Tag Archives: performance

World Enough and Time: My Telemann Performance

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!

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The 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 Church
Foothill 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.

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Here 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.

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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 Dvořák’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 Dvořák’s “American” viola quintet, Op. 97, a thematic match to a concert featuring both the viola and Dvořák.

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. Dvořák 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.

PlayingTelemann

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 Dvořák still recognize, in today’s America, the “New World” he wrote of in his symphony?

EncoreGoinOverJordan

***

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.

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Memories of Memorizing

When I said I had decided to perform the Telemann viola concerto from memory I was met with some skepticism.

2ndmovementaskew.jpg“You don’t *have* to, you know.”

“I don’t think I could do that.”

“A lot of soloists nowadays are using the sheet music.”

“I’d want the sheet music there just as a security blanket.”

There’s a lot of overlap between shared experience and advice. It’s a general human tendency to believe that the lessons of one’s own experience are relevant for others too. But, as I’ve learned (from—ha—experience), it’s better to let the recipient decide how and why that is true. This blog is intended in that spirit.

In my case, I need to memorize.

In my day job, I am a neuroscientist. I worked for several years in biotech, then in academia as a project manager, and now in STEM education and outreach. I could go on, comparing different aspects of scientific and musical careers, but for now, this concerto performance is taking me back to my PhD thesis defense. At Stanford where I was a student, as at other major research universities, PhD candidates have to write a thesis, present their work in a departmental seminar, and then answer questions from their committee, which comprises several professors in the student’s field of research.

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Cultured neurons, from a figure in my PhD thesis

My thesis committee members were intelligent and kind, and my thesis consisted largely of putting together three already-published papers and two manuscripts in preparation. I didn’t expect to fail based on my scientific work. But I did have these nagging thoughts that I could fail based on my presentation of that work. I had a history of performance anxiety and self-sabotage. There were the points lost from school reports because I read them verbatim from note cards. And the speech I gave for my failed run for student council. An All-State audition in which Mozart’s Violin Concerto #5 reduced me to tears wasn’t any better. And then came the worst one of all: the disastrous audition for the University Orchestra my freshman year in college that started me down the road to quitting the violin.

But there was a glimmer of hope in grad school, and it lay in the results of memorization. A few years before my thesis defense, I gave my first talk at a major scientific meeting, the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Phoenix AZ. My 10-minute talk was scheduled, along with two others from my lab, in a session starting at 9 am on Monday morning. The night before, I paced an empty hotel conference room, memorizing my talk word for word. One of my lab-mates had suggested I do this. She was older than I, a postdoc and a rising star in the field, known for giving good talks. And she let me in on a secret: she still got nervous. Like, really, really nervous. But these talks were only 10 minutes, short enough to memorize, and that helped her. It might help me too.

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Cajal’s drawing of the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=612536

I had about 10 slides and so first I memorized the order of the slides, then I chose a visual cue on each that would remind me of the slide to come. When I changed to the next slide I oriented the audience to what they were seeing and then gave the slide’s important message. Then it was time for the transition to the next one. This mental map of order of slides/visual cues/transitions/important message was something for me to hang onto and think about, even as the storms of anxiety raged.

The next morning busses from the hotels were crowded and we almost didn’t make it to the convention center in time. With over 25,000 neuroscientists in attendance from all over the world, this conference is so big that only a few convention centers in the country can handle it, and this particular meeting took place before the Society figured out that Phoenix wasn’t one of them.

The logistics were in disarray; attendees were packed into the ballroom like sardines without enough chairs and the podium lights weren’t working properly. My mentor was first from our lab to give her talk. I watched as the podium light went on and off randomly but she continued to speak calmly. The projector functioned, but there was no pointer available, laser or otherwise, and as she stepped back to the screen to point at something on one of her slides, she disappeared entirely. In the dark, she had missed the edge of the podium and fallen off. The audience gasped. She re-emerged, uninjured, climbed back up and finished her talk. Her voice shook but she got it under control. The podium lights came back on sometime near the end. The timing bell rang, people asked questions.

And then I was next. I took the stage wondering what fresh hell awaited.

My own talk went off without incident. The lights, and the laser pointer, and everything else were up and running by then thanks to the hardworking convention staff. I was hyper-aware of where the edge of the podium was. I knew my talk well. I’d just witnessed one of the worst things that could possibly happen during a talk, and I knew it was survivable. My friend’s preparation, the fact that she knew her talk backwards and forwards, had made the difference.

Several years later, when I was giving my thesis seminar, I had this experience to think back to. My seminar was about 5 times longer than the little 10-minute meeting talk, but I still approached it the same way: slides/visual cues/transitions/important messages. I just had more slides. I ran through them mentally, over and over again. The order was comforting; it was the stick I gave the trunk of my elephant brain to hold onto.

I passed.

Concertos don’t use slides or projectors to deliver their message, which is different from a scientific talk. But certain principles still hold true. First of all, having note cards, prompts, or the sheet music “just in case” isn’t going to work for me. If I know it’s available I’ll lean on it. I’ll steal a look and then start reading it verbatim. Instead I need to be prepared to look inward, not outward, even–or perhaps especially–for that cue to keep going when I stumble.

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Elephants and their trunks. Photo by Antoine Plüss on Unsplash

Of central importance is something that Meditation Instructor Eknath Easwaran called the stick for the elephant trunk.

The human mind is rather like the trunk of an elephant. It never rests. It goes here, there, ceaselessly moving through sensations, images, thoughts, hopes, regrets, impulses. Occasionally it does solve a problem or make necessary plans, but most of the time it wanders at large, simply because we do not know how to keep it quiet or profitably engaged.

Easwaran goes on to recommend the mantram, a spiritual formula in the form of a word or short phrase, to steady the mind. This is a subject of study for a lifetime. And I am not naturally a great meditator; sometimes when I try, it puts me to sleep. Furthermore, I find words themselves to be an awkward fit for a steadying mental substrate.

My mind gravitates more towards deeper non-verbal sensory experiences: pictures, kinesthetic feelings, and music. It is those sensations that I string together as another kind of mantra. Not power point slides this time, but bridges, ladders, and lattices. Finger patterns, and arpeggios climbing to the sky before sliding back down the other side of the bow. The deep purple of the C, the forest green of the G, as I put bow to string.

Brain Coral. Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash
Brain Coral. Photo by Daniel Hjalmarsson on Unsplash

Here’s my card

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werner22brigitte, Pixabay 

Growing up and as a student, I didn’t view violin soloists as regular people. They were a breed apart, and they played music that was so far out of my reach that I couldn’t even imagine it. Otherworldly images on album covers and in galleries tended to reinforce this notion. I find these images beautiful, but more intimidating than not.

Back in Massachusetts when I was in the Philharmonic Society of Arlington, we had a cellist whose day job was graphic designer. He made the posters for our concerts. They were lovely: colorful, artistic, ornate and a little quirky, like the orchestra itself. It was always a treat to see what the poster would look like a month before the concert rolled around. And we were fortunate: he donated his services for free.

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PSA poster by Arch MacInnis

One aspect of graphic design that these posters never had, though, was photographs of people’s faces. We were a volunteer organization and we sometimes had competition-winner soloists whose pictures we used for online and print publicity, but the posters were different. I had a short concertmaster solo one year, in the Tchiakovsky “Mozartiana” suite, and while I told all my friends and family and they brought me flowers at the end, I wasn’t on the poster (much to my relief!)

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With my kids, after “Mozartiana”

Then last year, after moving to California and becoming an almost-full-time violist, I had the privilege of being in a different orchestra, the South Bay Philharmonic, accompanying the concertmaster, Gene Huang, on the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and the principal cellist, Harris Karsch, performing the Popper Hungarian Rhapsody.

I also play with them in a quintet, and seeing my own chamber music partners perform major solo works was an inspiration to me. This time, unlike with concerto competition winners who might fly in only for the dress rehearsal and concert, I was able to hear the pieces at the beginning, before they were polished. While the final product was amazing to watch and listen to, I also saw how much time and work were needed to get there. They prepared these performances while holding down full-time Silicon Valley tech jobs, as well as the regular ebb and flow of weekly orchestra rehearsals and weekend chamber music get-togethers.

SBPSpringConcertPoster

As befits its origins at Hewlett-Packard, the SBP, now an independent orchestra, calls itself an “Open Source Symphony.” A lot of the publicity is online, but they also print out business cards for members of the group to distribute. When I first saw these, I kind of wondered what to do with them, and in particular it struck me that they had photos of faces on them, not just of composers but of people I knew. “How does it feel to see your face on a card?” I asked. I don’t remember the response, exactly, but it was something like “it was a little weird at first, but I’m getting used to it.”

businesscards

Or maybe I’m projecting, because that describes just how I feel. The original design of the card had my face next to Dvořák’s portrait, but I felt a little uncomfortable with that. Instead I suggested this picture of Yosemite Valley, to represent the “New World” of the symphony. The blue of the sky is nice and color-coordinated with my dress and the orchestra’s logo. My daughter, who is now a freshman in college, took the picture of me with my viola in the backyard while she was home for spring break.

I’ve been giving them out to friends, other musicians I know, members of my writers’ group, people at church, even coworkers. It still feels a little odd to see my face there on a card. Proud? Happy? Sure, but that’s not all. Nervous? Anxious about “putting myself out there?” Yeah, that too. It’s not a bad feeling, but I struggle to find the right words. It is not a feeling I’ve ever had before and not something I expected when I picked up the violin again, and then the viola, more than 10 years ago. A new feeling. A new world.

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Practice Performances

If I had to pick one thing that has made my musical journey more fulfilling now than when I was younger, it would be this: low-stakes performances. I was a shy child, and I regarded performance not as a reward for a job well done, but as an opportunity to be put on the spot. That I didn’t perform much under such circumstances was probably a kindness. But it meant that any single performance was elevated to high stakes in my mind, ensuring that any anxieties and insecurities I had would be self-fulfilling.

When I started playing violin again, and viola, as an adult, I did a lot more performing. I started in church services and moved up to the Farmers’ Market. I found a non-audition orchestra to play in and some chamber music partners. I played in recitals and in church talent shows. Performances were no longer singular events, squinted at and dreaded like Mount Doom in the distance. I started to have so many performances that I even stopped making my family come to all of them!

What changed? I’d like to say the change was all in my attitude, and much of it was. But there’s also a positive feedback loop triggered when you have a good performance experience in a low-stakes venue. Even if you know you were in a wading pool, a friendly audience, positive comments and smiles, and an adrenaline rush that does not dissolve into a flood of cold hands and tears, are memories you can count on when you head into deeper, rougher waters.

WhiteWater

So. I hear the rapids gathering downstream as May 11, the date of my Telemann solo, approaches. As of this writing I’m at day 70/108–quite a bit over halfway there–which is a little scary.  Where did the other 69 days go?? Sharing videos in Facebook groups is nice, but I could still use some real practice performances. Where do you find such opportunities, especially as an adult student?

On the advice of my teacher, I was able to schedule playing Telemann in two church services, one for movements 1 and 2, and another for movements 3 and 4. Movements 1 and 3 are slow and work for a meditation; movements 2 and 4 are cheerful and sprightly and work for an offertory or prelude. And none of them is too long. The service with movements 1 and 2 took place in mid-March.

StainedGlass

In spite of feeling like I knew the piece pretty well in my practice room, when I got to the first rehearsal, it all flew out of my head. Libby, the church pianist, is a real pro, a teacher, and an experienced accompanist. She had some helpful suggestions that I just couldn’t process the first time I heard them. Such as, “take your time, don’t rush.” What, was I rushing?  . . . it’s hard to *not* do something that you weren’t doing in the first place . . . But, when I listened to my recording the next day, sure enough, it did sound rushed after all. Perceptions of time and space, and even of sound, are more different in the moment, in different contexts, than I would have expected. This makes recording, and the ears of knowledgeable colleagues, even more valuable.

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With Libby at church

My goal is still to be able to play from memory, but I used the sheet music in the service. It went well, in spite of various logistical challenges that had the minister running around until the last minute. The guest speaker was quite interesting too and took my attention off myself while I was waiting to play. Although I played decently, I did muff a shift at the end of the 2nd movement and played an open D instead of an A for 3 notes, but I got back on track and nobody seemed to notice. It became clear that at least at a church service, nothing was primarily about me, and all the little things I worried about were just not that important.

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Standing in front of the TACO orchestra during Harold in Italy

The following weekend, I played a movement of the Harold in Italy viola solo with a reading orchestra called TACO (the “Terrible Adult Chamber Orchestra“). One of my viola colleagues in the South Bay Philharmonic is the husband of the TACO conductor, and they organized a special session of TACO focusing on the viola. I couldn’t play Telemann again with them because it’s only for a string orchestra and TACO has winds and brass too. So I worked on the 3rd movement, the Serenade, in which a Mountaineer from the Abruzzi region sings to his mistress. This is a very pretty movement, but according to the program notes I read, Harold (as represented by the viola) is unsatisfied with what he sees and hears in the pastoral scene, and in the next movement he gets swept into an orgy of brigands.

This experience too was less about me than I might have feared. The afternoon opened with viola jokes and segued into birthday cake. The Harold in Italy movement was indeed challenging to put together in an afternoon, but it really didn’t matter that I had decided to just play the upper note of some of the fingered-octave double stops rather than risk repetitive stress injury to my 4th finger. What mattered was meeting some new people, celebrating the viola as an instrument, and having a good time playing with people who love music and playing together. I also got a viola clef T-shirt, perfect for wearing to rehearsals!

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With my alto clef T-shirt and TACO mug in the practice room

Even as an adult, I have a complicated relationship with performance. A few years ago I blogged about the potential development of an unbalanced “performance self” of a child who feels his or her worth is founded only on ability and accomplishment. Psychologist Lisa Miller offers the “spiritual self” as a counter to this limited worldview.

Although I personally find playing in church very rewarding, I don’t think a musician has to go to a place of worship to develop his or her spiritual self. It can be encouraged and fostered by steps such as meditation, prayer, or long walks in nature, and modeled by such traits as caring for others, empathy, and optimism. Practice performances like these give me a chance to give both selves, spiritual and performance, something they need. I think that the goal (probably a lifelong one) is to integrate the two and become a more complete musician.