Backstage prep

My blog posts are kind of like slot machines. You can click on the blog every day for months and not get a single thing, then all of a sudden this torrent of words pours forth.

This past week I had an incredible time playing Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto with Lincoln's Symphony Orchestra. There are all kinds of things I could say, but today I'm focusing on the immediate pre-concert prep. I'm very interested in this subject, since the hour or so right before you walk onstage is probably the most intense mental gymnastics you have to undergo, other than actually playing the program.

For me, the ideal concert day involves two or three hours of warm-up practicing and slow, "thick" practicing of the actual repertoire. Depending on the length and complexity of the rep, this thick practicing can take anywhere from an hour for a single piece to nearly three hours for a full recital program (following 30-45 minutes of warmups and playing other repertoire to keep the brain fresh - Bach E-major concerto for me last week). The purpose of this practice is to "feel" every single combination of notes throughout the program, to reinforce for your body what your brain already knows about the music. I have found that this pays incredible dividends in the performance, since your mental image of the sensations involved in playing the music reinforce the analytical details, and keep you focused and able to adjust to any unforeseen events onstage (extraneous noises, finger slips, piano malfunctions, etc.).

Directly before the performance, I will take the score backstage and visualize the entire piece/program in 20-30 second increments, starting at the end and going to the front. This keeps the chunks small enough to remain focused for each one and notice any holes in my perception. Ending with the front of the piece (and program) puts me in the proper mental place to start the work - it's rather tiring to visualize front-to-back and then have to perform the piece "again" onstage. I also like to have a banana beforehand; it may be a placebo, but it certainly seems to help keep the nerves down. Depending on the time of the concert I may also have some caffeinated beverage (no energy drinks!!) as well - with three kids my wife and I tend to shut down around 9:00-9:30, so any performances that take me past 8:00 or so require a little extra boost. No matter how great your evening was, the kids will ALWAYS wake up at 6:00am.

I'd love to hear others' strategies as well, or your thoughts as an audience member on what goes on backstage. Not having personal coaches like athletes do, we tend to have to create our own routines based on long experience of what works and what doesn't. It's a great adventure, and every once in a while you'll get to experience the rewards that come from the countless hours of work and patience. As Liszt would say, Excelsior!