I find it oddly fascinating to learn about the routines of my colleagues, from the various methods by which they warm up, to their individual pre-performance rituals. Some people like warming up with an hour of scales and arpeggios; others prefer a movement of slow, unaccompanied Bach. Some people insist on starving themselves on the day of a concert; others would rather load up on carbs to help calm nerves. There are even a few who swear by eating fast-food an hour or so before a performance! Whatever works, I suppose..
In a profession that is unpredictable by its very nature, routines can be particularly helpful. They allow us to establish a foundation of consistency on which we can fall back whenever life throws us curveballs. And without them, our technique can feel disorganized, our minds uncentered. For many of us, routines can provide us with a comforting, fail-safe kind of formula, as if to suggest that all shall be well as long as we follow through with our trusted procedures on a given day or at a given moment. In that sense, they provide a feeling of security and control.
But what about when things change? Although it is nice to feel in control, the reality is that things are always changing, and when they do, it is important to be able to adapt.
I used to be obsessive about controlling variables. I was way too sensitive. I insisted that I could only practice productively in certain conditions. The room couldn’t be too boomy, the temperature couldn’t be too hot or cold, the chair had to be at a good height, and so on. I didn’t fully understand the whole notion of having to adapt until I embarked on a month-long tour around Australia, during which I was forced to confront the stresses and challenges of being a traveling musician - the constant packing and un-packing of luggage, the unforeseeable travel difficulties, chairs of variable heights, the lack of practice time, venues that weren't temperature regulated (ie. a church with no heat in the middle of winter). Needless to say, I was forced to adjust. Some things are simply beyond our control. When this is the case, however, I have found that it helps not to feel too stuck in our routines, but rather to adjust, focus on the music and give our very best under the circumstances. I mean, wouldn't it sound kind of silly to an objective outsider if you were to tell him or her that you didn't perform your best because you didn't get to eat your customary McDonald's Big Mac meal an hour before the concert? Being too dependent on our routines can do us more harm than good!
These days I try to encourage myself to practice in all kinds of different conditions - this could mean different height chairs, rooms both large and small, or one that is uncomfortably cold or warm, and so on - so that I am ready for anything (it's easier said than done when you're as annoyingly sensitive as I am)! After all, doesn't it make more sense to prepare yourself to adjust than to force yourself to break out of your routine at the snap of a finger? "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst," right? This is not to say that we can't have regimented routines. Ultimately, however, I think there is no question that being flexible will only help us in the long run.
In the words of acclaimed cellist David Finckel: “Beware, the stage is never a predictable place. You can get yourself into a routine which you don’t want to become dependent on. So, make your routine, but then break it. Do something different…don’t expect that it is ever going to feel on stage exactly the way it feels in the practice room. Break up your routine..you’ll have a happier time on stage and you’ll be ready for anything.”