Peak Performance

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The following short article was written in response to a request from the Sabian cymbal company. The questions were: “How do you deliver a peak performance? How do you prepare for a concert?” An edited version of the article, along with answers to the same questions by Vic Firth, Evelyn Glennie, Ney Rosauro, John Wooton and Frédéric Macarez, appeared in the 2002 introductory issue of Tempo, Sabian’s news magazine, edited by Nick Petrella.

Bob Becker:

As any musician knows, preparation for a performance begins long before the day of the concert, but I have found that there are physical and mental things to do (and not do) on the day of a performance that help me play well.

I never eat a big meal just before a concert. My preference is to eat a light meal around four hours before the performance is to begin and then take a short nap. When performing on the road, travel and accommodations are always serious concerns. The old observation “stay first class, play first class” definitely has merit. I never drink alcohol or use other substances before a concert. Although some performers can and do play well under these influences, it has always been a mystery to me how they do it. What I wear for a performance affects my mood and my technique, so I am willing to spend both time and money to find comfortable, functional and attractive apparel and, perhaps most important, footwear. Fabrics need to feel good, look great and travel well in a suitcase. On many concerts I have to play a great variety of instruments, sometimes while seated and sometimes while standing. If I’m performing on tabla, I have to sit on the floor with my shoes off, so even socks become an issue. Generally speaking, percussionists need performance attire that is flexible, and the usual coat and tie or, even worse, formal evening wear are often inappropriate. Buttons in particular can be a major problem, so I usually remove them from sleeves and any other areas where they might make contact with an instrument.

I need to feel physically warm before going on stage, so the conditions in the dressing room are important. If I feel cold, I use the Glenn Gould method of running hot water on my hands for several minutes. In any event, I always wash my hands before going on stage, even following intermission – it always feels better to hold sticks and mallets, or play hand drums, when my hands are clean. Most musicians have the luxury of being able to warm up in their dressing rooms until just before going out on stage. Percussionists generally do not have access to their instruments after the hall opens to the public, so it can be a problem to stay ‘loose’. Sticks and a drum pad can help depending on the repertoire, but one practical suggestion is to program the pieces on the concert to allow a gradual warming-up. Don’t begin the performance with the major chop-breaking piece. (Of course if you’re playing a concerto, you don’t have a choice.) Staying relaxed mentally preceding a concert is also important and will certainly affect a performer’s physical state. When playing with an ensemble like NEXUS, I find it relaxing to hang with the other members just before going out on stage. Sharing humor and a sense of group spirit is a very positive warm-up to a performance. On the other hand, I don’t recommend holding business meetings or financial discussions right before a concert. When I’m performing as a soloist I usually have to create a relaxed and positive mental state on my own. In that case I try to be quiet and still for a while and open my heart to the mood and emotions of the music that I’m about to play. Then I go out and try to kick butt.

Bob Becker (May, 2002)

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