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 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. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How far should we go to "market" great art?

I wish I could blog more often, but I find it difficult to find the time.  It is not unusual to have more time for such non-essential activities when I am away from home, which I am now - I am in Seoul, Korea, in the middle of a week of concerts with my friend and colleague, violinist Stefan Jackiw.  The trip coincides with the recent release of our CD on Sony/Korea of the complete Brahms Violin Sonatas (we hope it will be released in the US and other countries soon).  As a side note, it sure can be tricky to use Google (of which Blogspot is a part) when you are in another country, because it knows where you are and asks questions, in this case, in Korean.  I know a few important phrases now in Korean (Do you speak English?  Where is the bathroom?  and a few others) but I certainly cannot read even a single letter.

It is always interesting to notice, as I play in different places, that classical music is marketed in a different way.  Here in Korea we feel very appreciated, more so I would say than in the US or in Europe.  For example, the presenter flew us business class and has put us in one of the very best hotels.  I can assure you that this is not typical in the classical music business (unless you are in a major orchestra, where the players' unions in many case have successfully gotten their employers to give them the best possible accomodations when they go on tour).

Yesterday, a few hours after arriving at the airport after the long flight from New York at 4:30am, we went to give a performance/press conference.  There were a good number of journalists in attendance, some from print, others radio or TV.  This is the kind of reception that might have greeted Vladimir Horowitz in the US many decades ago, but I'm not sure how many of these things even a mega-star like Yo-Yo Ma might do in the US today.  Beforehand Stefan and I each had to spend 20-30 minutes getting "hair and makeup".  Of course, as red-blooded American men this is not exactly normal for us, but I have to say we both did look a lot better than normal.  All of this, plus a closely organized question and answer session with the press, was in order to sell some CD's of Brahms.  In fact, to some degree we are pushed around (in a helpful way) by our people at Credia, the Korean manager, as we are a part - just a part, mind you - of the marketing strategy for selling the CD's and our concerts this week.

(Stefan Jackiw - in normal everyday life, he doesn't always dress quite so well)

It would be nice if people came to concerts just because they want to hear great music played (I hope) with insight and passion.  But the truth is that concert-goers need a little more of a push sometimes, and it seems that the Koreans understand the need for the extras (like hair and makeup) that make the product (us?  Brahms?  Art?) more enticing to the customers.  It is like food - a delicious mess is not going to sell as well as something more beautifully plated.  In fact, it may even seem to taste better.  But does music sound better when we are wearing tuxedos?  Or do the tuxedos just signal to the audience that something special is happening on stage, and they ought to pay attention?

On the plane trip, I watched on one of the 50+ channels available on Korean Airlines entertainment system a video of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Seiji Ozawa, and the Berlin Philharmonic doing the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the Musikverein in Vienna.  (Just the fact that this was one of the options - along with videos of Andras Schiff and Yevgeny Kissin - on a KAL flight should tell you something of the value Koreans place on classical music).  The performance was part of the attraction for the audience (though it seemed VERY slow, and perhaps more about violin playing than about Beethoven), but as I watched I realized that a big part of the experience for the audience in attendance would be the gorgeous and historic concert hall itself, the spectacle of hearing the unofficial greatest orchestra in the world, and of course just looking at Anne-Sophie Mutter, who looked fantastic, and was dressed as glamorously as a Hollywood star at the Oscars.

(yes, this is the great violinist Anne Sophie Mutter, not a fashion model)

If the audience attended for some combination of all these reasons, I'm not bothered by that - the truth is that, in the end, they listened to the monumental Beethoven Violin Concerto, instead of spending their time and dollars on something more superficial.  If people come to our concert in Seoul and/or buy the CD in part because we looked good in our makeup on TV, I won't complain.  At least we are still playing great music.

Where it gets hard for me is when we have to play second-rate music, music that is kind of like candy - immediately appealing, but which does not have lasting interest, in order to sell tickets.  I would say that many if not most concert presenters in America feel pressure to do this: put on programs of orchestras playing video-game music, for example, and avoid great works that are too long for the channel-surfing attention span of today's audiences.  Is this the only way? 

Although people are quick to point to the imminent demise of classical music, as it finds itself needing to "pander" to audiences who want Pops concerts more than "real" classical music, I know that this phenomenon is not at all new.  We may remember Schubert today as the composer of masterpieces like the C-major Cello Quintet, "Die Winterreise" and the B-flat major Piano Sonata, but in order to try to eke out a living he *also* wrote trivial little piano pieces and pieces for piano duet, which were tuneful and easy to play, and hence more marketable.  Brahms had the luxury of writing great, serious music in part because he had a huge financial success early in his career with the Hungarian Dances, which are wonderful, but certainly not the reason Brahms is remembered as a great composer.  Maybe all of us have to find time both to get an audience *now* by doing a *tiny* bit of dumbing-down, but also to do the things that may have a small audience now but will be remembered and still relevant later.

What do you think?