Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Pianists Gone Mental

Method & Madness: The oddities of the virtuosi in the March 12 Independent (no author credited) looks at the eccentricities of the great pianists. Here you can learn about:
  • Richter's plastic lobster
  • Cherkassky's right-foot-first approach to the stage
  • Horowitz's and Henselt's agoraphobia (a useful phobia for pianists to have, as one ends up practicing more)
  • Sokolov's taking-apart and putting-together of pianos before concerts
What are your pre-concert eccentricities and obsessions? You tell yours and I'll tell mine...


  1. Quite a topic you've picked this time, Chris. That plastic lobster takes the cake!

    One of my theory lab profs (a mezzo-soprano) always took a shot of vodka before going on stage. She said it opened up her vocal chords. I tried it a couple of times and found that I temporarily lost control of the keys when the buzz slammed into me.

    I'm not sure if these would be considered strange but this is my pre-performance routine:

    1. Pick a "power outfit" well before performance day. Red for really energetic programs. Green/blue if I really need to stay calm or am playing something Impressionist. Purple for deep, brooding or passionate songs. Latin or oriental-styled outfits if I'm playing that kind of music. Outfits must be tested of course to see which one feels right.
    2. Practice improvising on the song so if my memory fails, I can still fudge my way through it (depends on the program).
    3. Drill trouble spots and do a quick run through the night before, pack my “everything I could possibly need onsite” bag and then RELAX!
    4. Sleep in and eat light.
    5. Do nothing that would stress me out.
    6. Wear my mittens or gloves on-site because my fingers get ice-cold or walk with my hands under my armpits if I forgot my mittens.
    7. Play with my Power Web finger stretcher.
    8. Avoid talking to others as much as possible otherwise; I may spend the rest of the time panicking over what my first or second note is.
    9. A trip to the washroom beforehand is an absolute must. Two if I'm feeling really nervous so I can jump up and down and scream.
    10. Deep breathing exercises. But not too much or else I get dizzy.

    Ok, now you have to share what you do. ;-)

  2. Pianists always have their quirks - I think we're known for it! Some of my pre-performance "must-dos" include:

    1. Don't talk - I try not to talk so much on the day of a performance. Those who know me well know enough to not call me or attempt to engage me in conversation on the day of a performance. I like to "preserve" my energy. This can be a little disconcerting to concert presenters and others who don't know me so well, though...

    2. I always bring several dresses backstage - weird, because I don't change clothes during a concert. But I just feel better somehow having several different dresses backstage.

    3. The day of a concert, I have to be either carrying or near my scores at all times. Even just walking to the restroom, I feel better if I'm holding my scores. Strange.

    4. I always have chocolate, water, and coffee backstage. Always. These are my three food requirements that I ask to be left in my dressing room.

    5. I have a very set eating schedule on the day of a concert. Most concerts are in the evening, so I will time my lunch to be around 2 or 3PM, and will not eat until after the concert is over. This is so that I don't feel myself digesting my food right before I have to play - it really feels horrible.

    6. My rehearsal schedule on a concert day is also quite strict. I like to rehearse in the hall on the morning of the concert. Then while I'm having lunch, have the tuner come in to do the last tuning on the piano, then be the first one at the hall prior to the concert so that I can warm up before the hall opens (if its a recital) or the orchestra arrives (if its a concerto performance).

    Considering all of the other erratic and "unstable" factors of a musician's life, I think these routines somehow stabilize us, even if they only make sense to the person who's doing it.

    PS Added you to my links/blogroll, Chris.

  3. Thanks, Rhonda! Those sound more like intelligent and well though-out recipes for success rather than obsessions. Here are (some) of mine:

    -I prefer to eat a large meal before performing a full recital. It ain't fun having a sugar low in the second half of a program so I like to fuel up before the main event.
    -Some of my best performances were played wearing a tux shirt I've had since 1988. Even though the shirt has a decidedly champagne tint to its formerly white color (even with regular laundering), I still insist on playing in this shirt whenever I use either tux or tails.
    -When performing the Franck Violin Sonata, I refuse to practice or rehearse the work the day of a concert as I am scared to death of playing it well in rehearsal and horribly in the performance.
    -the piano must be EXACTLY lined up with the grain of the wood on the stage floor. Otherwise I'll obsess about it all the way through the performance (not applicable when playing in large ensembles or pit orchestras).

    Let's hear a few other confessions before I reveal more of my own performing eccentricities.

  4. Thanks, Grace. You posted your comment while I was writing mine. Here's another:

    -I'm very fussy as to which ties I use when performing. Although I have quite a number of them, I use only a few "core" ties in performance because I don't feel I play well unless I'm wearing the right one. I have a beautiful tie I purchased from Galleries Lafayette a few years back, but have almost never worn it, because it seems I play excrably when I do.

    Keep those performance eccentricities coming!