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A large pot hole on Second Avenue in the East ...

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Is there such a thing?

While living in New York City, I worked in  law firms for awhile (backup jobs).  All employees were provided with a car service home after a certain time at night (I think it was after 8:30, required by Federal law).

One night, en route from Wall St. to the West Side Highway, my driver was winding around the one-way streets as usual.  When he rounded the 4th or 5th corner, we encountered ~ what else? ~ Con Ed!  Their truck, tents, and mountains of miscellaneous stuff took up the whole street, curb to curb (their specialty).

Just as I was about to voice my exasperation, the driver turned to me and said, “You know what they’re doing, don’t you?  They’re installing potholes!  They only come out at night.”

Best laugh I’d had for months, all the way to the Upper West Side.

What about the potholes we all encounter in performances?  Something new and unexpected  happens every time!

During college, memorable snags during performances, juries, and other people’s juries (I collaborated with almost everybody) included:

  • playing a solo jury with the piano next to a huge soundproofing panel hung on the adjacent wall
  • another solo jury with one juror wearing red, another swinging his foot ~ out of rhythm
  • a particularly gifted cellist’s jury ~ she was a freshman, nervous, resulting in her playing a Popper etude and launching, without a break, in the Brahms E minor Cello Sonata.  I wasn’t ready for “no break,” but fortunately the piano’s first entrance is after the cello’s first note.  Whew!  Made it!  Won’t happen again!

Some of the highlights in performances after college were:

  • trying to ignore a phone (land line) ringing loudly 12 times(!) in the middle of a Beethoven trio performance ~ no answering machine, no human picking up
  • freezing in a January orchestra gig at St. John the Divine ~ they said to wear long underwear!  The cathedral is old, enormous, unheated, and windy.
  • having sweaty hands in a choral performance at NYU in May, on a hot day with the building’s heat still on ~ my hands slipped (often) for the 1st and only time
  • playing a concert on Luboff tour where the piano was on a high platform (i.e. unmovable), 1/2 an auditorium away from the stage
  • having sight lines obscured between me and the soloist ~ at a singer’s City Opera audition ~ I was able to read cues from the back of her dress
  • due to space limitations in a church concert series, relying on the back of the violinist’s head and the tip of her bow

    What can we do?  How can we “deal?”

    The pianist Ruth Slenczynska, in an event at SIU, talked about the way she practices during the two weeks preceding a concert.  She intentionally creates uncomfortable conditions for herself!  One day she’ll practice in bad light, the next in a cold room, then with the bench at an uncomfortable height, etc.

    Pianist Peggy Lazarus, who lives near Boston, prepares her students for performances by making noise during their lessons.

    As she said in a recent email:

    “we practice with distractions…..my students play and I bang on drums, wail like a baby and blow a train whistle!   Usually we all end up laughing…”

    Great idea!

    During college, my fellow music building inhabitants and I would go into each others’ practice rooms to make noise, take the music away, and dance around.

    One more situation comes to mind.  On occasion a concert venue will be highly reverberant.  If a performer arrives just before the concert to warm up at the hall, that can change everything.

    Do you practice with slower tempi from time to time?  Playing slower in reverberant halls will sound clearer to the audience.  Unless the reverberation is out of control, that is.

    Putting more distance between the piano and another instrument can result in a separation of sounds, which ensures more clarity.

    Producing shorter sounds makes a difference in live rooms.  As a pianist, I also use less pedal (more in a dry acoustic).

    Sometimes it’s difficult to hear yourself and other performers on stage.  You have to do the best you can.  Just try to play like you rehearsed.  And watch your collaborators like a hawk!  You’ll be relying on sight cues rather than sound.

    I wouldn’t want my students to feel jumpy due to anticipated distractions when they go into a performance.  But making them aware of how important it is to focus and to expect things to happen can be very helpful.  Think of all the cell phones out there.

    Learning the music in a variety of ways is good insurance.  That way, when distractions happen, the performer can say the names of the notes, say the fingerings, focus on the chord structure, etc.  Silently, of course.

    In the midst of an oratorio performance last year at Smith College, a small dog found his way onto the stage via an open door.  The soprano soloist nonchalantly picked him up and handed him to an orchestra member.  (I don’t remember what happened after that.)

    The conductor said he had been expecting a cell phone to ring, but a dog?  And he didn’t miss a thing.  The singer scored attention in the review for her dog catching skills in addition to her expressive singing.

    Stuff happens.

    With that said, being able to “deal” comes with experience.  I wanted to write about it in the event that someone else might navigate a little easier.

    Do you prepare yourself and your students for the unusual things that happen?  How do you go about that?

    What have you encountered in performances?  What were the results?

    Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!

    And be sure to check out the book sale!  Special prices on “Goal-oriented Practice” are effective through midnight on Thursday, November 18!  Both the E-book and print versions are available at bargain discount rates.  Don’t miss out!

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