As I’ve discussed previously in this space, I took an unusual path towards a career in music. I didn’t perform music in any formal concert setting until I was well into my doctoral studies, other than a brief stint as an improvising (because I couldn’t read music) auxiliary percussionist in my high school orchestra and another as a tenor in my college choir. My interest in composing stemmed directly from my high school exposure to electronic music, and yet as an adult I’ve mostly avoided creating pieces with any synthesized elements. As an adult, this odd background has served me surprisingly well. Since I approach classical music from the perspective of an outsider, I can continue to question the basic assumptions that can detract from our experience of new music.
For the past several years, during the time that I’ve been teaching full-time at the Peabody Conservatory, I’ve been working towards filling the lacunae in my musical upbringing. Finally, I’ve set aside my fears and have begun performing. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in this regard to have quickly moved from someone with a remarkable dearth in performance experience to someone who has been able to play live with people whose musicality and warmth have moved me to my core (my favorites have included Susan Alcorn, Dave Ballou, John Dierker, Tim Feeney, Mike Formanek, Dana Jessen, Bonnie Lander, Courtney Orlando, Erik Spangler, and Ken Ueno—I’ve been a very fortunate son). Last week, I even premiered a new concerto of mine as toy piano soloist with a chamber orchestra.
As part of this new journey, I’ve gleaned several helpful pointers. Among the most surprising was this: before a big event, it’s important to take a few minutes to iron my shirt. I know this tip seems trivial to the point of ridicule; however, it’s actually an important part of my routine. At a premiere, a million things can go wrong, and I take great comfort in knowing that there is this one small aspect of the performance that I can control. I might miss an entrance (actually, I can pretty much count on missing at least one entrance), a wind instrument might experience a buildup of humidity, a string might break, a percussionist’s hands might slip while changing mallets, but at least my shirt will be clean and crisp.
For me, the simplicity of the task is a source of comfort in and of itself. It requires enough concentration that my mind can’t continue to obsess over the details of the upcoming event, and the rocking motion soothes my subconscious. The physical labor requires me to slow down, to take a moment to stop everything and to focus on something other than the music. Finally, this ritual allows me to gain confidence. The friend of mine who originally introduced me to the joys of ironing points out the importance of the following paradigm: Look the part, be the part.
Gentle reader, I’m curious as to what pre-performance rituals you’ve created in order to calm your nerves. What non-musical tasks help you to prepare for a performance?