My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Defying one musician's pre-concert ritual

I don't typically mess around with a musician's pre-concert ritual but sometimes, as was the case a few weeks ago, I simply can't help myself.  Here's what led to my moment of defiance...

© itestro -
A musician I was performing with had been quite unnerved at our dress rehearsal two days before our performance.  I wasn't concerned at all (you can read all about my attitude towards dress rehearsals in my post, "Ditching the fortune cookie dress rehearsal") but she seemed alarmed.  I had been working with her for several months not only as her collaborative pianist but also as her performance anxiety coach, and I quickly sensed that much of our good work together was at risk of being smothered by the nerves that seemed to boil over as a result of that one "bad" rehearsal.  At that point I had a choice - I could keep quiet, which I suspected would only encourage her nerves to spiral downward, or I could take a risk and challenge her typical way of dealing with such a situation, hopefully bringing her to a more optimistic, calm place in time for her recital.  

With some trepidation I decided to call her the morning of the recital.  I casually asked her how she was doing and she mentioned that she was going through all the passages that hadn't gone well the other day with a fine-toothed comb.  I'm not quite sure if she asked for my opinion on that particular tactic but I gave it anyway, in as gentle a way as I could.  I suggested that she immediately stop, put down her instrument, and play something else or sit with the score and hear it in her head instead.  I hesitated before saying the next thing, wondering whether or not it would be wise to continue with my next piece of advice.  Since I had already started down this path I decided to go ahead and to advise her to bring with her to the recital a piece of music that has nothing to do with the performance, one that she loves to play and that feels good in every way.  I told her that was how we were going to warm up before the recital.  There was silence after that and then the conversation was over, leaving me with absolutely no idea how my colleague was taking my somewhat unusual idea.

Fast forward to an hour before the recital.  My partner showed up without any music but clearly wanted to do something to warm up on the stage with me.  I had already warned her that I might not agree to run any of the recital pieces so I asked her if she had come up with a piece that she likes to play.  She mentioned a Bach slow movement from one of his sonatas.  I happened to have a copy of the piano part in my bag so I pulled it out and we played, with her playing by memory.  It was fascinating to watch her while we did this.  At first her eyes were wide open - a sign to me that she was in a bit of a fight-or-flight mode.   After a few lines, however, her eyes closed, her sound blossomed, and she was singing through her instrument.   I couldn't help but respond in turn.  Here was a piece of music we had never played together yet it was a moment where we were both so free and open that our individual musical selves were able to dance around one another, to merge, and then to dance around one another yet again.  When we got to the end of the movement a student, who was sitting in the hall listening, looked up from the program that he was looking at and said,  pointing to the program, "Wow.  That was beautiful but what piece was that?"   Chuckling, we told him that it wasn't a piece we had ever played together before and that it wasn't on the program.  He just shook his head.  We smiled.

Sensing my partner was in a better place, I decided to push just a little bit more.  I told her that I wanted us to do it again, but this time to feel like we could improvise a bit on what Bach wrote.  My idea was that this would encourage us both to listen to one another on an even deeper level.  This exercise was taking me out of my own comfort zone, which I thought was only fair considering what I was putting my friend through, but I have to say that moment now ranks high on my list of rewarding musical experiences. By the end of the movement I had no doubt in my mind about whether or not we were ready to make music together.  It was an intimate musical experience and one that I will never forget and one that brings to mind a quote of the philosopher Eli Khamarov's that I just love -
"The best things in life are unexpected because there were no expectations."
Expectations can be good to have but in my mind, when it comes to performing, too many expectations can limit the magic and synergy that can occur when performers and audience alike are playing and listening in the moment.  There is no "right" or "wrong," "good" or "bad."  So defy away next time you're sitting on the stage in a silent hall right before a performance.  Try something different.  And see what happens!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Ditching the fortune cookie dress rehearsal

© pixelrobot -

Does this post-dress rehearsal comment sound familiar?

  • "My dress rehearsal was horrible!  What am I going to do?"

Speaking as someone who plays for a lot of recitals I can tell you that I hear this panic-imbued statement at the end of dress rehearsals all too often.  And each time I do it kills me because these words have the power to completely sabotage months of hard work.  It holds as much truth as the fortune in a fortune cookie or those little messages in those magic balls that you shake to get answers to your most pressing questions yet I've seen musicians, experienced professionals and students alike, allow the dress rehearsal to make or break the final product.  

I am hear to say right here, right now, that in my personal opinion how a dress rehearsal goes is not an indication of how the final performance is going to go.  Instead it's usually a reflection of...

  • how the day has gone leading up to the dress rehearsal.  Usually we don't protect our schedule on the day of a dress rehearsal as we do the day of a performance.  
  • of what the performer ate beforehand.  Generally we aren't as thoughtful about what we put in our body pre-dress rehearsal.  Bean burrito topped with queso sauce?  Sure!
  • the time of day the dress rehearsal is being held.  I recently had a rehearsal for a huge, very challenging program at 9 in the morning.  Trust me - I was barely hanging on!
  • how much we have crammed the days leading up to the dress rehearsal.  I've seen brass and wind players especially come in with their faces practically numb from over-practicing.  We usually have the sense not to do this the day before a performance but not so with dress rehearsal days.

Get the picture?

Dress rehearsals are not TESTS.  They are OPPORTUNITIES.

They are opportunities to practice performing.  They are opportunities to experience a different (and usually much more ideal) acoustic space.  They are opportunities to let go and make some music without people staring you down.  They are opportunities to try out recital attire so you can figure out if they will fall down, make you trip, or cause you pain.  They are not opportunities to prove whether or not you're ready to perform.  

I recently had two dress rehearsals that didn't go so well, at least in the minds of the performers I was accompanying.  Both contacted me in the hours afterwards in a panic, telling me that they were madly practicing everything that had gone wrong in the dress rehearsal which was causing them to panic even more.  It was heartbreaking to me because I knew in both situations that the musicians were ready, at least from a musical and technical point of view.  It was their minds that were causing all the trouble.  I urged them both to...

  • put down their instruments
  • acknowledge the preparation they had put in up to this point
  • breathe
  • sit with their music, away from their instrument, and hear the the music in their head
  • play around with different musical ideas in their head
  • conduct while they were audiating the music
  • dream about the music
  • go back to their instrument and play slowly, easily, and comfortable, preferably music not on the recital
  • play difficult passages from their recital repertoire under tempo, never up to tempo, if they really felt a need to do that
  • play completely unrelated music that they love to play

My motivation behind this list was to help them avoid falling back into practice-room mode, where the left part of the brain is boss.  I strongly believe in befriending the right brain at this point in the game because it's in the right brain where creativity and musicality can weave magic spells over our psychotic, mind-game playing other half.  It's a list that I faithfully follow myself which has turned me into a musician that loves to perform.  Trust me - it hasn't always been that way!  

There's two more post-dress rehearsal comments I sometimes I hear and they deserve some attention as well.

  • "I'm so glad I had a bad dress rehearsal.  Now I know my recital will go well."
  • "My dress rehearsal was just the way I want it to be for my recital.  It's going to be perfect!"

I suppose these two are more optimistic but my problem with them is the same one I mentioned at the beginning of the post.  I truly don't believe that a dress rehearsal is any indication of how a final performance is going to go.  They are not linked.  We can easily have a bad dress rehearsal yet have a fantastic performance yet we can have a great dress rehearsal and a disastrous performance.  What does matter is the preparation that goes on beforehand, taking care of oneself physically and mentally in the days leading up to a performance and a healthy attitude and frame of mind walking onto the stage.  If we walk onto the stage to perform after an ego boosting dress rehearsal and then make that inevitable mistake what happens then?  Speaking from experience, that fall into reality after being deliriously confident can knock us off our feet and destroy what we thought was going to be our dream performance.

So the next time we're at a dress rehearsal, let's ditch the fortune cookies and magic balls...if we do I foresee a much rosier outlook!