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.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Ditching the fortune cookie dress rehearsal

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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!


  1. Nice post, as usual!
    Yes, a bit of sports psychology is good here. As you suggest, if you miss a shot while warming up, you don't run off to go practicing shooting free-throws again from the beginning. Dress rehearsals are a good time for reviewing big concepts, seeing the whole picture.

    You need to trust based on solid practice over the long run - that you can make the shot when the moment of need arises.

    Personally, as a conductor, i like a sense of fluidity to still be in the air at the end of a dress. The sense that there's still another (reachable) step to go.

    1. Kim,
      Always wonderful to hear from you! Thank you for reading the post.

      And thank you for adding on to the analogies and for that last truth you mention - that there's always "still another (reachable) step to go." That's what I love about pursuing music...our learning is never over. I guess we can apply that to life too, can't we? It's up to us to approach life in such a way that we are always looking for opportunities to grow.

      I hope all is well with you, Kim. I need to pop on over to your blog to see what you've been up to!

      All the best,

  2. Thank you so much - this was exactly the post I needed to see, at the time that I needed to see it.

  3. Thank you for your wise and pragmatic counsel, Erica. Rehearsals don't tend to get to me, for most of the reasons that you mentioned, but your suggestions are also great for those of us who need a bit of perspective and help for those pre-performance jitters that tend to accompany any pursuit that we are truly passionate about. It's easier to be calm when you don't particularly care, but caring deeply about what you are doing is usually where the magic is. We need to care not just about our passion, but about us. By respecting and taking good care of ourselves (especially when it comes to how we think about and talk to ourselves in our head), we are respecting and protecting our passion and our art as well. I know that this post helped get my head in a better place today. Thank you.

    1. So good to hear from you again, Melanie! I hope all is well with you.

      I'm so glad the post helped you in some way today. And your words are so helpful to me as well..."We need to care not just about our passion, but about us. By respecting and taking good care of ourselves (especially when it comes to how we thing about and talk to ourselves in our head), we are respecting and protecting our passion and our art as well." Yes. I love this way of looking at it. I feel like many people subscribe to the "passion must involve pain" theory but I am not one of them.

      Thank you for taking the time to read the post an to contribute your own thoughts. I really do appreciate it!


  4. Awesome. When it comes down to it, the performanc itelf is not complete indication of the musician's talent; instead, it reflects their state of mind and what they did during the day (plus the added adrenaline). I see dress rehearsals as not only opportunities to practice performing, but a quick checkpoint to see where you'll be at and to prepare the musician for the real thing. An opportunity, not a test. :)

    1. What a great point, Grace! You're right, even performances are at the mercy of so many other factors. I try to be forgiving of myself at all times, whether it's a dress rehearsal or a performance and there are times where that mercy on myself can save a performance midstream. Instead of beating myself up I try to just say, "oh well...let's see what I can do with this anyway." More often than not I can still manage to make music and there are even times where the performance ends up going even better by the end simply because I've let go of a lot of expectations.

      And I'm glad Blogger seems to like you now! :-)

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!


  5. {Aside} I can't believe that comment went through! This is a different computer and I guess Blogger likes it better! :)

  6. Great post! I always remind myself when I walk on stage that I am not walking into 'great unknown' but into something I had done before. Knowing what to expect gets at least that part of 'scary' out of the picture.

    1. That's a good thought to have, Olya, and another motivation for folks to keep getting out there and performing - so that it's not the "great unknown."



  7. I remember hearing a masterclass that RBP gave one time on YouTube -- now, that's not a rehearsal, but something she said stuck with me. She said something to a student about performances being the wrong time to worry about bad notes -- that by the time you're on stage, you've either practiced it enough or you haven't, and not to worry about that.

    The implication was that, by the time you're on stage, it's just not going to improve things to worry about technique. The time building up to that is when it's appropriate to worry about technique. When the stage is looming, it's time to concentrate on things like presentation, feeling, etc.

    She also said that you want to act as if you've nailed it even if you hadn't. Something like, "By the time you know whether or not you've nailed it, it's too late anyway, so just act like you did and at least you know you'll get one thing right." It sounds snide, but it was really sweet and funny the way she put it.

    1. That Rachel...she's a smart woman! Yes, I completely agree with those two things you mention she said. It's pretty amazing to me how much I can get away with when just go out and play and express myself without worrying about the details. I don't mean that in a way that is disrespectful to the composer - I aim to learn everything as accurately as possible in the practice room but when it comes time to perform it's more about the music and me delivering a bit of myself in the process. I remind folks over and over again that most of the audience isn't sitting there with a score in their hands, waiting to catch the performer on an error - they are there to be entertained, to be moved, to learn something about the performer, to support the performer...far from being a critic, in other words.