I seem to be noticing it more and more recently: Musicians warming up onstage before a performance and playing signature bits of the piece they are about to perform. I don’t know if it’s happening more or, for some reason, I’m just aware of it more.
The other night took the cake though. Before a performance of Bartok’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta,” the pianist, center stage, was hammering away on her big solos, very distinctive licks from the piece.
Back in my day — which admittedly was a long time ago — this kind of thing was frowned upon. We were told, or at least I was told, that you don’t play anything from the repertoire you are about to perform as you are warming up onstage. It was considered bad form.
For one thing, it gives the impression to the audience that the musician hasn’t mastered his or her part yet. It gives the impression that there haven’t been enough rehearsals. It gives the impression that the musician hasn’t practiced on his own. It may also suggest that the musician doesn’t give a damn.
Further, when a musician plays a bit of a piece before the performance, it’s a kind of spoiler. To the listener who doesn’t know the piece about to be performed, it may not matter much. But to the listener who does, it puts him ahead of things, as if he were viewing a key scene from a movie (Bergman pulling a gun on Bogart, say) before the movie runs.
For similar reasons, believe it or not, I don’t even like hearing snatches of pieces in pre-concert lectures. I’m probably in the minority on this one — it seems like most people consider concerts “learning experiences” these days — but to me it’s like tasting a dinner before it is served. I want to sit down and listen to a piece fresh, hear it in the order and context it was meant o be heard in, and not have bits of it brought to the attention of my ears beforehand like one of those Norton scores with the highlighted themes. That’s for school.
Musicians, if you think about it, are the only performers we regularly witness warming up. We never see, for instance, actors rehearsing their lines and movements on stage before a play. If we did, we wouldn’t like it. Why should it be any different with musicians?
Wait, what the — Bergman pulls a gun on Bogie?!! . . .
But seriously, I’ve always wondered this too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a non-American orchestra do this on tour (though the one time I actually saw the London Phil in Royal Festival Hall, I don’t remember what they did).
A soprano friend of mine once told me the story of a concert she was a part of in college where they made a point to tweek that common practice: the individual members of the chorus strolled onto the empty stage, a few at time; once they got to their spot, they’d start warming up with combinations of vocal runs and bits of the music they were performing. When about 2/3 of the the chorus were on stage, the orchestra silently walked onto the stage in neat rows (the way European orchestras do it), sat down simultaneously, and then sat quietly until the concertmaster walked in.
Would love to see that done a the pro level, just for fun. Grant Gershon or John Alexander, are you listening?
I don’t like to hear solo passages being practiced before a concert, but I also don’t like an empty stage. Worse is when the orchestra files on like a middle-school band and sits on cue.
Historically, the orchestra hasn’t been quite so regimented. Wear some nice clothes (admittedly, being stuck wearing what is now as archaic as Haydn’s livery seems silly), wander out onto the stage as the spirit moves you, and play some music – seems very civilized to me.
In my opinion, you probably have a valid point here.
A couple of possible reasons why you “seem to be noticing it more and more recently”: 1) the amount of music accumulated in your musical memory, including the number of memorized excerpts of familiar pieces, is growing constantly, so, whether you want it or not, every day (week, month, year) you are able to recognize more little snippets than the day (week, month, year) before; 2) lately you have been experiencing live music mostly in recently built halls that have outstanding clarity of acoustics, so you hear individual instruments better, even while several others are being played at the same time.
This may also be a reason why it happens more often: some musicians underestimate the clarity of these young halls and do not realize that their warming up routines are heard so clearly by the audience even when many other musicians are warming up on stage simultaneously. It is especially true of those instruments that project their sound very strongly, such as grand piano or, for example, trumpet, while others such as, say, violas and bassoons, would have less of a problem.
As for those audience members who might think “that the musician hasn’t mastered his or her part yet” or “that there haven’t been enough rehearsals” or “that the musician hasn’t practiced on his own” or “that the musician doesn’t give a damn”, i personally have never heard such rubbish from anyone, but if i ever do, i would explain that most musicians of this level are perfectionists who know that there is no limit for improvement and that is why they are always trying to give a performance that is as close to perfection as possible and one that is at least better than the previous one – in other words, the reason for their practicing until the very last moment is that they do give a damn. Listeners should realize that many soloists practice in their dressing rooms until seconds before walking onto stage to perform, but the hundred or so orchestra members can’t possibly have that luxury of having their private practice rooms and so they do that last little bit of warming up right there on stage.
Having said all that, i still think that you have a valid point.
Very good points, MarK. In regard to the “rubbish” thoughts, I agree that probably few listeners entertain them, though perhaps more do subconsciously. That’s why I used the word “impression.” At any rate, your explanation to them is a good one.
Most dramatic start to a concert I ever saw was the Marine Band on tour, in a high school auditorium a few years back. Pre concert, the band members came and went, on stage, dressed in civilian clothes: ties and jackets for the men, similar for the ladies. They warmed up, noodled, arranged their music, set out reeds, etc. A few minutes before the start, they all left the stage and the curtain was drawn. Two minutes later, the curtain opened on a 40 piece band in red, blue and gold. Someone gave a downbeat and they started the opener, minus conductor. At the last bar, the conductor mounted the podium, band stood as one, and hit the Star Bangled Banner.
Opera orchestras ALWAYS go over their solos or exposed passages in the pit before performances. It usually amuses me and gives me a clue in a way to listen to their bits later. But I agree with your larger point and I too am hearing more mini-rehearsals on tricky passages before performances. The truth is that rehearsals are limited these days for most gigs. Musicians in LA work either full time like the LA Phil or are studio musicians who do chamber gigs out of love and self-respect for their artistic origins, so they are always inventing quick opportunity ways to get in the groove for performance.
I agree completely with you, Tim. It’s the very same way I feel about watching previews of TV shows or movies; I don’t want to see anything that will spoil the surprise or suspense of the actual viewing. My wife laughs at me when I turn away from the TV screen so I don’t see a preview for the next week’s episode of something I regularly watch.
I’m with the ‘warm up, but not with pieces from the program’ side.
The need for a warm up reminds me of a solo performance at the Hollywood Bowl in the 60’s. It featured Gervase De Peyer, a friend of my clarinetist father. My Dad told us to watch Gervase while he waited for his entrance – that despite the effects of the night air, and waiting onstage while the orchestra played, he would not dampen the reed, limber up his fingers, or in any way prepare. Sure enough, with his clarinet at his side, turned halfway toward the orchestra while they played, he then turned to the audience, lifted the clarinet at his cue and played – faultlessly. My Dad said it showed complete confidence and command of the instrument.
He stayed with my parents another time, and after about half an hour upstairs practicing, came downstairs saying “well that’s plenty for today” and with my brother’s Hawaiian blowfish on its hanging string slung around his neck and his fingers on the spines.