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Mark O'Connor

Improvising a Chin Rest for 'The Improvised Violin Concerto' premiere

March 9, 2011 at 5:36 PM

Multiple Grammy winner and author of the critically acclaimed "O'Connor Method" currently for beginning violin, viola, cello and string orchestra, Mark O'Connor's new method was reviewed by Strad Magazine; “If O’Connor is the new Suzuki, then Boil ‘em Cabbage Down is the new Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Mark describes premiering his own, "The Improvised Violin Concerto" March 6th.

. . . 

When I played the last note at the end of the final 5th movement "Faith," I decided to hit this doublestop chord that emulated the blues sound of a train whistle blow, while the timpani and the bass drum rolled so thunderously loud, then two short quarter note beats to end it. I felt a full experience, and lots of emotion, especially toward my two kids, Forrest 22 and Autumn 4 months who surely gave me the heart, strength and the drive to be able to complete this project...

The load-in for Symphony Hall was 8:30 am. I wanted to be there right at 8:30 am. I was anxious to try out the sound system, my new pedal board, making sure my two wireless units worked, the DPA mic, the stereo feed out of the pedals. I wanted to make sure that the engineer understood my new concept of the violin sound for this concerto, as I scored the orchestration to be quite loud, and very loud at times. I was lucky to have one of the great engineers of Symphony Hall, countless times doing sound for John Williams, Keith Lockhart and company through the years. The mic was going to be my base sound, and the pedals were only going to come on with my foot pedal for loud parts from the 115 piece orchestra, and for some occasional special effects. The orchestra was acoustic, I was both acoustic and electric as I was going to transition in and out during the piece as it rose and fell in dynamics. I needed to improvise my electronics, effects and volume with my foot, while needing to improvise on the violin for 35 minutes in the world premiere of The Improvised Violin Concerto.

To add some additional pressure, we all decided that this concerto premiere needed to be filmed. With special permission from Symphony Hall, the BYSO and BSO organizations, we had a 4-camera shoot all set up by 8:30 am. It was the same crew that films the Boston Pops, the best camera people in the orchestral television industry. The young orchestra filled with prodigious talents were dressed for dress rehearsal, our conductor Federico Cortese was in tails, and I had a new silver-gray suit.

The dress rehearsal went well. Federico finished up small issues with the orchestra and concluded with a talk about how this music requires all of the energy that the orchestra could bring to the stage for the concert that day. I felt like we were ready. The rehearsals have been great that week... This surely is one of the very best youth orchestras in the country. The Boston Youth Orchestra has their own summer camp in Maine, and they have traveled the world performing in some of the world's top orchestra halls. I felt like this was a perfect way to premiere this piece full of violin improvisation, with some of the best young musicians in the country! All week they were really digging into the piece...And I just couldn't believe how lucky I was that they were playing this composition so well with me. Awesome, is the only word for their effort on this.

After the dress rehearsal concluded, I had 4 hours before I took the stage again for the concert. I decided to stay back stage rather than go outside. The orchestra gave me the A dressing room - Levine's. Extremely comfortable, like a grand living room of a home. I had some lunch delivered and I studied once again some of the hundreds of chords I would have to negotiate in this concerto. I was so exhausted that I started to nod off, and finally took a nap. Waking up about one hour before concert time, I remembered that the orchestra had reversed the order of the program in the last weeks of preparing my concerto. Originally it was on the first half, and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet was the closer, it was now the reverse. They wanted me to close the concert with the improvised concerto.

I checked my messages on my blackberry, got the final word and tally of guest musicians attending. People were coming in from out of state as well. Violin players were attending, classical and jazz violinists and fiddlers...some of the top improvising violin players were in attendance. Violinists from other orchestras were there too such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, and one of the best improvisers in the music world, Wynton Marsalis was in the house and seated in the front rows with his 2-year old daughter to see the improvised concerto. He came up from NYC for the premiere!

I kept checking my score again and again, there were difficult odd meters and counting sequences to improvise over. Tough to negotiate without good concentration. I had missed an ending during the dress rehearsal and Federico looked over at me with a surprised smile...I apologized! It was apparent that there was no coasting possible on this form - too complicated. I did not take it easy on myself with regards to keys either when I wrote this, I was going to spend plenty of time in all sorts of harmony. I knew I could improvise over this entire thing pretty well at this point, of course - but with starts and stops...Why the stops? Focus. That was it, the focus has to be a kind of hyper focus I was discovering in the rehearsals with the orchestra. Most of the time when improvisers take a solo, we concentrate on a minute-long solo, or a 3 or 4-minute solo, and then we are out...we rest the brain and gather the context again, relate to other musical activity, play some accompaniment or do some role playing or responding, and rebuild the focus for the next time around. Here with this piece, there is no let up. Continued focus was everything.

As the excruciatingly beautiful and powerful sounds of Prokofiev's Ballet music played out on stage, I methodically got ready back stage. I put on my new suit and worked on my tie. This time I remembered everything - my belt, my cuff links, by socks! Put my hair jell in, and washed my hands so they would not be sticky. I washed them a 2nd time to make sure. I got my wireless packs prepared, the DPA mic in my left back pants pocket with the cord coming through my coat, and the pickup wireless hanging down to my left with the pack in my left coat pocket. Washed my hands again to be sure they weren't dirty from the cables. I began bowing the strings, and the hair was not quite grabbing the Eing how I wanted it to, and the rest of the strings sounded raspy, not a clean tone...I wiped off the string again, and re-rosined the bow, this time I finally got the absolute right balance of rosin. (I did not have to rosin the bow at all through the whole performance on stage. Unusual for me). Just in case I may have touched the rosin rag with my fingering hand, I washed my hands again so my fingers would have the best chance to glide up and down the violin neck uninhibited - just to be sure.

The intermission was taking place at this point now, I have 10 minutes before walking out on stage. I am going through improvised finger exercises, warming up. I looked down at my 3rd finger on my left fingering hand, completely smashed from an accident just a month prior. It was a freak accident, for a couple of minutes I thought I may have broken the finger when it happened, doubling over in pain. It did not break, but at this point the entire finger nail was a very dark color of purple - black/purple. The infection around the nail was worrisome, and I had somehow gouged a whole in the nail against the zipper of my suitcase just the day before. The black and blue nail was fragile, the suitcase zipper chipped away near the middle of the nail. I hoped for the best.

So I began playing more rapidly, warming up, then unbelievably my chin rest started squeaking. It was a very loud squeak, bad! Every time I clamped down on the violin with my chin and neck, it now squeaked. It had never done this before, and this performance is being recorded for radio and for the film! I have a plastic ergonomic chinrest, I was trying it out and just stuck with it for the last year, mainly because it seemed interesting to me in the violin store. It had two small phillips head screws for the clamp. I did not have a screw driver, so I took my finger nail clipper and was able to get a few turns of the screws out of it from the small file blade. But the squeak problem did not improve. I have under 10 minutes to go before taking the stage now. I asked the stage orchestra manager for a small phillips screw driver, she asked, is that the flat or the star? I replied, “the star.” Within one minute she had one. I screwed it in tight, it still squeaked. I mumbled to myself, this is unbelievable...! Then in the dim light of the dressing room, I looked at the apparatus that attaches into the chinrest, and sure enough it was badly cracked there. It was coming apart! I did not have an extra chinrest, never requiring an extra one in my entire career of playing on stage!

I had five minutes now...I quickly tried to imagine that I could actually go out there and not press down on the chinrest with my chin, and just play this piece physically different...I panicked for a second, wondering if there was an extra violin in this orchestra that I could take their chinrest from, but it would feel completely different - how unsettling and do we have time to go down this road? Then I thought - super glue. I did not have any. I asked the orchestra manager for super glue alerting her that my chinrest is broken and coming apart. Amazingly within one minute she was back stage with this glorious small little new tube of super glue. I did not have time to even take the chinrest off the violin to glue it at this point. Of course I could not get super glue on the violin, it would scar the violin. I hoped for the best, held the violin scroll toward the floor, and squeezed one drop in one crack and one in the other crack. It ran quickly (I had remembered super glue being more gooey?) I quickly balanced the violin so the glue ran toward more chinrest surface and not toward the precious wood of the violin. Success! It was the perfect amount, it dried almost immediately. I accidentally touched my right hand to the glue. Luckily it was a part of my hand that did not touch the bow frog. I was safe...

Within two minutes I had the violin under my chin - no squeak. It was cured.

They called for me to wait by the stage door, and within a couple minutes I was walking out onto the Boston Symphony Hall stage. The roar of the feet stomping by the 115-piece orchestra was thrilling, and then the cheers of the audience greeted me when I got to the front of the stage after walking through so many musicians in the orchestra to find the front of the stage. I knew I was in the best place possible to play my heart out for this. My son was in the audience, many people in the audience I have known since I was a child. Many former students and colleagues. I knew that Boston's most astute keepers of the classical music canon was in this audience supporting their amazing youth orchestra. When I began to play the first note, it might as well have been the last note because I entered this kind of focus zone and never left it throughout. The 35 minutes went by so fast for me. After so many passages, everything was connecting with seeming ease, the flow of the improvisation seemed to be unimpeded, and the orchestra was really playing it, really on top of it. Then, we were at the last chord of "Faith." Underneath the roaring timpani and bass drum roll, I pulled out the last notes from the violin, a chord that emulated the blues train whistle. Then the last two short quarter note beats, and it was over.

As I looked out into the audience for just a second before turning around toward the orchestra, I thought immediately about my two children and about how I couldn't have done this without them in my life. I also knew that it took 40 years of playing concerts and just overall musical experience to get me through this day. My experiences all over the world playing music I felt led up to this, as I began to shake Federico's hand in congratulations. At the same time though, I felt like a fresh 20-year old, full of wonder and awe at the moment, as I shook the hands of the young concertmaster, the assistant concertmaster, the principal 2nd, the principal violist... The audience immediately jumped to their feet at the conclusion of the final note. I remembered back to the very first time I ever played with orchestra, any orchestra as guest soloist. It was exactly 20 years ago and on this very same stage with the Boston Pops and John Williams for national television. (that performance is on my YouTube channel btw). I remembered what that felt like 20 years ago, now this seemed to be the same kind of feeling. A new energy I was hoping for in a new and changing music environment. I thanked my lucky stars that it was over, no more waiting or anxiety. No more wondering if this was going to fall flat on its face. With a couple of deep breaths and with my applauding the 115 wonderful young musicians for how great they did, I made my way through them toward the stage door. The Improvised Violin Concerto was in the books.

-Mark O'Connor (3/7/11)

The Improvised Violin Concerto For violin and large symphony orchestra

I. Fire

II. Air

III. Water

IV. Earth

V. Faith

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on March 9, 2011 at 7:01 PM

That was a wonderful blog, and thank you for submitting it.

I believe I have that same chin rest for my viola.  I was not as lucky as you, however - I was actually playing when it shifted suddenly, then the legs fell off and the chin rest slid to the ground.  I managed to finish (it was a rehearsal for recital) and I picked up the pieces and moved off-stage.  Did the super-glue permanently fix the problem? 

---Ann Marie

From Ray Randall
Posted on March 9, 2011 at 10:11 PM

Mark, as you probably know our superb Concertmaster is playing your Concerto for Fiddle and Orchestra on April 9th here in St. Louis with our St. Louis Civic Orchestra. We're all looking forward to it.

From Mark O'Connor
Posted on March 11, 2011 at 4:16 AM

The Super Glue has been holding for the chinrest since. But I need to get it fixed though with a nice wooden one think! And wonderful about the concertmaster with the St. Louis Civic Orchestra performing one of my earlier concertos! Great to hear about it! MOC

From Michael Schallock
Posted on March 12, 2011 at 10:56 PM

I had the same rest. It took me a while to figure out why it broke. It is not designed to handle much stress at all when you lift the violin out of the case and lift on the chin rest. Because that rest sticks out more than usual it made my violin tighter in the case and I had gotten in the habit of lifting under the rest and the neck at the same time so the violin came straight up. Anyway it broke just like yours.

Even though I think i know the cause I am afraid to use one now. What if it came apart on stage? Or no chance to try and glue it. I am back to ebony and nickle/silver.

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