The Big Day: My Telemann Performance

May 17, 2018, 6:58 PM · It's a bright, cool California day heralding the coming of summer, and I am free until the evening. I slept well overnight, in spite of reading bad news about someone I knew a lifetime ago. I earned my certificate for completing the 100-day practice challenge last week. Regretful emails trickle in: car trouble, a grandson's recital, an urgent sample to be analyzed, an unexpectedly long appointment. But my red sparkly Bolero jacket arrived from Jet unexpectedly early. And it fits!

YosemiteVDCThe New World: Yosemite Valley

Once, before a different performance, I dreamed of breaking my bow, borrowing a replacement, and running endlessly over hills and valleys that opened up in between me and the concert venue as the bow morphed into an archery weapon in my hand. But all these current ups and downs . . . I just watch them from a comfortable distance. The new black dress materialized; the professional make-up job did not. The peach cobbler I baked for the reception didn't turn out well; the persimmon cookies did.

Either way, it's time to go.

Foothill Presbyterian ChurchFoothill Presbyterian Church

"Here we go!" That's what our fearless leader and conductor of the South Bay Philharmonic uses as the subject heading on his concert week emails. At Foothill Presbyterian Church, the concert venue, they're just setting up, getting ready to take tickets, and my musician's pass is buried somewhere in my gig bag. "I'm not sure where it is," I say apologetically. "But that's me!" I'm on the sign. I take a moment to post it on social media.

Entrance signHere we go!

I have a list of snippets to warm up, including shifts, string crossings, and the openings to the first and third movements. That list is today's stick for the elephant trunk brain to hold onto. I made the list after the dress rehearsal, which wasn't my best effort. I take my instrument out and stand on the stage where I'm planning to stand for the performance, look out, and play a few things from that list. I remember the low ceiling, pews, and decent acoustics from when I was here rehearsing with the harpsichord. Nothing has changed. It's still mostly empty.

In black, before the quintet

The first half of the concert will bring people on stage step-wise: a trio, followed by a quintet, followed by a septet, followed by my concerto with string orchestra. (The second half will be the full orchestra playing Dvorák's Symphony No. 9). While this ascending sequence of prime numbers of musicians appeals to the nerd in many of us, it is also good for me personally: it gives me something warm up with, namely Dvorák's "American" viola quintet, Op. 97, a thematic match to a concert featuring both the viola and Dvorák.

This still means a quick change for me though: play the quintet and then rush off somewhere to put on my red soloist jacket and get used to my Baroque bow again while the septet is playing. But where to rush off to? There is an AA meeting in the usual warmup room, so I cross an interior courtyard to put my stuff in a corner of the social hall and decide to eat the banana I tucked into my gig bag. The septet arrives while I'm eating the banana and starts warming up too. I can't hear myself at all and I really need to practice the openings of the 1st and 3rd movements of Telemann. I haven't done that yet, here.

Back out into the courtyard, the Beethoven septet fades into quiet. People are arriving now in earnest, but they're mostly staying over in the main sanctuary. A few are hurrying towards the social hall to put away their cases. I set my electronic tuner on the bench around one of the courtyard trees and play the opening measure several times. I take my hand off the instrument, put it back on, and play a B again. I watch the tuner; the intonation is fine. I don't know what was happening during dress rehearsal and I don't really want to know. Whatever it was that was making me come in out of tune, the problem seems to be fixed now. I fixed it.

The wind blows and rustles my hair, the skirt of my dress, and the leaves of the tree where I am practicing. The sun is starting to go down, lengthening the shadows of the hurrying musicians. I am vaguely aware that someone, a friend, is taking pictures. I just keep playing the first movement. This is the last time I am going to be playing Telemann before the concert. It is the end of the beginning, and the light is turning to gold.

Golden Light

The quintet movement went well. At least I think so. I didn't play it perfectly, and I didn't play it badly. Dvorák wrote the Quintet while he was living in Spillville Iowa, immediately after the "American" Quartet, Op. 96. It is not played as often as the Quartet, and sometimes overshadowed. It almost didn't happen at all when our 2nd violinist headed to the Middle East on a business trip, but we were able to engage a sub who learned the piece in 3 weeks and did a great job. Also, the viola 2 part was played by a cellist on an alto violin (more on alto violins another time, perhaps. But I'll be sticking with the regular on-the-shoulder method of playing the viola for the foreseeable future!)

Back out to the social hall, put on the red jacket, visit the rest room and wash my sticky hands, take out and tighten my Baroque bow, check the tuning on my viola, and back across the courtyard again in heels. The septet is nearing the end, and I stand to one side of the stage with George, the conductor, as we prepare to go on.


Here's the complete video of the performance:

For an encore, I prepared a spiritual called "I'm Just a-goin' over Jordan" from Solos for the Viola Player by Paul Doktor. It's a relatively simple melody, repeated several times in different octaves and with different dynamics and tempos. It takes advantage of the lonely, bluesy sound the viola can make. I played it as a meditation in church a while ago. To "go over Jordan" can be like crossing the River Styx in another mythology, to a better life in the next world. Would Dvorák still recognize, in today's America, the "New World" he wrote of in his symphony?



I was asked, on Facebook, "what did it feel like to be on stage with an orchestra?" The first answer is "surprisingly unremarkable." I wasn't that nervous. The temperature was warm enough that my hands weren't cold, and my bow didn't shake. Mainly, I had a script to follow: 1. While the orchestra is playing and I'm not, look out into the audience and smile; 2. When the orchestra hits a predetermined passage, usually when it goes up in pitch and foreshadows the cadence, that means it's time for the viola to come in soon, so I raise my instrument to my chin; 3. While I'm playing, focus my eyes on where my bow contacts the string; 4. When necessary, particularly when the orchestra comes in after the cadenzas, turn my head to look over at George and the cellos.

That was it. I followed the script, and it was almost like a tape, or a DVD, was playing in my head and through my hands. That was what it felt like to have world enough and time to prepare, to know a piece so well it that had become a part of me. Although I didn't take risks or stray from the script in the moment, it was fun. And as I headed into the last repeat of the last section of the 4th movement, the thought came to me, "I might really get through this whole concerto without screwing up!" And I did.



May 18, 2018 at 06:10 AM · Karen, you are a wonderful storyteller as well as a wonderful musician.

I loved following your emotional state leading up to the concert. I'm glad that you were well prepared and confident going into the concert. You sounded terrific. I especially liked the way you played the fourth movement with warmth, grace, and verve. You have come a long way since you played at the farmer's market. Thanks so much for sharing the whole journey of this performance, from planning to completion, with us. Bravo!

May 18, 2018 at 02:47 PM · Great performance, Karen. Thanks for sharing.

May 18, 2018 at 03:48 PM · Fantastic! As a book 4 Suzuki student myself, I've recently been working on some parts of this concerto. You nailed it!

May 18, 2018 at 04:51 PM · Your reflections on what it felt like on stage are very similar to my own experience -- "surprisingly unremarkable" is a great description. I suspect a lot of that was due to your preparation going in, as it was for me.

I like item #3 in your prescribed script! ;)

May 18, 2018 at 09:37 PM · Good job, Karen! Thanks for sharing!

May 19, 2018 at 12:56 AM · Thanks for listening and reading!

And thanks for the suggestion of where to look, Gene. It did help me keep from getting distracted! One friend (non-musician) thought I had my eyes closed the whole time. I did close my eyes for the encore, but not the concerto. I'm not sure they looked any different from the audience though!

May 19, 2018 at 03:00 AM · Congrats and thanks for posting the pictures and video, along with the story!

May 19, 2018 at 04:36 PM · Wonderful experience! You should be very proud of yourself, and the rest of us amateurs should feel inspired to try to have experiences like that one. Thanks for sharing in such detail.

May 20, 2018 at 12:29 AM · Thanks Tom, Lydia, Yixi, Gene, Craig, Paul, and Pauline. Many of you are regulars who have been here as long as or longer than I have, and have been with me every step of the way. And special thanks to Laurie for giving me the opportunity to blog here! Writing about my musical experiences has been an essential part of my journey as a player who restarted the violin and started the viola as an adult. I don't think I would have stuck with it this long if it hadn't been for the community I found here. :-)

May 21, 2018 at 06:03 PM · That was a really nice performance. You played with a nice, solid tone, and very musically. It seemed like you only got better and better the more the performance went on.

May 21, 2018 at 10:09 PM · I heard from my former violin/-a teacher in the Boston area yesterday. She watched the video and was very pleased. She played both instruments for a while but over time she put away the viola and concentrated on violin, which was her first instrument and which she plays regularly and professionally. So we weren't doing as much viola together in lessons as I do out here. Still, she reads my blog and is proud of me :-)

Also, as of today, May 21, 2018, my video has >530 views. And at least 430 of those are NOT me logging on to check how many views it has :-) Thanks for tuning in!

May 22, 2018 at 01:18 PM · A convincing performance, much better than mine at college decades ago; well done Karen!

May 23, 2018 at 10:15 PM · Karen - one of the great things about is that you have a bunch of people who are interested in what you are doing and are there to encourage you and follow your progress and applaud your triumphs as you reach your goals. It inspires us all. Keep up the good work!

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