Just before going on stage, a few moments before a performance, many musicians go through rituals to prepare themselves mentally.
Pianist Adam Tendler is not one of these musicians.
“What’s going through my head just before I go on stage?” You would be surprised, ”he said with a slight sneer. “Thoughts are pretty mundane – is there a stain on my shirt? I would really like to say that to prepare me you would see me meditating. In reality, it feels more like a mad rush – and maybe that’s a good thing.
“I find that if I think about the program, it really invites questions about what I think I’m going to do,” he says. “For me, it’s more important to experience what I’m about to present and, in a way, to have a feeling of gratitude for what is going to happen. If you think about it, it’s pretty miraculous, really, that people give me their time to listen to music and experience something that is not a ride to Disneyland. They give me their time and they trust me to run this ship.
On Friday, two days after an engagement at Broad in Los Angeles, Tendler’s ship heads to San Diego for an overnight concert that is part of the musical series Fresh Sound.
He has been hailed as a “virtuoso pianist”, “the mastermind of music” and “the evangelist of modern music”. They have always amazed the 36-year-old man, those adjectives we use to describe him.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Tendler, speaking from his home in New York City, where he has lived for a decade. “I’m always happy with descriptions like that, but they make me laugh a bit because I don’t think of myself as anything other than a working musician. I’m always thrilled and surprised when I hear those kinds of compliments, but in my mind I really work, try and fight constantly – and that’s what is so interesting to me. I rarely feel like everyone is going to see what I’m good at when I’m on stage. … My daily existence is that of a working artist and a working musician, and every day I struggle with something new. I don’t just wave my piano magic wand and things happen. The reality is that I am constantly chiseling something.
He grew up in Vermont and attended Indiana University. After college he gave solo recitals across the country, eventually reaching all 50 states, a journey he recounted in his 2013 book, “88×50: A Memoir of Sexual Discovery, Modern Music and the United States of America “. He lived in Texas before moving to New York City, where he served on the piano faculty at Greenwich House Music School and Third Street Music School Settlement, the nation’s first community music school.
He started playing the piano for the first time at the age of 6, having grown up in a family of musicians.
“Everyone in my family played the piano,” he says. “My grandfather taught the piano. He taught everyone in my family except me. His approach was very strict. My mother taught me to learn from someone else. I think she knew I needed something different. The teachers I studied with gave me the freedom I needed.
One teacher in particular had such a huge impact that he changed Tendler’s musical journey. This teacher – Richard Shadroui, “he’s 90 years old now,” Tendler says – “gave me the long leash I needed. I considered myself a late bloomer musically. I was, I thought, rather commonplace. … I didn’t really know that classical music could be a creative vessel. I didn’t even know it was possible. But then in high school there was a kind of counter-current, where conventional music like Rachmaninoff and Chopin sort of became an entry into modern composers. By the time I went to music school, I already had a clear idea of where I wanted to be.
“Earlier this week, I emailed Christian Wolff about A note that I suspected was a misprint in a piece he composed in 1952,” he said. he wrote last week. “I thought he would say, once and for all, ‘Are you kidding and please stop writing to me and how did you get my email address anyway?’ instead, he wrote saying no one had ever pointed this out to him before, and yes it’s absolutely not an E #.
Does he see himself as an educator or an artist?
“I think by default, because of the music I gravitate towards, the word that comes up often is ambassador – an ambassador for composers and their music,” he says. “So I guess it’s a mix of educator and artist. As a listener you are hopefully obligated and maybe hearing something new that is amazing or hearing something through a new lens.
On his blog, Tendler recently wrote: “While there was a strong gravitational pull to go, as usual, into self-critical mode, in the end we had a full audience of almost 300 people for one. John Cage gig in LA on a Wednesday, so I’m gonna take it.
How does he prevent himself, to use his words, from “spinning … in self-critical mode”?
“For me, the spin out, if it happens, tends to happen after a show. That’s when I think back to what I did and if things went as planned, what went better, and what surprised me. But luckily, over the years, I’ve learned to go through it all without taking anything too personally. It can’t get so personal that you let go of it.
While he still struggles with it – spinning, self-doubt – the music and all the magic that comes with it tends to undo everything.
“Let’s face it: there’s such an adrenaline rush on stage,” he says. “It’s like a free fall. There is gratitude, there is terror, there is total excitement. There is a feeling that you are taking a leap. It’s addicting – it must be because I keep doing it. However, in order not to overdo it, I try to remember that most of my listeners are open and receptive.
When that last note is played, Tendler says, his hope for the audience is “that there is a sense of release and completion and that they have just taken a turn.” I want people to feel like they’ve been through something uplifting and moving for a night.
Fresh Sound presents Adam Tendler
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday April 20
Or: Bread and Salt, 1955 Julian Ave, Logan Heights
Tickets: $ 20 general admission, $ 10 for students
In line: Freshsoundmusic.com