The blog didn’t happen on the Moon Day last week but I felt that I should send something out nonetheless; partly because it’s good for me to continue the writing habit; partly because it’s nice to stay in touch with you all; and partly because I’ve been getting grief from our friend and student Virginia that she didn’t get an email in her inbox on Friday!
So thanks to Virginia for the motivation to send this out. And also a big thanks to those of you who have deemed my blog worthy of a donation of the price of a cup of coffee each month. You’re very kind.
The main reason there was no email from me on Friday was that I was feeling under a certain kind of pressure that I haven’t felt for a long time.
I was playing a concert that evening with the National Symphony Orchestra; an orchestra with which I’ve played dozens, maybe even hundreds of times before the pandemic. But this was my first concert with them since early 2020 (and also just my second concert in front of a live audience since around the same time) and the circumstances of the rehearsals and concert really put me on edge.
For those of you who don’t already know, Suzanne and I both play the clarinet professionally (mostly in orchestras). That was our main career before we became yoga teachers and we still do it alongside running the shala. We’re freelancers, which means that we’re not tied to one particular orchestra but, rather, we get to play with a variety of different groups. That’s a nice thing, to be able to slot into different professional, social, and musical situations, without having to get involved with the politics of any particular organisation. But it also comes with a certain level of uncertainty. There’s a saying amongst freelancers that “you’re only as good as your last concert”, and while that may be an exaggeration (particularly if you’ve built a good reputation over many years) there is always that niggling feeling that you could be left out in the cold without much of an explanation if things don’t go your way.
So I was booked to play in last Friday’s concert and I was assigned the E-flat clarinet part in Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. Now, unless you’re well versed in the intricacies of orchestration you probably won’t have any idea what an E-flat clarinet is (as opposed to a ‘normal’ clarinet -which happens to be called a B-flat clarinet) so I’ll explain.
The E-flat clarinet (usually written as Eb clarinet – the ‘b’ being the symbol for ‘flat’ in musical notation) is the smallest instrument in the clarinet family, which means it’s also the highest in terms of its pitch. That is to say, it’s a very squeaky and often ear-piercing instrument. That means that anything you play on the Eb clarinet is very clearly audible to everyone else in the orchestra, and to the audience, everyone who is watching the live stream at home, and everyone who is listening to the concert on the radio (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that it was being broadcast live on the radio too). Besides that, there’s also quite an important Eb-clarinet solo at the beginning of the second movement of that particular symphony.
I haven’t played the Eb-clarinet for a couple of years so I was already on edge and, like an awful lot of musicians these days, I’m a bit rusty in terms of performing at all.
When I got to the rehearsal I found that my seat was surrounded by perspex screens in front and to either side. I knew this would be the case but I had underestimated the lack of communication that I would feel with the rest of the orchestra. Even the musician who was sitting right next to me was hard to hear in that situation, let alone the strings and brass, some of whom were thirty yards away or more.
So there I was, with an unfamiliar instrument (which is very very audible) unable to hear the people I was supposed to be playing with, in an orchestra I hadn’t played with for almost two years, with an audience due to arrive and a live broadcast on national radio.
I was really feeling the pressure.
That was Day 1.
On Day 2 I felt a little more comfortable. The feeling of being in a big orchestra like that was starting to become familiar again (there were around 80 people in that symphony).
And on Day 3 (the day of the concert) I felt like I had the whole thing in hand. There were still some nerves there but nothing out of the ordinary compared to what I would usually feel.
The unfamiliarity of the situation, having effectively taken two years off, was what set me on edge. The circumstances of having something hard to play, where I couldn’t just blend into the background, and all the while feeling isolated by perspex just added to it.
As re-acclimated to the situation though, it started to feel like everything was familiar again and by the day of the concert, I had a feeling that I would be fine.
And I was.
The concert went well. I received a lot of compliments for my playing from other members of the orchestra and I felt that I had done a good job. I even enjoyed the experience of being in the middle of that huge sound again.
It all set me thinking though. I’ve been practising ashtanga yoga for 15 years. Many people would think that, after such a long time practising, you would never suffer from stress, anxiety, or nerves; you’d be so relaxed that nothing could phase you.
In a way, it’s disappointing to realise that anxiety and stress still happen despite all of those years of practice (not to mention the fact that I’ve been playing the clarinet for 32 years!).
On reflection, it’s hard to say whether I would have been even more anxious without those years of yoga practice but I suppose we need to ask that question.
What are we practising yoga for? Is it to achieve mastery of the body, of the breath, of the mind?
And how do we gauge our progress in yoga? Is it being able to do advanced postures, being able to breathe freely, or being calm under pressure?
Did I fail in some way by allowing myself to initially become stressed by the situation? Or did my eventual calmness show that I do have the ability to stay calm under pressure? And is that because I’ve been practising yoga for so long, or for some other reason?
I don’t have the answers to those questions but I do feel that it’s important to reflect. I’d be interested to hear your own experiences.