Practicing for Several Concerts at the Same Time

Question: I’m a retired church musician (organist/choirmaster) who’s been asked to play eight noon recitals at a public library over the course of next year starting in January. I’ll be playing the WTC Book II plus preludes by lots of other composers. I’ve never had the chance or opportunity to prepare so much music at one time, and am feeling a little overwhelmed. I’ve come to realize that this is much like what a professional pianist does every season, putting together a series of concertos and recital programs.

I wonder if you have any hints about how you plan your practicing from week to week? With lots of music to be performed, you can’t practice everything every day, but on the other hand you can’t leave things unrehearsed too long, can you?

Thanks for whatever insight you can provide!

– Michael Sanders (California, USA)

Albert’s reply: Actually, professional pianists almost never play eight different programs in a single season – that would be suicidal for most. There are exceptions, such as a Beethoven sonata cycle, but in every case undertaking such an ambitious endeavor is the result of having already performed most of the repertoire over a period of years.

There is always a tradeoff between volume of music performed and the degree of its polish, since even the most experienced and smartest musicians have limits to their time and energy. I have witnessed Daniel Barenboim perform all 32 Beethoven sonatas and a Brahms concerto (in another country, at that) in only two weeks, while teaching master classes on his “off” days. The next week he flew elsewhere to conduct the Ring cycle. I was treated to many unforgettable performances, though understandably not every piece could be perfectly polished under such incredibly taxing circumstances. Even a musician with such extraordinary capabilities must decide whether to spread his efforts to multiple programs or to direct it towards making one or two programs as perfect and beautiful as possible.

The vast majority of top soloists prepare just one or two programs each year to the utmost of their ability. These are musicians of the utmost talent and training, with large repertoires, and they meet the severe demands placed on them by audiences and critics in the largest concert halls by focusing their efforts on perfecting a small amount of repertoire each season. Some of the most famous soloists prepare one solo program and one concerto each season, and concert promoters are free to take it or leave it, but this is a luxury that very few performers have.

Our musical culture has changed dramatically since Arthur Rubinstein and Ignaz Paderewski were alarmed at hearing their inaccuracies on record for the first time. Today’s musicians need to prepare for the possibility that our every performance can be made accessible to everyone in the world with an internet connection, entirely against our wills (not to mention illegally), in just minutes. Our YouTube and Facebook culture and their concomitant lack of privacy have implications on performing musicians. (Witness the sad demise of Amy Winehouse shortly after her disastrous final performance, which “went viral” through online media.)

For these reasons it’s rarely advisable to attempt to play eight different programs in one season. An exception may be made if you have already performed most or all of the music over many years, as is the case with my former teacher Steven Smith’s admirable Beethoven sonatas and variations cycle. Performing is too demanding. Your every insecurity is amplified onstage, and the only remedy is practicing properly with the utmost concentration that only considerable time can give us. More importantly, the greatest joy in performing comes from perfecting the music we perform to whatever extent our talent allows. Once you believe you truly know your music inside and out, that’s when the real work begins.

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