I was listening to Marc Maron’s podcast as I commuted to Chicago last week, and enjoying an interview with actor and comic Aasif Mandvi. Mandvi delighted me by quoting an old acting teacher – whose name I did not, regrettably, catch- in saying something that I have come to understand is true. I’m paraphrasing, now.
You can’t prepare the whole monologue, because you never know how it is going to evolve or what it will mean to you in the moment. You never know where it is going to take you. Just prepare your entry point, and figure out how to get in, and then use your instincts from there.
This is something I’ve known and worked with for a long time. You can’t craft every second of the plan – you can’t know in advance exactly how you are going to present any given note or phrase. It could be that a colleague tosses you a turn in an unexpected way, and you choose to respond to that. It could be that the audience is giving you a particular energy and you need to wake them up, or calm them down. It could be just how you are feeling in the moment – different for whatever reason than in your last performance, or practice session.
You need to know every note, of course, and all of the markings given to you by the composer. You need to have a mental outline for the shape of the piece, and know in the big picture where the low point is, and the high point, and where and how the form changes. I would also say that you need to know precisely how to get into each section or movement. It doesn’t work to walk out on stage with no plan, or thinking about Mozart when you are about to play Martinu. It doesn’t work to be taken by surprise in the moment. But I will have things in my mind like, ooh, here comes that really special soft part, where I make the audience really lean in. That’s the plan. But exactly how I do it – how slow I go, where I hold, how soft I dare to get – that all happens in real time. That’s what makes the magic.
The immediacy of performance is what makes live music so special. Listening to a recording can, at its best, have a sort of intimacy – you are hearing a record of the choices that some great player made, at one time. Of course, you are also hearing the perfection that comes from many small edits, and you are probably hearing choices made in the editing room – I want THIS take, because I love how I made this transition, or THIS one, because the interplay with the clarinet is so good – as much as choices made on stage.
When I step out on stage, though, I know that the performance I am about to play will be different from every other performance I ever do, and I don’t know until we start just how different it will be. I know how to begin, and how to end, and I hope nothing bad happens in the middle – but we’ll just have to see how it all plays out.
I teach this way, as well. I’ve watched colleagues work with their students, and talk about very specific details – how long to hold THIS fermata, or how to nuance THIS note – and sometimes when I watch other teachers I wonder if I’m on the right track or not. I might work with a student like this in a lesson, certainly, trying to open their eyes to the expressive possibilities of the piece, but exploring those options in the practice room or the lesson is different from setting them in stone and deciding in advance how they will go in performance. We toy with things, but I ALWAYS leave the creative choices up to them in the end.
I loved hearing Mandvi put into words this concept that I have long felt. I love that he was speaking about a completely different creative discipline than mine, and that the principle is exactly the same. I find it validating, and also inspiring. I’m performing my Gershwin transcriptions tonight at our studio recital, and OF COURSE the Strauss Concerto in a couple of weeks – and it’s a treat to be reminded that I will live in the moment with them both.