This article was published in the January 2018 SEMFA newsletter.
Performing a concerto with an orchestra is a very unique process. While we all possess individualized pre-performance regimens, performing a concerto with orchestra requires not just a collaboration between yourself and your pianist, but a collaboration with yourself, an entire orchestra and a conductor. I have been interested in learning more about the concerto preparation processes of artists who have spent much of their lives performing them. I wanted to reach out to an incredible artist who has performed as a concerto soloist with many orchestras around the world. I recently had the opportunity to interview Amy Porter, Professor of Flute at the University of Michigan, regarding her preparation process for performing concerti. I wanted to know about the things she does in preparation of her concerto performances, and any advice she may have to flutists who are just beginning their journey of performing with orchestras. Below you will find excerpts from our recent Skype interview.
Amy Porter will be performing Trail of Tears by Michael Daugherty on Saturday, February 17th with the Flint Symphony Orchestra at 7:30pm at The Whiting. Tickets are available for purchase here.
FL: "What has been your favorite concerto performance to date, and why?"
AP: "I'll never forget it, actually. Oh, it makes me cry! I had a broken hand."
FL: "And you still played?"
AP: "Yes. Here's the backstory. It was 2012. You can't blame your dog when they pull you on the leash and you're not ready to react. I had turned around to say something to my niece who was walking with me, and I said the word 'okay', and that created a pull on my dog who had seen a squirrel and 'okay' means she can run. So the dog chased the squirrel with me holding the leash and pulled my finger out. I fell. The first time she pulled, the doctor said 'don't hurt yourself again!', so of course, I was running with her and we got close to home, I started to sprint. She took off towards the house and pulled me a little too hard and I rolled and fell on the same hand. The lesson I learned is that on the dog walk, you have to pay attention to your dog completely. Now, I walk two 88 pound dogs and I'm not fearful of hurting my hands because I'm better about my grip and this has been a big lesson. So, I now walk the dog's walk and not Amy's run. So- I fell two weeks before a major flute festival in Taiwan, where I was to play the Liebermann Concerto with orchestra. I called my doctor and I got right in. Three surgeons came into the room and looked at my hand and decided it wasn't necessary to operate, it was just a metacarpal bone break on the side of the left hand which would heal. So the remaining doctor asked me what was next in my career on the flute. I answered, 'I have to get on an airplane to Taipei and play with an orchestra in two weeks. And I will do it.' Then he asked me a very interesting question. He didn't forecast my doom and gloom and he didn't tell me what was going to happen, he just asked me this question. 'Well, how many notes do you have to play?' Well, that's a great question, because the first nine pages is the first movement. This piece has a lot of notes! He said 'can you play fewer notes?', and then he said 'can you take a week off?' and I said 'Sure! I could get back to it after a week, I'm pretty stable on the flute', so I showed him what I did physically with the flute and he said I would have to wear a brace for 2 weeks and go into physical therapy, but I could definitely go to Taiwan. Then I had to call my manager and try to change the repertoire, and she had a wonderful outlook as well. This was during Hurricane Sandy! She was there in New York City, trapped in her apartment. I called and she said immediately upon answering, 'I'm fine!', and I said 'I'm so happy you're safe! So now I have a story for you. I fell and broke my hand and I have to go to Taiwan. I'd like to not play this concerto specifically' and she said 'well what do you want to play?', and I said 'the Trail of Tears by Michael Daugherty, because I could there are fewer notes and I could double tongue a lot of those notes and I have it ready to go'. She had to sell the repertoire change and she did it successfully.
There's a video of that actual performance on YouTube. "The Trail of Tears" with the Evergreen Philharmonic - two weeks after I broke my hand - and it was the best performance of my life so far, that I can remember vividly. When I woke up the next day, I wrote an email to six of the closest people in my life and thanked them for believing that I could do this. It doesn't just take one person to be a touring artist, It takes a staff of people because you have to keep on top of your game, playing in front of 1100 people. That might be a small audience to some but to me it's pretty big! I think my game has to be at its best, so the people behind me supporting me, my team, are my family and dear friends and doctors and managers - and so it really helped me get through the worry. I wrote them a thank you note at the end of that performance. And I am thrilled that it's on YouTube."
FL: "That's such an amazing story! My next question is: What are some tips you have for flutists who experience stage fright before major performances, and what helps calm your nerves before performing concerti?"
AP: "You must use the air stream to slow down your heart rate. It is a physical phenomenon. When the psoas muscle starts to tighten, we stop breathing. Fight or flight - so we fight. But we need to detach from the mind. So - a runner or a person who exercises will tell you that you can control your mind and heart rate when you run and while you exercise. Its pacing. You want to slow down your heart rate. When I am doing my makeup before I even leave to go to the hall, I feel a feeling I call a 'flutter-by', which is the nervous butterfly that flutters by , and I say to my mind, 'there's the flutter-by!' So, I breathe in and then I breathe out the syllable 'fff' or 'shhh'. That is a known way to slow down the heart rate. Why? Because, with the resistance, your exhalation is twice as long, if not four times as long, as your inhalation. The heart muscle will slow down, and the psoas muscle will release and you will feel like yourself again. So it is all about the breath. Using the breath for stage fright can be calming when the mind is letting you down. Now, practicing to perform is also important. You have to create a 'Circle of Excellence', and composer Michael Colgrass talks about that. It's also an ancient American Indian belief where a circle of light comes and shines down upon you in that circle. And in this circle is your life, your best performance you ever had, your favorite nature spot, your favorite childhood memory, your belief system in yourself, your confidence, and that circle has so much power inside, that you can't step into it with negativity. Lucky for me, Michael Colgrass taught me about the Circle of Excellence in my home. He stayed here seven times in our home while he was in residence at Michigan because I am the closest faculty member to the School of Music and I have a guest room and I'm a Colgrass fan. He unfolded a piece of yarn into a big circle in my parlor and it was green (because my eyes are green.) He said, 'step outside the circle and look inside the circle'. 'Put all of those things of your life inside the circle.' He said that I could practice inside the circle, but the moment I started doubting myself or talking to myself negatively I had to step out of the circle. The circle was super spiritual and personal, like an eggshell (Don Green calls it an eggshell, or some people talk about putting yourself within this bubble and not letting other people in). This circle, he says, starts to increase as you practice using it as your circle of excellence. So then the circle becomes as wide as my room, as wide as my practice parlor. And then my Circle of Excellence encompasses the house. And then guess what? The Circle of Excellence can encompass the city and the stage and the arena and the world! So your Circle of Excellence can go with you wherever you go... but not if you practice to perform within that place of fear."
FL: "That's wonderful advice, I've never thought about that!"
AP: " My Lessons with Kumi is the name of the book. It has changed a lot of people to be able to perform. The sports psychologist Don Greene teaches at Juilliard and he talks a lot about being the driver in your performance, and not the passenger. So if you are going to have a lot of fear and fall victim to the fear, you'll fail. Fear is actually a much more comfortable feeling to have if you're used to it. It's taking that chance and getting up and talking, playing or conducting in front of people that's scary but where the growth happens. Here's the thing about me, I am much more powerful with the flute in my hands. It took me awhile in my 30s and 40s to develop myself as a person without the flute in my hands. A lot of people are stronger with the flute in their hands, some people are stronger without the flute in their hands. I think the Circle of Excellence is a great teacher to achieve sustained excellence.
FL: "Thank you so much, that is a perfect answer! I have two more questions. The next question is: What are the most important aspects to focus on in situations where you have very limited rehearsal time with an orchestra before your performance?"
AP: "Know their part as well as your own part. In the first rehearsal I face the orchestra to let them see me play. The front of me is very different than the back of me, so sometimes the orchestra can miss all of the wonderful aspects of my personal journey with the music. So if they can see me, I teach it to them through my musicality and my relationship with my partner, the conductor. I place trust in the conductor to get us through that rehearsal process. One of the tools of etiquette that I would promote is not speaking directly to the orchestra, keep your mouth shut! Any question you have, for example if you think that the violas should be louder or you need to hear the beat of the timpani, then at a respectful moment, pause and ask the conductor 'if I could hear the timpani more, that would be lovely', 'the ensemble with the trumpet could be better', and that would then be negotiated through the conductor. Too many times I have seen a flute player start talking to the orchestra about what they want, and it makes the conductor powerless. It's the conductor who is running the show, not the soloist. So, given that the conductor has an accompanying role, he or she is my collaborator. I would whole-heartedly say - stay out of it if you have less time, and make sure that you are well-rehearsed with the conductor and you know the part of the orchestra better than your own.
FL: "My last question is: When faced with performing multiple concerti in a short amount of time, what is the most efficient way of practicing each to keep them fresh? How early do you begin to prepare each concerto on average before you perform it?"
AP: "3-4 months. One important thing to me is making sure that if I'm getting manuscripts from a composer and I have to print it out in single sheets, that I tape them together in a single form of music. The page turns and getting the relationship with the score is important. I'm not playing from a tablet yet, I might some day, but for now I love the music and I love it being in a score form. I have the "Silver Linings" Concerto by Frank Ticheli on my stand right now. Trail of Tears is in my head and I will start running that soon - but right now it's Ticheli, Ticheli, Ticheli."
Interview by: Francesca Leo