While playing (improvised) music for a dance class, I made an interesting observation. If I truly followed the principles of my own technique, and stayed 100% inside of the flow of the music as I played, I noticed that, as usual, the result was that the melodies I was playing were very good: strong, expressive, well-shaped, with striking and exciting rhythmic dynamics. However, as soon as I stopped playing, I had the curious feeling that I had just “missed” my own performance. It was as if I knew on some level that I had been playing wonderful melodies, but I hadn’t really heard them. It was almost like stepping into a concert hall just as the last note is sounding from a concert, and observing from the looks of rapture on the audiences’ faces that they had just enjoyed a transcendent experience, but, you yourself have arrived just a second too late and have missed the whole thing.

What does this sensation really mean? Does it mean that, because I was so completely inside the music, I didn’t hear it? Certainly not. There is nothing wrong with my hearing. Does it mean that I didn’t “know” what the melody had been? This is also not the case. In a dance class, the musician generally has to play each piece of music twice, as the students do each exercise once on the right side and once on the left side. The first time I play each piece, it is completely improvised and therefore is a surprise to me. But when I play it the second time, by entering once again into the same “emotional space” as I had been in before, I generally play an improved version of the same piece of music, with most of the melodies very similar to what they were the first time. Clearly, some part of me “knows” what the melody was note by note, since I am able to repeat it almost exactly.

The sensation that I have “missed” my performance is caused by the fact that, being 100% inside of the music, I can’t appreciate and enjoy the music in the same way that an audience usually does. An audience member is not generally 100% inside of the music. (Except at key high points of epiphany.) They are generally partly inside of the music, and they are partly outside, able to observe their own responses to what they are hearing. They are able to think, in passing, “What a beautiful melody! That was so beautifully shaped! It’s so haunting and lonely sounding.” Etc. Of course, they are also able to be consciously aware of all the things that strike them negatively, and things which simply leave them unmoved.

It was this sort of experience which I was unable to have. While playing, because I was completely inside the flow of the music, there was no part of me in reserve, able to comment to myself about how good the melodies were, so I was unable to “appreciate” their quality.

I have had the exact same experience after performing an improvised theater piece in which I was completely inside of the flow of the scene; I finish, somehow just “knowing” that I have said things that were extraordinarily witty, well-phrased, or poignant, yet it is as if I had just missed my own performance.

Of course, in the trade-off of being a performer rather than a viewer, I receive something I find much more valuable. By being fully inside of the piece, I am able to viscerally feel the music in every pore of my being, which far outweighs the value of being able to sit outside and “appreciate” it. But there is a feeling of genuinely having to give something up by going so far inside of your performance that you can no longer enjoy it as an audience does. This is why people have always spoken of great performances as being “generous” and as being “a gift to the audience.” You allow them to have all of the conscious appreciation.

This is also the reason why, when you see a performer who has a deep appreciation of their own wittiness or their own greatness, and is clearly standing up on the stage and thoroughly approving of themselves after every line or after every phrase of music, it is so irritating to watch that one generally feels like throwing something at the stage.