How often does one get a reply regarding your performance of a piece from the composer directly? Apparently, we did right with this piece....
It is that time of year again: the annual production of the Houston Bar Association's "Night Court" musical comedy where lawyers and judges get up on stage and start singing for charity. This year the show is "Law Wars". Yup, you guessed it! Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who and the like with a sprinkling of pieces from "Hair" and "Wicked".
The music isn't overly difficult. What will be a challenge is keeping up the energy and stamina over the four days and five shows in the pit. The pit is dark and crowded with musicians, mic's, wires and equipment. Our "green room" will be similarly crowded but well stocked with comfort in mind (food, drink and maybe even some bean bags to lounge on). We'll be rubbing elbows with the Houston Grand Opera folks as well as those from the Ballet down below stage and trying to keep them away from our food stash.
Though show week will be grueling, I'm looking forward to the camaraderie that only being in a pit orchestra can provide. Some of these folks I only see once a year for the show and others only when a call goes out for a special concert. But once a year, we all convene in the pit for a good cause and have fun at the same time.
After getting a small case of the "shakes" in last week's recital, my ensemble got a second chance to play "Reflection" at the early service at church.
It was not a perfect performance. Slow pieces like this are incredibly difficult. Small intonation and shifting errors are exposed, maintaining a good tone over long slow bows is a challenge and synchronizing each change in note is essential. Add to it the pressure of performing and tension compromises the control. The difference can be amazing. Here is our warm-up less than a half an hour before:
Mistakes and all however, I was glad to play this piece with my friends again and am happy with how it turned out (with no shakes!). It has become a favorite of mine that I hope to play again someday.
Yesterday evening, I played a chamber music recital as part of the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra's Adult Amateur program. I thought I was totally ready. I knew not only my part, but those of my fellow musicians backwards and forwards. But on recital day, my confidence faltered with the opening of our first piece: "Reflection" by Michael Kimber for 3 violas.
My group was second to last. I listened to several excellent brass and woodwind groups that appeared confident in what they were doing. Then a string trio played where one of the players got a serious case of the bow arm shakes. My heart went out to him. I was there myself not long ago - a nearly debilitating fear of performing publicly which I called my "bow arm vibrato". Like me, he pushed through his fear and played all of the pieces of their set. When they were done, I made sure that the applause was loud and long. It takes guts to get up on stage for the first time.
After another group or two it was our turn. The fears that I thought long gone decided to remind me that I wasn't much further along than that violinist. For the first several measures of our opening piece, I tensed. Fear filled my mind and all I wanted to do was to scamper off-stage and quiver in a corner. It was a near train wreck on my part for the first several measures. Then something kicked in and the tension started fading. By the 2nd piece, it was gone completely and I was thoroughly enjoying myself, even to the point of hamming up a fermata or two.
I'm beginning to realize that stage fright is not something that can be "conquered" completely. At best it can be channeled into the music. Or second best, suppressed enough to not manifest itself into bow arm vibrato or a death-grip on the neck of the instrument.
Of all the "tricks" that I've been taught to conquer stage fright, performing frequently and often is the only "trick" that has made any impact. Like the violinist before me, the encouragement and appreciation from peers is the best medicine to help me push through the fear of making a mistake (= failure).
I realized something about my practice routine recently - I spend well over 80% of my time on the "difficult stuff" and while giving the "easy stuff" a passing run-though. It is all well and good that I spend more time on difficult passages. However, skimping on the easier passages is like a crocodile lurking just beneath the waters.
The ensemble that I play with was working on an "easy piece" a few days ago in preparation of a recital . "Easy" meaning that there were no fancy left-hand fingering or tricky bowings, no odd rhythms. Just a piece filled with half and quarter notes, occasional runs of an open string for several measures, and a short jaunt up to 5th-7th position for three notes. Nothing fast, nothing fancy.
In other words, all the "easy stuff".
What is incredibly difficult about this piece is getting the group intonation absolutely perfect, nailing the note transitions and bow changes down to the millisecond, matching vibrato styles perfectly, and balancing the dynamics between three violas, not an easy feat when the instruments range from 16 - 17" covering three different octaves. The "easy stuff" takes an incredible amount of control to make it work. One has to focus on continuing the vibrato through a note change without any dead spots. The six measures of open string notes must have color and interest o match what the others are playing. Though the viola is a stringed instrument, breathing plays a significant role in building and defining phrases.
Easy stuff.... but at the same time extremely difficult.
More entries: April 2011
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