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Corwin Slack


May 10, 2010 at 4:05 AM

 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. 


From John Cadd
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 10:16 AM

Are there different parts of the brain being used when you practice compared to performing on stage?  Is it similar to sky divers who slowly move round each other in a formation on the ground and then have to repeat the pattern after jumping from a plane.     When learning a piece, some days you can relax and just go for it.Other days you put on the brake and look at every detail on the page to make sure it is all correct.   But an "all correct " attitude is not maybe the way to get the best results in playing on the day.    There, that`s my question.   Maybe the "learning a piece "  mode just gets in the way.You have to put the mechanic to one side,switch on the engine and just drive.Forget about cables and spark plugs and enjoy the drive.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 11:20 AM

So true...


Perhaps this is why so many people are in total admiration in front of the old masters...  They did things easier than their real level in public.  Nowadays, it's the other way around... gifted kids or young professionnals are forced to perform to their limit and sometimes even more difficult things than their limit publically... Sure, this can bring to shaky sound, lacks of intonation etc... so we are not that inpressed even if it's something difficult.  

I agree very much!

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 12:40 PM

 John, Good points. It isn't just technical lagniappe that one needs but a certain emotional margin as well. 

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 2:10 PM

 What about performing something that is closer to the middle of your technical range?  For me, that appears to be Mozart or Haydn.  (Or maybe Beethoven--I'll find out next week).   I'll read Brahms and Borodin quartets with friends for fun, but I don't feel ready to perform those.

From Ray Randall
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 4:29 PM

Y'all need to read dr. Don Greene's Performance Success. It gives you the wiggle room, but after following the mental preparations and exercises you won't need any wiggle room.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 5:45 PM

 Karen, Indeed. Teacher prescribes Handel Sonatas and etc. But Haydn String Quartets? Not for a while. They are treacherously difficult. We'll be doing Mendelssohn and Dvorak before we head back to Haydn or Beethoven Op. 18. 

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 5:52 PM

 Ray, The order has been placed. Thanks for the tip.

From Matt S.
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 11:05 PM

"Please transpose it a minor third upward." 

I was asked to do this once with a Kruetzer etude.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 11, 2010 at 12:42 AM

 For a jury?

From Mendy Smith
Posted on May 11, 2010 at 4:12 AM

If you were asked to transpose a perfect fifth downwards, it would have been easy.  All you would have had to do was pick up the viola!

From Ray Randall
Posted on May 11, 2010 at 5:07 AM

Corwin, be sure to take the tests in the first part of the book, it tells you where you're at psychologicall for a concert or audition.Once you know where you are at then you can find how to get where you should be.  Using the techniques he presents I played the heck out of my violin at the last concert channeling any nerves into playing better. Oh, boy, it works. Dr. Green teaches this as a Professor at Juilliard.

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