Concentration Is the Key to Conducting

Question: How do you mentally prepare for a concert?

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

I think \r\nconcentration is one of the most important abilities.  To be able to \r\nconcentrate well is one of the most important things that a conductor \r\ncan have.  To really be able to focus on whatever it is at that moment, \r\nboth in terms of the performance, but also taking care of all the \r\nvarious things that go along with the job because being a music director\r\n is, of course, mainly about conducting and delivering good \r\nperformances.  But there's so many other questions that cross the desk \r\nin terms of personnel, and planning, and programming.  If I have to \r\nthink about everything at once, nothing really gets done that well, so \r\nwhatever it is I try to do it and not worry about the other things \r\nbecause I hopefully realize that when – if I've taken care of one thing \r\nwell, then I can let it go and move on to the next thing.  I try not to \r\nmultitask, actually.
\r\nQuestion: Do you ever lose focus when you're conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  I'm pretty good at keeping my \r\nconcentration on stage.  Today in the performance there was a moment \r\nwhere I almost lost focus, and it was; I don't know if it was my fault \r\nor not, but anyway I turned two pages in the Gruber trumpet concerto.  \r\nIt's a very, very complicated piece, and it was actually the most \r\ncomplicated section, the most dangerous section to lose your place.  If I\r\n had messed up, I probably wouldn't have been able to get back on, so it\r\n was a really scary moment.  I wasn't really thinking as I turned the \r\npage – and in this particular piece it's very important to turn the \r\npages really well at the right time and of course only one leaf at a \r\ntime.  I usually am able to stay really in the moment in the \r\nperformance.  If I'm tired, that's when I tend to lose my \r\nconcentration.  I sometimes think, well my kids are very important to \r\nme;  I think about them a lot, and I'll go through an entire concert, \r\nand I'll think, “Oh, I didn't think about my kids once during these last\r\n 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 \r\nfocus.  I think... I like to go into a rehearsal or a concert knowing \r\nthat I know how it's going to go.  Not that I know exactly how it will \r\nplay out or how it will feel musically or artistically, but I don't \r\nallow myself to enter a situation without doing adequate preparation.  \r\nThat means focusing beforehand but also creating the situation in which \r\nit's possible to be 100 percent focused in the moment. 

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

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

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.

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