The Bear

Minuet

In 1966 I play the Bach Minuet in G at my first piano recital at the Joseph Horne Company in downtown Pittsburgh. I have practiced efficiently, memorized the music, and prepared for the recital by performing in front of other students.

I am nine years old.

The Minuet in G has two “A” sections and two “B” sections—the form is AABB. I plow through the first half of the piece perfectly, gaining more confidence with every note I toss behind me. Puffed up and full of pride, I finish the first half and launch into the second section. The first note of the second section is a B natural.

Clam! With great conviction I play an A sharp, the quintessential wrong note. And I don’t skim the key lightly, I hammer it. Bang! The hundred delicate, perfect notes I have played until this point fizzle and die. All that counts now is the wrong note.  Knees tremble, palms sweat, face burns. The piano recital fight or flight response kicks in—there’s a hungry bear chasing me through deep, crusty snow. I sense the audience cringing. I see my father in the front row raise one eyebrow. My teacher claps his hand to his forehead.

I’m in survival mode now, relying on muscle memory to propel me through the rest of the piece. In my mind I flee, climb a tree, and dangle upside-down from a low-hanging limb. I hang on for dear life. The bear licks his chops, growls, and snaps at my hands.

Overly dramatic? I think not. Any music student who has experienced a cortisol-induced hysterical brain-freeze while attempting to play a complicated passage will tell you the bear analogy is spot-on. 

Back to my nine-year old self: I know I must finish the piece. The B section repeats. With a kid’s logic I think that if I play it correctly the second time, the audience will know that I played it incorrectly the first time. I have an idea. I will intentionally play the wrong note again and listeners will never know I screwed up the first time.

I repeat the B section and hit that same really wrong note on purpose. Ha, I think. I’ve fooled everyone.

The bear, obviously bored with my refusal to slip from the tree into his slobbering maw, ambles away, checking occasionally to make sure I haven’t dropped to the ground. I don’t know this yet, but he’ll be back. Next time I won’t be so lucky.

***

Rondo

At a certain point in a teenage musician’s life, the bear wins more often than not. No one tells you this in music school, but learning to make a mistake, ignore it, and move on to the next moment can eventually mean the difference between having a career or not.

Failure—just as much as success—determines who we become as artists. We start out as idealistic musical messengers carrying copious notes of sadness and wonder and love. At some point—to get where we want to go— we must make mistakes. We must learn, as C.S Lewis wrote, to “fail forward.”

At age fifteen, I became paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake while playing a piano concert. Paralyzed! Acting, singing, writing—those things seemed effortless, but playing the piano? Despite my best intentions, once the bear showed up, the party was over. I have a theory that playing a musical instrument well in a solo concert performance situation is the most difficult task in the world. Head in the game, eye-hand coordination, memory, detail, nuance—it’s almost too much for one kid to think about. As a teenager, when we believe we’re being judged for every skin blemish, fashion choice, or wrong note, it’s damn near impossible.

Benyamin Nuss, a brilliant young classical pianist living in Germany and currently touring the world with his Final Fantasy program of computer-game music arranged for solo piano, has been gracing concert stages for twenty of his thirty years, playing extremely difficult classical repertoire with the emotional poise and technical wizardry of a seasoned musician twice his age. Benny is the kind of performer who never seems to have a bad day, never makes a mistake, never ever lets the bear chase him. I ask Benny if he can remember ever making a big mistake while performing. He laughs.

“There have been so many,” he says. “But the first one that comes to mind happened when I was sixteen. I had my first girlfriend and we had only been together for a couple of weeks. For the first time there was something in my life other than music. I was playing Beethoven’s Seventh Piano Sonata in D Major. The fourth movement is a Rondo with a figure that always repeats three notes. I was coming to the end, after the last repeat of this motive. I got stuck and stopped. Jumped some bars back because nothing better came to mind. Played the motive again. The same thing happened. Then I jumped back again. And again. And failed again. And again. Finally I just stopped. Didn’t know what else to do.”

The bear was nipping at Benny’s heels. Or the heels of his hands.

“Beethoven ditched you at the finish line?” I say.

“Yeah. Or I ditched myself.”

“What did you do?”

“I gave up. I stood, took a pathetic bow, and said, sorry.”

“Oh no.”

“Here’s the thing: I could have improvised my way out of that Rondo, but it never occurred to me that I could mess with Beethoven just to save myself. Really—I could have made something up and no one, other than my teacher, my parents, and maybe a couple of classical music experts would have known.” 

“I bet if that happened to you now, you’d own it. Beethoven meets Nuss. Improvise through a memory lapse? Is that what you learned from that mistake?”

“Yeah. That. And to never think about my girlfriend when I should be focusing on the music.” 

Here’s my favorite part of Benny’s story: On that same night, after suffering what he considered a monumental defeat, Benny took some deep breaths in the wings, returned to the stage, took another bow, sat down, and whipped through his encore—Prokofiev’s Toccata, twice as fast and furious as the piece he had just flubbed.

Boy versus bear. Boy wins.

***

Sonatine

Back to me and a chance meeting with the bear in 1978.

I’ve been working as a cocktail pianist to make money while attending college. I like the work—I sit in the corner, play the piano, and no one pays much attention to me. During the day I go to classes, take piano lessons, and practice for classical music recitals.

I’m scheduled to play Maurice Ravel’s Piano Sonatine for the spring music department recital at the Chatham College chapel. I know the material. I love the material. I’ve practiced it until the piece is playing me, instead of the other way around. I’m confident and secure with my interpretation of the composer’s intention, and I’m looking forward to the night’s performance.

I’m nineteen years old and wearing a frilly black dress and strappy heels. I walk onstage, sit at the Steinway concert grand, and adjust the height of the bench. There are about seventy-five people in attendance, a small crowd for such a big space.

Something is wrong with me. I feel, I don’t know, hollow. My hands are tingling. I take a deep breath, and begin playing the first movement of the Sonatine.

That’s when it hits me. About sixteen bars into Mr. Ravel’s elegantly written composition, my heart starts pounding. Boom. Boom. Boom. It’s the fucking bear. My hands sweat and shake, and I’m moving in slow motion, except for my right knee, which has developed a high-speed twitch.

“You can do this, you can do this,” I say to myself five or six times.

Another voice, a new, strange one coming from inside my head, starts poking at my self-confidence. Don’t tell me the bear has a voice. A talking bear? Just what I need.

“Who are you?” I think.

The Voice of Doom, he replies in a loud, whiny voice. I look around. No one else can hear the Voice of Doom. Just me.

Get . . . Out . . . Of . . . Here, I think, trying hard to concentrate on the notes.

Nope, he says. I’m not goin’. You’re a fake, and it’s about time you realized it. Fake, fake, fake! You’re gonna massacre this piece big time and all these people will hear you do it. You’re nothing but a big faking faker. Fake, fake, fake, fake, fake. 

He’s yelling at me from inside my brain, somewhere between my ears and the top of my skull, and he keeps getting louder and louder.

I try to argue back but I can’t get a word in edgewise.

This is awful.

I can’t locate the notes. Or if I find them I play them so slowly that I have no idea where I am in the piece. Everything I’ve learned is gone—out the window like bubbles blown through a ring on a windy day.

I steal a glance at the audience. Grandma Curtis and Grandma Rawsthorne are in the second row with Aunt Jean and Uncle Bill. They’re all smiles and don’t seem to notice anything wrong. That’s good. My parents are in the row behind them, but I look away before I can catch their reaction to my train wreck. Oh no. There’s Bill Chrystal, my teacher, with a pained expression on his normally placid face, hovering on the side of the chapel, looking like he’s ready to dash out the fire exit if things get any worse.

I’m freezing and my hands shake. I’m having a full-blown anxiety attack.

Oh. Wait. Now I get it. I’m onstage alone and the audience is paying attention. I’ve gotten used to the chatter and the laughter of the cocktail lounge. Where are the clinking glasses and the waiters barking orders at the bartender? Where is the whir of the blender, where are the cheerful hellos and goodbyes and how are yous? Where is all the noise? And how come these people are listening? What do they expect to hear?

No, no, no, no, no! Don’t just sit there! Talk! Smoke a cigarette! Have an argument with your neighbor. Dispute the check with your overworked waitress, because you did, after all, only have two gin and tonics and you’re being charged for three. Order another round of Strawberry Margaritas or some of those tasty chicken fingers. Do something, anything, but please please please don’t listen to me. It is enough for me to listen to myself. Really, it’s enough.

Well, there you have it, says Voice of Doom. Another concert career comes to a screeching halt.

The next day I decide to audition to be a showgirl in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Maybe I’ll be good enough for the circus. Much easier than playing the piano.

Girl versus bear. Bear wins.

 ***

Coda

I never did join the circus, but I abandoned my concert pianist plans and returned to my cocktail lounge gig, which, in a way, shared certain circus elements with the Big Top. Clowns, for instance. Scantily-clad women. Salty snacks.

In my late twenties, long after my raging, adolescent hormones should have settled, I still felt the judgmental eyes of the world upon me. At home, practicing, I connected with my artistic side. In public I worried about being loved, or at the very least, liked. My neediness fueled the bear’s desire to eat me alive. His hunger grew in direct proportion to my thirst for acceptance in a competitive world. So, anxiety. So, dread. So, fear of fear.

I put up with myself for a very long time.

Finally, somewhere around my forty-fifth birthday, the bear skulked away and never came back. I could tell you I donned my I AM FIERCE t-shirt and scared the bejesus out of the bear, but that’s not what happened. It was more like this: Real life—kids, aging parents, death of friends, love, illness, making a living, paying the bills—reminded me that I have nothing to prove to anyone. I am not a competitor with a finish line; I am pianist. I play the way I play because I love music that reflects life. My mistakes are part of that process. Making them in public is part of the gig. Why be afraid?

Most musicians don’t like to talk about their failures—who does?—but I think it’s a good idea to let young musicians know that learning to outrun the bear is an essential part of their development. Perhaps not as important as good technique and discipline, but right up there with self-esteem and a disposition for risk-taking.

A readiness to fail often and fail well is a good indicator of future accomplishment. If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again. If I had given up the piano after that first ill-fated Bach Minuet in G, I might have avoided future scraps with the bear, but I would have surely missed out on the joy of sharing my musical stories with anyone willing to listen.

Social media magic: Right when I was writing this last paragraph, a YouTube clip of composer Maria Schneider popped up on my screen. Maria talks about writing for David Bowie and her many concerns about screwing up an expensive, risky assignment. Bowie says this: “The great thing about music is if the plane goes down, everyone walks away.”

Everyone walks away—how I wish I could have heard this as a young adult. It’s not life or death; it’s music. It means everything in the moment, but nothing in the long run. All jokes aside, no one has ever gotten hurt by a wrong note, a lapsed memory, or awkward phrasing. Why not take a chance on making something beautiful?

On my current gig at an old, gold-dusted hotel in Cologne, Germany, I play a 1939 Steinway Model A. The keys of the instrument, contoured by the accumulated blunders of decades of players before me, feel smooth to my fingers when I sit down to play. My musical flaws add another layer of humanity to a piano that has witnessed eighty years of gaffes, all of them, thankfully, forgotten and forgiven by the fleet and reckless tempo of life. Toccata, double time.

I consider my career a fortuitous success built on a shaky foundation of multiple screw-ups and some sort of warped, magical thinking that has propelled me—clinging to the security blanket of my mistakes—into the brawny arms of opportunity. Opportunity, it turns out, sometimes wears a bear costume. I’ve outsmarted the bear by hugging him, feeding him marshmallows, and teaching him how to dance. Off we go—we’re a clumsy twosome, but I’ve trained him to follow my lead. 

*****

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

Many thanks to Benyamin Nuss for sharing his story. Check out his newest album, Fantasy Worlds, here. I was at the launch concert—an astonishing performance by a brilliant artist. This piece, “Those Who Fight,” seems an appropriate video to accompany this essay.

Watch the Maria Schneider interview here, courtesy of NEA Jazz Masters and NPR.

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.