We’ve all been there — things are perfectly fine in rehearsals, then on stage, it’s a whole different game. Why’s that? Adrenaline. And is that a bad thing? No.
Sure, it’s not perfect — adrenaline can contribute to feeling nervous and can even make you physically shaky. I can picture a few conductors who’s batons were particularly unsteady during a performance – and that’s ignoring them doing things they wouldn’t normally do in rehearsal: queuing sections they’ve never queued before; upping the tempo on pieces that are already fast; and counting-in the ensemble with either fewer or more beats than we’re used to. I know a trumpet player who gets an involuntary “vibrato” in performance. A racing heart definitely affects steady breathing and the brass embouchure isn’t used to dealing with those conditions.
From the ensemble’s viewpoint, adrenaline often has the effect of locking everyone in together. It’s not without exceptions, like mistimed solos, and even accidental solos. I can remember a particular show with Counterpoint Community Orchestra in Toronto where the rehearsals were awful and the dress was practically a disaster. Then the night of the concert, it all came together. I was amazed!
And I can “proudly” say that I’ve experienced this from both sides of the podium – as a participant and as a spectator. I conducted the Highlands Wind Symphony in a transcription of Pines of Rome. The sax solo (which is the english horn solo in the original for orchestra) dropped a few beats and got off. I made a split decision to reset my downbeat to match the player but the ensemble didn’t follow him and me. We were in a state of flux for probably a minute or two. I was flipping pages back and forth to find a spot where we might re-align and the musicians were staring back at me with fear in their eyes. I didn’t know how we were going to end. Just when I was possibly going to the last resort and stopping the ensemble to start again, the trumpets played a familiar section and the rest of the ensemble locked in with them and we able to finish the piece. It was a miracle!!
And just yesterday, we were performing a transcription of Bizet’s Farandole and I noticed that my downbeat was getting a little weird. When the dance part starts, the piece is in a fast two. At a certain point, though, when the two melodies are overlaid, I like to switch to one beat per bar. It feels better for the pulse of the piece. But then I noticed that I was creeping back into two, and not very clearly. Sounds kind of weird to say this as a conductor, but I got distracted listening too much. I was noticing how different it was sounding from our rehearsal room. I was thinking to myself, “I wish we could stop right now – I’d like to hear more from the ‘half notes’ – and more volume over all”.
I realized what I was doing, snapped out of it and got back to conducting what was going on. I was very happy I didn’t throw the ensemble off. Don’t get me wrong – it was a fantastic performance – seriously. But as a conductor and perfectionist, there’s ALWAYS something I’d like to tweak. I just need to remember to stay in the moment.
For the ensemble’s part, they were tight – ending-chord tunings were fantastic and cut-offs were clean. The collective energy of the group was clearly communicated how they played and the audience could feel it. That’s the best thing about adrenaline!!