Concentration Is the Key to Conducting

One of the most important skills a conductor must have is the ability to really focus. Gilbert says the confidence that comes from being well-prepared helps him get in the zone.
  • Transcript


Question: How do you mentally prepare for a concert?

Alan Gilbert:  I restudy every piece that I conduct, at least a little bit, before I go on stage.  Even pieces that I know very well that I've done many, many times, I flip through the score, and I make sure that my mind is there.  It's the phenomenon of coming to it a second time.  If something feels like it's the first time, even it it's not really, it's hard to really get into it, and there's a comfort I feel from actually just taking the time before a performance to remind myself how it goes.  As I said, I don't really get nervous.  It's not, there's no kind of wacky routine that I have to do in order to put myself in the right frame of mind.  I'm happy to speak to people backstage.  I'm happy to chat about whatever else is going on, you know, the US Open, golf, whatever it is that we're thinking about.  I just make sure that at the very least I have a few minutes where I can sort of go into the zone and really be able to concentrate.

I think concentration is one of the most important abilities.  To be able to concentrate well is one of the most important things that a conductor can have.  To really be able to focus on whatever it is at that moment, both in terms of the performance, but also taking care of all the various things that go along with the job because being a music director is, of course, mainly about conducting and delivering good performances.  But there's so many other questions that cross the desk in terms of personnel, and planning, and programming.  If I have to think about everything at once, nothing really gets done that well, so whatever it is I try to do it and not worry about the other things because I hopefully realize that when – if I've taken care of one thing well, then I can let it go and move on to the next thing.  I try not to multitask, actually.

Question: Do you ever lose focus when you're conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  I'm pretty good at keeping my concentration on stage.  Today in the performance there was a moment where I almost lost focus, and it was; I don't know if it was my fault or not, but anyway I turned two pages in the Gruber trumpet concerto.  It's a very, very complicated piece, and it was actually the most complicated section, the most dangerous section to lose your place.  If I had messed up, I probably wouldn't have been able to get back on, so it was a really scary moment.  I wasn't really thinking as I turned the page – and in this particular piece it's very important to turn the pages really well at the right time and of course only one leaf at a time.  I usually am able to stay really in the moment in the performance.  If I'm tired, that's when I tend to lose my concentration.  I sometimes think, well my kids are very important to me;  I think about them a lot, and I'll go through an entire concert, and I'll think, “Oh, I didn't think about my kids once during these last two hours.

What could someone in another field learn about focus from your experience as a conductor?

Alan Gilbert:  I think being well prepared helps you focus.  I think... I like to go into a rehearsal or a concert knowing that I know how it's going to go.  Not that I know exactly how it will play out or how it will feel musically or artistically, but I don't allow myself to enter a situation without doing adequate preparation.  That means focusing beforehand but also creating the situation in which it's possible to be 100 percent focused in the moment. 

My wife laughs when I say this because I work hard and I keep a difficult schedule.  I say that I'm fundamentally lazy, and the only thing that's stronger than my natural laziness is this absolutely pathological need to be 100 percent prepared.  So in a way, it doesn't quite make sense, but I really... it's just one thing that I just never would allow myself to do is to show up being less than prepared.  That's the one thing you can control.  You can't control what happens externally, but you can control your level of preparation. That gives you confidence, and that makes it possible to, I think, really give the best when the pressure is on.

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman