Thursday, December 17, 2009

You're only as good as your last concert

(Note to friends reading this on Facebook: I'd love to have your comments - please visit the original post, at maxlevinson.blogspot.com to post a comment, rather than writing it here on Facebook). 

I've got a few extra minutes to blog, from my hotel room in Seoul.  I am excited to be meeting an old friend for lunch, and I plan to insist that we have Korean food.  But before that, I had something on my mind to share on the blog.  We've played three concerts here in the last few days, plus a couple other performances (a radio show and a press conference that including 30 minutes of playing before the Q&A session).  On Tuesday, we playing in a city called Goyang, and we wondered if we had ever been more exhausted for a concert.  Jet lag is a big issue when we are dealing with a 14 hour time difference (my children are getting an education as we communicate by Skype and I show them that while they are getting ready for bed, it is quite sunny here on the other side of the Earth).  Concert time (8pm usually) is 6am back on East Coast time - it's as if we've been up all night and then have to go play a concert first thing in the morning. 

It made me realize that all the preparation in the world doesn't matter if it doesn't result in a good performance on stage, at the moment the audience is listening.  The most often heard line from students at lessons is "It sounded better when I was practicing" but in a concert it doesn't matter how great it was in a rehearsal if it doesn't sound good in the performance.  And while practicing is a major contributor to the success of a performance, it is not the only one - being in the right frame of mind, being physically warmed up, having energy: all these things are needed at that particular moment.

You are only as good as you are at the moment people are listening. 

Of course that's not quite true, and all of us listen to music with certain preconceived ideas, even if we are trying to be objective: we listen attentively and forgivingly to a famous performer even when and if his performance is boring or messy, whereas the same performance by a student auditioning for conservatory might be rejected.  At Boston Conseratory, where I teach, I sometimes see students playing in end-of-semester juries (basically, the final exam for pianists, where they play for the whole faculty) get good grades when they play badly because they played well in #other# juries (the unconscious thinking is "well, they are just having a bad day") and vice versa.  We don't mean to do this - but it is hard not to. 

But I know some musicians (students and even successful professionals) who don't practice in a way that will help them on stage, under the stress of hot lights and critics (or piano professors with pens and comment sheets to fill out).  It is true that a basketball player should should 1000 free throws a week to prepare for the end-of-game moment where that free throw will mean the difference between winning and losing.  But the practicing alone is not enough - he needs to figure out how to be at his best at the right moment. 

I would imagine that the way to be our best at the right moment is not the same for every person.  I'm curious to hear what different people do for themselves.  For me, some of it is psychological self-counseling - if I can convince myself that I am the greatest pianist in history, I can get through the nervous moments without a problem.  Some of it is being intensely analytical - I can play a passage accurately and evenly if I hold my hand a certain way, for example, or I can remember all the notes in a complex phrase if I become consciously aware of what harmonies are being used, etc.  I think this is because on stage I tend to become more self-conscious, aware of every movement in my body, how every note sounds (and also of every flip of the printed program or unwrapping of cough suppressant in the 2nd balcony).  By practicing in a way that I am more "self-conscious" off stage, I am more prepared for that experience on stage 

But the concert last night in Guro (a concert hall in Seoul - the main concert is tonight, at the Seoul Arts Center) was much better than the one in Goyang - not because we were more prepared, but because we had more energy and focus.  One more day of recovering from jet lag, and we were more able to concentrate and play closer to our potential.  You may think that performing is a job that only requires a few hours of time, but in fact we have to spend days and weeks getting our minds and bodies ready to be our best at that one important moment. 

By the way, parents: this process of learning to cope with stress and learning to prepare for pressurized situations is one of the most valuable lessons children (or anyone of any age) can learn from studying music. 

3 comments:

Stan said...

The analogy to sports, I think, was a good one. It seems to me that the practicing is to gain the motor memory of the physical actions that need to be carried out, and then when it's time to perform -- on the court or on stage -- you can concentrate on the psychological part.

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Daniel Jepson said...

Interesting - my most effective psychological self-counseling runs in the opposite direction: I've found that I am most relaxed (and play my best) when I manage to feel that I am the worst pianist in the world....but that this is OK. If that makes any sense.