To say my drive to New Jersey was difficult would be an understatement. A trip that was slated for less than 4 hours ended up at over five with traffic jams, leaving me only time to tune and use the restroom before the opening bars of my concerto. I had to laugh (rather than cry) because really, what is an extra half hour of practice when you have only had two days to prepare anyhow? I decided to keep my head up and use the rehearsal for information for my next practice session, which would be the next day, the day of our first concert.
That first rehearsal with orchestra was stable and solid which was what I was aiming for. They were happy I was there. They remembered me from my two prior performances with them (Barber and Tchaikovsky) and they were genuinely relieved to see me try and step up to the plate. I felt supported, “rooted for”, and bolstered by a conductor who is both sensitive and incisive with the baton. He helped me play better by making decisions for me if I faltered. We made it to the end and I had no major mishaps. A sense of accomplishment came over me – first rehearsal: CHECK. I then went to dinner followed my hotel room where I marked down everything that went wrong so I could problem solve without practicing it physically. The conductor and I set a time to get together the following morning to go over things.
When I met with the conductor the following day I knew we would get right to work. His audiences are enthusiastic and lovely but also very informed. We needed to pull up my Brahms to that level and quickly. It was stable the night before but I knew it could really shine if we buffed it up together. It truly helped that we knew each other. I trust him and he knows I will try to grow musically even if my back is up against a wall. I listened to every comment he made. I tried everything he asked and even agreed to shape a few things differently after I realized my reasoning was not in keeping with the piece as a whole. There was a five-minute period where things got very intense with him asking for something patiently and me failing to deliver it cleanly. My technique was up and running – but to elongate it and really sing? I wasn’t quite there. I felt my heart pounding for a second and I briefly doubted I could deliver this to him in time. But then I remembered how much he knew my playing and I allowed his faith in me to replace my own. And then it happened. I turned a corner and it all started to flow.
A few hours later we hit dress rehearsal and I felt like I had entered a totally new zone. It was all coming together and everyone was more together. With my own playing now plugged in musically, everyone was feeling it and the enthusiasm was palpable.
I wish I could report that I never doubted myself from that moment. In my twenties, I might not have. But the hour before we performed, I wondered if adrenalin would kill this wave for me. I was already fascinated that my muscle memory was so readily available but under pressure, would it falter? How elastic could I be with a full audience in front of me? I texted my brother to come back and see me. Luckily he responded and was there to come give me a hug. Somehow this made all the difference to my nerves. I wasn’t alone and it reminded me of how my whole studio was rooting for me at home from a distance. I thought of my husband and my kids and how they had rearranged their lives so I could have this beautiful experience. I wasn’t going to allow fear to steal it from me.
The performance itself was surreal. I had nothing to lose because of the short notice and I had everything to gain to see what I was capable of. It made me really re think how I approach fully prepared concerts. I took risks and followed my ear and the orchestra was right alongside me. The audience gave us two standing ovations – one after the first movement and one at the end of the concerto. We did it all again the next day with identical standing ovations at the Borgata.
Under the heading of “the universe smiling down on me”, while leaving the theatre after our performance at the Borgata, I turned back and saw a sign drop from the ceiling on stage that read, “ COMEDY CLUB” and laughed. I hadn’t laughed like that in days. As I exited all of the electronic billboards had already changed. I smiled. Poof, it was done! It was the quickest prep and performance I had ever done.
I am so grateful for having been asked to do this. I think so often we doubt what is possible with our own technique and muscle memory. I spent most of my childhood practicing and a fair bit of that went to the Brahms Concerto. That young girl back in conservatory was fearless and had a laser focus on her musical voice. I had the time to work hours a day on deep thoughtful practice way back when. While I don’t have that same luxury now with three kids and a full studio, life is richer and there is still that pilot light of focus and ability. This will be a weekend I will never forget.
The following are youtube clips of all three movements from my rehearsal with the Bay Atlantic Symphony and Music Director, Jed Gaylin.
Photo credit: ArtC New Jersey
The Very Sung Hero: Day Two Practice
The following blog details my second day of practice in preparation for performances as the emergency soloist on the Brahms Concerto with the Bay Atlantic Symphony last weekend.
There is nothing really that compares to waking up on a Thursday knowing you will be playing the Brahms Concerto with a pro orchestra on Friday. It almost doesn’t matter what your time to prepare was. Until you play your cadenza and realize it does.
On my second day of practice, I took a minute to ponder what I have felt like on Thursdays like this before – Thursdays before Brahms Concerto performance weekends. And for what it is worth, I was able to feel how lucky I am even under the pressure. People placed faith in me that I can do this and so I am and I am giving it my all. I was trained to do it and can help out in a difficult situation where someone is definitely needed. I didn’t really have time to doubt it so I just got to work.
On day two, my goal was to do a full run through in the evening by memory. This was important because it helped me see the concerto as a whole work and not as a bunch of technical sections. It also allowed me to see where my focus waned and where fatigue set in. Playing it from memory revealed which parts were not totally internalized so I could focus on them the following morning before I leaving. I also only practiced with full score on day two so that I could see the big picture and know which sections of the orchestra would be playing at all times. This then helped remind me about how to achieve optimal dynamics by assessing the bulk of the orchestral accompaniment.
My first active practice session on this day was a lot like what I did on day one. I focused on the hardest spots to perform with orchestra using my past performances as a guide. I also checked tempi, pulling about half of them up to speed. The other half were not ready and I didn’t want my body to learn to panic on them. So I stay slightly under tempo, vowing to hit them later again before the run through. I was pickier on day two about pitch, bow distribution, projection, and long lines. I was also becoming more aware of posture and breathing.
My second practice session was on the cadenza/last page of the first movement plus the last two pages of the 3rd movement. It was really important to me that these be clean because of the excitement in the music as each of these movements comes to a close. I also have a memory of it being hard to keep these very clean in performance, likely caused by fatigue or a lack of focus. If I bolstered them in practice, they would feel a slight boost in context later in the run through. I ended up practicing with a metronome on both the end of the first and third movement to make sure I am steady.
My third practice session was on the second movement, the lyrical sections of the 1st movement and the dreaded letter C in the third movement. I focused on phrasing, pitch, tone, and vibrato.
When it came time for my one and only run through, I went in with eyes and ears wide open. I knew it would contain mistakes but I also knew I had a long drive the following day to think about things. After I was done, I turned to my husband and said, “I think it might end up ok” and he smiled at me.
The following day would be harder. I had last minute lessons to teach because my students were all in auditions the following week, lunch with my kids and then a long drive alone to have my first rehearsal on the concerto. The next two days would test my nerves, challenge my techniqiue, and ultimately teach me a lot about this beautiful concerto I have been performing for years. I was about to get to know it in a situation I might never find myself in again and I was ready to make the most of it.
Next up: Rehearsals and performances in NJ with the Bay Atlantic Symphony
DAY ONE Practice
As much as there is a ton of work to do when you accept this type of engagement, I took a while over coffee to think about strategy. Not just my musical strategy, but also my family life and work strategy as well. I spent some time rearranging the kid schedules and my teaching, carefully prioritizing what could be done before I left. I then pulled together my score and my solo part, looked at what recordings I had, and took some time to remember the last time I played it with orchestra, YEARS ago. I don’t know exactly why I haven’t been hired to play the Brahms in the last few years. I have done all of the other major concerti in that time period. I have however played it multiple times with different orchestras of varying calibres so this, in and of itself, is reassuring. This has necessitated me pulling it up into good shape many times but this time will obviously be different.
WARNING to non-violinists: This is about to get very nerdy. But I have had many people now ask me what I did to get it up in 3 days and so I am detailing my practice below.
My goal from the first day of practice was to be able to run it through by memory and in full by the end of the next day because that would be my only chance to run it through before leaving for New Jersey. Under normal circumstances, I run a concerto in full every night for 2 -3 weeks before a performance. So I had my work cut out for me.
The first thing I decided to do was identify the spots that are incredibly difficult to pull off specifically with orchestra. For me, these are not spots that I have trouble with alone or with piano so the experiences I have had performing it with orchestra come in handy. I mark off those spots immediately so that they get priority and have the most time to stabilize. Then I practiced well undertempo, calmly remembering different aspects of the technique needed as I went. I was able to raise the tempo gently for most of these sections and play them at 2/3 tempo by the end of day one with the technique well in tact and everything clean. But I know what I will put my body through with orchestra will be way harder so there is still a long way to go on these key sections.
Next I took a look at the bookends of the movements including the first movement cadenza. These in my view need to be perfectly executed and make musical sense to help the audience understand the concerto. So I practiced these spots specifically for musical line, projection, and beauty of sound. The beginning of the concerto has to sweep the audience in and the end feels like sunset and then fireworks to me. The beginning of the second movement needs to sing with a perfectly supple left hand and fluid bow and the end with the winds is sublime. I immediately remember how important my posture and breathing is in the opening of the third movement and how challenging the pacing is in the last page of the concerto. I have to breathe and use my technique in a specific way to achieve all of this so my goals for this got set right on day one.
With the bookends becoming clearer and the harder sections getting firmer, the rest of the concerto starts to become clearer for me so I look at the score from beginning to end to make sure I haven’t missed anything. The performance itself begins to feel more attainable.
(DAY ONE evening practice)
With my goal set to run through the entire concerto by end of day 2, I found myself back in the music room late at night on DAY ONE to go over the remaining sections of the concerto’s first and third movements. I divided my work into parallel sections so that anything that required similar techniques was practiced alongside each other. This way I am reinforcing the techniques just inside the order I practice. In the first movement there are two lush lyrical themes with tenths so I practiced the easier of them first to coax my body into remembering how to execute the right sound and bow distribution. There are also two technical sections that are very alike, one being slightly harder than the other, and I did the same work here. Everything is still at 2/3 tempo. I need to feel the line and the reflex memories are there helping things along but I know better than to force stress on my hands and go even close to tempo. Next I stitched these sections to see if I could keep them in tact and clean next to one another with the work I had just done.
I then played through the second movement to assess its weaknesses. I took notes on this because I knew there would be mistakes and there is a lot of ground to cover. This was an important step for me in the second movement because I had only covered bookends at this point along with the fingered octaves on the second page that I have always found difficult when placed with orchestra. I definitely can see it more clearly now.
Then I had a glass of wine and went to sleep wondering how much of that would retain for tomorrow.
Next up: DAY TWO Practice (and my one and only run through)
Photo credit Art C New Jersey
I am writing this blog series to detail what has happened since I was asked to step in as the replacement soloist with the Bay Atlantic Symphony last weekend on the Brahms Violin Concerto.
I have entitled this blog series "The Very Sung Hero" because my willingness to step in and help in this situation was met with incredible appreciation and warmth from all involved. It was an experience I have had before on occasion but never on this short notice on something so large and it was somewhat of an exercise in faith for me. Faith in good technique, training, and strength of spirit.
I hope it inspires a few and that it ignites some conversation about how our bodies store information, the longevity of muscle memory, the value of deep focused practice, and the strength of the human spirit combined with music this powerful.
Tuesday is a fairly regular day in the studio with people in and out for lessons and my own practice taking place in between. Perfectly routine until a text message comes in. My children are out of the house so I check the text to see if it is anything important. It states a “violin emergency” is taking place in NJ. Their soloist has pulled out due to injury on the Brahms Concerto and they need a replacement for this weekend. My heart skips a beat.
I haven’t played the Brahms with orchestra in a few years so it isn’t completely under my fingers but I have performed it quite a bit with orchestra in my lifetime. I wonder if it is just lying dormant in my reflex memory ready to go. I do teach it pretty frequently. I excused myself for a second from my student and got my head together. I texted the conductor back that I would love to help and will get back to him by 4 after lessons are at a break. There are more than a few things to consider.
The Brahms takes physical strength in both hands that is not always called upon in other concerti. I just performed the Prokofiev No. 1 in June so I am in good physical and technical shape and this is a blessing. But it is 45 min long and has a considerable cadenza. The second movement is not for the faint of heart either. I try and remember my last performances and what it felt like to play it with the orchestras. Glorious…but incredibly challenging. Can I do this? Do I know someone else I can refer?
The conductor is a great musician and we are already booked to perform together on the Mendelssohn in December with another orchestra. This would be my fourth collaboration with him so I do know him and his work very well which is reassuring. But I definitely don’t want to let him down and the question remains as to whether I am capable of such a tall task. More details are texted in to fuel my inner questions. Rehearsals start on Friday. I wont be able to practice until Tuesday evening because students are already on the road coming to me for lessons leaving me with practice on Tues evening, Wed, Thurs, and then a long drive to NJ on Friday. That is not even two and a half days of practice. My heart sinks for a second.
I called my husband and with two toddlers in a grocery cart in the cashiers line he said yes very quickly. Of course I can play the Brahms at the weekend. Always supportive, he sees no issue. He will simply be with the kids and stay at the house holding down the fort. He has never heard me play the Brahms so he isn’t quite sure what it entails which makes me smile.
Can I cancel my whole schedule? We are in the tail end of workshops in my private studio. The kids have accomplished so much and timing is important to me so I don’t want to delay the end classes for things. So I start emailing inquiring about flexibility in group scheduling. My students are happy for me, wondering where it will be, if they can go, even happy to change the schedule. So everyone at work is giving me the thumbs up.
I suddenly remember my 4-year-old daughter has a Washington Ballet audition on Saturday we will need to move it since it is the only one of the year. All three kids (ages 2, 4 and 15) have pediatrician appointments to reschedule. Two of our kids are changing schools this year so there is that transition and orientations, parent meetings, etc. Life is never simple. But when I am fluid enough solo work is something I manage to do very regularly. I love it and it is a part of my training and who I am.
After 20 minutes of pondering it still comes down to one question. Can I raise up this concerto and everything it requires in 2.5 days? I am able to embrace that it might not be my cleanest performance of the Brahms but there has to be some standard set in my mind so that this beautiful music is delivered. Where is that line on short notice?
So I did what any solo violinist who was trained to play this concerto would do in my circumstance. Before I said yes, I picked up the violin, closed my eyes and heard the running 16ths that precede the opening…then I ripped into the first page cold. And then, with a look of determination on my face, I called him back and said yes.
Stay tuned for more of this blog series. Next up: DAY ONE Practice.
The Power of Workshops
A think tank (or policy institute, research institute, etc.) - an organization that performs research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military, technology, and culture.
A violin think tank – a group of violinists eager to improve and fascinated by how their talents can be harnessed, accelerated, and realized.
A lot of us went to Suzuki festivals. We looked forward to them every year. Then there was that period where we were too young for 6 week festivals out of town but really in need of a challenge. I started finding this more and more in my studio with the 10-13 year old crowd so we began workshops years ago to tap into their potential, allow them to socialize, and feel some intellectual power in numbers. Again this year, I am surprised by how effective it is in motivating the kids here. Best of all, I feel invigorated by them too. Turns out there is power in numbers for feeling appreciated too!
In workshop we create a “Violin Think Tank”. These aren’t ordinary young people. They are eager, bright eyed and ready for work. Not only are they passionate about the violin, they are passionate about discovering how to communicate more freely through music and achieve a perfect technique. There is an energy they carry with them through the front door. Seeing them converge into one place is really a beautiful thing especially when they don’t know each other. You can see them bonding in real time and the power they have in numbers for problem solving is palpable. Whatever nerves they have entering a room of all new people dissolves in minutes as they realize they are not alone in their passion for their instrument. Is anything more poignant than this from their teacher’s perspective? I have seen them individually for months once a week but generally not all together in one place. I can imagine it in my head a dozen times but it is always way more exciting to watch than I thought.
We commenced a new workshop this week in our studio entitled VIOLIN YOGA. It focuses on balancing the hands, breathing, and relieving the body of hidden tensions to promote complete freedom of expression. I wondered if anyone would sign up when I first announced it. It would be a mystery to them by the title alone and the other workshops sounded so much more catchy. But I announced it anyway because I believe in it and it is so much a part of my own work. To my surprise, people started signing up right away. So I found myself blissfully in a room this past week with eight very talented ten to thirteen year olds. They had no idea what to expect and came in with open minds and ready to explore. Most were slightly too young for long festivals but in some cases, just as advanced as their older classmates. They were also curiously more vocal and articulate about ideas and questions. They needed an advanced thinking opportunity with peers and here we all were. Sure enough they came up with ideas and questions I had never thought of myself and we explored how our hands react to one another, where tensions lie, and how to breathe more effectively. By the end, we were all centered and calm and able to play so beautifully. It truly did feel like I had been to a yoga class. They left thankful and with new ideas about how to heighten their awareness in practice and performance and I am so grateful for having had this time with them…..Away from the concerti and caprices. No deadlines or goal tempi. Maybe we shouldn’t be just doing this in the summer...
This is my fifth and last installment in this blog series that I began while on vacation this summer. The time away from my normal schedule allowed me a wonderful opportunity to reflect on last year’s many challenges inside the competitive calendar. I hope that in writing this series, it started a healthy amount of discussions and sparked some new ideas for others.
This last blog shares my thoughts about carrying the experience of a competition forward. As the “sun sets” on our performance and competitions, what should we be doing to absorb and process everything we have learned? It likely wont be the last performance or competition we participate in so this last thoughtful chapter could really add up over time.
We work so hard for these events day in and day out. There is so much mental and physical preparation and immeasurable sacrifices to get to the finish line. The awards have already been handed out and even with the best results at hand, where will this take us tomorrow? The fact is most competitions won’t launch your career. They are mere stepping-stones. And while we should revel in what we have accomplished on cloud nine for a while, I think it is wise to ask ourselves what we can take from this experience and make one last set of thoughtful efforts.
There are so many things we can take from each experience. Perhaps we learned the power of gradual steady preparation finally paying off and will now trust it completely as we begin new literature. Maybe we have learned a few hard lessons in setting boundaries with family and friends so we can prepare the way we know we should. We even had students have epiphanies this year about what they needed to be eating before competition. Correct instrument care, adequate rehearsals, score study, positioning on stage…. any of these things could have finally paid off and made it to your new hit list for performance success. Maybe you have a few negatives on your list too like an experiment with gut strings on a whim, not enough sleep, cramming in practice…. all things you wont dare to try again!
The important thing in my view is to honor the experience and acknowledge what you have learned and how it can be applied to the future. Don’t just look at the things you would change about your performance. You knew that as you walked off the stage. Dig deeper. Take a look at what it was like leading up to the event, what your stress level was, whether you were able to network with other musicians afterwards, what you learned about stage deportment and maybe even something new that worked for you playing under pressure.
When I played with orchestra the first time after winning a competition, it changed my life forever. I learned both how excruciatingly challenging it was and also how beautiful and empowering it felt. It was the largest and most complex set of feelings I had ever had at age 14. But it didn’t stop there. I also learned how necessary metronome practice was, how to lead and telegraph information without moving around a copious amount, and how to project sound efficiently. I was thrown in the deep end. I had to borrow someone’s dress and didn’t know what I was going to wear until the day of the concert. When my first rehearsal with orchestra was rocky, I cried instead of digging in my heels right away. The winning concert went beautifully but I was reeling. I wished so badly that I could do it all over again to test my newfound theories but knew I would need to win another competition to even get that chance. While that was agonizing, it only made me want to practice more. Luckily, my parents wanted to know all about it so I was able to process it all in relaying the stories to them. From then on, post competition or concert wrap up became well loved tradition.
I think parents and their kids should sit down and have the post competition pow -wow as a team. After all, the parents are driving, taking notes, paying for lessons and rehearsals and have had a front seat view to the whole experience. They also know their kids the best. They know their capacity for stress, history with challenges, and resilience to disappointments.
Go over ways things can be streamlined more for next time individually, at home, and in the studio. Be brutally honest about what you know you should do differently already. In my experience, if you embrace humility in this process, everyone around you will follow suit. Explore options for how to simplify other aspects that are harder to solve by asking for help from people who have been there. Talk to older members of your studio or call that mentor you have on speed dial. Invite your teacher in on the discussion. Schedule 15 minutes to have this discussion in your next lesson and you will find yourself moving forward with confidence and clarity. Taking every opportunity (having won or not) to discuss where we go from here diffuses possible disappointment and turns it all into an opportunity for growth. This is healthy for everyone. When you win on your worst performance and lose on your best, everything pops into perspective. Your response to an event might be the only thing you can control and your musical journey depends on it.
Most of all don’t just plow ahead as if there is no time to take a moment to acknowledge what you have accomplished and how it got done. If there is one thing I have realized with my busy musical existence, it is that there is always time. Once you realize the value in the post competition analysis, finding the time wont ever be a problem. You might even look forward to it. After all, closing one chapter means you are opening up another!
*The picture above taken from vacation one night after dinner – the perfect scenery for carrying last year’s experience forward…
More entries: July 2014
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