Facing Down Performance Anxiety with the Bergamasque Prélude

In this video exclusive to GRAND PIANO PASSION™, Sara Solovitch plays Claude Debussy’s Prélude from the Suite Bergamasque.
Despite Sara Solovitch’s first recital with the Bergamasque Prélude, which she described in yesterday’s article as a sickening experience, she now plays this Debussy standard with a poised strength. For 2013, Sara plans a solo recital for family and friends. The Bergamasque Prélude will be on the hour-long program, which no doubt will be a personal triumph for Sara after wrestling with performance anxiety for most of her life.

You mentioned that you gave up classical piano music when you were 19 because of the nervousness you experienced performing.

There were some very good musicians in my town, and I was considered one of the best, but I was also the person who was depended on for crashing and burning. And people would say, “The time to hear Sara is at her lessons. That’s when she’s really good. You’d never know it, you know, when she performs.” I always felt like I had this great love of the piano and this natural feeling for music. I studied at the Eastman School of Music for two years in the preparatory division when I was in high school. But trying to overcome the performance anxiety was really pushing gravity for me. I didn’t have the same desire to perform compared to some of the other students.

Now you are studying the Bergamasque Prélude for the second time. How did that come about?

A year ago, when I was looking for a new teacher, I played for one instructor who did not end up becoming my teacher, but she said, “You should play the Prélude from the Suite Bergamasque.” That put something in my head. I remembered my first teacher—he was very wise in that way—and he once said to me, “Take your music that you think you’re done with, go back to it two years later, and see how much it changes.”

It’s good advice.

It really is. And I usually don’t like to do that kind of thing. I’d say, I’ve done it; I’m over it, you know. I’m moving on. But now that I’ve gone back to the Prélude, it has changed so much.

When you play the Bergamasque Prélude in your concert next year, do you see it changing in any way from the way you played it in this video?

Well, for one thing, I’ll definitely be memorizing it. Memorizing really changes a piece. Your eyes aren’t glued to the sheet music, so you can close your eyes and just enter into the music very differently. I think the music will be freer.

But even so, I felt comfortable playing it in this video. And on some level, I’d be glad to play it that well when I’ve got 50 people in a room. It’s so interesting; the more you do with the music, the further you go with it, your values start to change. At first you think, if I could just play the notes. But as you get deeper into the music, you want to extract more; you want to communicate more. You want to feel more and express more and make it more beautiful—you keep striving for something else. And so it’s never perfect; it’s always going to elude you. What you really have to settle for is excellence and not perfection.

Sara Solovitch is an award-winning writer whose stories have appeared in Esquire, Wired, Outside, and other publications. She has been a staff reporter at several major newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is currently at work on her first book, Please Shoot the Piano Player, an examination of stage fright, which is slated for publication by Bloomsbury Press in 2014.
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