When I sit down at a Steinway, in front of an audience of a thousand people, some of whom have paid more than a hundred and fifty dollars to see me play, there are many things on my mind. The best teachers tell me to forget everything. They tell me to forget everything but the music I’m about to play.
The more interesting instructors tell me to think about the first time the piece was played, like that’s supposed to give me a fresh perspective. By this point, I’ve played that piece thousands of times. I’ve hammered it into my skull until I can play it in my sleep. It’s not as amusing as it sounds.
I step out onto the stage in the same way, whether it’s the first time I’ve played, or the hundredth, or whether I’m playing at Carnegie, or my studio. The same hint of fear seeps into my blood, and reminds me that there are eyes watching.
And that’s the challenge.
I’m not afraid of the piano. A Steinway has never hurt anyone; it’s far too beautiful to do that. I’m not afraid of what I could do, or what I’ve done. I’m not even really afraid of making a mistake.
I’m afraid because, every time I step onto the stage and sit down at the piano and place my fingers on the keys, I’m making a statement: a statement about reality, about my beliefs, about what beauty is and is not. Carving sound from silence utters a declaration about who I am—and from that emerges a declaration about the rest of life.
Early on as a pianist, I fell into the emblematic dream of standing naked in front of a crowd. I felt ashamed to admit I’d had it, but dreams exist to help you understand reality, and there was no other way for my mind to communicate this fear to me. Walking onto a stage and making your beliefs public reveals your fears. It exposes your hopes. It emphasizes your flaws, and accentuates your imperfections.
My instructor was one of the best. He encouraged me to forget everything, and just play. But I was never able to do that. I’m sure he realized that I failed to follow his instructions, even though I lied plenty of times. A couple of times, I was almost sure he believed me.
But the last time, I couldn’t escape the eyes; I couldn’t escape the audience. I couldn’t escape my family, or my friends. It was like I was living in that dream, that naked dream, except I never woke up.
My instructor must have realized this. I mean, he did realize this, because he tried all kinds of things to try to make me forget. He made me play in the dark, and in broad daylight. He shipped a piano out to the middle of an open field, and made me play there. He placed a piano in the middle of Times Square, and made me play, with all of those damn tourists watching. But none of it helped.
The day approached, just like the day I mentioned earlier: an audience of a thousand people, some of whom had paid more than a hundred and fifty dollars to see me play.
I stepped out onto the stage. My mind tore at me, naked and raw. I saw my instructor behind the curtain, piercing me with his eyes. I waited for him to do something to make it easier for me to play— flip a light off, or pull a curtain. But he didn’t. He just mouthed the words:
But I shut my eyes, and started playing.
I felt every eye tear into my mind. Into my ideas, my fears, my hopes. My insecurities, my flaws, my mistakes and grudges. I felt every eye cut deep into me: the eyes of family and friends, the eyes of strangers and lovers. They drowned me with their judgment, as I struggled to breathe music into my lungs.
I finished the piece, and held the keys down until the sound faded into the corners of the majestic hall. The roar of applause filled my ears.
I opened my eyes.
And saw that I was absolutely alone.