I had always wondered how families who lose loved ones at the holidays actually manage to make it through the holidays. Now I know.
As I said before, I flew home on the morning of December 21st, a Tuesday. I was literally in the cab to the Indianapolis airport when my father called to let me know my grandmother had passed away that morning. I spent the rest of the car ride leaving voicemails with my sisters, aunts, &c.
When I got home to Columbia, mom let me know I was going to be a pall-bearer. Which was perfect, since I hadn’t packed my suit. Ironically, I had packed a suit when I visited back in October, thinking I’d likely be attending a funeral then. But at Christmas? Didn’t cross my mind.
The next few days were — well, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to say was a “blur”. But it’s not. I remember those days so freshly, so clearly. Enough that I don’t think I’m ready to write about them quite yet.
But what really struck me was how so many things in my life came to a standstill. How much things came into relief. Their importance, or, really, their lack thereof. I remembered how, earlier, I had left town indefinitely while my show — my own production — was just going into rehearsal, in order to be with my family. And I felt more certain than ever that I had made the right choice. The show must go on? Fuck that.
The hours I spent with my grandmother at the hospital last October were precious. And the last words I ever said to her were, “I’ll see you at Christmas”.
It’s hard to dive back into work after that. I mean, the death of a close relative is hard enough. But when it comes at the end of months of personal and professional exhaustion, how do you possibly pick yourself up and keep moving?
Sheer force of will.
My calendar for the spring of 2011 was busting at the seams. On top of working fifteen hours a week for my mother-in-law’s psychology practice, I had several students I was accompanying at the music school, as well as two classes at the theatre department, and three musicals, back-to-back, from January through May.
In addition to which, I finally got my prize gig, the one I’d been working for for so many years — I was going to be on the IU Jacobs School of Music payroll. *heavenly choir*
The ballet department, see, was putting on, as part of their spring ballet program, “Who Cares?” — a suite of dances set to Gershwin tunes that had been originally choreographed by the immortal George Balanchine. Gershwin’s music being showtunes, Kim Carballo — wonderful, glorious Kim Carballo! — called me up to see if I’d be interested in working for a bit as the rehearsal pianist for the piece. As I recall, I nearly fell all over myself to say yes, yes, YES!
Not only was I finally — FINALLY — being offered a legit music school job, but this particular ballet was being staged by guest artist Merrill Ashley. Now, as a complete ballet novice, I had no idea who this woman was when I first met her — other than the fact she was a guest I really needed to not fuck up. Seriously, thank god I didn’t google her until well after rehearsals started or I would have been even more nervous than I already was on the first day. And I was so nervous because, well, I had just gotten the “Who Cares?” piano score on a Thursday, then went into tech rehearsals that weekend for ‘Kissing Frogs’ (the new show I was music-directing at the BPP), which meant little to no practice time before the first day of “Who Cares?” rehearsal, which was that Monday. Frankly — and I don’t say this to be arrogant — thank GOD I can sight-read like a sonofabitch or I would have been screwed.
Okay, so “Who Cares?” went great. I slowly but surely got a handle on the music — the music is an orchestral suite built around Gershwin’s own transcriptions of his songs, and they’re pretty challenging. And, providentially, I made a good impression on Merrill, who decided she liked having me around and was surprised to learn I’d never played for ballet before. And that, also providentially, meant that I made a good impression on the ballet department chair. So, finally — FINALLY — I managed to NOT piss off someone of importance in the music school. That’s something I should do more often.
The downside, however, was that the hours spent in ballet rehearsal — and the additional hours spent practicing outside of rehearsal — definitely kept me from spending enough time on other people’s music that needed my attention. In particular, a certain soprano whom I just adore, who studied with another soprano I just adore, but both of whom were getting progressively, and understandably, impatient with my lack of preparedness in her lessons. About a month or so into the ballet gig, the professor decided that the student’s lesson needed to be rescheduled — to a time slot in the week at which I was completely and unequivocally unavailable. Ouch.
Things at the ballet went ever so smoothly… until tech week. Now, I had spent a good deal of time the previous week (which was IU’s spring break) practicing my fingers off so that the music would be in good shape. Not just because Merrill would be back in town, but because I’d also be playing for the program’s conductor: maestro Stewart Kershaw, formerly of the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
If you happen to have a picture in your mind of the “typical” stern and dour British maestro, Kershaw would probably fit it to a tee. He terrified me. And as if that weren’t bad enough…
The finale of “Who Cares?” is an absurdly difficult and up-tempo setting of “I’ve Got Rhythm” that I, technically, was not responsible for. That was left to the pianist who had been playing for the corps numbers (whereas I had been assigned the solo and pas de deux numbers). Granted, yes, I should, professionally speaking, have had the entire score in my fingers should I ever be called on to play them. But I simply hadn’t taken the time to work “I’ve Got Rhythm” up to standard.
Well, wouldn’t you know, that was the first number on the rehearsal schedule when “Who Cares?” went into tech, and the other pianist simply refused to play it. So I sat down at the piano, scared out of my wits, and proceeded to absolutely butcher one of George Gershwin’s most classic tunes. And that just wrecked me for the rest of the afternoon. I didn’t play a single number correctly after that.
Afterwards, I had a quick dinner, and spent a couple of hours in the practice room before that night’s rehearsal, but to no avail. I fumbled all over the keyboard — I’m convinced Kershaw thought I had just learned to play the piano that morning. I wanted to just disappear into the keys and out of his withering sight.
I knew I couldn’t let it get me too down, so I simply went home, had a couple of strong drinks, then slept it off. The next morning, I got up earlier than usual (which for me, let’s be honest, means about eight or eight-thirty) and trudged off to the music practice building to pound away at some Gershwin. I had a slow, thorough warm-up at the keys — some Brahms, some Busoni, a lot of Philip — and proceeded to dissect all the problem areas in “I’ve Got Rhythm” that had produced my humiliation the day before.
It paid off. I went down into the pit that afternoon and played the shit out of it. Not just “I’ve Got Rhythm” — the whole set. The shit. Out of it. And when we got to the finale, I ripped it a new one. And wouldn’t you know, at the end of it, that sonofabitch Kershaw said “well done”. At the end of the week, he even said it had been a pleasure working with me. I was pleased — though, admittedly, a little surprised — to be able to say the same in return.
I’ll confess, I’m usually much too proud to let a pushy, unpleasant personality get to me like that. But the fact was, I had shown up unprepared and it was unacceptable. To him, and to myself. So I fixed it. And I guess, ultimately, as embarrassing as it was — and it was — to have shown up unprepared, what mattered to me more was that I was, in the end, still capable of fixing it. I’d been dealing for a while with doubts that I actually had the chops for the gigs I was trying to get. And this, at least for the moment, proved those doubts wrong.