This year I've been obsessed with a book called Effortless Mastery by a pianist named Kenny Werner, in which the author writes about applying simple mediative principles in musical practice and performance as typified by this quote: "The effort it takes for you to perform music equals the distance between you and mastery."
This book has helped me breakthrough some sticking points on both the guitar and voice and I think as a consequence I've been performing the Odyssey better and with much more freedom the last nine months or so.
I'm thinking about this as I make the short drive to the UIC campus for the fourth year in a row: this show has become the unofficial start of my school year season and I love having a relationship with a hometown organization.
I have lunch with my professor contact and we catch up on each other's news and the state of classics: Emily Wilson has just that day been announced as a MacArthur Fellow, which is great news for the Odyssey and the world in general. I share some about my Iliad project which has taken shape into something special: I'm still working to get the staging and framing right, but the songs are in a good place and the conceit is coming along.
We then shuffle into the austere classroom with which I've now become familiar: I sit on floor level and several tiers of seats run around me almost in 3/4. The back wall, cinderblock, is not far and the room has a peculiar sound to it: maybe not great for lecturing but for what I do, excellent: the guitar is below the audience's ears and my voice is largely on level with them, so the geography of the room essentially mixes my performance favorably and students are very intimate to me, heightening the intensity.
I think about my mantras from Effortless Mastery and feel my shoulders relax as I begin the familiar drone of the first song.
A big part of what I've gained from reading the book and trying to incorporate some of its principles is getting my brain out of the way of the mechanical performance aspect of the piece. My muscles know it to the point where I can do it without thought and when that happens I can feel the song go to a different place, a place of magic in my heart.
When I can get to this magic effortless place, I often find myself near tears with gratitude at the end of a performance.
Gratitude for Homer's Odyssey, for my Odyssey, for my audiences... gratitude for it all.
After I finish, I give the students thanks for their role in the magic I feel and we have a great discussion about the material and my performance.
This magic is so easy to take for granted or lose sight of when you've done a piece almost 300 times and for as many years as I have, when so much about continuing to do it is wrapped up in the mundane administration that dominates almost any professional pursuit... but I make myself a promise as I get back to my car: going forward I will try even harder to recognize explicitly the magic in every performance circumstance, the magic in the material, and the magic in the life I have built for myself around the material.
I'll let Odysseus' song flow through me effortlessly (as an ancient bard would have asked the Muse to inspire) and I will feel the magic of that flow.