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There is an occasional performance situation in which I feel consistently thrown off my game.  Does the same thing happen to you?

It’s about major changes in tempo or interpretation at the last minute.


I was trained never to sightread in public.  And I never do in a concert situation.  Sight-reading is often required in rehearsals, though.

During the Art Song Festival at Westminster Choir College one summer, I heard a recital presented by a famous singer and an equally famous collaborative pianist (not my teacher).  It was wonderful.

The audience clearly wanted an encore.  What happened next is something I will always remember.  And it isn’t positive.

The singer walked onto the stage, followed by the pianist.  The pianist had his face in the music as he was walking ~ not a good sign.  Apparently the singer had surprised him with the music backstage.

And then the pianist started the song, played a few bars, and stopped.  He started over in a different key!  I don’t want anyone to remember my playing for that reason.

​Scenario #1

A talented cellist with whom I worked rehearsed one way and performed another.  The timing of the rubato would change drastically in performances with no warning, making good ensemble impossible.

Other pianists must have encountered the same problem, as the cellist changed pianists every six months.

Scenario #2

There is a conductor who works in the opposite way to my approach.  I was trained to prepare very well in advance.  So I am accustomed to having a handle on what is likely to happen during a performance.  When I feel secure in that way, the unexpected just goes with the territory, no problem.  Major changes the day before, though, throw me.  The conductor, on the other hand, is quite comfortable with this.

While practicing for a concert, I found myself editing a piano reduction because my part was unplayable.  This took a significant amount of time, after which it was necessary to practice the edited version for several days.

Rehearsals went well, and I reached performance level a week before the concert.

In the dress rehearsal the evening before the concert, the conductor decided on a drastically faster tempo.  It was so much faster, my revised version of the piano reduction was impossible to play, particularly in the interludes.  How were the soloists to get their cues?  Marked allegro, we were racing along at presto, at least.

When I mentioned my discomfort to the conductor, the response was, “I like it fast!”  There was no further discussion.  The sound was exciting, but I felt that there was no way I could catch up.

On the day of the concert, I practiced in the new tempo, deciding to omit most of the inner parts in order to preserve the melody and bass.

When I arrived at the concert venue 15 minutes before call, a student was just beginning to set up the electronic keyboard for the performance.  I had planned on having a few minutes to acclimate myself to the keyboard, but that didn’t work out.

In the concert, the conductor reverted to the previous, slower tempo.  I wasn’t ready for that, and wasn’t happy with my playing.

How could this be handled in the future?  Do accompanists have a say?

I could have called the conductor to confirm the tempo before practicing.

I could have practiced both the slower and the faster tempi.

Arranging for a few minutes to play the keyboard may have helped.  Playing on different pianos, even without warmup time on the instrument, is something I am used to.  And playing a keyboard is no problem, but the action, sound, pedal, and sustain time are all different from the piano.  The absence of warmup time for this concert was likely a contributing factor to my heightened sense of unease.

What would you do?  Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!


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