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February 2015

The 'Ein Heldenleben' Journey: Finale

February 27, 2015 04:23

This can also be read here at my personal blog along with reviews, and other posts about travel etc.

To be honest, I haven't provided more parts and insight into this because I actually got quite busy once February began. The hunt for a new violin has been sapping a lot of my time and energy. Plus it's honestly quite distracting to your progression repertoire-wise because you often find much of your attention directed to the new violin rather than what you're playing.

Irrespectively, my preparation of the excerpts and Heldenleben continued on through all of this (as it had to). The first two weeks of February were a bit of a rough patch. Practice was a bit inconsistent at times due to other commitments and I didn't really feel like progress was being made. By this point, technically, most of the excerpts were fairly comfortably under my fingers. I didn't struggle to hit notes, or to perform all the virtuosic gestures. Despite the progress technically, I hit somewhat of a wall musically. At this time, I was also trying to sort out as many kinks in the first movement of Saint-Saens 3, which I was also to play in my audition.

I continued to listen to what players on YouTube and other recordings were doing, and essentially tried copying as many things as I could before settling on what I liked. It become a process of continually daring myself to be more outlandish, more creative, different and diverse. A lot of the times, many of the things I tried didn't turn out so well. However, slowly through trial and error, I began to hit more interesting ideas and interpretations. The solo was slowly but surely becoming mine in a way.

While my teacher and I spent a lot of time on the Saint-Saens, we didn't have any time to cover my excerpts. She suggested another prominent teacher in Melbourne who I might go and have a lesson with on Heldenleben. Unfortunately due to her performing/rehearsal commitments, the earliest I could get a lesson was 3 days before the actual audition. Better late than never!

The thing I must admit I find amusing yet annoying at the same time is the fact that no matter what you throw at a piece, no matter how good you feel you become, a good teacher always somehow seems to open up an untapped source of ideas and possibility. They don't always help you see more detail in your current line of sight, rather, often they encourage you to look a little to the right of where you previously were. This is what this teacher was able to achieve in the short hour we spent on these excerpts. I began to achieve more of the character, as well as a greater deal of contrast. It was a slight relief to be honest, that I wasn't going to be stagnated in the remaining days before my audition.

In fact, the last few days didn't seem to be enough to try all the possibilities I was now aware of. Indeed the more I read about the piece, the more I felt able to incorporate the character of Strauss' wife into my playing. It was wonderful and refreshing, to be able to be at a technical point to try lots of new ideas. However, this process had a time limit on it for now, and I had to settle on an interpretation I was happy with for the time being. I shut my violin case that evening, content I was ready as I could be by this point.

My audition was scheduled for 9:30am the following morning, so to give myself plenty of time, I arrived at university at 8am to run through some scales, the excerpts and my solo piece. I felt fairly calm and secure at this point, and intonation seemed to be behaving which relaxed me considerably. It did help that I had a good accompanist (with whom I have a great working relationship) and after we finished running the Saint-Saens, we just enjoyed a casual conversation. I was allowed into the audition room early, since some of the panel members were running slightly late, which let me relax into the space a little. I've performed in this auditorium many times before, but auditions are auditions; sometimes I feel like no amount of experience helps.

Starting with the Saint-Seans, whilst intonation was a bit wobbly, I felt calm and I was enjoying playing the piece until I was cut off much earlier than expected. This in itself was a bit disappointing since I had been looking forward to playing it through. After this, I played excerpts by Brahms and Beethoven as I had predicted, before being asked for a bit of Heldenleben. In this instance, I realised very quickly that my preparation had paid off. I actually felt the most comfortable with this excerpt and didn't feel scared to be virtuosic (which is often the case in performance). It wasn't perfect, but I got through it relatively unscathed and my body hadn't tensed through it (for me, the ultimate sign of knowing something well). On the whole, my playing wasn't spectacular, but it certainly hadn't been a bad experience, which as far as auditions go, is about as much as you can ask. I'm still waiting to hear about the results.

Upon reflection, if you spend two months with a three minute stretch of writing, you're bound to become very familiar with it. I'm incredibly thankful that I got to spend a lot of time on this piece of writing. It taught me to be very thorough and holistic in my approach to playing. From technique, to music, to the academic and historic element of it. I threw everything I could think of to improve my performance of it, and whilst I'm probably not ready to perform it in a concert hall yet, I now dread the day I have to a little bit less.

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My personal well-being journey

February 13, 2015 01:51

This can also be read here at my personal blog along with reviews and posts about travel.

Disclaimer: This is not in any way intended to be expert advice of any sort. Hopefully it is insightful to some of you, but these are in reality just my personal experiences, not expert advice.

To give a bit of context, 2015 marks the beginning of my third year studying Music and Commerce at university (in Australia the uni year starts in March and runs through to November). When it comes to the topic of personal well being, I'm something of a hypocrite. I'm very good at telling people to look after themselves and take a break, but not with myself. I've had to learn many things regarding looking after myself the hard way.

In 2013, I began the year already somewhat on edge. I wanted to work hard to impress my new teacher, and to accelerate my rate of improvement on the instrument. I had been somewhat stagnated the past year, mainly due to my focus being shifted to my final year of high school. So in all honesty, I only probably practiced at most 50 minutes to an hour (not even every day) in my latter high school years. Entering uni, the concept of practising 2, 3, even 4 hours a day terrified me. Despite this, I was fairly resolute to build my stamina and I decided for the first semester that I would aim to manage 2 hours a day. This worked out fairly well and my teacher was supportive of my efforts to progressively build my practice routine. Following the success of semester 1, I added another half an hour to my daily efforts and toward my final recital was comfortably around 3 hours a day.

Unfortunately, by the end of my first year of university, I was close to completely burnt out, and only really survived on account of the fact that luckily, I had a very short and sweet exam timetable. Whilst I had taken the effort to slowly build up my practice, in reality, being new to uni, having to sit through weekends of 7 hours of rehearsals and all the extra practice I had started, took its toll on me. With regards to violin particularly however, I with the benefit of hindsight put it down to the fact that I rarely took a day off during that year in a bid to prove myself.

So come 2014, my teacher mandated at the start of the year that I where possible, reserve a day of the week to be completely violin free. Whilst seemingly counter intuitive to those who want to improve quickly, over a year later, I can completely vouch for the benefits of setting aside a regular day off. (My friends can attest to me nagging them about doing it for themselves as well). What I found was that a day off allowed every facet of my violin playing to rest and rejuvenate itself. Physically, I would start the new week feeling much less tired and sore, but more importantly, mentally, I found myself in a much better headspace to start each new practice week. As a result, the work I did do the remaining 6 days of the week was more focused, and for want of a better phrase, sometimes, less painful. Toward the end of my first semester in 2014, my teacher noted that I seemed to be coping a lot better despite the fact I had taken on more that year (more performances, recordings etc.). I was comfortably managing 3-4 hours a day and it looked like I was on track for a well adjusted year. I was looking forward to reaching the end of it not burnt out.

Then came July. I had earlier that year decided to partake in a 3 week Summer Program at NYU for Strings which involved me travelling to New York and living there for the duration. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the program and the travel, it obliterated my holiday of 4 weeks down to 1. I arrived back in Melbourne after more than a day of flying on the first day of second semester exhausted. To make things worse, I did three concerts in the following three weeks, all different programs. This included a concerto, a trip to Sydney and a grueling orchestral program (complete with hours and hours of rehearsing). Whilst I had upped my practice to 5 hours a day, I was still taking my day off a week and thought I would be fine. However, when I reached my final exam period, the state of my well being showed its true colours. My focus and attention span was so poor and the amount of time I wasted because I couldn't motivate myself was staggering. As a very strongly driven and intrinsically motivated person, I have never ever felt this lack of determination or focus to what I'm doing. I was well and truly burnt out.

Upon reflection, I realise that this doesn't compare with what the touring soloists have to deal with, and ultimately is something I'd like to do one day. It begs the question whether or not there are still things I'm doing wrong, and whilst I have no concrete answers, this is what I've resolved to do differently in 2015:

1. I've well and truly capped my practice time at 5 hours a day maximum. This for me is the absolute limit of my physical and mental stamina and I've decided the thing that has to improve is the efficiency and focus with which I practice.

2. On that note, I'm going to try add more different methods of practice in, including score study and mental practice. Not as a substitute, but to keep my mind fresh and interested, and potentially reduce the hours I physically spend with the instrument.

3. I've actually stopped doing hour long blocks and instead have started practising in half an hour blocks with five minute breaks in between. So far, this has worked really well for me. I get more done in the time and I feel more relaxed and focused.

4. I've committed to exercising daily, which I haven't in the past. Whether it be a small bit of cardio or strength work, I've found doing it regularly has not only helped me overall, but it's reduced the amount of aches and pains I can get while playing violin.

5. Finally, I've actually had a chance to overview my year and properly plan it. Whilst I don't know all the concerts and recitals I'll be doing this year, I have a fairly clear idea when I'm going to take a few days or weeks off from violin to let myself regenerate fully.

Ultimately, I'm just learning as I go, and more than anything else, I'd love to hear from the community about how they avoid burnout, and deal with busy lives and grueling schedules.

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Review: The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Does Star Trek

February 1, 2015 05:38

This post can also be read here along with other posts on travel, reviews and classical music.

Concert details: Plenery Hall, Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre; Sunday February 1st 2pm

I love soundtracks. I love Star Trek. So naturally, when I found out that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra were going to perform Michael Giacchino's score live, I immediately felt like I would have to go to this concert. Fortunately, it just so happens one day I noticed on Facebook that the MSO were running a competition whereby the first twenty people to photograph one of their street art items (something Melbourne is famous for) and post it on social media would win a double pass to the corresponding concert. I instantly knew which art piece I wanted to post and where it was. I conveniently had an engagement in the city that day, so I left a little earlier to make this happen. Later that day, after navigating a construction site down one of Melbourne's most famous street art laneways (Hosier Lane), this appeared on my social media.

There were other options available around Melbourne to photograph and hashtag, but this was the only one that I really wanted because I knew my dad would also like to see this particular performance. About a week later, I received a comment on the photo from the MSO telling me to email my details to them as I had successfully won tickets (which I received about a month later). Exciting!

Fast forward to the day of the performance. We arrived at the venue about 20 minutes before the performance; just before the doors opened to the public. Plenery Hall is a multipurpose convention centre space which in it's primary form, has the capacity to seat around 5,500 people. The hall has the ability however to be cordoned into three thirds, providing three function spaces, which had been done so in this instance leaving the MSO the centre third (reducing its capacity to around 2,400 seats). This makes sense as the middle third is the only third you would want to be sitting in to get a good view of the movie playing on the screen. It was encouragingly, more or less a full house (apparently for the previous night's performance too) and perhaps more so was the very diverse demographic of people attending. As this is my primary industry of work and study, seeing diverse audiences coming to see live orchestras makes me very excited and hopeful.

Once most people were seated, the lights dimmed and you could hear quiet anticipatory exclamations all over the place. The orchestra tuned before the conductor, Nicholas Buc walked onto stage sporting the famous Star Trek "Comm Badge" on his lapel to appreciative applause. I must digress here and say that I was slightly disappointed that there were no programs distributed providing information about the music/composer/orchestra etc. and I had to do a bit of poking around on the MSO website to find out who the conductor was for this review. (But a relatively unimportant complaint)

At this point, it's quite hard to do a linear review of the concert given that it's in effect, one continuous piece, so all my observations are not necessarily in chronological order. The first thing I found myself very interested in, was the screen sitting in front of the conductor essentially beating and counting out the measures for him. I have never seen a soundtrack to a movie live before, and honestly had never realised the system for synchronizing music to film had become so sophisticated. That in itself, to me was very much a marvel and I can't imagine the amount of work that must go into scoring a piece of music with such precision in timing.

The next thing that I noticed was the fact that the movie was subtitled, which I initially thought to be strange until it became very readily apparent at one of the early climaxes that a live orchestra does not benefit from the same level of audio mastering that a prerecorded one usually does. There were many points where the dialogue was obscured by the live music, but I didn't mind this to be totally frank. If anything, I actually found the movie to be more personally affecting on the whole, hearing the soundtrack live (and slightly louder). This one particular moment comes to mind, whereby Spock is having a heartfelt conversation with his mother just as Giacchino busts out the erhu which comes and tugs at your heartstrings like only an erhu can. I had previously not actually been aware of an erhu in this score due to it probably being balanced more quietly in the film.

Hence, one of the advantages of the live music was how much more aware I became of all the exciting textures and instrumentation used. As a musician this definitely enhanced the experience for me. From all the different types of bowing techniques, to the exciting onstinati and interesting harmonies, I would definitely have come to see this for the soundtrack even in the absence of the movie as it is incredibly evocative writing. The MSO did a marvelous job of it too, well and truly bringing the soundtrack to life. The playing was underpinned with very good intonation and rhythmic accuracy and I particularly found their use of dynamics to be very effective. Most importantly, they brought the character of what was on screen to life, in what I felt was the best way possible, leading to the movie being more intense and exciting than the previous times I'd seen it.

The intermission came as a slight surprise to most including me, but the initial state of being caught off guard was very quickly replaced by understanding and a hearty round of applause. Of course they needed a break, I know how hard it is to sit on stage and play a symphony that lasts 40 minutes, let alone a continuous movie score. Though, from what I could see, many of the first violinists seemed to be enjoying the movie in their bars of rest (which I thought was nice to witness).

The second half of the movie continued in very much the same fashion as the first, and I honestly enjoyed every minute of it. The soundtrack was played so magnificently you honestly couldn't tell it was live half the time, and I found myself constantly switching between watching the orchestra and the movie. One small gripe I had however was the fact that the choral component of the score wasn't performed live (from what I could see) and instead was synced with the orchestra on the movie reel, but I suppose this was probably a practical thing too.

As the movie drew to a close, the audience sat and listened attentively to the orchestra as they played through the full credits before rewarding them with strong applause at the very end. It was clear that everyone had very much enjoyed themselves from all the cheering and we were thus rewarded with an encore, the original Star Trek: Next Gen theme, which is arguably the most iconic of the Star Trek themes. This was also very well received.

In general, I love anything that is innovative or different when it comes to symphonic music and the orchestras that play it. I think it's always fantastic when orchestras go out of their way to make themselves more accessible to the public by whatever means. Here we had a whole lot of people who I could almost be certain have never been to see an orchestra play live before, yet the setting made them open to it, and hopefully enjoyable for them. Beyond being a great performance, it was wonderful to see so many different people to the usual audience at this concert.

I think I often take symphonic music for granted, given how often I am exposed to it, and how often I play it. Today however, I had the pleasure of being reminded how evocative and powerful good symphonic writing and playing is. How intensely it can affect our emotions, and how much it actually appeals to everyone when it's given a chance to.

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