by Joshua Roman
“It’s the same balance beam.”
The analogy my dad favored when it came to preparing for a performance was that of a gymnast at the Olympics. The beam is the same whether there are judges or not. The cello is the same, and the music the same, whether there is an audience or not. It’s something I’ve reminded myself of many times over the years, particularly when I used to do competitions as a student.
And on one hand, it’s true. If you can tune everything out and magnify your focus on the details of the task at hand, you can do a much better job of repeating the process you’ve honed in the practice room. Execution becomes a habit, and distractions fall by the wayside once you get into that zone you’ve cultivated over and over again.
On the other hand, music is about communication. One of the exciting things about an audience is that they bring energy, and that energy is borne of a desire to experience a shared moment. A moment that is your responsibility as the performer to guide and shape with sensitivity to the dynamics of the relationship between the music, the audience, the other performers, and yourself. To achieve this means rather than tuning the audience out, opening up to their particular energy and incorporating that into your own experience.
But that can be a scary thing! Most, if not all of us, have felt the strange sensation of playing a piece in front of a live person for the first time and discovering that some of the technical or musical aspects that never quite clicked in the practice room are suddenly natural and fluid. Vice versa, some moments or passages are more challenging when all eyes are on us for the first time. So, while a mantra like “It’s the same balance beam” can help calm the mind or nerves and bring us back to the familiar, how do we practice feeling and using the elevated sensations and energy of a performance with a live audience to enhance the experience?
My answer: run throughs. While I was in school at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I was immersed in a friendly culture of shared enthusiasm for the learning process, and happily acclimated to the environment around me. My classmates and I were always pulling each other into the practice room to play through something, just to get that sense of what might change when a piece became performative (and, helpful comments afterwards – it’s always good to learn how what you are doing is perceived by someone who can’t read your mind). Over the years since I’ve left school I’ve continued this practice to some degree, but I always notice a huge difference when I don’t manage to make the time.
I recently performed a piece for the first time, and unfortunately I didn’t get organized early enough to do a run through with a pianist ahead of time. I spent many extra hours with the score to make up for it, so at the first rehearsal, while I didn’t have the tactile memory of making micro adjustments that are necessary whenever sharing the interpretive process, at least I caught up quickly. Still, when I compare that feeling to the numerous times I’ve run through a new concerto with a pianist before the first rehearsal, there’s a huge difference. A few years ago, I was incredibly lucky to have concertos written for me by my friends Aaron Jay Kernis and then Mason Bates. In each case, we went through the piece with a pianist (Aaron on his, and Carlos Avila with Mason’s) multiple times. The point was twofold; 1) make sure the pieces were working the way we wanted, and all tempo markings etc., were in line with the composers’ wishes, and 2) be ready to show up at the first rehearsal with orchestra as prepared as I would be if these were pieces of standard repertoire I’d been playing since I was 12.
Who knows if I actually achieved the latter to the degree I wanted (being something of a perfectionist, I always find myself falling short). But I can certainly say I knew the music backwards and forwards and felt ready and excited to take it to the next level from the moment we began rehearsals. In both cases, this was no fewer than 3 “performances” in front of friends and colleagues, as few as one or two on the couch in the living room or as many as 15 in a rented space. The number of people is not nearly as important as the number of times running through. Learning how to take risks means actually taking risks, and being okay with people seeing you fail. Along the way, you figure out that even within a particular style or piece, there’s plenty of room for variations on success in a performance. There’s no true reproduction of what happened in the practice room or the last run through, but the confidence of knowing how to ride the wave of the moment comes through experience.
These were new works that no one had ever heard before. I say, however, that the same rule applies to Haydn or Elgar, which I’ve played many times. It always goes better if you show up with experience under your belt. So grab a friend, pull them into your practice room, and find out what you actually need to work on when you get back to your practice routine.
May your mind be clear and focused, your emotions flow freely and powerfully through the music, and may your fingers find their mark.