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viola for holy week

Last spring, the Oregon Symphony presented a series of video productions that were a brainchild of the OSO’s Creative Chair Gabriel Kahane and director Holcombe Waller.

My contribution was Nico Muhly’s Keep in Touch, for viola and electronics. It’s apt that that video is being re-run this week – Holy Week – as Nico writes the following in his program notes for the piece:

The complete title of this work is Keep in Touch (Three Missed Calls for Holy Week). The title should only be listed in a program as such if it is performed during Lent…

Nico Muhly – program notes to Keep in Touch

Anyway, it was a daunting and eventually fun experience to realize this piece, and I hope to get a chance to perform it live one day!

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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!