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Setting Up for Success

When it comes right down to performance time, what do you do to get ready to perform?  What are the notes that you play or the things that you think?  How do you set yourself up for success?

My students are all preparing for our annual spring recital.  We've had our final lessons of the year, and the question I asked everyone was "What do you need to do right before you go on stage to prepare for this piece?"

The answer is different for each of them.  For Carla, playing the Schumann A Major Romance, a slow C#, A, F# slur is going to prepare her embouchure for the descending intervals that start the piece and recur throughout.  For Braydon, playing Handel F major, the biggest issue is tempo and character.  He is to think about the tempo of his slow movement and play the first four notes, beautifully, to himself before he comes out on stage.  For Megan, playing the Jacob Sonatina, it's B and D long tones, to get her sound and vibrato flowing before she starts.  In general, in our lessons, they start their pieces and things are rocky.  I bring their attention to the pertinent skills, and then they play beautifully.  But they won't have me coaching them on the big day.

(Which is THIS Tuesday the 31st, at 7, at Church of the Savior, 1855 N. Hickory in South Bend.  Open to the public.  We'd love to see you there!)

This task applies to me as well. I'm working on an audition for a big orchestra. The situation on stage is one I cannot prepare for fully.  The audition proctor will hand me one excerpt at a time, and I won't know in advance - at all - which pieces will be played or in what order.  Additionally, and this is exclusively my own problem, I'm barely prepared.  I have not spent months studying these pieces and playing them over and over to make my exact plan clear in my head, and drilling each note so that I can go on auto-pilot.  Most excerpts are familiar from dozens of previous auditions, but some aren't.  I have only a few more days before I perform and some of those days will be spent on vacation with family and friends.  I am not primed for success in this audition.

But right now I am loving my playing.  I'm feeling strong, and confident, and although many of these excerpts are less familiar, there are not any I can't play.  I don't expect to win, but my goal on stage is to show well what I am capable of.  To be awesome if not perfect.  And, especially, to leave the stage feeling that I played up to my ability, not that I gave up or defaulted to an apologetic place.

So the preparation I am putting in is very directed and mindful.  I'm not drilling the excerpts, and I'm not listening to them over and over on repeat.  I'm finding one SPECIFIC element of each that I can grab onto before I begin. For some it's a specific interval.  For some a character.  For some a tempo, or a setup in which I mentally imagine the entrance in the orchestra.

I won't have the option to play a cue for myself between excerpts on the stage, as my students are being coached to do before they enter for their solo pieces, but I know my oboe.  I know it well.  If my task is to start on an awkward middle C with a full, vibrating, forward moving sound, I know what that feels like, and I can visualize and prepare for it before I start.  The times I don't play well are the times that I launch in unprepared to a piece I think I know, and allow myself to be caught off guard by a sticky interval that I should have remembered was coming.  I can play comfortably in tune in Pulcinella, as long as I start with a low enough pitch center.  I can nail all of the notes in La Scala as long as I remember that I have to take special care of the low Gs.

If I still had the 6 weeks that I had back when I received the excerpt list, I might treat this differently.  But this is where I am and what I can do.  I know I can play the oboe.  For now, I am preparing my starting cues for each piece.  I am setting myself up for success with the hope that given a good enough start, the magic can happen.

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