How to follow a flashy performer on stage

A few days ago I wrote about how to follow a performer who plays really fast, flashy, or technically brilliant in some way or another. The post resonated with a lot of pianists, probably because we’ve all been in situations like this. (It happens in sports, too. Have you ever stepped up to the plate after the previous batter has hit a home run?)

Here’s the original post, with the partly tongue-in-cheek title, How To Beat Art Tatum In A Piano Contest

I’ve had to do this so many times in my career that I’m now comfortable with it. After you realize it works, it’s a big relief.

The funniest instance of this for me was up in Alaska at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival, in about 2003 or so. I was asked to perform a solo piano piece at the annual Evening With The Guest Artists concert, which as a big deal at that time. I chose a quiet, reflective piece I has composed, and was sitting backstage, waiting to go on. I was right near the lighting desk, and a few of the stagehands were standing around. We were all listening to the violin teacher give a wonderful performance of Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy,” which is a virtuosic medley of themes from the Bizet opera.

As we sat there, the sounds coming from the stage were incredible. The violinist was playing passionately and here fingers were moving at “light speed.”

After one particularly fast passage, a techie looked at me and humorously said, “Well, I’m glad that I don’t have to follow her!” I replied, “When I go out there, I’m going to start with a half note.”

Then, unbelievably, the violin music got even faster. The tech guy added, “Now I’m really glad I don’t have to follow her!” I replied, “Now Im going to slow it down even more, and begin with a whole note.”

Sure enough, a moment later the musical flood gates opened and the violinist played like Paganini. I thought she was going to break a string! The techie finished by saying “I’d hate to be the one playing next!”

It was all in good fun, of course, and I replied, “That settles it. I’m going to walk out on that stage, sit there for a moment, and play a double whole note with one finger. That will reset things for the audience and they won’t be comparing me with anything that’s come before.”

There was thunderous applause when the violinist ended her piece. I clapped and complimented her as she walked by me offstage. And, on a whim, I leaned over the the lighting guy and asked “Could you lower the stage lights by 10%?” He lowered them, and I slowly walked out to the grand piano. Staying relaxed, I sat down on the piano bench and simply looked at the keys. The, I reached out my right hand and played a single note, a G above middle C. And only after letting that bell-like tone ring out for a full 2 measures, I began playing the tender chords which led into my melody.

After the concert, an audience member told me that as soon as I began playing, he forgot about everything else.

And that’s what we want for ourselves, right? We’re not competing with anyone, but as much as we may enjoy the sounds of the previous performer, we want to audience to be with us when we’re performing.

This is one way to do it.

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