American Concert Pianist, Steinway Artist, Susan Merdinger

To Cancel or Not to Cancel, THAT is the question! or "The Show Music Go On- or NOT?"

This past week I had a wonderful time attending the 125th Anniversary Celebration and Alumni Reunion of the Yale School of Music. As a Yale College alum as well, I happened to miss my 30th Reunion last Spring for the Class of 1984! (The George Orwell's Year!), so I was particularly eager to attend this special occasion with my husband, Steve Greene, YSM 1986, whom I met in September 1984, exactly 35 years ago! We were even more honored to have been invited to perform on the Alumni Reunion Concert on Thursday, and had a great time appearing on the stage where we first performed as a duo in February 1985! The entire event on Thursday and Friday was incredibly well-organized, thoroughly enjoyable and a real "trip down memory lane"! It was a blast for everyone who attended, I am sure! Steven and I were particularly thrilled to see the enormous renovations, additions and upgrades to the Yale School of Music campuse of four buildings - Stoeckel Hall, Sprague Hall, Hendrie Hall and the Adama Center for Musical Arts, and Leigh Hall. Wow! I think I speak for most YSM alumni that we all feel great pride in our school- one of the finest graduate-only music conservatories in the world. 

The only downside of this past week was that on Monday I started coming down with a cold. It started in my throat with minor irritation. By Tuesday, we took off on a flight for New Haven so we could take advantage of having a recording session Wednesday morning to lay down tracks for our new Two Piano CD- "Famous Themes on Two Pianos". ( More on that later).  By Tuesday night, I was having some real upper respiratory problems, but had brought an arsenal of medications, vitamin supplements, homeopathic remedies, natural immune boosters and good old-fashioned OTC DayQuil! I wouldn't be lying if I said that I barely got any sleep this entire week, as the congestion, post-nasal drip, and cough made it very difficult to get more than a couple of hours at a time. And we all know what happens to us when we do not get enough sleep!

What was I to do, then? It was a momentous occasion, to be sure. My husband Steve was involved in the preparation for this recording session and concert performance, and to back out and cancel would have been so disappointing to him. To have not gone at all would have meant forfeiting expensive non-refundable plane tickets and everything else, but mostly the disappointment of not being able to return to Yale with Steve, together, to visit the place "where it all began" and visiting with the teachers and friends we hadn't seen in years, would have been palpable and sad for both of us, after all the eager anticipation we had built up. 

However, the downside of performing when one is sick is that one cannot predict how one might feel or react to whatever necessary medications one must take to "make it through" without stopping, coughing or otherwise falling apart. I went through a whole bottle of DayQuil this past week, and I can honestly say you can almost "tell time" by judging the effects of this medication, which is to be taken every four hours. Around 3 hours 40 minutes past the last dose, the symptoms would return, and with a vengeance. So it is totally clear that these types of decongestants and cough suppressants only mask symptoms, and do not lessen or shorten the illness. But when to take it and how much is needed during an actual performance is not quite clear!

This week was the first time I can remember ever being sick for a concert, and to tell you the truth, I had no idea how it might affect my performance. I always thought it was just singers who might have to cancel for a cold or sore throat or sinus infection. But, now I can honestly say that ALL musicians truly suffer from a head cold during a performance. For me, the usual effects of the cold such as stuffed ears and inability to hear properly, impaired sense of smell and taste, blurry vision, and even poor balance created a sense of struggle on the stage and angst about whether I might have an uncontrollable urge to cough or sneeze. Right before my performance I realized that my prior dose had been about 3.5 hours earlier and I might need a little "booster"- so I took another half dose.  Navigating up the flight of stairs to the backstage entrance or just being able to keep my eyes and ears focused was a challenge.  Our performance as a duo suffered as a result ( in my opinion), and yet, to the audience, we appeared as if everything was normal.

Should one announce to an audience when one is performing in a sick or debilitated condition? Or does this create a negative mindset for the performer and the audience? I've attended Lyric Opera performances where an announcement is made that a particular lead "singer is sick, but has agreed to sing for you tonight". Should pianists be doing the same as these "Opera Singers"?

At this event, people who haven't heard me or Steve before might thave thought that perhaps we aren't such great pianists and why in hell are they up there on stage? Did we ruin our reputation? Although I never judge any performed based on a single concert, let alone a 10-minute performance, is it possible that many other people make these "snap judgments"? Recently, a university professor told me that he make s a decision about a candidate's admission within the first 12 seconds of their videotaped or live performance! If this is the way the world works these days, might it just be safer to ALWAYS cancel when one is "under the weather"- whether it is a stomach ache, a bad cold, a toothache, or headache?

If a musician were to cancel often enough, he/she might get a bad rep as someone who cancels a lot. Martha Argerich has been notorious for this, but she is revered as a Goddess amongst pianists worldwide, and easily can get away with frequent cancellations- it may even add to her mystique! However, perhaps she is smarter for knowing her own limitations and preserving her reputation and high standards of performance?

Also, is this "cancel when sick" protocol,  financially realistic for most musicians? If you don't play, you don't get paid. If you lose out on a great performance opportunity, you may not get asked again- at least not anytime soon. A single cancellation of a concert could be costly- but playing less than your absolute best could also be costly.

The last consideration, on the flip side, is that even if we think we play "badly"- in all likelihood, as was the case this past week at Yale for me, the audience will still take great pleasure in one's performance. So many people - all trained musicians like ourselves- came up to tell me and Steve how much they enjoyed our performance. I have trained myself to always smile sweetly and gratefully for audience members' appreciation and compliments, which I did. Meanwhile, in my head and heart, I know or felt that I played far worse than I would have anticipated, especially given our level of preparation and familiarity with the piece. Afterwards,  I was a somewhat shell-shocked- because I didn't know what to expect from my illness- but the side effects of the medication combined with the cold and sinus infection were significantly more than I could deal with.  Thus, while I will normally take the responsibility for a less than stellar performance (hopefully this hasn't happened very often), I didn't feel so bad- since I was suffering under extremely uncomfortable and extenuating circumstances due to my illness.  But is it OK to have an illness as an "excuse" or will it always just sound as if one is trying to make excuses? I took solace in the fact that Noa Kagayama, a noted psychologist wrote in one of his blogs that studies have shown that most "wrong notes" are not even detected by the most highly trained musicians, let alone most laypeople. (Although, on this point, I tend to disagree- if you play for people who are musicians AND have studied and performed the specific musical works in question, I would think that any top-level musician will hear all the wrong notes in performance- I know that I do!)

However, the great Arthur Rubinstein once claimed that he could create another complete concert with the wrong notes he would play in a single concert! (Hyperbole, I am sure, but you get the point!)  So, I asked myself afterward, did I/we play with the emotion and drama and confidence of an artist?  Yes, we did. Did we put all of my energy and interpretive skills to use in the preparation of the work?  Yes, we did. Could I have practiced more, better, or differently than I did to ensure a better result? Probably not, but I am certainly always trying to practice smarter and better as I continue to mature as an artist. As a result, I have tried to put the whole thing into perspective to assuage my fears that my reputation is "ruined" because of some wrong notes. I realize that no performance is ever 100% bad, and that the reason people enjoyed the performance is that there must have been a substantial portion of it which was quite excellent. As a concert artist, one must also be mindful to never denigrate the complimentary opinions of your audience- EVER! It makes them feel as though their opinion is not worthy, may make an artist come across as haughty and all-knowing, or may even convince your audience fans that you actually did not play well at all! And in the immediate aftermath of a performance, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to adequately assess one's own playing. Janos Starker, a famous cellist, once said that he could count on one hand the number of concert performances he gave that he was truly proud of, that he felt was perfect or nearly so- and this after a lifelong, distinguished performing career. Mstislav Rostropovich, the famous cellist and conductor said this: 

"You must play for the love of music. Perfect technique is not as important as making music from the heart." - Rostropovich
 

Being on stage is like being in a time warp. A single wrong note goes by in a millisecond, and even a handful of wrongs notes or a couple of botched measures, goes by in seconds- not the minutes or hours that it might feel like when one is "in the heat of the moment". Indeed, mistakes happen to everyone. People are human. As musicians, we must try to look for the good in our performance once it is over and yet, we must always be able to accept criticism and be our own "worst critic".  We must always hold ourselves to our high and exacting standards if we are to become respected musicians, and more importantly, be able to respect ourselves.

So, this CONCERT CANCELLATION issue is a big dilemma- one which I very blessedly have not had to face much during my career- either because I don't get sick often, or just don't give enough concerts! But, it is worth chewing on it a bit. Supposing I am offered a dream come true opportunity to perform with the New York Philharmonic in my debut concert with them- but for only ONE concert? Lovely thought, isn't it? But, what would I do if I got sick? Would I take the chance - in hopes that everything will be OK, or cancel and hope for a "second chance". What if there would never be a "second chance"-  could I then live with myself for not being courageous and brave and adhering to the principle and adage "THE SHOW MUST GO ON"!???

For those of you who are curious to see and hear the Yale School of Music Alumni Reunion Concert if you missed the Livestream- I am not sure it will be released or re-broadcast.  Sometimes I think it is important to RESPECT the EPHEMERAL quality of MUSIC! Once a concert is over, it is OVER. Let the MEMORY remain. However, I am HAPPY to say that Steve and I lay down five pieces in our recording session which I think will "knock your socks off". So, please be patient with the production process- and stay posted to hear about the release of our Famous Themes on Two Pianos CD in the upcoming months.

 

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