Getting ready for a concert

How do you react if one makes a mistake, such as playing a wrong note, a wrong chord, playing something too early or skipping a beat? There is no “undo button” to correct the situation. It’s all moving too fast. Not only do you have to anticipate the next move and prevent a wrong move, you have to cover up a wrong move if it happens.

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Revised from “Getting ready for a concert” Facebook Notes, Monday 8 December 2008

Why is it necessary to be in shape (physically and mentally) to perform in a concert?

A concert is a real-time experience. In a duo situation, a performer not only has to be alert to his/own movements but also that of the other musician. It’s necessary to hear well and anticipate because performing chamber music is not only about making a sound from your instrument but mixing the sound with other(s).

How do you react if one makes a mistake, such as playing a wrong note, a wrong chord, playing something too early or skipping a beat? There is no “undo button” to correct the situation. It’s all moving too fast. Not only do you have to anticipate the next move and prevent a wrong move, you have to cover up a wrong move if it happens.

It’s a dead giveaway to show you have made a mistake by your facial expression. I didn’t know this until a few ladies in the audience told me they enjoyed my performance but felt that perhaps I didn’t because of the way I frowned. I learned afterwards never to show that I made a mistake or that my duo partner made a mistake.

How do you get yourself prepared for such a real-time “battle”? I say battle because it’s like fighting the chance of imperfectly executing your prepared moves. How do you get totally alert and stay focussed when you’re on stage?

A good night’s sleep helps. I have seen the detrimental effects of a late night’s sleep and jetlag. You can only stay 100% focussed for so long, and it becomes extremely hard when you’re fighting a lack of sleep. There is enough to battle on stage without having to fight the desire to fall asleep. It’s happened to me when I’ve “blacked out” in seconds to a dream-like state simply from lack of sleep. That’s toxic for the other performer.

Keeping in shape is another way to be prepared. I take regular exercises in aerobics, weight-lifting, yoga, and pilates. The guitarist is training for a marathon. In the Netherlands where there are safe cycle paths everywhere, cycling is THE way to travel from A to B. Cycling is tough in dark, wet, windy, gloomy winter weather. I still don’t know how the Dutch manage to carry things in the rain on their bicycles without getting wet. But they certainly stay trim and fit.

The relationship between the performers has to be clear and good. Misunderstandings, resentment, and other unspoken disagreement all get in the way of a good performance. Long ago I used to get stressed out before a major performance, and I’d argue with the guitarist and get mad. After awhile, he figured out that I was just nervous. With better preparation, good night’s sleep, physical exercise, better communication, and getting to the venue with plenty of time to spare, we now avoid such stressful confrontations.

Finally, a good diet and regular routine helps. My father always preached the Chinese way of walking the middle road and achieving balance in life. As impetuous a risk-taker as I am, I have learned that “extreme” living requires compensation at some point. If I eat too much, I feel uncomfortable. If I eat the wrong thing, I react. There is comfort in knowing the certainty of routine, as boring and predictable as it may be.

One more thing — a very important one: Don’t overeat before a concert, for digestion takes away concentration. I once cooked and ate a huge meal just before giving a full moon concert in North Wales. Not sure how the guitarist fared, but I will never forget that bloated feeling of fighting to focus on the music and finish before my stomach takes over everything else. Musicians are naturally hungry after a concert. And hungry musicians are eager to play.

Related stories:
Preparing for a concert, March 2004 Bussum

Competing against the weather, June 2004 Den Haag

The second set and Schumann’s Traumerei, June 2004 Bussum

The nuts and bolts of a duo concert

The last concert we gave in November 2008 took place in a monastic church in a village north of Leiden (home of the oldest Dutch university). We drove there in the snow. We received a standing ovation and did an encore out of courtesy.

Revised from “Starting a blog of my concerts” from Facebook Notes, Wednesday 3 December 2008

My life these days revolves around concerts. That is, performing on the piano, with my duo partner — the classical guitarist. Hence our rather generic name of “piano guitar duo.”

It begins with fixing a date, time, venue, and programme — blocking off a chunk of time on the calendar. Then practising (by myself), rehearsing with my duo partner, and preparing for the concert. When the day arrives, it’s the usual ritual to put on my make-up, fill a thermos flask with hot rooibos or other herbal tea & sometimes make sandwiches or other light snack to eat in the car, drive there, warm up and check the accoustics, change into concert clothes, and play.

My duo partner meanwhile has the arduous task of finding the route on Google Earth and jotting down the necessary phone number and address. [After he received the surprise free gift from his mobile phone provider for New Year’s Eve, he started using the iphone’s GSM facilities instead of the old paper ritual.]

I never don’t know what to expect in terms of the quality of the piano and the acoustics, unless we get to rehearse before the day of the concert. Because the piano and the guitar are “attack” instruments (rather than the “sustain” kind of string and wind instruments), it’s necessary to get the balance right. The quality of the sound we produce is highly dependent on the acoustics of the room and the piano.

We have to get there at least half-an-hour before the concert, preferably one hour before, to permit enough time to warm up and adjust to the acoustics and instruments. If the acoustics are too dry, I have to use more pedal. If too resonating (like in a big church), I sometimes avoid the right pedal altogether. If the piano is too loud, I may have to close the lid completely and reluctantly.

I usually never get to see the piano or the venue beforehand, unless it’s a place my duo has performed before. So far, of the concerts we’ve given in the past 7 years, it’s always been for the first time at that particular venue. The surprises make interesting stories, enough to fill a book or a television series.

The last concert we gave in November 2008 took place in a monastic church in Warmond, a village north of Leiden (home of the oldest Dutch university). We drove there in the snow. We received a standing ovation and did an encore out of courtesy. We had arranged for a recording engineer to record the 1 hour concert and a photographer to take professional photos of us afterwards. There was a lot of equipment and setting-up. The concert was also video recorded by a student of the guitarist, see below.

Summer (second movement) from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, arranged by R.A. Bekkers