This is not to say that we shouldn't be working towards a goal of "ready to go." There is a point at which you have to decide that your interpretation and knowledge of a piece must crystallize for the sake of your performance. You don't want to go on stage with lingering doubts about your interpretation.
I tend to reach this crystallization stage about three or four weeks before a recital. Even if I'm in doubt about the interpretation of a particular piece, I must stop trying to make it work, and I have to set my mind to making a convincing performance. Of course, at this stage, I already have a pretty solid interpretation, but sometimes I find that a tempo just hasn't settled or that I still have some questions about rubato. Whatever the case, the experimentation must stop at this stage, because I need to be working on the performance--not the interpretation.
As I write this, I'm preparing a performance that's about three weeks away. Since I already played the program before, I started a light review two weeks ago. Last week, I began seriously revisiting the program. Due to its length and complexity (and in spite of already having played the program), I've put all other repertoire on hold.
In returning to the program, I noticed some issues with tempi and interpretation. (Thankfully, the memory retention has been quite solid.) In order to address those issues, I spent all of last week and this week focusing on the program in that capacity. But next week, I need to start reigning in that corrective work and settle into a state of assuredness about my interpretations. I'm sure that the next time I prepare this particular recital, I'll find new issues to address. It's always an uphill battle!
As I approach the recital (and the same could be said for practice recitals), I know that there isn't enough time in the day for me to go over every single piece with the same amount of detail. I like to touch on every piece every day, so I'll develop a pattern of alternating types of work. A day might look like this:
- Pieces A, C, E, G, I: do mental work from landmarks with metronome.
- Pieces B, D, F, H, J: play slowly from landmarks with metronome; play at tempo with metronome; play without metronome.
I'll alternate this pattern the following day so that I cover everything equally. As the recital approaches, I'll try to stay off of the metronome for the at-tempo work, just so that I become more reliant upon my inner metronome. Likewise, I'll keep up with the slow metronome work for the sake of technique. Most important throughout this entire process is the mental work. I never stop doing this. The mental practice isn't just about memorization. It's also about confidence in interpretation.
As ever, it's really important to keep reassessing your daily practice goals. If you establish a pattern such as the one above, it's far too easy to let it become a habit instead of intelligent, thoughtful practice. To that end, don't forget to list your daily goals in your practice log while working towards total presence in your own practice. Your practice habits, including total presence, will manifest themselves on stage, so be wise!