Growing Through AMSF

by Ellen Tenenbaum

Keynotes, September 2013

After 12 years in AMSF as a regular member, I am now switching my status to associate member because recently a few people and venues have been offering to pay for performances, and I'll be accepting interesting performances when they are offered. The great majority of my performances are free, and I never initiate payment discussions. But when they do offer, I'll consider accepting. I owe this new development to AMSF, my pathway to growth, and personally a musical lifeline.

When I re-started lessons 13 years ago after 2 decades of not playing, I was too ashamed to play the piano when my husband, kids or anyone else was in the house. When playing, I was addicted to the soft pedal, and only whispers came out of the piano. Carolyn Booth, my teacher for 8 years, gently insisted and coaxed me to take my foot off the soft pedal, and this took months to actually do. When she asked what my goals in music were, I said, "To select pieces I love that with practice can be brought to fruition, learn them well, and share them with others in a spirit of generosity and joy."

After a year and a half in lessons, I began to wonder how I could somehow meet other people who are pianists. By absolute serendipity, one morning in December 2001 I and about 10 others were waiting for the door to open for a master class by Andre Watts over at the University of Maryland. I vowed to talk to someone who was standing around. Summoning some kind of a voice, I asked the person next to me, "Are you a pianist?" She chuckled and said, " Oh no, I'm just taking lessons!" This turned out to be Rosemary McDonald, who was there with Susan Rudy. They graciously had me sit with them, and there I learned they were in this wonderful organization called the Adult Music Student Forum. I joined that day.

Through attending scores of Prelude, Intermezzo, and Cadenza events, very gradually I started playing when people were in the room. Each event brought a horrible case of nerves. After 3 years and many AMSF get-togethers, with Brian Ganz' advice "The more times the better!" I ventured to give a little 35-minute recital at a senior living facility. Those nerves would not go away, and I forced myself, booking myself into dozens of senior facilities, probably 200 times over these past 8 years. Some facilities have asked me to come back time after time. I also pushed myself to try and perform at the Strathmore Mansion Teas and in the atrium of Georgetown University hospital's cancer center.

Every one of these 200 performances has been like a big lesson. I can't think of a single shortcut to manage nerves and feel like a real performer. The professional concert pianist is truly playing a different game, a game that I can't even imagine. David Foster Wallace was a great tennis player as a teenager, with a lot of promise. He was tops in his entire region. But when he first saw real, famous professionals in national tournament action, as he eloquently wrote, he was completely overwhelmed. They were playing a different game entirely, and he knew that he could never, ever get there. If you find his writings about tennis, they are quite moving. Thankfully, music is different from tennis. With music, I have found that my audiences are so happy and grateful to hear real music, well-prepared, in person, that it makes me happy and motivated. I have many audiences; in fact we in AMSF have many audiences. And music is such that the simplest pieces can be the most moving and unforgettable when they are well prepared and beautifully rendered.

Over these years, some of my most important experiences were the AMSF outreach concerts ("Nerves? Just do it! The more times the better!") Audiences love AMSF concerts so much that afterward they have stories and reminiscences to share, which they could never do in a regular concert. And these concerts help in our efforts to manage those nerves.

Eventually it came about that people who had heard me, or who were referred by someone, have asked me to perform at a wedding or reception or a community center or an adult education program or other venue; some of these requests offered payment. I've decided "why not," and when a request comes up that offers payment and is interesting, I'll accept.

This I owe to AMSF, whose members encourage one another, and offer such rich experiences as the outreach concerts, the recitals in people's homes and the master classes, not to mention the camaraderie and the delicious treats! So I'll continue in AMSF as an associate member, and look forward to attending AMSF events that are open to all, and to getting Keynotes.


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