Ronald Brautigam is a well known dutch concert pianist who performs and records regularly with central orchestras and leading conductors around the world. Here is the link to Brautigam's website with details of his concerts, awards, recordings and CDs and this is the link to his youtube channel.
Pianoways: Thank you so much for taking the time to share some ideas with us. You've played numerous concerts, but do you still feel nervous before a performance?
Roland: When I finished music college in Amsterdam and started playing concerts I was nervous before concerts. Now I know I was nervous because I felt I needed at least one more week of practice. Once I understood that and was better prepared for the concerts I started enjoying them a lot more.
Nowadays I don't get nervous, I get excited. This little bit of extra added excitement can even help me play better on stage. In any case, I find performing a very enjoyable experience.
I think that People who go to a concert and pay money for a ticket don't do it to have a horrible night and they are not waiting for mistakes. They want a great evening. They want to enjoy the music and so do I. If you tap into that energy you won't feel you are doing an exam every time you walk on stage. You know you can play the piece, you know the people want you to play it well and that gives a sort of positive attitude which helps get over the nerves. However, there are stories about the most professional musicians who basically play a concert every day and still throw up before going on stage...
P: Do you think there's a type of person that blossoms on stage or is it something that you acquire through training?
R: I think it's both. Some people are little show offs already at the age of three or four and the thing they love most is to perform in front of family and friends ...I think if you have that you don't lose it.
What helps me when I walk on stage is not to think of myself or of the people sitting out there but to concentrate on the music . As soon as I play the first note of the first piece the music wraps me and I forget that I am sitting in front of an audience.
One of the most beautiful things in a concert is the quality of silence. You can rehearse on stage before the concert and its very quiet but when there are a few hundred or maybe two thousand people sitting there and its quiet then it's a totally different silence . This is a silence that's charged and that sort of feeds you. When an audience is really concentrated it enhances my concentration too. Those are wonderful moments .
Coming back to your question, you cannot really learn to enjoy doing things in front of a lot of people but I think you can learn to overcome the fear of it by concentrating on the music and focusing.
P: How do you stay focused on the music in a stressful situation?
R: Of course things can happen and you lose your concentration: I had a concert when someone had a heart attack- so I stopped playing because it was not the time and place to continue, but those are extreme cases. It helps if you know how to concentrate on one thing. If you're good at that I think you'll survive on stage . I hear immediately when my students loose their concentration and are thinking of other things . I'm not a yoga person but this sounds like something where practicing yoga and being in the zone and in the moment can help.
P: You have the ability to focus naturally.
R: I can do it because the music invites me. I can't start a piece without being wholly involved. The music takes over and becomes the most important thing at that moment.
P: When you play with an orchestra who makes the musical decisions, you or the conductor?
R: Well at the end it's the pianist who gets blamed for the end result so you have to take control. When you start playing with orchestras, orchestra managements randomly put you together with a conductor. Luckily, as you get older and have been in the business for longer people realize what you are good at. Now I get teamed with conductors who have similar musical ideas and approaches as myself and that basically solves the problem. I've also become a bit more careful: If an orchestra would invite me to do a Mozart concerto with a conductor who I know to have very different views I wouldn't do it because Mozart is too dear to me. So luckily, this is a problem I don't have any more. It's also a natural process where conductors who enjoyed working with you keep asking you back . The number of conductors I work with is shrinking but the number of concerts is steady.
P: And how much say do you have with the recording company you work with regarding which pieces to record?
R: Luckily I have a lot of say with my CD company BIS. They sometimes joke and say I have a sort of a card blanche which would be nice if it were true... but I can propose a lot of things and it has to be a very expensive project or something they think won't sell before they say no.
I realize that I'm one of the few artist who don't have to bring money for their own recording . The general trend now is for the artists to find a sponsor in order to make CDs. The CD sales have slumped in the last few years so it is a very tricky business.
P: Would you say that the level of young players is constantly rising?
R: Absolutely. The first place where you notice this is orchestras. I play with orchestras all over the world and the average age there has gone down a lot. Most orchestras now consist of young people who are very good players. Even what you used to call the B level or provincial orchestras have a very high standard of playing because of the high standard of music students leaving academies all over the world. It's become really tough to find a place even as a second violin in a provincial orchestra. It's the same with piano competitions: the general level of piano playing is incredible and the players are younger and younger.
P: Do you have any ideas for how aspiring young musician can find their way in a world that has so much competition?
R: That is very difficult because the number of pianists keeps rising while the number of performance opportunities is not. It's actually the other way around. When I started playing a long time ago, winning a major piano competition got you smothered by agents and concert engagements. That has all changed nowadays because everyone has won a prize in one of the many piano competitions. You get invited to give a few concerts for a couple of years and then it levels out and the next generation of competition winners arrives. I don't have a simple recipe for this otherwise all my students would be sitting on concert stages!
You have to be inventive and you have to find yourself a little place that hasn't been taken up, a niche. Whether it's special repertoire or challenging programming, it's about thinking out of the box: maybe start projects with other disciplines : with dance, with theater, literature...
P: You're saying one needs additional skills to being a musician
R: I think nowadays you almost need to be a business man firstly and then a musician! However, when I see the standard at the competitions although it's all on a high level, there are those very few people who really stick out , players that make you jump up and say this is something you've never heard before. If you really are absolutely talented and intelligent it might be easier but you have to be at the right time at the right place to meet the right people. There are a lot of Ifs unfortunately . But it's not just music- if you want to study medicine you're lucky if you get accepted to a university and then it's hard to find a job. It's the downside of the success of education: a lot of people leave the universities with the right capacities and that makes it a very competitive world.
P: The age of the players is going down but the age of the concert goers is going up.
R: Yes, but on the other hand when I started playing concerts more than 30 years ago, people where basically the same age as nowadays. It's not that they are dying out. There is a new influx from underneath . People only start going to concerts when they get to a certain age somehow. So I'm not so worried about the concert audiences.
P: When you play the same piece over a long period of time how do you keep it fresh?
R: I never think of repeating a piece. I aim at playing it as if the ink on the paper were still wet. I don't listen to colleagues playing the same repertoire either. I look at the notes and the notes tell me what to and how to do it. When I play a piece, every time I play it I look for something new. It's never boring. Playing the same concerto on a concert tour in six different concert halls on six different pianos means you get six different performances . There are Beethoven sonatas I played hundreds of times and every time I start playing the first notes the music comes alive, takes me along and I discover things .Sometimes its tiny little things like a shift of accents that can suddenly change a whole movement .When I walk on stage I know what I want but I don't have one fixed concept of the piece. I keep it very flexible .
P: So do you practice playing the piece in different ways?
R: Every time I play the piece it is different to avoid it becoming automatic. It is always a surprise for me to see what will happen on stage. I think that element of surprise is what guarantees you never get bored as long as you live . One of the beautiful sayings of the great Arthur Schnabel at the end of his life was that he only wanted to play music that was better than he would ever be able to play it. If you realize that there is always more to find in the music ,you keep trying every time you play it and that keeps you on your toes and assures you never get bored.
P: Thank you for this inspiring conversation!
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