I was out for a ten-miler over the weekend and it struck me how similar a half-marathon is to a recital. In both, the hardest part is at the very end, and in both, it's hard to prepare for that part. The first half hour of running is pretty easy, and then I cruise for a while, but after nine miles it gets difficult. My legs are heavy and while I'm not in pain, exactly, I do want to stop running and walk. Everything is uncomfortable.
In the same way, the opening few pieces on a recital feel effortless. I am riding on my preparation, and showing off for the audience, and even if the performance is not flawless it is energetic and feels great. But then things start to change. My mouth gets tired, which makes my reed feel different. Harder, more brittle. Maybe the reed actually is different by that time - it's tricky to know. My playing doesn't feel so effortless anymore, and when I make mistakes I can't brush them off as easily. I perceive that everyone can see me sweat.
To work through that discomfort I need to get accustomed to doing it, but there's no clear way to practice that final three miles without running the first ten, or to practice the last 15 minutes of an intense one-hour recital. To try to duplicate the feeling, I would need to play intensely, without breaks, for an hour, but still that wouldn't account for the adrenaline rush of having an actual audience there. It does make a difference.
If I make a tiny mistake in my practice room I can let it go, but as soon as people are listening I tense up slightly if I miss something. Even though I brush it off and continue playing I think it wouldn't be human if I didn't feel some emotion at making mistakes that others can hear. I would probably need people to come in and listen to me run my whole program to replicate that last 10-15 minutes, and frankly, there are only so many people who are going to come to my performances anyway. I don't want to squander any of them on practice sessions.
The solution, then, is to use my running workouts to inform my practice. My most successful races have been when I was regularly running both farther and faster than the race required. So last summer when I was training for half-marathons by doing weekly 10-15 mile runs and weekly speed workouts with short intervals at my 5K pace, I posted some of my best 10K times ever.
In preparing for this program, I consciously played long sessions. I went up to my studio as soon as Steve woke up and worked until lunchtime, doing intensive warmups and as the programs got closer, running long chunks of the recital all together. I also used all of the little chunks of time between lessons or when Zoe was occupied with toys or as I was finishing reeds to do very specific work on the technical aspects of the program. And I intentionally did that work when I was fairly fresh, so that I didn't always associate THAT page of the Pasculli, for example, with the feeling of being exhausted and tense and out of control.
The last parallel between running and recital preparation is the taper. I had been putting in lengthy, lengthy days on the oboe, and using every moment that I could find to practice. In the final week before my first performance I stopped. Partly because I got really busy with the orchestra and the quintet and the students - but mostly because I didn't want to do any more. My body and brain refused. I started banking rest and sleep instead of practice, and made it to the big event fresh, prepared, and ready!