It's one thing to show up and play the wedding, and it's another to contract it. Anna, whose gorgeous wedding I played for a week ago Saturday, has been calling me for nearly a year as we have made plans for this day.
It's taken me some years to get this down to a science, but I'm pretty comfy now with being the contractor that hires the quartet for a wedding.
Here's how it goes. About four months ago, I sent the bride an incredibly elaborate contract. I have found this to be essential. It helps both parties know exactly what the terms of payment are, when the musicians are to play, for how long, on what date and where. I even have thrown a few things in there about having four straight-back chairs, a tent for shade if the wedding is outdoors, a cancellation policy, a deposit payment, and contingency plans for if they want the quartet to play for longer than the contract says.
The deposit is generally half the total the quartet will be paid, and the contract allows them to get it back if a cancellation is made a month or more in advance. If they cancel less than a month in advance, I keep the deposit.
Remembering gigs at which musicians who never met each other loudly introduce themselves, I set about hiring people I enjoy working with two months in advance.
You know, this does make the bride a little nervous. Or at least I'm projecting that it could. Sometimes it's just necessary; the people you work with most often are all doing other gigs, and you have to hire three other reliable people. Non-musicians can get a little unnerved by this; they may not understand that this is perfectly acceptable in our little music world; that any professional musician can sight read (and possibly play by memory) wedding music.
At any rate, I lucked out, and three good friends who I know well from orchestra were able to play for this, making it much less stressful. I knew they would show up, and they'd show up on time. When sitting in the contractor's seat, this winds up being just as important, if not more important, than knowing that they play well. And they do play well, too!
Then there is the matter of the music, which I papered with Post-Its so that everyone would know what to play and when. Of course, at the last minute, I changed my mind and we ended up playing different versions anyway!
After this wedding, though, I can heartily recommend Matt Naughtin's arrangements for string quartet, and in particular The Wedding Album. I've had them for some time, but I've been a little slow to start using them, as they include a bit of the unexpected. That's exactly what we enjoyed about them today. We played Matt's version of Meditation from Thais, which was lovely. And his Pachelbel Canon arrangement includes the following note to the cellist: “The variations in this part are intended to prevent cellists lapsing into a comatose state midway through the piece. If strict authenticity is desired, the first four bars may simply be repeated 28 times.”
That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?
And yet, it never fails to move people on such occasions. Congratulations to Anna and Jeremy, and thank you for having a string quartet at your wedding!
He could not have said it better. What a crazy situation we were thrown into! And yet, somehow it all fell into place.
In order to stay within the Musicians Union's guidelines that define a “service,” we were playing a symphony concert that involved one forty-minute rehearsal, followed 20 minutes later by a one-and-a-half-hour concert. That's right, it was the only rehearsal for this particular concert.
That allows them to pay us just for one “service” instead of having to pay the orchestra for a separate rehearsal and concert.
Wait, did you just ask if we had the music in advance? Are you crazy? It was waiting for us on the stands.
Most people present had played much of the music in the fairly recent past, like the last year or two, with just a few sight-reading arias. Still...
I was sitting principal second violin, so I felt under a certain obligation to play the right notes at the right times. I felt really bad for the first violins, who had to plow their way through the first and last movements of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, which has a number of nasty licks that are on many major auditions. In general, second violin parts have their own challenges, with quirky rhythms, jarring octave changes, nonsensical backdrop stuff, etc. But the first parts are higher, harder, and more exposed, no doubt. Especially when reading a concert.
To make things a little crazier, it was a runout concert, to an isolated clubhouse in an isolated canyon about 60 miles away from the city. This small community had hired the orchestra to come out and play for them. Which is great!
But, under the circumstances, everything had to go off without a hitch. First, everyone had to find the place. With rather...well, totally wrong directions! But everyone arrived on time. And, the conductor had to keep his cool and work within the time constraints, which he did admirably.
This wasn't the only time I've arrived for a performance and thought, “You are totally kidding me, no way,” and then been amazed when it worked. It worked! And everyone loved it. They threw us a huge reception afterwards. People showered us with gracious compliments, expressed how happy they were to have this live music, to see us play, to have this opportunity for this kind of music in their community.
Now, of course, I would not want every performance to be like this. It is important to work at the art of music, to perfect things, to truly aspire to make a work of beauty.
But I also think it's important to occasionally, as a certain shoe company says, “Just Do It.” Not to be afraid of a rather, er, spontaneous playing situation!
I was never exactly sad or surprised that I did not get in. Though I tried as hard as I possibly could, the competition was just incredible, and the odds – even after they paired down the number of auditionees from 500 to almost 200 – were not exactly in anyone's favor!
It was just a huge amount of effort to expend, and the reward was...well, the consolation prize has been somewhat elusive.
I definitely did conquer any fear I've had of auditions, at least I conquered them on that day. But I also completely burned myself out. The idea of taking another audition makes me react like my seven-year-old daughter reacts to doing homework after an arduous day, when she whines, “I'm tired! I don't know how! But I don't remember how to spell [or read, or do math or put a pencil in my hand]!”
I thought about taking another audition, but I couldn't commit. I needed to learn some pretty major concertmaster solos for it, and odds were pretty high that they already knew who they wanted for the position. I half-heartedly applied, half-heartedly started learning the new stuff. Started wondering, what good is it to learn all this new music, to play for a committee behind a screen? Yes, it is beautiful music, but if I don't have a much greater chance of getting this gig, why should I put myself through learning something no one will hear?
The icing on the cake came when I took the excerpts for a coaching from a new teacher. He was polite and had some nice suggestions. As I left, he congratulated me for my efforts to continue improving on my instrument. “I really admire it when people keep trying. I don't know, you start the violin, you fall in love with it, something makes you keep going with it. Then you reach a certain point where there's only so much you can do. You have a family, you can only practice so much,” yada yada yada.
What a great idea. Giving up.
I wondered, do I possibly need to do something that makes me like the violin again? Like perhaps play for someone other than an audition judge? Sure, I want to take more auditions, but...
Why on earth did I ever fall in love with this instrument?
It has something to do with Doug Bradley, a journalist, music critic and family friend who would stand by our fireplace with a cigar in one hand and a Scotch in the other and tell us about life in Wales. He certainly knew more –and cared more-- about music than anyone in my well-meaning American family, and he worked at my dad's newspapers. On one of those happy nights, the grownups encouraged nine-year-old beginner me to scratch out a little something on my new fiddle.
“A violinist!” he said merrily. Oh, ha ha ha, I thought. But from then on, he found clever ways to get my family to the symphony now and then, to go see a concert with a violinist from time to time. He gave me the 1977 recording of Eugene Fodor playing the Tchaikovsky concerto, and I played it on the tiny mono cassette player in my room. In fact, I liked that one. I forced my family to listen to it when we drove to the Grand Canyon.
I kept listening to it. I loved it, in fact. I went to see Fodor (a Coloradan) play it live, with the youth orchestra that I eventually became a part of. Wow, did I love that Tchaikovsky conerto.
Ha ha ha. Right. Like I'll play that.
We turned to Mr. Bradley when it became evident that I was obsessed with the violin and I needed a good teacher. He helped us find Jim Maurer and later Harold Wippler. Who taught Mr. Fodor quite a lot about the Tchaikovsky.
I played the Mozart concertos, the Mendelssohn, Bruch, Wieniawski, Saint-Saens, even some Bartok.
But I always wanted to play the Tchaikovsky. I never got to it in college.
When I did finally take it up, it was because I wanted to play something at auditions that would make me feel “studly.' You know, something with some oomph, that I could be proud of. I was 30.
It has taken me so long to learn that epic first movement, because I started it when I was pregnant with my daughter. I went back to Harold Wippler and took lessons; it is definitely one of those concertos that requires the collective wisdom of violinkind to play. I have worked it up while having two babies, taking about a dozen auditions, moving several times across the country, getting teaching credentials...it has always been there, on the back burner.
The LA Phil audition put it on the front burner. I knew I just could not go in there without knowing the entire first movement from memory. Even if I didn't have to play a note of it (and I didn't), I needed to know that I could.
So I learned it, took the audition, and then got so depressed that I didn't even notice that I had not changed my strings for six months.
I forgot all about my consolation prize, forgot about it until now. I learned the Tchaikovsky!
Perhaps I should play it for someone other than a member of an audition committee. If you can believe it, I find the prospect of playing the entire movement for “real people” even more frightening than preparing it for an audition. For one, I'd actually have to play the entire thing, every note.
Oh, it's actually a much more exciting prospect.
So I have decided to subject my students and their parents to my Tchaik during the student recital. I have a rather small studio, so the recital won't be too long, even if I attach my little project to the end. And imagine, working up a concerto movement without simultaneously working up 12 orchestral excerpts. Wow!
I think I'm beginning to feel consoled!
Violinist Frank Almond tells the life story of the 1715 Lipinski Strad in his new recording, "A Violin's Life."
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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