushing aside personal and professional commitments, and possibly turning down other paying work in order to write music. It gets tougher if we aren’t paid. There are also the issues of respect and precedent. Respect says that as a professional I should be paid something, even a token amount we agree upon. Precedent says that all musicians should be paid for their labors and creativity (don’t get me started on the whole free download thing! OK, I will: if a composer WANTS to post their music for free fine. It’s THEIR choice. More power to them. To “take it” otherwise it is stealing. Let the flaming begin! :-) ).

    My fear is that younger performers coming up will just assume that composers don’t get paid, it won’t be part of their budget and planning (“hall rental – check, publicity – check, recording – check, huh? – composer commission???”). We all need to educate the community about how things SHOULD work (even if they don’t always). It’s akin to rights and permissions. If I have to tell one more composition student that they MUST get the rights to a poem or play BEFORE they begin setting/adapting it… Yes, poets have rights and deserve income too…

    You can sort of see how bad this could be by playing the old role reversal game. I’ve got a piece coming up. It’s for 9 people, it requires 12 rehearsals, and there will be 3 performances. You don’t mind playing all of that for free, right? Oh, what do you mean you can’t make 4 of the rehearsals because you have a PAYING gig… What? Can’t make one of the performances either? Oh….

    Perhaps you don’t mind this scenario (I’m sure it’s familiar to many of us, myself included), but I shouldn’t EXPECT that of you. And I SHOULD expect the real possibility of you not being able to fulfill the complete commitment because of other pressures (like earning money).

    So, I’m for trying to find a middle ground that is based on a clear, strict principle which can be applied in a flexible way depending upon the individuals involved and the choices they are willing to make. Also, we are collaborators, working on the same side: trying to make the best music we can under the best conditions we can create.

    OK, long winded, but my 2 cents!

    As for Teresa’s comments about hearing musical voices… Rest easy. The great Oliver Sacks says that hearing music in one’s head is an entirely different “animal” from hearing voices. The later is a clear sign of, ahem, “issues” and the need for treatment. The former is a blessing (I think, unless it’s Pat Boone or Frankie Goes to Hollywood…). Composers do hear their works in their heads while composing. I knew a composer who loved jazz but refused to listen to it anymore because that’s all he was hearing in his head and it prevented him from composing “his” music (I’ll refrain from putting him on the couch and discussing that.). Speaking for myself, I really have to push to carve out some time/space/energy for composing (little things like teaching, childcare, etc. to deal with – which neatly ties this into my comments to Sarah). It takes A LOT of energy for me to get warmed up and find a “zone” in composing – kind of like the energy needed to escape gravity. Once I get to that point, and it is usually “nurtured” by a fast approaching deadline (sound familiar Teresa?) I’m thinking all the time and always trying ideas out, hearing them in my head – even at 5 am. Unfortunately, again like gravity, there comes a moment when gravity (read: reality) re-exerts its pull and “re-entry” happens. Ouch.

    Teresa, looking forward to the 2nd!


  8. sarahcahill

    I completely agree with you, Joel. It’s important to make the arrangement very clear up front. I’m always surprised by musicians who will say to a composer “I’d really like you to write me a piece!” with no mention of a commission fee.

    About hearing music in one’s head: Dwight Mamlok, the late husband of Ursula Mamlok, was on an airplane several years back and the motor noise apparently triggered some music in his head which then would not leave. It would be one thing, he said, if it were good music, but it was all Strauss waltzes and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and beerhall dances. He actually went to see Oliver Sacks about it at one point. As far as I know it never went away.

  9. sarahcahill

    And yeah, it’s really easy to get China Gates and Phrygian Gates mixed up. One is a four-minute gentle poetic palindrome, and the other is a thirty-minute virtuosic tour de force. But other than that, they’re nearly identical.

  10. teresa

    Dear Sarah (and Joel),

    This is a great topic for another Chatter, and I promise to write something about this as soon as I have time free from practicing, and fewer notes clattering around in my head!

    I am honored to have composers write for me, and thrilled when I can get funding for commissions. In my opinion, no one is paid enough in this business!


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