A few months ago, a facebook advertisement caught my eye for an international online music competition.
The second time I saw the ad, I paused to check it out.
Hmmm…. no age limit! That’s unusual for classical music competitions. I just turned 50 on Monday (!! wow – I keep getting younger! 😉 ) – so age is definitely not a helpful factor in most cases now. Most competitions are designed to help younger artists build their careers – not musicians who are already established professionals.
But what about us OLDER artists working on building on our careers? We can certainly use a bit of help, too! I decided that it couldn’t hurt to apply to this one, especially with a prize like performing at Carnegie Hall. Nothing to lose – other than the application fee!
I sent in the required videos, and waited. After some weeks, I received the promised evaluation with suggestions on how to improve my performance for Round 2.
Now, I admit (sheepishly – do NOT follow my example here if you want to avoid stress!!) that I didn’t look at the evaluations until midnight the night before the deadline. Yes, you read that right. It was midnight… AFTER I’d already recorded my Round 2 videos!!! Yeah, stupid. Really, really dumb!
Why on earth did I do that, you ask?
Well… I’m a bit embarrassed to say, but I was afraid to receive any kind of negative criticism about my Bach.
You see, Bach has always been my favorite composer, and I feel my interpretations very deeply. [Listen to by recording of Bach Dances here]
What I do is deeply personal. Very intimate, heartfelt, full of meaning for me. And I have a rocky history playing Bach for important people and events! Here are some of my stories…
My Bach Story #1
When I was 12, I auditioned to be an active participant in Nathan Milstein’s international masterclasses in Zurich. There was a hefty repertoire list to be prepared for the audition, including Bach. So, when Milstein asked me what I wanted to play, I named my favorite: “Bach!”
“No…. play something else.”
So I played a concerto.
“Now, what will you play next?”
“No… play Paganini!”
So I did… although Paganini was NOT my strong suit, by far.
“What else do you have to play?”
“No! You’re too young to play Bach!”
And that was that. No Bach for Milstein that day – he wouldn’t let me play it until later, when I performed for the masterclass. I left the audition in tears.
I always wondered if I was finally accepted into the masterclass because he felt bad about how he’d treated that little girl who just wanted to play Bach…
My Bach Story #2
When I was a student at Indiana University, I was swept up by the early music performance movement. I fell head over heels in love with the baroque violin and baroque performance style. It was fresh, new, exciting, flowing, rhythmic, and FUN!
Whole new worlds of baroque music opened up for me, and I learned to play Bach from a facsimile in Bach’s own handwriting. I was absolutely delighted by what I was learning, and it all made so much sense!
At the same time, I was studying with one of the all-time great violin pedagogues, who was also Joshua Bell’s teacher at the same time, Josef Gingold. Mr. Gingold was a wonderful old man by the time I met him, and lessons consisted mostly of heaps of positive encouragement and tales from his own lifetime as a musician.
One day, I decided to play the Bach Chaconne for one of his weekly student masterclasses. I hesitated, but finally decided to play it in baroque style, since that was what I was studying with my baroque teacher… and I was considering playing it that way on my senior recital.
After playing through the entire 15-minute piece, Gingold told me, “Have a seat, Jennifer.” He went on to praise me quite a bit, emphasizing, “I admire your conviction!” …
…and then he said….
“Now, do it again – the RIGHT way!”
Gingold was such a big teddy-bear of a lovable man, and he did this in such a lovable way, that all I could do was laugh (we all did)… and play it again – HIS way! (I did it my way on the recital.)
My Bach Story #3
I was 18. I was at my teenage peak of performance chops, feeling pretty good about my playing… I’d performed as a soloist at Carnegie Hall with the NY String Orchestra not long before, and I was determined to get into the prestigious Marlboro Festival summer program – an elite learning and performance opportunity for the cream of young musicians crop those days.
I auditioned with Bach – of course.
I was interrupted by one of the judges. “What is THAT?!? Is THAT what they teach you at Indiana University?!?” The elderly Felix Galimir yelled at me with disgust, berating the way I played my Bach, which was heavily slanted towards baroque performance practice style – just having come from two years of in-depth study with world-renowned baroque specialist, my wonderful teacher at I.U., Stanley Ritchie.
Feeling indignant and hurt by the judge’s contempt, I responded meekly, “Yes.”
I was dismissed and ushered out of the room. No Marlboro for me!
Back to the video audition…
So, you see…. I just didn’t want to deal with anyone else’s criticism of my Bach again. I like my Bach the way I like my Bach. I don’t care what anybody else thinks!
So, I asked my boyfriend to read the competition evaluation for me when it arrive in my inbox, to avoid dealing with a possible unpleasant reaction to criticism. I told him to tell me if there was anything I really needed to know; he told me there wasn’t anything that would upset me – just a few innocuous words about style…but then I never sat down to read it because I didn’t think there was anything I needed to know. OOPS!
Instead of reading it (again – do NOT follow my example – I made a string of bad choices here, all based on fear, not faith!), I made the assumption (based on my history), that the words about style probably meant that the judge didn’t like how I was playing it.
She probably likes Bach in a more modern style, I thought, since that’s what so many others had wanted of me in the past. I knew from experience that “my” way was unlikely to bring me positive feedback from someone in a position of authority!
My boyfriend and I discussed my dilemma. How could I play these movements of Bach differently, in a way most likely to please the judge on the other side of my videos?
We came up with an idea, and I got curious.
What if I checked out some modern-day performances of these movements of Bach, in traditional/modern style, and I tried to imitate them – just as an exercise – to see what I could do?
So, I listened to two famous female performers to find out what audiences tend to like these days. I listened carefully, but with difficulty: one performer’s Gigue sounded like a relentless machine gun trying to blast angry holes into my chest, and the other – though less aggressive – was still not “me” at all.
I decided to turn on my inner “chameleon”. Imitating people and ‘people-pleasing’ are skills that can certainly be used to good effect in certain situations… and I’d learned how to do that pretty well as a kid.
I practiced coming up with a more modern style of Bach for a couple hours over the next couple days, then started recording at 10pm the night before the deadline (I just didn’t feel up to it earlier in the day).
At midnight, I finished the recordings and I was just about to send them off…
…when a little angel-bird whispered into my ear… “Jennifer… maybe you should just check and make sure you took care of everything before sending in those videos… don’t you think maybe you should take a quick peek at that evaluation, after all…?”
Oh, boy. Good thing I did!! My boyfriend was right – there wasn’t any negative criticism in the evaluation. But there were quite a few details about style, tempo, articulation… lots of specifics I needed to address before I could send in those videos!!
Thankfully, these details were all things I was able to incorporate into my new recordings fairly easily and quickly. I did both videos all over again, playing through both pieces multiple times. I sent them off, and finally fell into bed exhausted at 2AM.
I really didn’t expect to win, especially with these last-minute big changes in interpretation!
And yet… I won the Gold.
The day after I turned 50.
You know, I’ve already played at Carnegie Hall four times in my life, and I’m so incredibly grateful for that. It’s an absolutely wonderful, thrilling, amazing, “can’t-be-beat”, life-pinnacle of an experience every time. Probably something like arriving at the peak of Mt. Everest.
But what thrills me the most about THIS particular win is not simply that I’ll be playing at Carnegie Hall again; it’s that I’ll be standing on that stage again on my own merit, having won this competition playing my beloved Bach.
I won’t be there as a 7-year old playing with hundreds of American and Japanese Suzuki students; nor as a college student, soloist in an educational program; nor as a spouse playing her husband’s music on someone else’s recital – or on his.
I’ll be playing at Carnegie Hall again because I made it happen, for myself. As an adult professional shaping her life the way she imagines it…one idea, one vision, one step at a time.
That’s pretty powerful… I am humbled by what is possible.
If you’re in NYC on July 10, 2021, come to the Winner’s Recital and hear me play! Bach… or maybe something else. We’ll see!
Thanks for reading, and for celebrating with me!
p.s. You can hear more of my Bach here: YouTube Playlist
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