Superstitious?

What preoccupies musicians before a performance? About lucky charms, rituals and other habits.

Should you spit over your shoulder three times before the performance? Never go on to the concert platform with hat and coat? Musicians are not as superstitious as actors, but they too have their rituals before the concert starts.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Looking up to the heavens

Patricia Kopatchinskaja gives her all at every concert, and more besides. Audiences love her for her uncompromising dedication to the music; the critics refer to the violinist as »a force of nature« or »the violin sorceress«. It's hard work living up to this reputation all the time. »Every piece of music is like fragile candlelight. I share its suffering and hope that I don't fail; I need to feel the essence of the music and to know that the angels are on my side – and then I let the music itself speak.« She carries a couple of talismans around with her in her violin case: a brooch with the inscription »Shit happens« and a piece of paper with the motto »Attachez votre char à un astre« (Hitch your carriage to a star). »That reminds me to look up to the heavens«, she explains. And a little wooden rabbit to ward off fear used to live in the case as well, but one day it just vanished without a trace.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja
Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Patricia Kopatchinskaja

The Elbphilharmonie is devoting a spotlight to Patricia Kopatchinskaja in the 2020/21 season.

Simone Kermes: From the steam bath to the arena

» You hope that you won't mess things up, that you'll survive – a bit like on the way to the scaffold.«

Simone Kermes

»The audience's applause is everything – our life, our success«, thus Simone Kermes. Even for the »Lady Gaga of classical music«, as she has been affectionately called by her fans, good preparation is half the battle. To make sure she is ready for the decisive hours on the concert platform, the soprano flies to the venue a day earlier so that her ears can recover overnight from the pressurized air in the cabin. In the morning she goes to the steam bath to make her voice supple. And just before the concert, she shares a moment of closeness with her faithful orchestra. »We shake hands and all wish that we'll manage to give the audience plenty of love and energy. Basically, we're spurring one another on, but it's also a kind of prayer.« Then »La Kermes« steps into what she calls the arena. »It's slightly crazy really: you hope that you won't mess things up, that you'll survive – a bit like on the way to the scaffold. But stage fright is important – without it, the evening won't be special.«

Simone Kermes
© Simone Kermes

Yaron Herman: A portion of hummus to be on the safe side

Peace and quiet is the motto of jazz pianist Yaron Herman, who has appeared at the Elbphilharmonie over several days as a »Reflektor« artist. Before giving a concert, he often takes a nap or meditates: no noise, no distractions, he leaves his smartphone out of reach. This way, the French-Israeli musician empties his consciousness so that he can sit on the piano stool with a completely open mind. Anything can and does happen in Herman's playing, which is highly spontaneous. Three notes are enough for him to tell an endless story, to sense patterns, shapes or a mood in fractions of a second. The inspiration mostly comes of its own accord – but to be on the safe side he eats a quick portion of hummus before the concert. »Then things work even better!«

Yaron Herman
Yaron Herman © Yaron Herman / Facebook

This is an excerpt from the Elbphilharmonie Magazine (2/2020).

Erlend Øye: Ants in his pants

»I don’t know a single warm-up exercise for the voice!«

Erlend Øye

»I try as far as possible to be bored before a concert«, admits Norwegian singer and guitarist Erlend Øye. His theory is that the longer he shuffles his feet backstage, the more energy he has on the stage. But whether he's appearing with his indie-folk duo Kings of Convenience, in the indie-pop collective The Whitest Boy Alive or with his latest Italo-pop project on Sicily, he never takes any special precautions. »I don’t know a single warm-up exercise for the voice! Yet not a day goes by without someone telling me about something that's supposed to bring bad luck. My comment is that these people are the ones who bring bad luck!« So Øye prefers to put his faith in real mascots like his sound engineer Trebbi, who has been at his side for 19 years.

Erlend Øye
© Erlend Øye

Iveta Apkalna: Her heart is still back home

»Breeeeathe, breathe!« Iveta Apkalna deliberately stretches out the word. »That’s the last thing I do before a concert appearance.« Then the Elbphilharmonie's titular organist takes her place at the mobile console in the middle of the Grand Hall. She holds a little embroidered bag in her hand, dark red like the flag of her native Latvia. »It contains three lucky charms given to me by people I'm close to. I've been taking it into concerts with me for countless years, it makes me feel at home.« Another souvenir of home are the matt gold organ shoes with reinforcing straps – custom-made by her shoemaker in Riga. After all, Apkalna's feet have to glide over the pedalboard with the same suppleness and virtuosity as her hands glide over the manuals. »Putting my shoes on is my most important ritual: first I clean them and get ready, then as soon as I slip into them I know it's time to start!«

Iveta Apkalna
Iveta Apkalna © Julian Conrad

Alan Gilbert: All ravenous on the rostrum

NDR chief conductor Alan Gilbert doesn't have much use for lucky charms. As long as no-one deprives him of his afternoon nap, everything else works just fine. Instead of talismans, the New Yorker packs contact lenses, the score and fresh socks in his suitcase before he departs for the concert. And there's one thing he bears in mind before he walks out on to the rostrum: »Don't eat anything heavy, it makes you lethargic.« But then again: »It's not good conducting on an empty stomach either. Once or twice I've caught myself during the concert thinking about what I'm going to eat afterwards.«

Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert © Peter Hundert

Claire Huangci: Keep calm

»I'm a night owl«, Claire Huangci admits, »but before a concert I make sure I get a good night's sleep – eight hours if possible.« Apart from this, the American pianist only has a single ritual: she spends the day of the concert as normally and quietly as she can. She doesn't practise too much, and phones friends from home – friends who don't have the faintest idea about music. »That grounds me«, Huangci says.

Claire Huangci
© Claire Huangci

Albrecht Mayer: Brings the family along

»I often used to wonder why some musicians have so many people around them just before a concert«, oboist  Albrecht Mayer says. Today, after a solo career lasting 30 years, he knows the answer: »It's good to keep busy. It distracts you and stops you brooding. My favourite solution is to have my family with me right up to the last minute.«

On days when he has a concert in the evening, he uses the morning to practise: »Holding the notes, playing through my pieces and cadenzas again. I want to get as close as possible to the instrument.« But by the afternoon Mayer is relaxing with cup of Earl Grey. »That gives you a great sense of wellbeing. You feel free and relaxed, and you can still play wonderfully even after a litre of tea! If you drink a litre of coffee, you can't even operate the keys properly any more.«

Albrecht Mayer
Albrecht Mayer © Ralph Mecke

Text: Laura Etspüler, last updated: 12.5.2020

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