by Lachlan Davidson, 2002
Strength in calm, reads the welcome message on my mobile phone, designed to guide me philosophically every day. Usually I greet it with a “Yeah sure” and find myself giving in to tension and panic, living in a state of constant fluster. Somehow I manage to teach the saxophone in this state although I fancy I see looks of confusion or pity on my students’ faces sometimes.
On most of the gigs I do I try really hard to play well but you wouldn’t generally call my performances world class. As for regular practice, well let’s just say that life gets in the way.
This doesn’t sound like the kind of musician who would be asked to play a solo with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Nevertheless I was and the story surrounding it follows.
Four years before, I played Kanchellis Night Prayers at the Melbourne Town Hall shortly after the birth of my son. It was the biggest moment in my career as a musician so far. To be asked again was a compliment to me. Three performances in a higher profile series added pressure. The presence of the composer, dubbed as the greatest living composer added more, and I decided to perform it from memory. That was the greatest pressure. It was going to be my greatest achievement by a long way if I could pull it off.
Three months out
“I’m going to start practising every day,” I say to my wife who is fortunately a musician who understands me and my job. Finally I drag myself into the practice room at 10pm and fiddle aimlessly for half an hour before going to bed, depressed but still with plenty of time.
Three weeks later
And now for my second practice session. Going well so far. At least I finally rang the orchestra and had them send me the music and a tape of my previous performance of the piece.
Getting a bit serious. I’m aiming higher this time. I’m memorising it because I know I can and it will be more of a challenge. I will play the music, not the technique. I will not look forward with dread but with confidence. All of this will require practice, focus, mental strength, fitness, stamina, motivation, calm, preparation and faith in myself renewed often.
Four weeks out
Now I practise daily, about one and a half hours after the kids are in bed unless I have a gig. I still need to drag myself to the practice room but fear and commitment both drive me down there. My tuner is turned on the whole time and I rig up a mirror to stare into while I play. I’ve been listening already to the tape in the car. This piece is extremely soft and slow and I find it sending me into an almost meditative state, a bit dangerous while driving, but beautiful. Memorising this is going to be hard. I start learning what the orchestra plays just before each of my entries then try to predict what is coming next as I get to know the piece.
Much of my practice consists of technique long notes getting softer and softer, starting notes from zero volume, changing notes without any physical or mental reaction. I’m aiming for a seemingly effortless flow, finding an embouchure, a sound, the tuning of each note, control of attack and dynamic variation from ppp to fff. This is extreme technique at the opposite end of the usual scale and an area I have seldom explored. It helps that I have performed this piece before but for four years I have been a different player in a different world. Doing it again is filled with many doubts.
I have visions of being out of tune, having a watery sound, blurting out an embarrassing note, forgetting what to play or, worst of all, the composer hating what I did and yelling at me. Some are rational fears and some irrational. The rational ones I deal with by practising and reminding myself to have faith in my practice. The irrational fears I identify as such and can therefore send them on their way.
There are good days and bad. I work through fifteen reeds, numbering them and marking them with a g for good, s for soft, h for hard and various other reminders of their integrity. The defining factors in the end were their response at pppp and lack of water and buzz in the sound. The three concerts were divided between #1 and #5 with thanks to #8 who was best in the lead-up but past its prime on the day.
Two weeks out
I’m a bit panicked. Memory is looking less likely. Control is just starting to come and sound is weak, wobbly and watery. Time for self-talk in the mirror. Keep working mate. You can do it. I smile encouragingly if not a little cheekily at myself. You do deserve to succeed and you are capable. Keep doing those exercises. Play the music. I visualise success and do my best to remove doubt. More of every day is devoted to being calm and gathering my strength together, to singing parts in my head and going over the cues and the links between phrases – chromatic, diminished – six quavers rest etc. The pursuit of this goal has presently taken over my life. I’m finding strength in calm.
One day out
I’ve done 2 x 3 hours per day in the last week, covered every base in the memory game (feeling better about it), learned to play softer than I ever believed possible and made most of my musical decisions. My embouchure has been through major changes and is about right but worryingly tense. I cannot worry because it will only be counter-productive and I am resigned to play how I will play. I am calm. My muscles are more relaxed than my normal state but I am very alert. I’m focussed on myself and on my task. Dread is present but under control.
The night before the first rehearsal 2am
My son wakes up because of his bad cold and I am awake for three hours with him. I have a sore throat! For a short while I am angry but calm returns of its own accord. I can deal with a cold if necessary. I’ve come too far to let that stop me. Five hours sleep. Same answer.
So often in my experience I have learned something just before an important event. I knew I would on this day but didn’t know what it would be.
I look in the full-length mirror in my dressing room and watch myself play a note. It feels horrible. It looks horrible. Shoulders up around ears. I breathe again using a sigh principle. My now-well-developed stomach muscles come to the party and I put the final piece into place, learning to breathe properly at the eleventh hour.
No doubt it had been mostly tension and nerves but fixing the problem propelled me into the first rehearsal and my first meeting with Guya Kanchelli – the greatest living composer, with a sense of confidence.
Boy is there pressure. I meet Mr Kanchelli and offer the usual phrases about what an honour it is for me and how wonderful the music is. I ask him some questions about the music, (changing octaves, etc.) all through an interpreter, then it’s time to play. I’ve played the first phrase so many times, so many ways. I just hope that it will come out a good way. This is the first rehearsal for the orchestra and the conductor. I am the most prepared person there and I know it. It is not the be-all and end-all so today I just have to get it right. Even so, the weight of my feet on the floor, the air of expectation emanating from the orchestra, the conductor and chiefly, the composer crystallises the moment in my memory. They expect me to get it right and to fulfil my role adequately at least but doubt is always present in its greatest amount at this point in the proceedings.
I get it right. The first note is the hardest, after which I begin to relax. My preparation carries me and I never allow doubt to do any more than wave at me from a distance. Mr Kanchelli comes up from the audience at a break in the rehearsal, only to offer some suggestions to the conductor and to ask for more pain from me in the improvised section but he didn’t yell and say I was terrible. One irrational fear overcome.
An hour’s practice in the morning and some housework. A good warm-up and into the rehearsal. In some ways this is the real test of my metal. Time for some music.
We start, stop, start, then eventually do a full run. Now I go for it more. I play with more intensity and intent. More rubato and full length pauses. Lay it on the line. This is how I’m going to play it. Afterwards Mr Kanchelli is effusive in his praise of the orchestra and me. He says, “This is a better performance than the original recording with Jan Garbarek.” Wow! I think to myself, but I know I still have work to do. Distractions from the job at hand are dangerous but I’ll hang on to that high praise just the same. And even great composers say things to make people feel good.
Friday in Geelong
Practice in the morning again. The soft volume technique is too elusive too be taken for granted. I must be at the top of my game to make the notes sound when I want them to and at the right volume. Absolute consistency is my aim but I will not be devastated unless something goes really wrong.
Sound check, quickish.
Nice dinner at Basils – risotto courtesy of the MSO. They really look after me, make me feel important and very comfortable. I know all the staff and most of the musicians from other gigs with the orchestra. This helps immensely.
A general feeling of support and goodwill surrounds me. They all want me to succeed.
I’m back at my dressing room at 7.05pm feeling sated and important. Just a hint of my cold is present and I squash that with a stern word and a sudafed. Horn out, reed chosen – rehearsal reed gets the nod because of familiarity. A 20 minute play to re-acquaint myself with all the bits, get each note working and trills even. Decide on a basic spot for tuning. Change into my brand new suit. Look in the mirror and mutter some encouraging words to myself. Play a final few notes.
I walk down as the orchestra warms up for the first piece and wait in the wings as they play the first number of 8 minutes. I’m nervous but confident and relatively relaxed. I’ve calmed some earlier shakes to a minimum. During the applause I play the first note a couple of times and then just wait. The conductor sends me out, I take a bow and the truck begins to roll. I can hear my heart pounding but I’m not shaking. I breathe deeply, relax some muscles and remind myself to play the music and support.
The first note emanates from my sax on demand and my work has begun. I ask as much of myself as I can, give it everything. My methods are so well established that technical errors are likely to be minimal. I have little fear of these. My fear is of a memory lapse. It will remain equally present in the following concerts. Having established in my mind what is coming next I then think how to blow it and interpret it before doing it. Try to hear it first. I don’t know if this is what everybody else does but its what I do. Intuition and trust play a big role too.
I’m aware of staring intensely at seat number 22 (vacant) in the front row and hearing some coughing and a sneeze nearby. I have no fear of distraction but it does interfere with the music. I have job to do and it has my full attention. This night in some ways is my most focussed even if not my best.
Applause, bows, share another bow with a great composer and a famous conductor. One down, two to go. No celebrations yet. There are many parts I can recall – compliments, the drive home, the next morning the overriding sense that the job is only a third done and there can be no second gig blues.
Lots of people I know are coming today. It does add pressure, as if there isn’t enough. Last night seemed like a warm-up for the main event today. I do the same warm-up routine but am severely distracted by an inner demon, guilt over an event which occurred earlier in the year. I can’t shake it and my mind leads me to question my worthiness to be in this position and to succeed. Some soul searching and attempts at self-forgiveness followed by the decision to concentrate on the job at hand bring me back to it, more or less. All through the performance I am haunted by the physical pain of regret but find enough strength to perform reasonably well despite being slightly sharp. This was the greatest challenge and I felt lucky to have survived.
The never-ending battle with personal demons ultimately determines success or failure at any level. It continues daily for me in many forms.
After this concert I am greeted by a great text message on my phone from a friend who was there, an extremely proud wife and overwhelmingly proud parents-in-law.
These moments and the words that follow from friends are profoundly moving for me. They seem inexplicably to be almost the most important part of the whole experience. Praise has never meant so much. Nevertheless I am already preparing for the last concert on Monday night.
I practise twice on Sunday, honing fine details and maintaining blow, etc. Do some gardening and family stuff and feel the cold taking a stronger grip.
Monday morning at school finds me distinctly wobbly and unwell. I am well aware of the body’s ability to put aside physical ailments in demanding times. I have faith that mine will.
Two hours bed-rest are followed by a forty minute practice in which I feel dizzy when playing loud. I can always sit on a stool if necessary.
Tonight will be recorded again as Saturday’s performance was marred by coughing, rendering it unusable. I want to make this my best performance and I do usually improve with time.
The dizziness leaves me, thankfully. I medicate against a runny nose and, apart from one wobbly note and forgetting to breathe early in the piece, I rate it the highest of the three performances.
I raise my arms in the air and cheer silently when I reach the dressing room. The job is done. Yay. I’m relieved and delighted and I feel good.
I believed that I could play as well as I did but never expected to receive the acclaim from the composer and other musicians which was forthcoming. I felt like I had stepped out of my world, leapt up to another, made an impact, done a job and would inevitably and with some relief, step back into familiar territory again.
The fortnight following was spent doing this and putting this achievement into perspective. I had learnt much about music, myself and other people but it changed little in my approach to my work. I still have to try hard to play well. If I start to believe what they say about me I will lose focus on what I have to do to maintain and increase my standards. I have very much to do to be the musician I desire to be and the person I desire to be. I know I can only achieve my goals by using the strength I have found in a calm mind.