American Concert Pianist, Steinway Artist, Susan Merdinger

Some like it hot, some like it cold...

At this point in my career, as a performer and teacher, I am trying to decide which is better or worse for performing musicians- extreme cold or extreme heat? I am also wondering what are the best solutions for dealing with either extreme condition? Even though we generally are sheltered from the outside elements, one cannot escape the feeling of coldness and drafts in the Winter or the excessive humidity and oppressive heat in the Summer. And there are the summer festivals which of course do require musicians to perform outdoors under less-than-ideal weather conditions. How does temperature and humidity affect us as performers and which is better- to be cold or warm?

I think the answer to these questions is very individual and largely dependent on what you are accustomed to. However, even then hardiest of us cannot always feel that conditions are "right". I remember performances when the backstage was so cold, that my hands were like ice right before going onstage to perform. On the other side of the spectrum, I recall what was probably the most awful heat I have ever endured during a live performance- while in Italy, and the indoor air condition had failed.
On the face of it, one would think that freezing cold hands would be worse for the pianist or my case, I think the heat was actually  far worse. My hands had swelled up from the heat and the piano keys became slippery and while my fingers were sticky at the same time. I was sweating so much that perspiration ran down into my eyes during my performance stinging something awful and my makeup- well, after a couple of brow-wipes between movements- there wasn't much left of it! At that point, I decided that there IS such as thing as being too "warmed up"! At the time, I thought it was just me, and that perhaps I was just overly excited. But then I noticed that the other performer's shirts and hair were drenched, too, so I was not alone. ( Aha, the old "misery loves company" saved my psyche once again).  As I have reflected on that situation I have not figured out any real and lasting solutions for escaping unavoidable heat as one might encounter in an outdoor summer concert or indoors with a failed AC system. Possibly drinking ice cold drinks before the performance can lower the internal body temperature a bit. But, what about the heat that intensifies during the performance from excessive use of bright stage lights-at any time of year- this is something that one must anticipate, and test in a dress rehearsal. And ultimately, dress as lightly as possible in such weather. Give up the tux, suit or the long sleeves! Girls, put your hair up! Some pianists have even resorted to using anti-perspirant on their palms...

As for the cold. This provokes a different feeling altogether- and I think for most musicians, this is the more uncomfortable state- hence we always tend to speak of "warming up" before a concert. In fact, certain types of instruments do not play well when they are very cold- just ask any clarinetist!  In my case, when i feel really cold, my hands feel like they have shriveled up and my fingers feel like stiff wooden sticks. I personally have several remedies for this- 1. Warm up my body from the inside out by running up and down stairs or doing jumping jacks to get my heart rate up and accelerate my blood circulation. 2. Run my hands under warm-hot water. 3. Rub my hands together. 4. Use mental imagery to imagine being on a warm Carribbean beach!

My former teacher, Ward Davenny, taught me about these varying conditions by saying :" Play like Fire on Ice, or like "Ice on Fire!" In other words, he taught me that no matter what, one could make the best of a situation by understanding the specific challenges one faces at each concert event, and learning how to make the necessary accommodations. I am sure he also was referring to our own "internal" temperature- which often has nothing to do with the actual physical conditions, but more to do with our own mental and emotional state. If suffering from the added adrenalin rush and the body's "fight or flight" reaction- our blood flow is directed away from our extremities- and it is possible for our hands to become cold even if the ambient temperature is just perfect. Therefore, if we feel to riled up before a performance ("hot") we must learn how to "cool down" and stay in control. If we are feeling a bit detached or uninspired, we must be able to conjure up the heat and spice things up a bit, otherwise our performance will surely fall flat. 

I am interested to know what my readers think about heat versus cold when performing? I think I am leaning towards the cold conditions- but when one lives in Chicago, and the weather outside is sub-freezing or sub-zero, staying warm seems to be the primary concern. I have learned that 70 degrees is my favorite indoor temperature- any time of year and any time of day or night. I think I might actually someday move to such a place that would always be 65-80 degrees year round. Does Nirvana exist?

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