A few more things I’ve learned

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Several years back, I wrote a post or two about things that I wished I’d known when I was a younger musician – as a student, freelancing, and the first few years in a professional orchestra. A few more have percolated through my subconscious lately, and these are more about things that I wish that I’d known as I got into the mid-point of my career.

  1. You will rush when you play louder. Unless you practice with a metronome. See No. 2.
  2. Metronome practice only gets more important. This is a somewhat embarrassing fact, but I think that it holds true for everyone. I was playing some audition rep for a colleague a few years ago, and I remarked that it was so hard really evaluate your own playing, and he said that people in orchestras often think they sound better than they actually do because they never make themselves play publicly outside the orchestra. This is so true. We often think, as musicians in our supposed prime, that we are human metronomes and tuners – but we are just as fallible as we always were, perhaps more so. Practicing with a metronome always improves your rhythm. So why not do it? Hubris.
  3. Efficient practice habits will save your bacon. You will have less and less time to devote to practicing as your life becomes more full of, well, life. Being able to think and practice effectively in 15 or 30 minute chunks is essential. Learn that skill early on, or don’t and get ready to suffer.
  4. Play concerts outside of your job ensemble. I touched on this in No. 2, but even if you’re playing for a class of kindergarteners or at a retirement home, you’re putting yourself out there in a way that sitting in the string section of an orchestra will never replicate. You don’t have to sound like Joshua Bell, but it will make you appraise your playing in a much more critical way, and will pay huge dividends with relatively little effort or exposure.
  5. Listen to music, live and recorded, regularly. Having a range of listening experience definitely helps how you work every day. Knowing the chamber music or sonatas of Janacek helps when one plays the Cunning Little Vixen Suite, or his Sinfonietta. You learn the composer’s mannerisms, which helps to develop a sort of shorthand in approaching a piece of music with which you may be unfamiliar.
  6. Playing everyday, even if it is only a brief warm-up routine, is essential. When I was in my 20’s, I would take almost an entire month off (in July) from playing. It was a bit tough getting back to the instrument, but it was doable (and I thought necessary, for my mental health). Nowadays, it is very noticeable when I take even one day off from thoughtful playing. Just showing up at rehearsals isn’t really enough. There needs to be time where you can really hear yourself play, and focus on the fundamentals: intonation, rhythm, and tone production. Even if it’s just a few scales with the metronome and some solo Bach, that really helps you to keep in touch with the basics.
  7. Don’t get complacent. This touches on No 2 again. Don’t think you know everything, or have everything ‘together’. Be skeptical of your own prowess, and always seek to improve and learn. I’ve had conductors chide the section for rushing, and thought to myself “How dare he! I don’t rush!” Sure enough, I’d go home and check the passage with a metronome and find that I was prone to rushing in that passage. Live and learn.
  8. Hear live performances by musicians of abilities close to your own. This is a new one to me, and it took some time to come to this conclusion. We all tend to listen to superstar musicians play (mostly through recordings, and then through live performances when they play with our orchestra), but we don’t spend much time listening to people who are near our level of ability perform (at least not as a soloist or chamber musician). It is a common psychological condition to feel like we’re the only one who struggles with aspects of their playing. In reality, everyone feels that way, regardless of their level of accomplishment. I’ve listened to performances by colleagues that were a bit less than touring soloist level polished, but which proved to be so inspirational to me. These performances left me itching to go home and practice after I got home – in a good way! I was raring to go and try some of the things that I heard them do, and felt musically recharged. Plus, your colleagues will be thankful to see you in the audience. Professional musicians are notoriously terrible about attending concerts that they don’t play!

the note/time continuum

Just as there is a space/time continuum in the physical world which we inhabit, there is also the note/time continuum. In this spectrum of time, there are passages which may only be a few bars long, but which require hours and hours of repetitive practice to achieve consistent results. There are old favorites, which lose their sting with time and familiarity, such as the transition from the development section to the recapitulation in the finale of Mozart’s ‘Haffner’ Symphony No. 35, or the seven note run that begins Strauss’ Don Juan. And then, one comes across a new nemesis. For me (and many others in the Oregon Symphony), the Prokofiev Suite from Love of Three Oranges is proving to be chock full of these insanity-producing nuggets. Here’s a prime example, from the opening of the last movement of the suite, entitled “Flight” (which my addled brain keeps translating from the French to ‘futile’:

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And here’s how it should sound:

tales from the practice room – 5/10/2012

This week is getting busier and busier. We’re rehearsing our program for this coming weekend, which has higher stakes than usual as we’re recording part of the program to complete our second CD of British music – Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Add to that the Passacaglia (also from Grimes), and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and Dvorak’s Scherzo capriccioso, and it’s a full program.

On top of all this, it’s my week to practice what we’ll be rehearsing next week (starting Monday, in fact!): capped by two gigantic and challenging works – John Adams’ City Noir and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This is my third or fourth set of performances of the Stravinsky, and that will just take a bit of touch up work.

The Adams, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. It will be a lot of fun to play, once I’ve got it up to tempo and hear what others are doing around me, I’m sure. When you look at one of Adams’ orchestral parts (I know that there are some exceptions to this, woodwinds!), it really never looks that intimidating. In fact, it’s the pages that aren’t so black with fast notes that are often the most tricky. You see, Adams has a way of putting you into a nice groove, and then he pulls out the rug from under you, and you’re doing the same groove, but a sixteenth note off, sort of like having a record skip (look it up on wikipedia, young ‘uns) and then jogging the needle back into the groove. It’s a great effect, but it is often hard to internalize without a good deal of quality time with the metronome. Here’s one of the trickier passages in the first movement, entitled The City and its Double: