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Alan Gilbert has been musical director of the New York Philharmonic since September 2009. He was previously chief conductor and musical adviser to the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and has[…]

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.

Question: How do you mentally prepare for a concert?

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

I think rnconcentration is one of the most important abilities.  To be able to rnconcentrate well is one of the most important things that a conductor rncan have.  To really be able to focus on whatever it is at that moment, rnboth in terms of the performance, but also taking care of all the rnvarious things that go along with the job because being a music directorrn is, of course, mainly about conducting and delivering good rnperformances.  But there's so many other questions that cross the desk rnin terms of personnel, and planning, and programming.  If I have to rnthink about everything at once, nothing really gets done that well, so rnwhatever it is I try to do it and not worry about the other things rnbecause I hopefully realize that when – if I've taken care of one thing rnwell, then I can let it go and move on to the next thing.  I try not to rnmultitask, actually.
rnQuestion: Do you ever lose focus when you're conducting?

Alan Gilbert:  I'm pretty good at keeping my rnconcentration on stage.  Today in the performance there was a moment rnwhere I almost lost focus, and it was; I don't know if it was my fault rnor not, but anyway I turned two pages in the Gruber trumpet concerto.  rnIt's a very, very complicated piece, and it was actually the most rncomplicated section, the most dangerous section to lose your place.  If Irn had messed up, I probably wouldn't have been able to get back on, so itrn was a really scary moment.  I wasn't really thinking as I turned the rnpage – and in this particular piece it's very important to turn the rnpages really well at the right time and of course only one leaf at a rntime.  I usually am able to stay really in the moment in the rnperformance.  If I'm tired, that's when I tend to lose my rnconcentration.  I sometimes think, well my kids are very important to rnme;  I think about them a lot, and I'll go through an entire concert, rnand I'll think, “Oh, I didn't think about my kids once during these lastrn 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 rnfocus.  I think... I like to go into a rehearsal or a concert knowing rnthat I know how it's going to go.  Not that I know exactly how it will rnplay out or how it will feel musically or artistically, but I don't rnallow myself to enter a situation without doing adequate preparation.  rnThat means focusing beforehand but also creating the situation in which rnit's possible to be 100 percent focused in the moment. 

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

Recorded on June 18, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman