The Beat on the Street

Volume CVII, No. 7/8July, 2007

As a musician, what are your pre-performance rituals?

A couple hours before my performance, I’ll go for a 20 to 30 minute run. Besides the physical and mental benefits experienced — including improved breath support and decreased stress level — I find that my tone always becomes fuller and richer. (I play flute.)

Alison Crossley

I run from room to room looking for something I’ve misplaced or put in another bag or something. (Who knows: I probably left it on another gig.)

Then I go through my closet looking at stuff that either doesn’t fit anymore or else looks to shabby to actually wear.

Next, it’s time for MapQuest. That involves using a stupid printer that came free with my Mac — it takes forever, then jams.

Frantically, I throw together some leftovers and put them in plastic. (I’m looking forward to the lovely dining experience of eating alone in my car waiting for the parking space to become legal.)

Then I get in my car and go! Since I am conveniently located only two miles from the George Washington Bridge, I only need to plan on a one-hour commute.

I get to the gig and just relax into the groove…

Kermit Driscoll

As a conductor for Broadway musicals, my pre-performance ritual is fairly set.

For evening performances:

4 p.m. One-hour nap, with all phones, cell phones, pagers, computer alerts, etc., silenced.

5 p.m. Shower and smart casual dress for dinner.

6 p.m. Dinner in the theatre district, near the theatre where I am working. I often invite one colleague or associate — no groups. I usually order light fare: Japanese, pan-Asian, or vegetarian. No alcohol or desserts.

7 p.m. Dressing room: wardrobe prep, review notes from previous performance, green or oolong tea.

7:30 p.m. Visits with stage manager, music contractor, principal performers.

8 p.m. Performance.

For double-show days (matinees and evening performances), I add a massage at 4:30 p.m. in my dressing room and a 5:30 p.m. nap.

Gordon Harrell

Before each performance I answer the phone, accept the gig, get the directions, and make sure my bass is in the car before I leave home.

Bill Crow

I like to be parked by about 7 and grab a coffee and perhaps a light snack on the way to the theatre or hall if I haven’t had supper. I am usually in the pit by 7:30 and always unpack and set up my stuff on the stand tray the same way. I’ve got my open reed case, water, a knife or two, a tuner (since I usually have to tune the orchestra) and cigarette paper for blotting under keys if necessary. I soak a few reeds for each instrument and try them to see what I’ll use that night. I don’t need a long warm-up because I’ve usually played already that day.

I like the constancy of my routine because it helps to eliminate last-minute disasters that can be rattling.

If I am playing a concert out of town, I go through a mental checklist of music, stand, horns, reeds, black clothes, etc. before I pull out of the driveway so that I don’t have any last minute panics on the road.

Lynne Cohen

I started a new ritual on the last tour I was on (with Rob Thomas). I do a full body stretch, starting with rolling my neck and shoulders all the way down to my toes. Since I’m a guitarist I make sure my wrists and fingers are fully stretched. Also, I need a good strong cup of coffee. As far as studio sessions, there’s really no prep for the session — I like to just vibe with the other people in the session, crack some jokes, and once again grab a cup of ambition!

Frank Romano

Before a performance I remind myself of who I am, with all of the positive things about my playing and all of the areas that need improvement, and I accept myself. For better or worse I am who I am. This attitude of calm acceptance of the self has freed me from the fear of criticism that haunted me for many years.

Deirdre McArdle-Manning

Before a show, I go out into the space — the club, the theatre, the arena — and walk around. I want to get a real, physical feel for how the place is built, how big it is, what the acoustics are like. 

Also, what will it be like for the audience to see and hear a show in this space? How do the seats feel? So when there are seats, I go out into the empty room, sit in the front row and take a look around. I then go halfway back where the VIP section might be. And I will try to go all the way to the back rows, when possible. How far away will those people be? What does the stage look like from the nosebleed seats?

Then, when I do enter the stage as a performer, I can feel more connected to the people in the audience because I spent time where they are now. I have absorbed the vibes, the sounds, the architecture of the hall and I can put myself in their shoes. From the first to the last row, I’ve literally been there.

I appreciate the us-and-them aspect of performing. A bit of physical and psychological distance between the artist and audience can be useful in the theatre. Some mystery and magic. So when we decide to break down that barrier (as in a punk show for instance), it feels like something special happens.

But my goal is to feel connected to where I am, to where the audience is. If people feel happy they all shared the experience of hearing live music, I’ve done my job.

Michael Blair

I keep it simple. Warm up, tune up and check my zipper.

Bill Spilka

I do my warmup exercises about two hours before playing. This is really important for a guitar player because it avoids hand injury and also gets you prepared to play whatever you need to play. I have a bunch of exercises from my studies years ago with Peter Prisco and they have served me well over the years and really prepare me to play. I won’t play at all until I’ve played them.

However, very purposefully, I do not practice right before a gig. What I found when I was on the road was that if I practiced my usual four or five hours — even one hour — then whatever I practiced would be shoved into my solos and I’d leave my best playing at practice and also overthink too much.

I like to get into an empty state of mind on a gig and just let the notes flow.

If it’s specifically a jazz gig I will play some eighth-note improvs periodically after my warmups just to get my hands moving but I don’t play anything harmonically interesting. Just something to get that particular time flow going in my brain and hands.

I also do not let the tips of my left hand get wet before a gig. I find it softens the callous and just makes my fingers feel weird. I will clean them with some water and soap, but briefly. (When I was on tours at the hotel pool, I am sure more than one child would ask their mothers: “Ma, why is that man swimming with one hand up in the air?”)

Aside from a warmup, a bit of yoga and some deep breathing helps if you are nervous about the particular gig. I find for the way my mind works, I need to be as bored as possible before a gig. “Pumped up” does not work for me playing wise.

When I was touring with Joe Jackson, the other band members would skip rope or do jumping jacks before the concert. Not me: I would be sitting with my eyes closed, deep breathing, to get myself as relaxed as possible. I can’t approach a gig like: “Okay, this one is important!” To me, whenever I pick up my axe it’s important and I want to do the best I can do at all times.

Vinnie Zummo

Before a performance, I practice deep breathing exercises and try to visualize playing freely and beautifully and letting the music “flow through me.” I am a classical pianist, studio musician, organist and composer.

Michael J. Shapiro

My pre-performance ritual consists of a three-minute warmup using Diggit stick weights, playing the air with my arms placed at different extensions from my body. This is followed by another two-minute warmup on an Endurance Pad (E-Pad) playing various drum rudiments

Wally “Gator” Watson

I put my reeds in a glass of water and play a few hands of poker.

Marvin Roth

Before I do my act or appear with an orchestra, I like a good fight. It is usually with the producer or M.C. It gets me all fired up and I stomp out to my walk-on music like a lion who has been caged for a week and not fed or watered. Then I destroy the audience.

Ian Finkel

My pre-performance ritual:

1. Put several drops of contact lens re-wetting solution in each eye.

2. Double check that my music is in the correct order on the stand.

3. Mentally thank my higher power and the musician or contractor responsible for giving me the opportunity to perform music for that show.

4. Make sure that the volume knob on my bass is turned up.

5. Keep my eye on the conductor for the downbeat.

Owen Yost

I’m a drummer and percussionist, so I always try to get to the venue at least 45 minutes to an hour early to set up. Then I can let my muscles relax before playing the concert. During that down time I eat a piece a fruit and just try to keep my energy level relaxed by reading or listening to my iPod or talking with friends. About 10 to 15 minutes before playing, I do some warming up on a practice pad (or my leg or a towel or chair). Then, right before going on stage, I jump up and down vigorously and stretch my arms and wrists for about five minutes to get my blood pumping. It gets me revved up every time, even if it does garner bemused looks from colleagues or the local stage crews!

Damien Bassman

My pre-performance rituals:

1. All day, when I have a spare moment, I think about what guitar I want to bring to the gig (I have many), and what I’m going to wear, and why.

2. When I get to the gig, I say hello to everybody in the band.

3. I make sure the amp works and my instrument is tuned!

4. I try to find the music, if any, and put it in order if possible.

5. I find out if there is a set list and make sure I know the keys.

6. I take a second to collect my thoughts and try to remember any difficult parts, bugs, or rehearsal changes. I also remind myself of all the times I’ve played well under pressure if I think I’m particularly wired or stressed. If I don’t know the music well, I remind myself that I have good reflexes and good ears and will catch most of it. I make sure I tell myself that I am going to do everything I can to make the band groove.

7. I usually don’t have time to warm up, but if I do, I stretch the strings thoroughly (I bend lots of notes), and play chords with five and six fret stretches. If I can play these, I’m ready.

8. Then I lock my hands with the palms facing out and extend my arms to stretch the wrists and forearms.

9. If I have time, I tune again, and check my amp and effects settings. I like tuning to be the last thing I do before I hit the on or standby switch.

That’s it!

Andy Bassford

My pre-performance ritual begins with getting the music I will be performing and spending many hours over a period of days, weeks or even months practicing the music at home, sometimes for many hours per day, seven days a week, all of which is unpaid, sometimes even paying another musician to critique and advise me in my preparation.

Then I bring my violin to a shop to make sure it is in tip-top working order. I pay the repairer out of my own pocket for any necessary work, which there always seems to be on 300-year-old wooden instruments whose dimensions are measured in millimeters.

I maintain concert clothes, including tails, tuxedos, white dinner jackets, various suits and ties — again out of my pocket.

I arrive at the concert being prepared to fend off questions like, “Why are the prices of concert tickets are so high when all you’re doing is having fun playing music while other people are out there working ‘real jobs’?”

(I heard this at a gig in a small room where the admission was all of $5 and the take was split among six musicians.)

As much as I love music and as happy as I am that my many years of practice — while other kids were out there having a childhood — have resulted in the fact that, at least for now, I can make a living playing music, it’s about time for a new motto: I don’t play the violin, I work the violin.

People get paid big bucks for creating video games, for crying out loud!

Professional athletes get guaranteed contracts and make more money in six months on their disabled list than I’ll see in 20 years — and musicians play while they are injured just as much as athletes do!

Why is my work worth less for the simple, unfortunate fact that I happen to enjoy it?

Gregor Kitzis