Okay, this is a somewhat self-indulgent story here: Once upon a time, the Boston Symphony Orchestra called and asked me to come and play a week of concerts. Someone had called in sick. It was all last minute. Come in right now.
I don’t mind telling you I was scared. I had good reason to be. The program included Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, and the bass part to that thing is hard. I mean really hard. And there I was in the middle of the bass section of one of the greatest orchestras in the world, sight-reading this piece, trying not to get lost, and just generally barely keeping my head above water.
So after that first rehearsal I stayed in Symphony Hall to practice. I could have used one of the practice rooms in the basement, but since one of the best acoustical spaces in the world was available, well, why not? No one was around, so I sat there on the stage for hours, parsing out all these nasty little notes in the Shostakovich bass part.
As I was practicing away, a side door opened, and the head stagehand poked his head out. I’ll never forget what he said:
“Don’t wear it out! Save it for the show!” And he smiled, winked, and disappeared.
At first glance, this may appear to be just a cute little supportive thing for someone to say, but there is actually a little more to it than that. This was actually some of the best advice I have ever been given as a performer.
It may sound like professional blasphemy to hear me tell you that you should not use every available waking moment to double and triple check every detail of an impending presentation or event. It sounds flippant, lazy, or even downright unprofessional when I say that perhaps you should not prep, practice, and train as hard as possible. I confess, I feel a little bit strange expressing such an idea in this very public forum.
But it's a common form of stage fright for people to spend so much time and energy fretting over every possible contingency in getting ready for a show that they have nothing left when the curtain goes up. They use up everything they have in the getting-ready stage. One’s physical, mental, and emotional energy is not infinite. There is such a thing as over-rehearsing. You have to know when to stop.
When a big event is looming sometimes one gets butterflies over all the things that might go wrong. And of course you want to prepare as much as you can. But there is a degree of “getting ready” that can actually detract from the show itself. If you’re running a marathon on Sunday, it’s not a good idea to get ready for it by running a marathon on Saturday night.
Get ready, but don’t get too ready. Don’t wear it out. Save it for the show.
Photo by Michael J. Lutch. Courtesy of Boston Symphony Orchestra.