Pre-Performance Rituals – what are yours?

Susan Eichhorn Young wrote a blog entry today about protecting your performance, which at its core was all about centering and finding stillness before a performance. It was an excellent blog and it got me thinking about the way I have found to work best for me in getting ready to perform.

I’ve read about performance preparation for years, and often, it was best summarized as “Shut up and contemplate your navel. Focus. Center.” I’ve always felt joyful before a show and wanted to jump up and down, talk to people, and be somewhat giddy about the upcoming performance. But this behavior often seems to make people think that I’m less than serious about my craft and somewhat frivolous.

I once threw an opening night party in the afternoon of the day the show opened. We invited about 50 people, most of whom were coming to the show that night. I had a great time – at about 5:30pm, I decided that I’d had enough and I needed to go in the house and be alone for a bit before I left for the theater. We had a great opening night. I gave one of my best performances ever.

But I’ve been told that this isn’t the right way to prepare for a show for me, that I should, again, contemplate my navel, not talk to anyone, and reserve my energies for the performance.  So back in April 2001, when I was preparing for the Kilpinen competition, I decided to try that. After all, I have had bouts of performance anxiety in the past, and maybe this was what it would take to finally conquer it.

I had heard about a monastery in Madison that rented rooms to the public, for people seeking solitude and quiet. And the rent was $33 per night. So I reserved a room/cell and went to Madison. There was no TV or radio in my room, of course. All the better to settle my mind and focus my energies. The next morning I went to the chapel and took part in a centering service and then walked the grounds. I think there was a labyrinth. Then I went back to my cell and read some meditative literature. I couldn’t practice there, obviously, but I felt like I’d have enough time to vocalize before the performance.

So I went to the theater, found a practice room and vocalized for awhile, got dressed for the show, and thought, “I’m calm, I’m centered, I am prepared,” and I walked into the performance space.

I have never been so freaked out in my entire life. I was shaking, I couldn’t get my breath low, and I was dry. So dry that I went for my high note on the word “fly” at the end of “Paper wings” and my upper lip stuck to my teeth as I hit the note and then came off in the middle of the vowel, so that the note sounded like … it’s impossible to describe in writing. Trust me, it was weird.

The whole experience put me off singing for awhile. I felt like I had regressed to my undergrad days and that the 20 years of professional experience I’d had up to that point were all for nothing.

But I’ve come to realize that my way of preparing involves letting the crazies out before I hit the stage, and if that means hopping around and being goofy, that’s my way of centering. I will give room to those people who need to sit in a corner and contemplate their navels but for me, that simply doesn’t work. “I hop, therefore I am.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

I wrote an entry awhile back about being grateful so perhaps writing another one for Thanksgiving is redundant. I don’t want to focus on individual people, accomplishments or occasions. I want to look at the big picture.

I am grateful for music. For everything that it has had to offer me for as long as I can remember. I am grateful for melody, for lyrics, for harmonies that grab you by the ear and won’t let go (I remember Jay Rader calling a particularly plump harmonic transition a “dirty chord,” and I know exactly what he meant). I am grateful for all its manifestations – opera, musical theater, symphonies, art song, pop songs, chamber works, solo instrumental pieces, folk songs, bluegrass, country music and rap. (Okay, for the last two I’m not all that grateful but they exist and they fulfill something for someone else.)

When I’m happy, I listen to music. When I’m unhappy, I need it all the more. I’m grateful for the creativity that music seems to trigger in me, and for any vague nurturing instinct I might have that is the result of teaching music.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to earn a living because of music. I’m hopeful that music will open more doors in terms of my cabaret performances (new domain name coming in 2010 just for that endeavor!), in terms of more teaching opportunities at the college level, and more possibilities of performances and workshops (alone or with other performing/teaching partners). I’m grateful that the music education I’ve received, from 88th Street School to Hamilton HS to Alverno College to the Peabody Institute to all the NATS workshops and non-NATS programs (shout out to Somatic Voicework and Jeannie LoVetri!), has given me the information needed to make this work for me and for my students.

I’m grateful that music gave me a way to say a final goodbye to my mother, and to hopefully give some comfort to my father.

I am grateful for having married a man who once earned his living as a musician and has never begrudged my music for one moment. And I am grateful for Facebook and for being able to re-establish contact with those musical colleagues from 88th Street School to Hamilton HS to Alverno College (not so much there – wonder why?) to Peabody etc.

Franz von Schober said it so much better than I could (and Schubert set it so much better than I ever could):

Original German English Translation
Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzünden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir
Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

Oh gracious Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Transfigured me into a better world!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, a sacred harmony of yours
Thrown open the heaven of better times,
Oh gracious Art, for that I thank you!

Pianists can still play when they have a cold, dammit

Of course, singers can still sing when they have a broken finger, so I guess it kind of evens out. Except that upper respiratory infections are far more likely to afflict the general population than broken fingers. (I was going to title this blog “A throat full of snot,” meant to be sung to the tune of “A heart full of love” from Les Mis but I thought it might be off-putting.)

I managed to stay plague-free ever since the advent of H1N1, despite my husband being in contact with sick people day in and day out, having kids harboring the virus entering my house daily, and now going to a college full of them 2x a week. What did it? What or who gave me, if not swine flu (God forbid), a raging head cold that caused me to cancel 2 days of students/income?

A small 2 year old child. That’s her. That’s the carrier. All I needed was to be exposed to her over a 2 day period and BAM, flat on my back. You know I’m not well when I cancel a day full of students who are not only among my favorites but several of them are paying me, to boot.

Of course, it was worse for my niece, Jessica. Or as I like to call her, Typhoid Jessie. (URI Jessie just doesn’t have the same ring, even though it’s more accurate.) The poor thing had so much congestion that she had to be hospitalized for a day and on oxygen. She’s better now, and so am I.

2009 NATS!

It is 6:22am – I should still be in bed for another half hour but I was tossing and turning. So here I am, in the Eau Claire Days Inn, writing about what I hope will be a great day. It just has to get better from yesterday!

Yesterday morning I got in the car to go teach at Carroll, thinking I’d leave a little earlier and run some errands pre-teaching. Put my key in the ignition – nada. Didn’t turn over, didn’t click. I got out, went to the end of the driveway, swore not-so-silently and not-so-under-my-breath, and looked around to see if my neighbor Ellyn was around so I could borrow her car to get to Carroll. Didn’t see her. Walked back to the car and thought, “I’ll try again.” It started. I got her running and got out to Carroll, hoping she’d make it there and that she’d start post-class. She did. I ran my errands after class, each time hoping the car would start when I got back to it. It did.

So I figured it was an aberration and drove the 3-3/4 hours to Eau Claire. And she ran until 6 blocks from the hotel, when the car’s lights all went out and she stopped – and then started back up. Got to the hotel and registered, went to move the car to the side of the hotel where my room is – and she stopped. I think it’s the alternator.

I am so fortunate – 1) That she didn’t stop while I was sandwiched between the myriad of semi-trailers I encountered; 2) That my hotel is across the street from a Toyota dealership; and 3) That I have a current AAA card.

And I hope the studio’s fortune also holds up today – today Kate Trotter, Ryan Stajmiger, Breanna Kaho and Magdelyn Monahan are all participating in the 2009 Wisconsin NATS auditions in the high school divisions for classical girls, MT boys and MT girls respectively. All are extremely well prepared and I have high hopes that at least one of them will go to the finals (which would make it 8 years in a row for the studio – but no pressure). We have no control over the outcome for this kind of thing, only the process, and they have done the work needed to do a good job.

And I hope that my car is ready so I can go home tomorrow!