How do I calm down and focus when playing with others?
Last night I was sitting in a hallway at the music school where I take lessons, waiting to begin a string quintet rehearsal. A young girl sat next to me and we got into a conversation.
She asked me, “How long have you been playing?”
I smiled, “A little over four years. How about you?”
She replied confidently, “eight years.” Then she looked at me. “It must be hard to learn violin at your age.”
I muttered something about “it’s hard for everyone”, and hoped my rehearsal would start as soon as possible.
As blunt as she was, however, she had a point, and it leads to my discussion question.
How do I calm down and focus when playing with others?
When I’m at home and playing alone, I feel confident, relaxed, and centered. I go through my viola part in detail, counting out the rhythms, listening to the pitch, working on my physical technique and my interpretation. All is well.
Then last night I got into the rehearsal. Let’s just say, things didn’t go as I hoped. Hearing the other instruments was jarring. My pitch was dubious, I entered sections at the wrong times, I even skipped lines on the sheet music. We had to stop several times so I could be corrected.
As this went along, my focus became scattered to say the least. I felt quite humbled, and once the rehearsal ended, I quickly packed my violin in the case and left. I couldn’t wait to get out of that room.
I feel like I’m holding everyone else back. At this point, I want to toss the whole thing out the window. I’m assuming it’s a temporary feeling, but if I can’t get past this pothole in my training, what’s the point? I wanted to play violin so I could play with other people, and that seems to be a problem all by itself.
So, before I do that, do you have suggestions, techniques, and helpful words so I can get over this hump? I know the pandemic has held people back from playing in groups, and I was hoping to do this kind of thing early in 2020. Now that I’m finally playing with others, it’s proving to be quite stressful. Suggestions? Hints?
I have an inkling where you're coming from.
Do you have a teacher? Maybe more work on violin duets would be a good stepping stone. Even if it's not a teacher, playing duets with someone might be a way to ease into larger groups.
Welcome to our world. One of the things that cures some performance anxiety is simple experience. I am sure that when one of the leading soloists performs a major concerto for the first time there will be a lot of nerves. But after 20 repeat performances #21 will be less emotionally stressful.
I suspect this was your first rehearsal? Ensemble playing takes time to get used to. My recommendation: Don't give up. Go to the next rehearsal. Try to not feel embarrassed when an error happens to you (I know: easier said than done, but mistakes happen to everyone). In the mean time when you practice focus on the passages you remember having trouble with.
I find we have to prepare everything, not only fingerings etc, but the "timeline": even in slow practice, play while tapping the beats with one's foot (!),
You bring your life-long experiences and wisdom as a human being. To me, that's a lot more valuable than being able to play well.
First of all - congratulations on picking up this lovely instrument! At 61 (now) I returned to the violin almost 3 years ago after a 45 year hiatus. Injuries have moved me to another instrument (hoping to be able to add the violin back into the mix eventually to some degree), but I well remember experiencing this very thing when I started playing with my former teacher's small adult student ensemble (7 of us when everyone showed up). Any amount of practicing solo at home, at least for me, just isn't the same as soon as sitting down with an ensemble as that adds several other layers as you've found.
This reminded me of a friend of mine, he is a shakespearean actor, and has been in quite a few plays, he recently played Orlando in as you like it to an audience of 500 or so. I asked him how he stays calm and memorises the lines, his reply surprised me, he said that he personally takes a deep breath at the start and once he gets going there are no nerves, and after the first few shows the lines and nerves are all ok, he also told me that a lot of very well known actors take drugs to calm them down, not illegal but prescription, this amazed me, I thought there was some kind of secret, but apparently not, he is a lucky one were nerves are concerned.
@Adrian, dont doubt what you say at all, just stating what he said to me, and what works for him, maybe there is a psychological factor involved? or perhaps not. I played several gigs in my time on guitar and never suffered nerves, but I remember our singer going to the toilet about ten times before we went on.
Just as you wish all of your partners to do their best, and are gracious when they inevitably make mistakes, you should assume that they wish the same for you.
If you've joined an orchestra and have no evidence to the contrary, then it is reasonable to assume that you're neither the best nor the worst violinist in the group. Often your seat is determined as much by seniority in community orchestras as anything else. That means you don't need to feel inferior or inhibited. You'll make mistakes, and the best players will too.
Big thanks to all of you. I've calmed down since this morning. I had a good talk with my teacher, who said the same as all of you are saying - I'm doing fine, everyone feels like this at some point, it's not a performance, and we will be doing a lot more of this in the future to acclimate us to playing with others. So, thanks again. You're a great group of people.
before I first played in a community orchestra, my teacher told me I was jumping into the deep end to learn how to swim. He said you could take individual lessons for another ten years, and you still wouldn't be much more ready for it, because ensemble playing involves so many other skills than playing alone does. The only way to learn is to jump in, flail about, do the best you can, pay attention, and you'll start to pick things up and acquire the skills. It's really worth it, as playing with others is so much more fun and fulfilling! Get as much experience as you can, accept your limitations while you have them, and you'll get better and better! It will be worth it!
Agree completely with Tom.
Joining a quartet or a quintet is a brave step, unless a teacher has organised a chamber group specifically for beginners.
Lots of great advice in the above responses. As with anything in life, you do the best you can at any time, and treat each situation as a learning experience. If it's a negative experience, look at the other side of the coin - what's the good thing about it that you may not have noticed before?
@Gordon Shumway. I completely agree. A beginner orchestra might take the pressure way down. In a small ensemble there is no place to "hide" and requires a higher level of proficiency.
not the same. Rather, a viola player who just happens to have a law related credential and perhaps a Tort bow.
>Then she looked at me. “It must be hard to learn violin at your age.”
Some years ago I saw a sign in the backstage area of a concert hall:
Lets don't exaggerate: Not every first session with strangers is embarrassing nor otherwise associated with negative feelings. I have recently (not so recently any more because of the pandemic, alas...) done quite a few fill-in sessions: somebody in a regular quartet was missing and I filled in.
All of this is wonderful, constructive, and practical advice. Thank you, I'll move forward, head held high, viola in tune, and do what I've always done in the past - I'll fake till I make it.