Does your playing have character? Learn from a chef!

September 10, 2015, 11:12 AM · I like to treat excerpts as though they were courses in a meal. Each has a part to play in the overall presentation, but each has to stand on its own as well. After all, as the master chef, you want your guests leaving the restaurant glowing about the overall experience; but you also want them telling their friends about the risotto, the gazpacho, the seasonal cocktails and all your other specialties!

Great chefs spend lots of time tasting. They taste examples of the dishes that they’re looking to create, to inform and inspire their palate. They then make their own versions and taste those over and over, refining as they go. They hold “soft openings” of their restaurants where they see how the dishes work in context. Then they open officially and serve the meals over and over for paying customers, solidifying their individual identities as chefs.

As musicians, our equivalent to cooking is playing; tasting is listening. The two go together, since all artists must not only create but constantly evaluate what they’re creating. But far too often, in preparing for auditions and other performances, we use our time in ways that would puzzle a chef.

Imagine serving an important guest on a Sunday, one week from now. You choose a dish that you’ve never made before. On Monday, you pick the recipe since you like the ingredients as well as the splashy photograph! On Tuesday, you make the dish partway through, then wonder if one of the major ingredients is the wrong brand. On Wednesday you try again, but now you’re unhappy with how much butter you’ve put in and scrap the day’s effort. And so on. By Saturday, you’ve managed to make the dish once, but you’re terrified of what the important guest will think when she tastes it. At no point did you explore what you really wanted the dish to taste like, so that you could find your way to that taste!

You’ll probably admit that you’ve prepared for a performance in a similar way. A piece you’ve never played before, a tight timeframe, no chance to think about your conception of the music… it’s a recipe for an unsatisfying time on stage. Now go back a few paragraphs and recall how professional chefs prepare a new menu.

Extending the analogy a bit further, if you’ll permit: what is the definition of a successful dish? Three possibilities come to my mind: a dish so original and inventive that nothing else like it exists; a classic that uses unconventional techniques and/or ingredients (think “reinvented” or “deconstructed”); or simply a classic, flawlessly prepared and served. For our purposes, let’s leave out the first possibility since auditions really aren’t the place to show off your 12-string electric violin-guitar hybrid! In possibilities two and three, I use the word “classic” because in either case, the dish will remind tasters of great meals they’ve had before. But in all cases, the character of the food will be well defined, whether every taster is aware of it or not.

Character in food is the mixture of sensations and emotions that the food evokes in the taster. This involves not only taste and smell, but a host of other feelings. A hamburger can be seared in a pan or on a grill (two related techniques), but in either case it will probably bring to mind backyard barbecues, summer months, noisy pubs, sparkling sodas and a flood of related images. But bake that same hamburger in the oven, and it becomes something else: a meatloaf shaped like a burger patty. Not the same character at all, and likely a bit puzzling to a taster. The sensations will be less well defined and less memorable.

Therefore, “character” is at once the most important quality of a dish and the hardest to pin down. The quality of the ingredients is paramount; superior ingredients will always create stronger character. Technique plays into it too: baking, steaming and boiling produce very different dishes. You can go on to describe technique in more specific terms, such as the size of a dice, the temperature of the oven, the type of pan. And finally, there are those modifications that can either enhance the dish’s character or detract from it. These might be spices, sauces and the like. Finally, don’t forget about the plating and the service!

It’s often said that 90% of meal preparation is done once you’ve returned from the market. As musicians, the quality of our ingredients are our instrument and the general level of our playing as we begin. These give us our basic sound. Our “cooking techniques” mostly concern the right hand. Are the notes connected or distinct, on or off the string, in the upper or lower half of the bow? These techniques together tell the listener generally what kind of piece we’re playing. Tempo and dynamic are important elements, but they concern proportion: how hot is the pan, how deep the liquid, how long per side? Now for the extras: the type of vibrato, for example. Vibrato will be noticeable in the final product for better or worse, but it can only be a positive once the more important elements are in place. Then a great player can tailor vibrato for the occasion. A cream sauce is perfect for some dishes, but a vinaigrette better complements others. The fingerings we choose determine the final texture: smooth and silky, crunchy, or just lumpy. And does cilantro really fit in this dish? How about that slide in measure 12? Finally, the service of a meal is represented by pitch and overall cleanliness of playing. Just as the best service is largely invisible, so should the technical “machinery” of playing the violin recede into the background.

Be on guard against an ear that becomes overly sensitive to just one aspect of performance. “Shifting” and “vibrato” are concepts that often draw our attention away from the big picture. They are important, no doubt, but only in service of the music. Insisting on a certain kind of vibrato in every excerpt, and on every note, is like pouring ketchup on every dish. Some subtleties of flavor and character are bound to be missed, to say the least!

So this week, I ask you to consider how your guests, the committee, will listen to and judge your efforts. Imagine that instead of sitting dourly behind a screen, they’ve ordered a tasting menu of your excerpts. Each selection is a dish they’ve eaten many times in their lives, and they’re hopeful that your version will remind them of the best they’ve had, while showing them who you are as an artist. Does that sound intimidating? Then remember that just as your guests sit down to dinner wanting to enjoy the meal you’ve prepared, committees sit down wanting to hear your best and most honest playing. After all, both meals and auditions are transactions of time and effort between creator and consumer. Prepared at the highest level, they are singular expressions of character. Therefore develop a taste for character first, then let your hands carry out the wishes of your musical palate.


September 10, 2015 at 07:19 PM · great post,thanks.

I must say though that the little demo of Kreuzter #2 in groups of 3 combined with the slight out-of-sync between the audio & video was a little hard on the brain CPU!

September 11, 2015 at 12:42 AM · Hi! You had audio sync issues? I can't see that on my computer but how were you watching? I'd love to fix it if this is a general issue; not much good if things are out of sync! Thanks for reading/watching anyway.

September 11, 2015 at 01:07 PM · I'm using Firefox & when I watch the video either here on the blog or on your Youtube channel, the video is *ever so slightly* ahead of the audio. It almost imperceptible .... it wasn't until I was trying to catch exactly where the bow changes were happening in your Kreutzer 2 with 3 notes per bow that I noticed.

September 11, 2015 at 01:41 PM · Thank you, Nathan, for a delightful post. I always enjoy what you have to say.

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