Sunday, November 2, 2008

Performance Practicing

Today I have the pleasure of conducting Holst's The Planets and Bottesini's Bass Concerto No. 2 - a bit of an odd pairing, but fun none-the-less!

A while ago I used to have a pre-performance routine as a conductor: get up, take time to stretch, look over the scores for one final time to digest what I hope to do, do some exercise of some sort, and then eat a reasonable meal. After a quick clean up, then I would go to the hall and double check on logistics, mic volumes, and step in the hall itself for a moment just to feel the space before I would walk out for the performance. I did this in order to feel comfortable, because if one thing was out of place, superstition might set in!

But as life evolves, and fatherhood has become a regular part of my diet, of course I'm up early in the moring now to eat, play, and literally run with a 2 1/2 year old while my wife sleeps in after a late night performance. I'm not sure if I'll even have time to look at scores before I shower and head over for an early soundcheck at noon and 2pm concert. But truth be told, even if the performance were later, my routine would be completely irregular at this point!

As I get older I watch younger students and have to smile sometimes to myself as they do all sorts of last minute practicing before performances. By now, with a performance less than 8 hours away, I feel I have done everything already to be prepared - from rehearsing to studying. Of course I am hopeful regarding certain sections of a work where I know musicians have small problems, but I've done what I can do to help them as a conductor and colleague. What does worry do at this point? What does extra study do at this point except focus me on details, when honestly, I want to be big picture oriented - this is how I stay emotionally connected. If a problem arises, I'll solve it in the moment, but I don't want that fear to get in the way of personal investment, and sometimes being overly detail oriented in the last hours can lead to musical constipation, when the time for details has come and gone!

Some folks say that you are only as good as your last performance, and in some ways I think this is true, and we do tend to remember when things go wrong more than anyone else in our self involved worlds. For us, it takes work (and probably some therapy!) to be self forgiving and I think the best musicians have a great capacity for letting go when a performance takes a left. Right after a mistake, they are able to dive fully into the present without the immediate past casting a shadow. This type of forgiveness, when applied to all of life, has tremendous implications. It allows you freedom from perfection, which is the enemy of human expression. Who do you like that is perfect, or that tries constantly to be perfect in music or otherwise?

One of my teachers used to tell me that perfect practice makes perfect, but I have come to disagree over time. I think intense practice that is precise and ferocious mixed with humanity will always win the musical race, and while one strives to be consistent, being obsessed with perfection can result in jaded behavior over a career. I've applied this aesthetic to my conducting and have been happy with the results, and wish in retrospect, I could have put this in play with my playing as an instrumentalist. I listen these days to some truly exceptional technicians on their instruments, but wonder what they would sound like if they didn't have to be so excellent all the time? What would happen if instead they were able to truly savor the sounds they are so blessed to make? I'm looking for simply joys in what I do and what I see and hear others doing. This is what got me into music in the first place- hearing something that makes me feel...!

Perhaps as we reflect on performaning, we will continue find ways to embrace both our strengths and weaknesses with a bit of compassion. In doing so, perhaps we can then be as expressive and full as possible, sharing our gifts with a radiance that is free.

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