Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Richter's pink plastic lobster.

There's good reason for a pianist to be nervous before a public performance. A recital or a concerto is a pretty big deal. To even play the piano, you already need the skill and coordination of a juggler. Getting through an important performance also requires lots of stamina, intelligence, eloquence and honesty. All without a safety net. If you screw up, there is just going to be silence from the crowd and lots of awkward staring. You are completely on your own. Martha Argerich has pretty much stopped playing solo recitals because of this particular brand of loneliness that the situation brings. There might be 500 people in the concert hall, but the feeling of solitude is completely unnerving.

There are countless anecdotes out there about how great virtuosi handled the pressure. Grigory Sokolov is known for dismantling his pianos before playing and writing down everything he sees in a little notebook, Horowitz had to literally be pointed and pushed out onto the stage. Many musicians out there take refuge in cigarettes and alcohol; sometimes stronger drugs. Henryk Szering took great quantities of cocaine before a performance. Lucky charms are also common. Glenn Gould traveled around the world with a chair his father made for him when he was just a kid (perhaps the low height of the chair, coupled with his strange posture and crooning were a way of reproducing his relationship to the piano as a small child). Before a concert, Sviatoslav Richter would sit and play at an obsessively slow tempo; we are talking about sitting and playing each note for half a minute or so. He would get so worked up before a concert that he had difficulty speaking or walking around unless he was clutching a pink plastic lobster that he carried around.

[caption id="attachment_119" align="alignright" width="256" caption="If it makes me play like Richter, I'll take two! Hell, I'd wear it on my head during the concert, if that's what it takes."]klklk[/caption]

It's not just the classical musicians. Everyone does it; rock singers gargling with bodily fluids to help the voice,  pop groups making ridiculous demands of food, drinks and towels in their contracts, an opera singer that took on plateful after plateful of spaghetti and then vomited it all back out after the concert. How many bands out there are sacrificing goats to the pagan Gods before a concert?

Without going to those extremes, I think most musicians have pre-concert rituals that they follow, sometimes without noticing. As a student, I had a big battle with stage fright. I tried everything, but eventually realized that the only solution is preparation and complete honesty with ones own self. I tend to be indifferent to playing in public, since as an accompanist, I have to do it really often. Even so, sometimes a concert comes up which is much more important, in which I have much more of myself invested. That's when the strange stuff comes up.

Next week I will be playing the first Brahms concerto here in Chihuahua, Mexico (if you are in town, pop in!). I've been giving some thought to how I tend to act just before the time comes.

In the days before the concert, I tend to become extremely grouchy (I'm sorry students, but you are in for a pretty tough first week). How long it lasts is always proportional to the importance of the concert. Before my first competition, I was hell to live with for a whole month. My wife ended up going to her mother's "so that I had less distractions". The day before the concert, I will practice obsessively. Going up to 12 or 14 hours if I can fit them in. That night, I will lie in bed, just thinking about what is coming up and won't fall asleep until it's almost dawn.

The day of the concert, I will wake up extremely late, or if it is not possible, then get some sleep in the afternoon. I tend to eat lots of meat, no fiber at all; a burger or a steak. I'll also have a big cup of cocoa in the evening. I usually don't practice at all that day, only if I was pressed for time and am not completely prepared. When getting dressed, I will take an extremely long shower. I'll be obsessive with grooming, combing, brushing teeth, trimming hairs, cleaning ears and nose. If there are any kinds of shampoos, rinses, exfoliants, mouthwashes, conditioners, hair gels or sprays; pretty much all those kinds of products in the bathroom, they are all going to get used, and in big quantities. It's not out of vanity, I just get into a strange mindset in which I want to experiment with all that stuff. Before going out to play I'll just warm up and play a couple of bits of whatever I'm playing that night.

When I go out to play, I seem calm on the exterior, but I am actually about to burst with pent up energy. The one thing that actually scares me the most isn't the playing, it's the walk from the wings and through the stage to the piano and bowing for the audience before I play. Maybe I am afraid I will lose my nerve and walk back out again. I usually rush as fast as I can to the piano and only do a small nod to the audience. I have been criticized a lot for that by people thinking I do it out of snobbishness or a lack of the sense of proper concert etiquette. I just do it because if I don't, I might run away! I go onstage seeing that piano bench as my safe spot.

The funny thing is that, until now, I hadn't noticed that I was doing all the stuff every single time. The ritual has been going on for years, but I hadn't made the connection between all the different concerts and how I do the same exact thing each time.

My wife, a violinist, gets extremely superstitious when she has to play. I have to treat her as if she were a delicate rose petal (more so than usual) because one dirty look from anyone, a bus driver for example, and she will be absolutely sure that the concert will be a complete disaster. She will check her horoscope the day she plays and be horrified by a bad prediction. She always has exactly half a Snickers bar before going out to play. My brother is also a violinist. He will spend all his time at the concert hall barefoot and only put on his shoes before going out to play, emboldened by a couple of glasses of red wine.

What is your pre-concert ritual?


  1. You forgot to mention my clutching something from Hello Kitty to dear life before I play!

  2. LOL! I love your posts! They make me laugh ... goodness ... God gave singers accompanists so they can act as psychologists. I'm a singer and pianist but more so a singer.

    Most often the case is I go through many stages. Externally can can see I am having a fit. The accompanist is really there to pamper me and boost my ego a little more. Singers are known to have real tempermental instruments ... (its true) ... however, their personailties reflect that too. As a singer, I am not a lone, backstage I have an accompanist with me, so I will tell him/her to not get nervous, to relax and to NOT play a wrong note (OR ELSE - I'll normally send a threat at this point). After I am done with that I will start fiddling, tapping, pacing, stressing and blaming everything on the accompanist, the smallest things make me tic from a smile to a frown. Then I go through these stages of telling people to kill me, then giggling uncontrollably for ten minutes or so, then throwing this crazy talk of "I cant stand the way I walk! So annoying"...

    This is just an evaluation pf what others have said. I'm a completely different person after wards. I should send my accompanist chocolates now for being such a tormentor!

  3. I don´t mind it when singers are nervous before a performance and hound the accompanist. The thing I really hate is when their singing was really bad and they go telling everyone it was the pianist's fault afterward.
    I accompany all of the singers at the school where I work and it is something that happens sometimes, usually with the really bad singers.

  4. That's interesting to hear. More often after a performance I will let everything go and say to myself "I did my best" and I would also make a personal evaluation in my head so I know how I can do better next time.

    Some accompanists I work with will apologise graciously and say "I'm so sorry for making all those mistakes ... did I fail you?"

    Afterwards we will get into an argument over who made the worst mistake "No I went off pictch in the th bar" "no that was because I didnt hit the bass note right ..." etc.

    If the accompanist is confident and if we get along, I won't send threats we just have a civil conversation and we will evaluate each other's findings afterwards.

    Its absurd that singers blame the pianist, do you fire a nasty yet subtle remark back?

  5. Well, since they are students and I'm the teacher, I tend to just ignore it. They are still too stupid to really know whats going on anyways.

    But I do get a bit nastier with them later on, refusing to do extra rehearsals or learning things at the last moment, or cutting them some slack in class.... until they have the good sense to change their attitude. I guess it's just human nature, and I'm a petty guy.

    With other professionals, that's usually not a problem. What's done is done.