Performing – It’s Not About the Music

(A reflection on my performance with Orchestra London last year)

Thirty minutes before the performance, Kornel and I were backstage getting ready in our dressing room.

He asks me: “Aren’t you going to wear a tux?”

“Nah, I’m not comfortable in a tux.  Why?  Don’t I look good in this?”

The first piece on the program is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.  You’d think I’d have the piano part racing through my head.  But instead, I’m practicing something else.

“Airat Ichmouratov.  A-ee-rat Ich-mour-na-toff.  A-ee-rat Ich-mour-na-toff.  A-ee-rat Ich-mour-na-toff.”

This is what’s making me nervous – introducing maestro Airat Ichmouratov.  His name’s a tongue twister for English-only, Canadian boys like me.  But I want to get it right.  Thankfully, Kornel’s coaching me.

Airat knocks on the door to finalize some details. Not musical details – logistics.  We need to coordinate our walks on and off the stage, bowing, acknowledging, who’s going to introduce whom, who’s going to introduce what.

It’s been decided that after Rhapsody in Blue, I’ll bow, acknowledge Airat, who will then bow and acknowledge the orchestra and the orchestra’s soloists.  We’ll take one more bow and leave stage right.  After a few seconds, I’ll come back on stage, introduce Kornel, introduce the next piece and continue with the program.

“Wait, is there a microphone on stage?  Where’s it going to be?”

Thus begins a search for a member of the stage crew.  Joe confirms that the microphone will be on a stand in front of the stage.  “Don’t forget to switch it on before you speak.  Also, when do you want me to adjust the piano lid?  Full-stick, half-stick, closed?”

Kornel asks: “Hey friendo, can you remind me of the program order?”

A-ee-rat Ich-mour-na-tov.  A-ee-rat Ich-mour-na-tov.  Maybe I should have worn a tux.

Melissa Derus form Orchestra London appears and asks: “Do you guys have CDs to sell?  How much are you selling them for?”

My phone buzzes – It’s a text from a family member.  There’s been a mixup with their comp tickets, but not to worry, everything’s been sorted out.  Don’t forget to put your phone on silent.

“Airat, can you pronounce your name for me?”

A-ee-rat Ich-MOUR-na-tov.  A-ee-rat Ich-MOUR-na-tov.  Do I even OWN a tux?

It’s show time!

“….Like any other building, a concert hall is a social construction, designed and built by social beings in accordance with certain assumptions about desirable human behavior and relationships.  These assumptions concern not only what takes place in the building but go deep into the nature of human relationships themselves.” – Christopher Small, Musiking

Music performances are about much more than just the music.  Performances are a complicated, intertwining mesh of relationships, disciplines and culture, some of which include musicians and playing music.

We may say we’re in attendance because of the music, and don’t get me wrong, it is an important part.  But then, why would I care about what I’m wearing, or how to pronounce someone’s name, or where the microphone will be?

I care, because you care.

A performance is a focal point, where these intertwining meshes of relationships interact at their most complex level. A successful performance is one where performers reflect all these desirable relationships back onto the audience and onto the social construction in which it is occurring.

A good performance then, is like a very reflective mirror.

English speakers may not have noticed a mispronunciation of the maestro’s name, but natives of Eastern Europe would have, and the mirror would have become slightly less reflective.

The difference between wearing a tux and a suit is meaningful, but in this circumstance, small.  The difference between wearing a tux and jeans is much larger.  Dressing too casually on stage would poorly reflect the relationships and values audience members cherish.  Thus, it’s important that performers choose their dress respectfully and wisely.

Suppose I spent five minutes on stage searching for the microphone.  You get the idea – a foggier mirror.

Most details of a performance are outside my control and expertise.  I have no control over the acoustics of the concert hall, the comfort of the audience’s seats, or the written music from which the orchestra plays.   A lack of control needs to be balanced with an excess of trust – this is part of the novelty, excitement, and risk of performing!

In the years, months, weeks, days, and minutes leading up to a performance, I need to trust that a solid common ground has been laid for everyone to fulfill his or her part.  After all, every member of the orchestra, stage crew, administration team, and marketing team has a hand in shaping, reflecting, and polishing the mirror (and let’s not forget the building crew, who built Centennial Hall, government officials who approved the permit and the technology company who designs microphones!).

I’m often asked if I get nervous before a performance.  The answer is yes, but not necessarily about performing the music.  I’m nervous about my “part,” whatever that may be.

Am I standing on common ground?  Have I properly laid common ground for others?  Can I be trusted to fulfill my part?  Can I be trusted to pronounce Airat’s name correctly?

It would have been helpful if I meet Airat sooner than the day before the concert, or if we were lifelong friends.  This is often the challenge with productions such as this one, where so many people are involved, and so little time to develop strong relationships, with whatever and whoever that may be.

For example, Kornel and I have probably practiced and performed Tico-Tico a hundred times.  We have developed a strong, trusting relationship through this piece, such that I can detect, anticipate and respond to very minute subtleties in his playing.  We’re communicating on a very confident, musical level, which translates into a stronger relationship between the two of us, and our audiences too.

Compare this to performing Rhapsody in Blue with Orchestra London.  The orchestra, Airat and I had rehearsed it in its entirely only once, the day before the concert.  In fact, we all met each other for the first time that same day.  Many major issues were addressed during that rehearsal to pull everything together for the performance, but one day, and one rehearsal with strangers is risky.

Personally, it’s hardly enough to iron out all the kinks in a performance and develop solid relationships.  But we’re often at the mercy of these kinds of circumstances (not enough time, not enough resources etc), which requires a special kind of focus and trust to turn that risk into magic.  This only stresses the importance of all the parties involved knowing their “parts” (whatever they may be) to the best of their ability, and connecting their parts to the parts around them.

The least I can do (besides knowing my notes) is pronounce my new friend’s name correctly!

(By the way, I’m pretty sure I pronounced it correctly; my mom said she was impressed.  That should count for something).


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