Saturday, January 28, 2006

Why do people play concerts?

Last night I played my first (first ever) violin recital. I have played viola recitals, but my pianist friend and I thought it would be fun to explore the violin repertoire.

It is a lot of work to play a recital, and the benefits that come from the process of practicing, rehearsing, publicizing, and performing are completely intangible. Everything vanishes into thin air as soon as you finish playing. A recording captures only the surface of the experience, and with it most of the mistakes.

I can't speak for everyone, but most musicians worry before performing (at least before playing a solo or chamber music concert). We worry about playing the right notes at the right time. We worry about making a good sound. We worry about physical comfort on stage. We hope that we are not getting sick. We think about what we eat and when we eat it. We worry about our instruments. We all double check to make sure that we have our music. We worry about making stupid mistakes and getting lost. We practice and rehearse in order to be prepared for whatever happens.

Most musicians' main concerns are to play the music accurately, and to establish a connection with our performing partners and our audience. We try to bring out as much of the beauty in the music as possible. We know that the performance is a succesful one if we have a good time playing.

The best compliment I can get after a concert is "I liked (this or that) piece," or "I enjoyed myself." Playing music for people is all about enjoyment. It should be a time when everyone is focused on what they hear--both the performers and the audience.

Everyone who plays any concert has moments that go better than other moments. We all make mistakes. Some are blatant and some are veiled. Anybody who goes to a concert to "keep score" of the mistakes that the people playing the concert make would probably be happier at a sporting event or a game show.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Whole New Perspective

Yesterday I played the drum in a performance of Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony. It was a wonderful experience. I was volunteered for the position at the dress rehearsal when the trumpet player mentioned that he could not play trumpet and drum at the same time in the last movement.

I didn't know how to hold the sticks, or really what to do. I got to go on stage without holding an instrument (the drum sticks were with the drum), and I didn't get a chance to practice for either of the two performances. It was an exercise in luck for me, and it was a good one. Usually I play concerts, even orchestra concerts, knowing every note of my part intimately, and knowing how my instrument will respond to every note. All of a sudden I was at sea, and I knew that I had to swim. Thank goodness the part wasn't difficult.

I counted like crazy, and stood at attention during the movements I wasn't playing (I always wondered how percussionists did that so convincingly), and at the second concert I was proud of the way I played. My career as a percussionist in a professional chamber orchestra has ended, and I am very grateful for having had the experience.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Joy of Practicing

I love to practice. Right now I'm practicing the violin with purpose because I'm playing a violin and piano recital in a few weeks (Mozart's birthday, January 27th to be exact) at the community college where I teach music appreciation. What I love most about practicing with purpose is the chance to take a mental and aural magnifying glass and examine every interval, every bow change, every shift, and every note for its resonance and relative comfort. It is in practicing when it is possible to really fix problems by rendering the awkward passages into passages of interest.

I love the feeling of "holding" long notes in my hands and letting them develop like a potter lets clay develop on the wheel. I love the way that working on a note-by-note basis can free up musical possibilities and allow new things to happen. I love the feeling that by working they way I am working, the concert might just have the possibility of being a real musical experience for everyone involved.

When I practice like this I feel like I am in the company of great violinists, both living and dead. It is not that I play like one, but I imagine that I am practicing like one. I believe that the better a musician is, the more attention s/he pays to the small details that concern moving through the music from one note to the next. I don't think that great musicians need to pay special attention to the technical details while they are performing because they worked on all the details during practice time. That kind of confidence allows musicians to express themselves and become one with the music and their performing partners.

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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Mozart's Thematic Catalog

The British Library has a fantastic feature called Turning the Pages where they have an interactive "exhibit" of Mozart's thematic catalog. It is just about the most exciting thing I have seen on the internet.

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