Lunch Concerto (Excerpt from Why We Fear, the book about disarming fear)
“Like an electric shock.” This is how conductor Riccardo Chailly afterward described concert pianist Maria João Pires’ reaction upon hearing the first notes of Mozart’s piano concerto No. 20. Chailly had just swished his baton up and down, and the orchestra had started to play. Mozart’s piano concerto No. 20, d-flat KV 466, begins with the strings. Then the brass section plays for a while, followed by a brooding performance by the strings, alternating between frantic rhythms and pauses. Mozart and Chailly with his baton are setting the stage for the soloist. Both the public and the soloist are aware of this. They are also aware that, as this is a Mozart piano concerto, at Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and conducted by Chailly, there is no room for mistakes. But why did Pires flinch? Let us imagine for a moment that you are in Pires’ shoes, waiting on the orchestra stand for your turn. The concert hall is full, the orchestra is playing, and your solo, which the orchestra is leading up to, is set to begin in two minutes and twenty-eight seconds. When it is time for you to start, everyone else falls silent. It is so quiet in the hall that even the smallest sound carries to the seats at the back. Often the mere thought of such an experience is enough to make one’s hands go numb and one’s mouth dry up. However, what could be the worst that could happen, if you discount standing there nude and dying in front of the crowd? How about what it would feel like to sit up there if you had rehearsed a completely different concerto than the one the orchestra was playing? This is precisely what happened to concert pianist Maria João Pires at Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1998. Pires, sitting behind her grand piano, knew from the first notes that, in a little over two minutes, she would have to perform a small miracle. She had prepared for Mozart’s piano concerto No. 21, not piano concerto No. 20 in d-flat. She had made a mistake when writing down the name of the concerto. The recording of the lunch concerto shows how the crowd of a hundred or so listeners waits for the orchestra to get to Pires’ performance, leading up to it note-by-note. Pires smiles faintly, glances over her left shoulder at the violinist sitting there, then flashes her teeth in a half grimace. She presses her head down, raises it again and tries to smile, but she fails to maintain eye contact with the other musicians. Pires presses her lips together and squeezes her eyes shut. Finally she is frozen completely still. The problem is not that she would not know which concerto to play – she is quite familiar with it: Pires recorded the concerto in 1978 and played it in public several times since then. The problem is that in an instant she must dig up the concerto from memory and play it under extreme pressure.
Learning concertos by heart is part of the job for a soloist. That is not the difficult part, however. Rather, actually performing a piece from memory in concert, under pressure, is so difficult that some pianists have found their career coming to an early end. Others never quite manage to achieve their full potential in concert. Worse, a person’s memory plays tricks when nearly paralyzed with anxiety. Something lurks behind extreme anxiety and fear reactions, a system that at its core is intended to ensure our survival in threatening situations. All functions that are not at that precise moment crucial for survival are bumped down in priority or bypassed completely. The current version of this system, however, is so ancient that it is mainly intended to protect us from direct physical threats. Profound, inward examination has no value to survival in a sudden, threatening situation, so it is ruthlessly neglected. This was extremely unfortunate for Maria João Pires, as it prevented her brain from functioning at its normal level. At that point, the parts of her brain responsible for higher functions were probably inactive. Had Pires wanted to summon up these higher functions to find the right notes, she would have needed to stop the chain of events launched by her amygdala. This is because these processes were at that moment directing oxygen to where it was needed and preparing her body either for full-scale mobilisation or complete paralysis. Her head would have been either too empty or too full of thoughts.1 Luckily for Pires, she had practiced Mozart’s piano concerto No. 20 so many times that she did not need to remember her part, as it was stored in the lower sections of her brains, i.e., in what people might call muscle memory. However, the chain reaction caused by the unexpected situation and social pressure had by then gone to her muscles. Her adrenaline glands were pumping adrenaline and cortisol into her blood, her heart was beating faster, and her blood pressure was rising. In such a situation the system thinks that the large muscles need glucose and oxygen for fight or flight, rather than the fine motor skills needed to play Mozart. When the body is prepared for fight or flight, it needs to raise its metabolic output and increase pain tolerance, thereby numbing the sense of touch and decreasing surface blood flow. The muscles of the inner ear tense up as the vagal nerve activates, making it more difficult to detect mid-range sounds. At the same time Pires’ central nervous system and certain cells inside her brain release noradrenaline, and even though it might help memory retrieval and focus, noradrenaline also brings restlessness and anxiety. These are pretty much exactly the kind of bodily changes that a pianist playing a piano concerto from memory does not want to experience. Soon it is Pires’ turn. Her mouth is agape and the small muscles of her cheeks are tensing. The orchestra plays the last notes. She raises her left hand to her mouth, glances up from under her brow, and then turns to the keys. The orchestra falls silent, and it is Pires’ turn to play. She plays the first, delicate notes – correctly. Then the next few, again correctly. Then she launches into a part played at quick tempo, requiring great accuracy and manual dexterity. Again, she plays it correctly. Her part grows ever more complex, and the music seems to suck Pires into its flow. Now it is the orchestra’s turn. Pires raises her chin, looking anxious. When it is her turn to play once more, the miracle continues – Pires is one with the music once more. Soon enough she has played the entire fifteen-minute concerto flawlessly from start to finish.
The fact that Pires managed this is astounding or at least rare. It raises questions about how she was able to navigate back from the fog and into the light. How was she able to switch off her defense system and play so gorgeously despite the pressure? And what can we learn about this in terms of controlling fear-based reactions? Let us start with adrenaline and noradrenalin, which together formed one of Pires’ greatest problems at that moment. Due to these chemicals, Pires’ pulse quickened in order to provide more oxygen and glucose-rich blood to her large muscles. Due to her increased cortisol levels, Pires’ liver was able to provide large amounts of glucose for her body to turn into muscle power. This would be great if her instrument was the gong, but Pires is a pianist known for her delicate and gentle approach to playing. The “half life” of adrenaline is approximately two minutes. Even though its direct effects would be short term after her adrenaline glands had stopped producing it, Pires had no time to lose. Her solo would start two minutes and twenty-eight seconds after the first notes. It may be helpful to come up with a credible and constructive interpretation of one’s own excitement. For example, a simple thing like interpreting a pounding heartbeat as anticipation can change the situation to your advantage and help you overcome the fear monster. Fear can make things more difficult in other ways as well. Fear-related anxiety can set off a chain of negative thinking. Concern and fear reduce cognitive capacity. A person may be rendered completely immobile in one of two ways: by entering an oxygen-preserving state (which in plain English means freezing in place) or by thinking too much. Even though the knowledge of how to play the concerto was deep in Pires’ memory and she had practiced it so thoroughly that she did not need to think about moving her fingers, anxiety and fear reactions could still obstruct her from accessing this knowledge and expertise. This kind of state is not too different from the stage fright that we all experience from time to time: one’s vocabulary shrinks, completely familiar things become hard to grasp, and one’s body moves in a stiff and unnatural way. Even though Pires dislikes being categorised and denies being a Buddhist in this sense, she has never hidden her interest in Eastern philosophy. Her grandfather, who raised her, was a Buddhist. According to Buddhist philosophy you can set aside worries and concerns by focusing on the present. As a concert pianist, Pires had countless times been in situations where it is normal to be anxious. In what was quite possibly the most demanding situation she had ever been in, she refused to run away, give up, or search for her notes, and instead she shut her eyes. Only Pires knows what she did or what was happening in her head when she was sitting still with her eyes closed on stage. She may have been examining the situation from far away, seeing herself from the perspective of an external observer. She may have been thinking that in the end it was not such a big deal if she were unable to remember the concerto. With nothing at stake, such as her reputation, money, income, or her future, there would be no need to be tense. Pires may also have been focusing on her body, on her breathing, or on the music. Focusing on steady breathing in particular affects the readiness state of the body; a panic reaction can be stopped by slowing the rate at which you exhale. These actions send a signal to your nervous system, metabolism, and various nuclei that nothing is wrong. What is in any case crucial is that Pires did something, stopped the reaction from taking over, and was able to take a risk.
However, there is another protagonist in this story, which is to say conductor Riccardo Chailly, who was standing right next to Pires on the stand. Chailly detected the soloist’s tenseness with the first swish of his baton. The people filming Frank Scheffes’ documentary Voyage to Cythera were not able to capture Pires’ first reaction on tape, but they did record everything that happened after that: Pires manages to recover from her first reaction, and after twenty-eight seconds have passed from the first notes, she looks at the conductor and tells him that she can try. Chailly raises his gaze from Pires to the orchestra and goes on conducting as if nothing had happened. Next he turns his gaze to Pires and says something that the tape does not catch. All of this takes place while he is conducting the orchestra. Pires explains something about her notes and how she left them in the wrong place. If one had to guess what emotion her body is conveying, it would be shame. It is an embarrassing situation. In one minute and six seconds, the orchestra will stop and Pires must begin. Even though she seems to be struggling between anxiety and despair, Chailly encourages her, saying with a smile: “You played it last season.” The concerto has reached a rhythmic stage where the orchestra plays forcefully. Chailly’s body language seems to be saying that there is no problem, that the situation is in fact fun and exciting. “Easy,” he says and makes a slow downward gesture that is basically the universal sign for “calm down”. “I’m sure you do that thing. You know it too well!” Chailly punctuates his words in time with the music. He turns back to the orchestra, leaving Pires alone. She has fifty-seven seconds to remember the piece. She closes her eyes and lowers her head. She raises her left hand in front of her mouth and nose while the right moves, almost of its own accord, toward the white keys. Pires opens her eyes and plays the first notes. She starts her part brilliantly and plays flawlessly to the end of the concerto. If this was a story about fear, then there were two protagonists in it. One was Maria João Pires, who overcame her own defence system, and one was Riccardo Chailly, who instinctively or consciously helped to deactivate Pires’ nervous defence mechanisms by creating an atmosphere of psychological safety. Pires was safe even though she was in a dangerous situation. That safe space made it less likely for her amygdalas to transfer control of her body to the central nervous system, and the early shut down of adrenaline flow prevented the loss of finer motor skills. Pires’ hands retained their sense of touch, she managed to fight off the rising panic, she was able to take a substantial interpersonal risk, and the public got the lunch concerto they had come for. Bravo! This was a prime example of how one emotionally intelligent person and another socially intelligent person were able to overcome fear together. Ancora!
One of the greatest fear-related misunderstandings is the notion that you can do nothing about fear. This is an understandable notion but completely inaccurate. If you strip fear into its components you can start to understand it. Fear has its history, its physiology, and its psychology. When you have even a basic grasp of these various components, the different bodily reactions and the feelings and thoughts connected to them have less and less power over your day-to-day life. This is particularly important if you want to keep fear from destroying something important, whether that happens to be your peace of mind or a moment that is professionally of critical importance for you. We could simply label the story of Maria João Pires and Riccardo Chailly a miracle. However, even though there were elements of the miraculous about the concerto, nothing that happened inside Pires’ head or between Pires and Riccardo is inexplicable. There is nothing here that any one of us could not learn. This same drama plays out in different settings in our lives, over and over again. We can all benefit from understanding the human and financial costs of losing to fear, and from knowing how to act in order to conquer fear – and to reap the rewards.
If you want to experience “the lunch concerto” in video, here’s the clip. As you watch it, consider a few things: if our cognitive and social abilities are compromised, risk-taking decreases, explorative behaviour diminishes, and we are less creative as teams when the defense mechanism kicks in (as I show in my book). In this light, should we create workplaces where people feel psychologically safe when faced with intimidating challenges, or should we keep on creating more anxiety and expect them to be more creative and intelligent through occasional suffering?
1 This is the reason why many of us can at a moment of extreme excitement feel like we are trying to explain a five-syllable word using a children’s playbook. The working memory does not function, as it is not essential for survival.  In Overachievement John Eliot writes about this possible reason. According to him, too much is happening in the brain – in other words, overuse of neurons messes up one’s performance, as too many brain cells are active at the same time. If this is the case, then it is quite different from an actual paralysis reaction, wherein the body goes into oxygen-saving mode and loses sensitivity as it prepares to undergo violence or a painless death.