What Would You Like to Hear When You are Dying? (The Terror of Performance and the Instability of Memory)

Thanks to Larry and Alice for their recent comments.  Larry notes that “Working with the dying may be the ultimate in generating an inadequate sense of self. We come quickly to the end of our words, they are too soon powerless,”  and that “music … is nourishment in perhaps the only form that is digestible for the dying.”

While waiting to get my required TB test and other paperwork completed, I have had the task of sifting through music to find what may be appropriate music for hospice residents and their families—a more difficult task than I had anticipated.  Everyone is different, and I’m sure there is no “one size fits all” repertoire.  “Soothing” seems to be the main descriptor here, but what is “soothing” for one may be saccharine for another.   What about “Memory”? or “Don’t Cry for me, Argentina?” Personally, I imagine that I would be offended if someone offered those to me on my deathbed.

According to Paul Reid, “On his deathbed Schubert is said to have requested a command performance of Beethoven’s C sharp minor String Quartet, op.131, which was duly given by Karl Holz and others (the violinist Holz was a mutual friend of the two composers).”  

Lucky man.

Not being able to play requests “by ear” or from memory,  I have decided that, for these half-hour performances at various hospice sites,  I will stick to short classical selections—some that I can already play and a few others that I am in the process of practicing. These short “performances”  will rarely be just for one person, I am told, but for small groups of patients and their families.  

What would I want to listen to in my last moments? Maybe some of Leonard Cohen—particularly “Hallelujah.” As Alice remarks of Cohen, “Looking back over his music I’ve come to appreciate all the fine lines he doesn’t shy away from. Deep romanticism and high skepticism — the genuine emptiness and deep fullness of experience.”

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Yes, I think it would be that acknowledgement of the complexity of love, of taking comfort in the “broken,” of resisting absolute certainty, that I would want to listen to.  And, only being who I am, that is what I want to provide.  But, of course, we’re back to words there. There are selections of music that “soothe” in the sense of being both quiet and ambivalent/surprising—much of Beethoven, yes, but also more modern pieces like some of the Rachmaninoff variations I am learning.  

Earlier this year, my poem “Sound Byte” was published in Chicago Literari. In it, I ponder that question.


Sound Byte

The news factoid on the drive-

thru bank’s tiny screen reads:


“Sound is the last sense to go

when one dies.” While my car exhales,

I think of the fact that the


Sumerian words for ear and wisdom are

the same. I think of Dickinson’s uncertain


stumbling Buzz ; but it could be a crow’s

raw rasp, lookout in the pine,

warning of something huge bearing down.


It could be my husband’s voice, my child’s,

the opening bars of Puccini’s Sola,


perduta, abbandonata, or the happier,

even syllables of rain.  Or

the sharp bark of my aging dog


startled from sleep; an approaching siren;

or, hurrying, bullying, hustling me through,


the fierce blast of an impatient horn.


More immediately, another performance “looms.”  Tomorrow I will participate in an informal “recital”— a sharing of works by fellow adult piano students in one member’s home. 

However, the word “recital” still has the power to make my stomach flip and breath catch.

In this morning’s Arts section of the New York Times, there is an article by Michael Cooper about a new documentary by Ethan Hawke, the subject of which is Seymour Bernstein, 87, a former concert pianist, who retired from the stage in 1977 but who still gives lessons: “The Artist’s Life, as Seen From a Piano Teacher’s Bench.” Here is a short excerpt about stage fright:

At a discussion this month after a press screening at Lincoln Center, Mr. Bernstein recalled the dinner party that started the ball rolling, when Mr. Hawke had confessed that he had been experiencing stage fright. “And I said to him, very boldly, ‘What form does it take?’ ” Mr. Bernstein recalled. “And he said, ‘I have the feeling that I’m going to stop talking.’ ”

Mr. Bernstein recounted telling Mr. Hawke a story he had heard about Michael Rabin, the violin virtuoso. Rabin had a phobia that he would drop his bow, Mr. Bernstein said, which he conquered by dropping it on purpose at one performance. He said that the anecdote inspired Mr. Hawke to try a similar approach: He stopped talking at a performance, let out a scream and then continued — with the audience apparently believing it was all part of the play.

Mr. Hawke said that he had been drawn to the master-pupil aspect of serious piano lessons, and that he had been inspired by Mr. Bernstein’s insistence that performers have a right — even a responsibility — to be nervous, which they must overcome by preparing so thoroughly that they will do well in spite of it.

One of my goals in returning to piano lessons in my 50s was to learn how to play from memory in front of an audience without the extreme stage fright that I had developed through some unfortunate incidents accompanied by my own inborn anxiety.  To some extent, I have made progress, and obviously playing from memory is linked to a lessening of stage fright.  It is true that the more you play for others (or speak in front of others, etc.), the less terrifying it gets. When I was a new high school English teacher, I couldn’t say anything to my class without having typed it out beforehand. I even read them my “scoldings,” which, of course, had them not only rolling their eyes but rolling in the aisles. What should have come from the heart, came, instead, merely from the page.

While I am still not completely “myself” in front of a class, it has taken years of, as Bernstein  says, “preparing so thoroughly” that I have learned to do adequately in spite of my terror. And a similar process is going on now in terms of playing the piano in front of others, even with the music right in front of me. Though I have learned to prepare “so thoroughly” that I can indeed play some things from memory, it is not my preference. As Anthony Tommasini mused in an old, undated, NYT article which I immediately Xeroxed and handed around to anyone who would read it: “Playing from Memory, The Pianist as Daredevil.”  Tommasini opens by asking,  “Do you want to know utter fear? Just ask a pianist what it is like to have a memory lapse.”  He goes on to describe the protocol that “requires” playing from memory: “It is enforced by convention-bound teachers, a public enthralled with the high-wire-act aspect of concerts, and critics who falsely assume that a piece not memorized is a piece not thoroughly learned. And it is time to give it up.”

I am of two minds. While it is true that only pianists are generally expected to perform without music, and that my anxiety-level goes down many notches when I have that music before me, I have found that memorizing an occasional piece (still required for Wisconsin Conservatory scholarship auditions) has made me aware of details and subtleties in a piece of music that I otherwise might have missed. And it does create a little more room for that thing called expression–that “owning” of a piece that is never quite felt when the printed music stands between you and it.

Clara Schumann, who was one of the first pianists to play from memory, was criticized for “pretension” in “playing without the notes” before her.  And according to Tomassini, “To Mozart and Beethoven the idea that anyone would even think of playing one of their piano works from memory would have been preposterous.”

And pianist and teacher Gilbert Kalish believes, “The idea of practicing over and over to nail a passage with such security that there’s no possibility of its escaping from you just doesn’t make sense. Many students practice so much like this that they just switch on the machine when they play. They are not more absorbed in the music; they are more removed from it. It’s a frighteningly negative and lonely experience.”

In any case, the argument is moot. Tomorrow , I am not going to play Bach’s Toccata in E minor from memory. I did play it from memory last April for the auditions and did a pretty good job, having really “nailed” the memory because I had to. But now that I no longer have to do that, I will not.

And similarly, I feel no need whatsoever to memorize the pieces I will play at hospice centers. Why should I fear making a few mistakes?  My guess is that the dying are quite forgiving of human error.

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