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!


  1. I love this. It's all about spontaneity, isn't it?

    1. Definitely, Dorothea. I often think about how natural and spontaneous my musicality is when I'm sightreading something. After working on a piece for so long, however, that original creativity seems so distant, so hard to tap into again. Trying this little pre-concert exercise seemed to help me, and possibly the person I was playing with, to get back in touch with the more spontaneous, communicative side of music-making which carried into the recital. Kind of cool!

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Dorothea!