Lagniappe (pronounced here as lanyap) is a word we hear frequently in Houston. Its a Cajun word from Southern Louisiana and we have a lot of Cajuns here in Houston. The word means a small gift that a merchant gives a customer. Like the baker's dozen. It is frequently used in the context of giving someone some slack. It is wiggle room or margin.
How much wiggle room does a violinist need? I think the answer is -- a lot. I reported last week a performance of the Brahms C minor Piano Quartet for friends. It wasn't a disaster but it clearly wasn't the best I could do. What happened? I could play all the notes reasonably well. But when the pressure of a performance was on things happened. I took care to limit the range of possibilities for things to happen. The other performers are all professionals or professional level players. I practiced exhaustively for over a year. We had at least six rehearsals.
But still it wasn't altogether adequate. I lacked lagniappe or wiggle room. A piece like the Brahms is at the upper end of my technical range. Not good. If you bought a recording or even saw a good Youtube performance of it the performers would not consider it at the upper end of their technical range. They would likely be performers who could play the Tchaikovsky Concerto in public from memory and receive resounding ovations. That isn't me.
Many great players of the past were not known as big time virtuosos. Performers like Szigeti, Oistrakh, Elman and others were not known for playing Paganini or Ernst. In fact Jascha Heifetz didn't play a lot of Paganini in spite of his impeccable virtuoso qualifications. I seem to recall that Heifetz or a contemporary thought that mastery of Rode and Dont etudes were an adequate technical foundation for a solo career. Well these artists may not have performed these show pieces but there seems to be plenty of evidence that they included them in their practice routines. Oistrakh's students heard him play Paganini Caprices in master classes. Szigeti did not perform significant amounts of music that he commented on in his published works.
It is clear to me that one must be able to play in private at a significantly higher level than one attempts to do in public. We need lagniappe. We need to be able to execute at a very high level.
My teacher studied piano at Eastman with the late Cecile Genhardt. She insisted that he practice his repertory in multiple key signatures. In fact he tells a famous story (at least it was famous at Eastman) of a DMA candidate in piano performance who came for his final jury. Ms. Genhardt asked him what he would play.
He said "a Beethoven Sonata".
She asked "which one"".
"Which one would you like to hear," he cockily replied.
She named a sonata and he started to play it.
"Stop!" she cried. "It is so boring in that key". Please transpose it a minor third upward.
"No one can do that," he replied.
Bad news for him. She hobbled down to the piano and sat down and played the first movement in the requested key. At the end of her performance she stood up and said in her Swiss German accent "floonk". His DMA dreams were dashed.
I sort of hope that the story isn't true but in any event there is a lesson in it for me. You cannot expect to play something well until you have built yourself some serious lagniappe into it.
I need to redouble my technical studies. I need earn some lagniappe.
Tonight I performed the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor. We did at at home. My wife, Andrea, was at the piano, My teacher played cello and a recent master's graduate of the Shepherd School of Music played viola.
We had an audience of about 20 good friends.
What went right:
1. We only invited friends
2. We had excellent refreshments catered by the violist's boyfriend. After the program conversation and sociability is always improved by good refreshments. We are an alcohol free home and some of our guests may have preferred a little anesthesia but that we could not provide.
3. We had rehearsed fairly well and only one mistake (by me) in the last movement caused a breakdown. Sorry.
1. A performance isn't a rehearsal. You can never know what may break in shift or a fingering so you have to be able to do it anyway imaginable.
2. Teacher says that you have to perform frequently in order to be comfortable performing. He suggests that we do this at nursing homes and other places so that I learn to "perform".
3. Teacher says that you have to abandon yourself to the music. The minute one thinks of oneself the performance will suffer.
I am glad I did it. I am grateful for good friends who found some enjoyment in it. It wasn't an unmitigated disaster. There were some very good moments. The slow movement came off tolerably well. In fact the only major disappointment was my tone production for the extended violin passage at the beginning of the last movement.
More entries: April 2010
Enter to win Leonidas Kavakos' recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Corwin Slack is from Houston, Texas. Biography
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