lessons learned

I had a hard week this week. It had less to do with outside circumstances than life inside of my head. I am working on a piece that I have long admired, and actually have owned for nearly a decade, but never got around to performing. It’s a piece for viola and tape by Nico Muhly called Keep in Touch. I was prompted to get it up to performance shape by Gabriel Kahane, who as Creative Chair of the Oregon Symphony is producing a series of videos called Essential Sounds. He had in mind an interview with Nico, and I’d mentioned knowing of this piece, so one thing led to another… So with basically three weeks to prepare something from zero to ready-to-be-recorded live for video, I began work. I learned some interesting things that might be useful to others – either established professionals, or students, or anyone in between.

First, start with a can-do attitude. I used to have one of these! When I was in my 20’s, I would fearlessly approach very difficult works with the assumption that they were within my purview, and I would be able to perform them well. In the intervening 25-plus years, though, I guess I’ve learned what I don’t know more than what I do know. The negative has overshadowed the positive. Difficult pieces are approached more with trepidation and fear than curiosity and enthusiasm now. And that’s gotta change. I can’t continue in this way – I would quickly burn out or become a bundle of nerves, or both.

Second, don’t get ahead of yourself. I used to tell this to my students all the time. Start slow. Take measured steps. Learn small sections well, then move on to a new one. If only I would listen to my teacher-self! I knew this stuff, but I was not listening. I think that part o this is because of the nature of being in a major orchestra that does so much repertoire in a season. Music is stuffed in one end of the sausage grinder, and hopefully something palatable comes out the other end. Music has to be learned so quickly. So when I start work on any new piece, the first instinct is to take the whole thing in and digest it as quickly as possible, and try to get it up on its feet way too soon. So it was with the Muhly. I tried to get it working with the tape accompaniment way too soon. So technical aspects of the viola part weren’t ready. I also wasn’t familiar enough with the soundtrack. And the rhythmic solidity of the viola part wasn’t there yet, either. What this made for was a series of off-balance, technically poor, and very discouraging attempts to make it through large parts of a 12 minute piece way before I was realistically ready to even contemplate such things. As a very wise friend of mine said on Facebook after my meltdown, “take it slow”. Words to live by.

Third, temper your expectations. I listen to a lot of great players. Some of them are colleagues who I hear at work, others are friends whose work I hear on recordings or on YouTube. Still others are in the constellation of fantastically talented superstars that either come through as soloists, or whose recordings I own. I hear their work, and think that’s the standard of playing that I aspire to. And that’s fine – but I have to also be realistic about what my end product will be. It’s not going to sound like Tabea Zimmermann or Roberto Diaz. I’m not at their level – never was, never will be. So when I record myself playing something, and hear all of the imperfections, I need to accept where I am right now, resolve to work harder to achieve more, and be happy with myself for putting in the effort. This is colored by my own complicated relationship with music and the viola, and I know that and am working on that relationship. But aspiring to greatness – while at the same time accepting the progress that actually gets made – is key.

Hopefully this brief therapy session was helpful to you – if you have any insights that you’ve developed in the course of your musical work, please comment!

new oregon symphony recording released today

I’m so proud of this recording of Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form. If you haven’t heard this piece, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Many of us may end up in this situation if things don’t improve in the next couple months.

And our recording of mid-century American works has only been out a few weeks – it’s also gaining critical recognition, and sounds fantastic.

learning is hard – and you control how hard it is

I’ve had some learning to do these past few weeks, and more to come. A large part of being a professional musician is having someone come to you and say “play this”. Now, if you’re supposed to hold your viola like a viol, and bow between your left hand and the scroll, then you just have to learn how to do that. The same goes for doing right hand tremolo with thimbles on your fingers and playing a melody with your left hand. Or playing tuned wine glasses with your bow, or a large tam tam with same. As you may have guessed, all of these techniques are featured in George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet, which I’m performing with the Pyxis Quartet later this month.

A movement from Crumb’s Black Angels quartet. [click to enlarge]

Now suppose that you’re a perfectionist, and you’re also prone to being down on yourself, and you have major league imposter syndrome (raising hand). That makes the learning process doubly difficult. Because I look at a movement of such a piece, and I think, “I should be able to play this, because I am somewhat accomplished”. I then attempt to play the passage, fall flat on my face, and then say “I suck, I am the worst violist in the world, and everyone else can play this perfectly.” I expect to get from zero to 100 instantly, and that is just not the way the world works! So, after an initial (sometimes extended) period of this idiocy, I stop, take things apart, and work methodically to figure out how to do each technique in each passage. Sometimes this is mind-numbingly slow work. When I was working on John Zorn’s The Alchemist (one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever played) I would spend an hour working on just one or two bars, figuring out just how to choreograph fingers and bow, just so I could get through those bars at barely half of the performance tempo.

The place when the panic really sets in is when I haven’t allowed enough time to prepare before the first rehearsal. Sometimes this is just unavoidable – life intervenes in the best laid practice plans more often than not. I try to tell myself that I’ll work to get as much of it under my fingers as I can, and that the others in my ensemble are likely feeling the same way. Sometimes that’s true, and other times I’m the weakest link in a particular rehearsal. One thing that helps me a lot in these sorts of situations is spending at least as much time doing score study and part marking as I do just learning notes. That way, even if I’m only approximating what’s on the page, I know pretty well what I should be doing, what the other voices should be doing, and how I might fit with those voices.

Excerpt from Black Angels. [click to enlarge]

The main point is that only you know how you learn best, and only you can control how you structure and nurture that learning process. Negative self-talk and impatience only serve to short-circuit the process and lead to a downward spiral of shame and recrimination.