Thoughts on performing Lark Ascending

Edited: August 3, 2017, 10:13 PM · Some of you might remember that about six months back I posted about preparing to perform The Lark Ascending with the community orchestra that I'm the concertmaster of. (LINK. Contains a video of the recital run-through with piano, for comparison purposes.)

The performance with orchestra is eventually being televised on county TV, and I was going to wait to post until the video was available (sadly my own personal camera truncated my own video copy), but it's been a while and it still hasn't been broadcast, so here's an audio file: MP3 LINK

It's an enormous privilege to perform with orchestra, always. I was relieved that the performance passed without major mishap, but I also felt that the dress-rehearsal run-through immediately before the performance was much better. I didn't know how to describe what happened to my teacher -- how I went from feeling relaxed and confident (which comes with a certain freedom and smoothness of execution), to being terrified and barely in control, and what happened to the sound as a result. (He watched the video, acknowledged that he understood what I meant, and commented that the performance felt somehow "fragile".)

One of my big goals is to become a better performer -- to have a smaller delta between what I can do in practice or rehearsal, and what comes out when I'm nervous. For instance, I seem to hear everything sharp when I'm nervous (it's not a finger placement thing, so much as my ear somehow goes awry). And my hands shake, which you can really hear in the vibrato, although I've gotten better about maintaining control of the bow.

Still, I'm under the impression that this sounds better than the performance with piano, though I might be wrong. :-)

Back in December 2013, I performed the Glazunov concerto with this same orchestra (VIDEO), a little less than a year after returning to playing. I hope I've improved since then, but one of the things that strikes me in listening to this more recent performance is how much of a difference switching equipment (different violin and bow) has made. My current instrument offers completely effortless projection; with the previous one, it was an enormous effort to ensure I could be heard over the orchestra.

Your commentary, including criticism, is welcome.

Replies (34)

August 3, 2017, 10:07 PM · Lydia, I've been looking forward to hearing this performance! but the link doesn't seem to be working for me. Can you edit? Thanks!
Edited: August 3, 2017, 10:13 PM · Oops, sorry! Fixed: HERE.
August 4, 2017, 1:12 AM · Not sure how valuable my input is, but the main point I make to students is to believe that when you go on stage, you have something to offer; that every note you play is gold to the people listening, even if the notes are "wrong" to you.

My belief is that it's not about the notes we play, but about the energy we project when we perform. That's what makes a great performance, even if there are a few wrong notes scattered throughout. People don't remember the wrong notes; they remember the overall energy.

On a more literal point, I would actually say that you're hearing notes flat during performance, not sharp, as I find most of your notes to be on the higher end, not the lower end.

August 4, 2017, 3:37 AM · Without having watched the video - have you read either The Inner Game of Music, or The Inner Game of Tennis? My teacher recommends both as important in understanding how to handle practice and performance to overcome this kind of issue.

(The tennis version is the original and while I don't play tennis at all, I find it's easier to grasp the overall approach from the tennis examples than the music examples!)

Edited: August 4, 2017, 6:06 AM · I may have phrased that poorly -- I'm playing sharp because I'm hearing the notes flat, yes. :-)

My teacher seems to believe that people do indeed walk away with an overall impression, especially the "average" audience. Keeping that in mind is useful for preparation but sometimes hard to figure out just how to implement.

I read the Inner Game of Music many years ago (I was still a kid) and it didn't make much of an impression on me. I'm a big fan of Bulletproof Musician, though, and I've found his techniques to be really useful for mental prep, but they don't stop the physiological reactions.

I do quite a lot of public speaking in front of large crowds, also, and I've found performance mental prep works well for that, because even if my hands are shaking, I'm not handling anything more complex than a presentation clicker.

August 4, 2017, 7:11 AM · Homeopathic gelsemium is indicated for performance jitters. Rescue Remedy (by Bach Flower Essences) is also good for acute anxiety (you can get it in liquid or in pastilles to suck on, I prefer the pastilles). There are qi gong breathing exercises that you can do beforehand (a friend who is a dancer does these before going on stage and swears by them). I'm actually having a chat with a music performer (not my teacher) this weekend, and can report back on what they say. (I get this response when THINKING about playing my violin for anyone but my teacher -even then I'll sometimes get worked up- but public speaking, teaching, etc. is not an issue for me as well.) I've heard that tapping/Emotional Freedom Technique, is very good for this type of response as your body, as well as your mind, are engaged in soothing the nerves.
Edited: August 4, 2017, 9:22 AM · Nice playing, I enjoyed it! You set the bar very high for the rest of us.
August 4, 2017, 8:29 AM · You sounded great!
August 4, 2017, 8:57 AM · Agree with David - you have indeed set the bar very high for us, especially us returners! Great work.
August 4, 2017, 9:17 PM · Congratulations Lydia! There's a clear difference for me. Your sense of timing and phrasing now has nuance and control. Will have a closer listen when I have more time. I can comment in as much detail as you like :) but for now I think the next project for your left hand should include control over vertical pressure. But you gotta be happy with all you've achieved!
August 5, 2017, 2:46 AM · I did not get the chance yet to listen to more than the two first minutes, so I will comment on your performance later.
I know the performance issue. I used to go full blank in hearing and just went through by motorics, awefull.
I remember an encore where I played Bach Sonata in G minor. My fingers became that shaky that I lost all bow control up to the point I hit my left hand with the bow.
Today I can handle it easily, what changed? Well first of all, I dont have pressure to proove myself anymore, since I am not going for a career anymore.
But way more importantly, I learned in small doses. After the Bach disaster I quit the solistic playing and started training performances. First I played while thinking about performing.
Than I recorded myself, leaving the casette in the training room after that so others might have listened to it.
Than I started doing small gigs again, mainly with unknowledged listeners. I played a hell lot of chamber music with other musicians that listened. Than I started the real performance again.
The next step just when the last one was working. Took me only two years to get stage fright controled by that!
Today I warm up without playing passages of the piece I will perform, than try to find somebody to talk to about something completly else. When going on stage I do small breath controls and test my bow tension. I look into the audience and wont do that again until I finished playing. After a few phrases I can concentrate on my instrument forgetting the place. I really like performing now!
Edited: August 5, 2017, 8:05 AM · Thank you , Lydia! I hear what is a musically meaningful performance. If you are slightly sharp in places, I usually hear enough vibrato to include the core pitch and bring that to my ears. Very nice indeed.

My own experiences showed no correlation between my emotional/nervous/physical state when talking to large audiences vs. when playing solos (or even exposed chamber music parts) for any size audience. I was able to get over the first problem in my early 20s by teaching an adult physics class, but never got over the latter - even now - 60 years later. Although in truth, since discovering beta blockers when I was 42, I was almost as calm in concert as in practice - once I had found that they worked for my right arm - 5 mg does the trick for me!

August 5, 2017, 11:13 AM · Yeah, honestly, Xanax is probably your best bet if you really wanna do it like the pros :)
Edited: August 5, 2017, 11:15 AM · Lydia wrote, "I do quite a lot of public speaking in front of large crowds, also ..."

But that's different, isn't it? Like Andrew, I cannot connect the two at all.

I teach university chemistry so I'm "performing" in front of "audiences" all the time. And yet, I'm a wreck on stage with my violin. I probably need to talk to my physician about beta blockers.

August 5, 2017, 11:39 AM · Thanks for the comments thus far, folks!

Jeewon, I'm very curious what you mean by left-hand vertical pressure in this case. (I generally hold down notes the minimum necessary to get a clean stop, except for some chords, where very firm pressure on the string is useful for clarity.)

I have taken beta blockers in the past (for a medical issue) and found that the physiological effect was interesting -- I could be nervous or upset or angry or whatever, but it would totally be in my head, with no physical reaction, although this was sort of strange because it left me feeling oddly detached from my own body, as if to "really" experience an emotion would mean feeling it physically. They also made my hands and feet constantly cold. I have no doubt that they'd be pretty effective for dealing with performance nerves, though.

I feel the same nervous/excited physiological reactions when I'm about to speak in a large-crowd situation, than i do when I'm under any form of musical pressure, whether it's a performance or just a concertmaster's solo in orchestra rehearsal, say (where I don't want to screw it up because it wastes rehearsal time for everyone). I am not nervous when speaking to smaller audiences; it's not until I get to a few hundred people and they're a faceless crowd that I have issues.

Edited: August 5, 2017, 7:22 PM · Hi Lydia, I'll get more specific after the 13th. I bring up LH pressure because of what you've said about your left hand in the past and the "shaking" in your vibrato. Granted I can't really tell what's going on through audio and video, but I don't think we can ever do too much to practice release.

What you say regarding just enough pressure is true for non-vibrato. But the bigger, the more energetic the vibrato the less default pressure you need. You can play the juiciest, most expressive passages with almost harmonic pressure and let the vibrato motion generate all the pressure you need. (Of course, in reality it's a matter of coordination, but in this way you can have very supple finger joints during extension of each finger.) Other things you can work on: release during all shifts, scales and arpeggios; release of lower fingers in trills and passage work (alternating pressures), release coming out of trills and fast figures; it's not just the release itself but also rhythmic timing of all releases which must be organized and trained. You have terrific finger action, but at times you might not need such force; so it might be good to train more lift and reduce some throw. These are just general ideas off the top of my head. I'll have a closer listen after next weekend.

P.S. I think how one hears is also affected by hand/arm actions, and control over them, or lack thereof. Everything becomes part and parcel of the one and same habit-body.

Edited: August 6, 2017, 11:37 AM · First of all, kudos to you for performing this piece of music and having it recorded!
To be fair in self-assesment, next time please record both the dress rehearsal and the performance. Compare them after a few days to have a more objective impression of differences. Also, try to use other recording formats, with higher sampling rate and depth (16bit). Zoom H2N or similar can do that. Resulting file will be big, so make sure there is enough space on memory card.
Regarding this particular recording... yes there are some issues with playing in tune. I am not sure if those are result of performance or performance is the result of general issues with (not) playing entirely in tune.

Be kind to yourself in this matter... community orchestras, notorious in tentative intonation (to put it mildly) tend to pull down even the best of us when it comes to intonation. One has to ignore the orchestra in order to play in tune.... resulting being out of tune with the orchestra!
Edited: August 6, 2017, 12:59 PM · Hi Lydia, thanks for sharing. You are doubly brave: first for playing so publicly to begin with, and again for recording and listening with a discerning ear and inviting others to do so as well. I've only soloed with an orchestra once (unless you count little concertmaster solos) and I got a terrible case of the shakes, missed a shift or two, etc. It was the Beethoven F-major Romance; there was nowhere to hide and no real time to recover. I listened to the recording once, mortified, and then buried it in the bottom of my memory, hoping others would do so too.

I noticed the intonation at times and agree with Rocky that it's a two-way street–harder to tune to the orchestra that isn't consistently in tune with itself. I've noticed this with chamber music: I play up to the level of the people around me, or down to the level of the people around me. In the latter situation intonation is often the first thing to slide.

Regardless, I think that your nerves may actually have helped: you had, from the moment you entered, a sort of vulnerable, at times tentative sound that I thought actually suited the piece very well. Later, as the music dictates, the vulnerability melted and you soared. It made me think about the role our nerves and imperfections might play in *enhancing* the effect of a performance. And now I'm wishing I'd heard you play Prokofiev w/ Redwood Symphony all those years ago. I remember Claudia talking with wonder about how your hands could just play *anything*.

So–thank you! and brava. Can't wait to see/hear what you tackle next.

August 6, 2017, 9:47 AM · I have a similar experience as you with beta blockers. Years ago I was prescribed them for other reasons and tried them once for a performance. It was a very odd sensation - like observing myself from the outside. I have avoided them since.
About 5 years ago I played a Beethoven trio at a concert and was terribly nervous. The first few phrases I was only focusing on avoiding right hand shaking. And the final movement we played way faster than we had ever done before. We survived and several people in the audience praised the tempo - "I have never heard it played that fast before" etc.
Since then I have worked on putting myself in these kind of situations. Performing with quartet, sring trio, piano trio, solo, solo with piano etc. Gradually I have learned to live with the fight-or-flight stress of performing and turning it into something positive.
August 6, 2017, 10:07 AM · I notice that "I've tried beta blockers" is usually written in the plural. My guess is that someone who plans to rely on them extensively for their professional work would need to do some significant self-experimentation to find the best compound and dosage.
Edited: August 6, 2017, 10:08 AM · duplicate post
August 6, 2017, 12:47 PM · Jeewon, that's very interesting. I don't think I use very much force, but I do tend to drop and snap off my fingers with speed, which can sometimes have the same physical effect, although it would be impact-release rather than impact-hold. A previous teacher of mine made me learn to put down fingers with maximum lightness and speed, and to hold them down with minimum pressure, so there's generally an immediate release from the initial impulse. My current teacher actually thinks that there are places where I might benefit from pressing and holding the strings more solidly. (We are currently working on Tchaikovsky's Meditation -- initially with no vibrato and all forte, and now no vibrato but all expressiveness with the right hand, and then hopefully the last step will be a controlled and relaxed vibrato that won't go off the rails when I'm nervous.)

Katie, thanks. On the orchestra intonation, oh yes, although I find that my own reliability is less than it was, especially when nervousness seems to throw my ear. My overall technical level of control falls well short of where it was when I was Claudia's student, too, and I'm procrastinating on the hard work necessary to rebuild that control. :-)

I think one of the interesting aspects of the pieces I've been performing lately, like Lark, is that they are well within my technical command -- there's nothing about them that really feels hard. And so when things go wrong, it feels more like a facepalm WTF moment -- a concentration lapse, etc.

August 6, 2017, 8:23 PM · Rocky, the original recital-with-piano was shot with a Zoom Q4n, I think at the highest available quality, though YouTube does not post it at that quality. The audio file was professional recorded and engineered, and I ripped the CD to Apple Lossless and then converted it to 320 kbps MP3.

I did record the dress rehearsal with the Q4n, but unfortunately there was a technical issue with the camera and it only caught the first 5 seconds. (That is also why I only have a partial video of the performance.)

Edited: August 6, 2017, 9:20 PM · Lydia, I'm very much speculating aloud right now. I don't think you have a chronic tension problem or anything like that by any means. But often we're unaware of some small parasitic motion, or lack of motion, which can become an issue when amplified by nervousness.

I think when we lose control due to nerves, it stems from a fundamental mistrust in our capabilities, perhaps at an unconscious level (we can't fool our unconscious, no matter how much we prepare.) If we learn our weaknesses, own them, and have a way to manage them, we're better able to overcome problems as they arise under pressure. Of course the difficulty is in finding opportunities which make us nervous enough to test our strategies!

Sometimes it makes sense to use pressure for a fuller sound, especially on thicker strings (I tend to do this more on viola G and C strings) but unless your fingertips are very bulbous, I'd use the fleshy pads rather than tips to do so. That way you can also benefit from the pads stretching along the string for vibrato, without having to roll the fingertip itself.

It doesn't take much to stiffen the fingers though, especially the baseknuckles, which have double duty, of placing each finger, but also of coordinating with the rest of the joints in the finger for patterns and vibrato motion (if you choose to generate vibrato that way.) The tricky thing is that the lumbricals, the muscles which control the flexion of the baseknuckles (metacarpophalangeal joints) also extend the finger joints (interphalangeal joints.) So unless you train the coordination (baseknuckles open as the fingers curl, and close as the fingers extend) with the placement of each fingered note, it's easy to create internal tension, in this case between the weaker lumbricals and the much stronger flexors (which curl the finger joints.) Now it looks like you generate most of your vibrato from the wrist by rolling the whole hand on each fingertip (it's hard to see if there's any flexion/extension at the baseknuckles) so with even the slightest stiffness in the baseknuckles, when nervous, you might be clamping just enough to inhibit your vibrato motion, enough to make an audible difference. Just speculating...

When I think about vertical pressure, I automatically think of all those coordinations within the hand, which I know is not really obvious at all. Pardon me for being unclear. I'll try to think of a way to describe better what I mean by vertical pressure. But as you roll your hand forward (toward your face) even the slightest release in the baseknuckle will allow your finger to curl and give you that extra roll on the fingertip.

August 6, 2017, 10:29 PM · I place my fingers on the pads, except in some types of double-stops (like thirds) where being more vertical is necessary in order to reach the notes given my short fingers.

I had to think about the vibrato motion a bit. My teacher describes starting it like flicking a fly off the back of your hand, so it's a bit of a throwing motion from the wrist and then the hand sort of naturally pivots on a loose wrist. I don't think my base knuckles move.

When I'm nervous, I think my wrist often feels looser, not tighter -- as if it were wobbling unsteadily and oscillating too wide and too unevenly. Conversely, sometimes it ends up too tight, and I might be inadvertently clenching the forearm muscles that control the flexors/extensors, now that I think it through.

Interesting to think about. I'm never able to replicate the nervous condition in the practice-room, so it's hard to know what might fix it, and when I'm actually nervous, I'm not in a good state to be analytical. ;-)

Edited: August 7, 2017, 7:51 AM · Don't I know it!

For me, being in the pit, performing under absolutely no stress, playing the same thing over and over, has helped. Though it doesn't directly translate into strategies for high pressure situations, experimenting with various hypotheses I develop after crash and burn experiences gives me greater awareness for the next time. Gradually I've been able to make myself aware of what I'm actually doing and observe things which go awry in the moment. With more, much more time, I've become able to intervene with various strategies before I spiral out of control.

That is of course what we do during practice, but there's something about tweaking things during performance, when you can't stop, that makes a difference.

Similarly, there's a kind of meditation--the name escapes me right now--which increases awareness of emotional triggers so you can intervene before the cascade of physical reactions (sympathetic nervous response) occurs. I've not meditated with any regularity (though I think a certain way of practice can become meditative,) and I suppose all meditation increases awareness. But developing observation and awareness is perhaps the single most important skill we can learn for performance.

P.S. vipassana

P.P.S. Lydia, I think you can mimic that loose, out of control feeling in the wrist by seizing the biceps/triceps. Have you experimented with a pull motion for hand vibrato? I think flicking away is more suitable for a motion thrown from the elbow, with follow through from the hand.

August 7, 2017, 11:45 AM · Jeewon, I'm very impressed by your physiological analyses of violin playing. Despite being so crucial, it seems rare for people to know these things!
August 7, 2017, 12:42 PM · I was expecting a train wreck from your description, but I thought that the overall performance was solid, and that the narrative and atmosphere was conveyed very well, with a couple small spots that you probably know about.

I guess I'd be curious about how you have been practicing. It seems like you get a little nervous (maybe) when anticipating some difficult passage. For example, the double stops at about 4:20. I wonder if you are practicing transitioning between different runs, so that you have practiced the shift of focus, because it's possible that you have practiced-in a certain anxiety about the upcoming difficulty. It may be helpful to have a little bit more intention about what your attitude is for a difficult part, and cultivating some specifics on the body sensations and psychological state you are in. I'm sorry if this sounds a little wishy-washy, but I mean basically to not practice a section for performance without being sure that you have a firmly set guidepost, so that you practice just going for it and don't lose concentration.

It seems like it's all there, but you may be getting in your own head (which I think you know), which I believe you can work through in the practice room.

I saw Gil Shaham perform the Beethoven concerto on Friday, and man, I don't know what to tell you - He played noticeably out of tune, had outlandish rubato (he held one note for like three times its value, keeping the orchestra in suspense), the tempo was significantly faster than I've ever heard, and all of his runs were less placed in the music than shoved in or ripped out of. I can't imagine I will ever hear a performance like it again. But strangely enough, it was one of the most fascinating, engaging concerts I've ever been to. I loved it, and I've hated performances I've seen where it seems like the soloist is taking a lot of liberties. I think the key for me was that his playing had a sincerity and a sort of internal logic that made sense, and that whatever the flaws may have been, he gave his interpretation in a completely committed, convincing manner. I hope I learned a lesson from it (Not about disregarding intonation or phrasing or whatever) - I think the performer putting everything out there can make a much bigger impact than playing conservatively and "perfectly".

Anyway, I hope some of this makes sense :-)

Edited: August 7, 2017, 6:54 PM · Thanks for your vote of confidence Erik. It seems most people talk about flexors when thinking of finger placement, but the way I was taught, with the feeling of one hand clapping, it's clearly mostly in the lumbricals. Often we have to inhibit the flexors from overpowering left hand action, so that they merely take aim by curling fingers into their appropriate shapes.
August 8, 2017, 11:12 AM · I do agree Jeewon, although I find that the dominance of flexors vs lumbricals somewhat depends on the anthropometry of the individual! (as a general example, someone with very short fingers, particularly the 4th finger, is going to have to use the lumbricals more, whereas a very long-fingered person may have to "shorten" their fingers artificially by lowering the contact points of the left hand on the neck and initiating more flexor action (essentially, playing with a flatter 1st finger). Of course, there are also those individuals who need to have a strong disparity between lumbrical and flexor action depending in which finger they're using, as in the case of using lots of flexor for the 1st finger and lots of lumbrical for the 4th. Obviously there would never be a case where we used lots of lumbrical for the 1st finger, though.
August 9, 2017, 5:12 PM · Hi Erik, I think I've seen some violinists use their second joint (proximal interphalangeal joint) to depress the string, but I am suggesting that it's better for everyone to use their base knuckles for that purpose. It's no coincidence the PIP gives us the power grip.
August 9, 2017, 8:13 PM · I'm finding this to be very interesting reading but I have to find time to think it all through before I reply properly. :-)
August 9, 2017, 8:38 PM · I'm starting to formulate an idea of what might be happening to your left hand under pressure, but I have to find the time to think it all through before I reply properly. :-)
August 10, 2017, 8:04 PM · My right hand shakes under pressure as well, by the way, but I can help stop this by taking longer bows.

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