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natesviolin
Playing in and out of the Chicago Symphony gives Nathan Cole the chance to write about a life with the violin.
14 Entries
Today seemed like a good day to start afresh here at the blog, as it's the first full day of work for our new President.  What a treat to hear and see some familiar faces performing at the inauguration!  Especially in the cold, I can't imagine...

Yesterday was inspring at the Symphony, and I hope it's a signal for things to come.  Not every day can contain such an event as a presidential inauguration, of course, but I saw so many high spirits yesterday that I have high hopes for the future of our art.

The administration had set up a big screen in Buntrock Hall, Symphony Center's largest space after the hall itself.  Since the inauguration began at 10 central, with the swearing-in at 11, we figured to miss it with our 10-12:30 rehearsal.  But wrong we were!  This week's maestro, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was as game as we were to see the changing of power and he agreed to take the rehearsal break just before 11.  He also agreed to let it last as long as Obama's speech!  You may not know how big a gesture this was if you have not played in a professional orchestra, but I can tell you that a break has never been extended during my 7 seasons here, for any reason other than the illness of a maestro himself!  Fully 2/3 of the orchestra spent our break up in Buntrock Hall, watching first the performance of John Williams' piece and then the swearing-in and speech.  We applauded along with the crowd, and felt as close to being there as I suppose was possible.  I can't remember many other moments of such unity within the Symphony.  Perhaps the naming of Muti as our next music director, or the applause that bubbles up when Muti or Maestro Haitink arrive on stage for the first rehearsal of a series.

This week is also a great time to write because on Sunday we leave for the first leg of our journey to Asia for a 3-week tour.  My wife and I will drive our dog Fleur to her parents' in New York, then fly from there to Tokyo.  We're there for 8 nights, then Hong Kong for 3, Shanghai for 4 and Beijing for 3.  Let me keep you abreast of what promises to be a memorable jaunt with Haitink!
8 years ago |
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Delay and Denial both figure in puns, one understood only by violinists.  But both have been powerful forces in music!

My delay has been five months of inactivity at this blog, and my denial came about after an unsuccessful audition five months ago.  Somehow writing about practicing and performing wasn't as fun after losing an audition... but I hope to take a more evenhanded approach in the future.

Practicing for me has always been directly linked to motivation.  I practice more and better when there is something right in front of me that I want.  That could be an audition, a performance, or a piece that I want to learn.  After an audition there is usually a "dead zone" since my mind and body need a chance to decompress.  I've always wondered how the soloists handle this, since for them there are always more and more performances around the corner.  In my life I've had the chance to take a longer-term view since there are usually only a few pressure points per season for me.

When your playing is judged by others it's easy to feel that you yourself are being judged as well.  I always think that I've learned that distinction, but the truth is that I may never do so.  In hindsight it's easy to put things in perspective by saying, "my playing was not what committee X was looking for on day Y".  But on day Y, and for many days afterward, the thinking is more like "I am not good enough to be doing what I'm doing".

Such thinking is obviously destructive and needs to be tempered with reality as soon as possible.  Fortunately I have a wonderful wife (who was curiously in the exact same position as me!) and great friends both in and out of music.  And in the end, what was the best remedy for me?  Another project!

It was several months until the project appeared, but once it did I realized how refreshing it was to practice with a purpose.  This was, indeed, another audition, and although it's over now, the process continues so I won't have more to say about it at this point.

So, after a long delay, I am back to remind myself that I should never deny myself the opportunity to enjoy the violin, both the work and the play.

9 years ago |
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I don't advocate playing when you're in pain; today's title refers to "playing through" for someone or something else.  What you play through is up to you:  a concerto, a list of excerpts, an etude.  And who you play for is also up to you:  a colleague, friend, relative, microphone, the wall.  The point is that you decide to play a specified program for an audience, real or imagined, without stopping.  It's a reality check and often a gut check.  And it can be painful.

Last night I did my first playthrough, for Akiko.  Playing for non-musicians (or inanimate objects) can still be helpful, but most of us get more nervous when there are musicians about.  And the more accomplished our audience is, the more nervous we get.  So last night was a good test of nerves, minus the Brahms concerto to keep things relatively short.  We're going to make this a once-every-few-days tradition around here.

One of the best uses of these playthroughs is to anticipate and manage the different mindsets in which you find yourself during a performance.  Obviously the best performances maintain interest through every note.  But does that mean that you need to be thinking of something every second?  It's an interesting question, because we've all had the experience of performing our best seemingly in an unconscious mode.  "It's like I was in a trance," I've often heard a performer say.  And the playing was smooth and effortless, truly at the limit of the performer's potential.

It's happened to me as well, and at a certain point I get a nagging doubt in my mind:  OK, what happens when I "wake up"?  Will my performance go downhill fast?  That's the point at which I do "wake up", and although I don't take a nose dive things suddenly seem a lot more difficult!

Then there are performances where I do feel disconnected, but not in a wonderfully hypnotic way.  I'm simply not a part of what's happening; this might be called the autopilot mode.

Finally, there are the performances where from the get-go everything feels difficult and I'm dying to have a few moments' peace, such as what comes with either of the above modes.  But it eludes me and I have to rely solely on my preparation

So there are three general modes:  Trance, Autopilot, and Conscious.  By definition, you can only "practice" one of these.  Just try to practice Trance or Autopilot and see how it goes!  So how do you deal with the other two, should they come upon you in a performance?  First, think about what distinguishes the two.  There is a highly developed awareness of the body that appears during a Trance period, and it's absent from Autopilot.  In a Trance, motions seem to happen in slow motion so that you feel every part of them.  Sound seems to surround you.  In Autopilot, I experience the opposite of all of these.  Big sections of music seem to rush past; my sound seems far away.

So what to do when you find yourself in one of the two unconscious modes?  If you start feeling the disconnect of Autopilot, start making yourself aware of something physical about your performance:  the feel of the fingers on the fingerboard, the way your feet ground you to the stage, anything at all.  This should bump you right back to Conscious, where you've done all your practicing.  And as for the Trance:  enjoy it while it lasts!  Don't worry about when it will end; it will do so of its own accord.  Again, when it does, you'll find yourself right back where you've done your best practicing.

All of this points to two things I need to keep in mind during my work.  The first is that all practicing should be done as if there were an audience.  It is an eerie feeling indeed to be in the middle of a performance and to realize that you have never imagined these notes reaching human ears before!  By contrast, what a comfort it is to know that you have played a passage hundreds of times as if there were a full house in front of you.  This applies even when you are just practicing two notes in isolation.  Second, it is vital to do playthroughs.  Only by playing large sections of music do you allow yourself to experience the unconscious modes that appear in real performances.  By learning to anticipate these and deal with them, perhaps even enjoy them, you take away much of what can make performance scary.  The best playthroughs, by the way, happen at a predetermined time and place so that you can practice what you will do for the few minutes before a performance or audition.  The more audition or performance day feels like just another work day, the more your performances will resemble your best practicing.
9 years ago |
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A little time off from the orchestra gives me more of a chance to practice and write, so expect more frequent entries.  Unfortunately, my wife doesn't get the same time off so I'm alone this week with our dog Fleur.  Lots of cooking and cleaning, which isn't the worst way to spend a week actually!

Plenty of arpeggios thrown into the scales this last week; I always get jealous when I hear people play fluid arpeggios, right in tune.  I've never found it easy to do, probably because I got such a late start on them and kind of shied away from them after that.  No more!  I'm throwing everything I can think of at them, going for that effortless feeling that I need in performance.

I remember what hell it was trying to play Sarasate Carmen for Mr. Galimir my second year of school without a great foundation of arpeggio work.  Neither of us was happy!

Here's a picture of Fleur, who doesn't always act as cute as she looks:
Fleur
9 years ago |
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I just remembered a comment from Pierre Boulez last month during a rehearsal, perhaps for Petroushka?  There was a thorny spot, and as is his habit, Boulez isolated one voice, the harp.  After a couple of repetitions, Boulez looked perplexed and solfeged the harp notes.  The harp disagreed: "No Maestro, I'm in treble here."  He paused, looked at the orchestra, and with his classic Gallic tones, quipped, "We are all in trouble here."

We had an unusual Saturday noon rehearsal, and our intrepid piano soloist was to be found at the hall as well.  Actually, in a hallway, outside the men's locker room.  There, at the piano, he played the same passage at least 50 times.  What was the passage?  It wasn't from the Brahms.  I found out that night, after the Brahms, during his first encore, the Chopin c-sharp scherzo.  There I heard the passage, twice as fast as I had heard it in the hallway.  I suppose I should be grateful that he doesn't keep it a mystery how he does what he does.

One of our cellists who was around to see it told me about a recording project with Brendel and the five Beethoven concerti.  Brendel practiced every moment that the mics weren't on, and at one point the cellist saw blood on the keys!  We're thinking that in Kissin's case it would have been ice water.

9 years ago |
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Or is it the other way around?  Some days it does feel as though progress goes in reverse.  At least I've done this enough to know that, like the market, you come out ahead if you hang around long enough.  When I was younger, I would have tried to solve a passage such as the cadenza from my concerto by spending an hour on it, then throwing something at the wall!  Now I'm more likely to do 5-minute chunks, 10 times in a day.  And I like to remember that there are other passages that are not problems.  Before I thought that was a weakness:  to admit that there were sections that were going well.  Now I know that it's healthy, and necessary, to acknowledge them.  If you can't be honest about the things you like, you will never be honest about the things you don't.  In both situations, you must be specific about what you hear:  not just "this was good, that wasn't", but "I'm liking this passage because of x, this other passage sounds y."

Another two encores from Kissin tonight (both Chopin), and one of them I knew because it was a demo file either for a Yamaha keyboard or Finale music notation software!

9 years ago |
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Tonight's CSO soloist prompted comments overheard from friends, colleagues, and random audience members:

"That's scary." "There's just no one like that." "Do you think he does anything else?" "That look in his eyes, that explains it." "This is the best I've heard." "I'll remember this one for years."

Taken together, these observations describe a person and an event.  The person is totally dedicated to his craft, and his performance and even his physical presence set him apart from normal folks who walk the streets.  The performance is mesmerizing, drawing the hall into the center of the stage.  The person and the performance combine to represent the true meaning of live music.

Comments about and criticism of Yevgeny Kissin's playing last night are almost irrelevant.  After reading the above paragraphs, it should be obvious that only a true master of his craft could cause such reactions.  I might add that Kissin does all of this without unnatural theatrics to dazzle the eye.  And from what I've seen of him before, I expect tonight's and tomorrow night's shows to be events as well.

Without the competition of an orchestra during Brahms' first concerto, Kissin's encores provided the best chance to examine him.  The first, a Chopin b-flat scherzo, was about 10 minutes long!  Hardly a lollipop.  The second was a minute-long wink to the audience to go home and go to sleep.  I read that the last time he played a solo recital here, there were encores totaling nearly an hour.

The first question that comes to my mind is stamina.  How can one play at such a level for so long?  From what we see around the hall, Kissin plays a LOT of piano when he is not on stage.  Might this explain it?  To perform under pressure for that many minutes and even hours, you must practice under pressure for hours.  He does not "doodle" at the keyboard.  His practicing sounds like performance.  Of course, for someone like Kissin who plays more than a hundred concerts a year, you don't give yourself a chance to get out of performance shape!

Then, consistency from night to night.  I have not heard Kissin less than razor-sharp.  I haven't read accounts of that either.  What motivates someone to reach for that level every time they step out on stage?  For this I have no answer.  He is not a performer who wears his heart on his sleeve, so I'm not prepared to say that a sheer love of playing is responsible.  It must be there, but is that at the core of his mastery?  Many soloists love playing but they haven't exactly dusted all their corners in a while.  Why does he?  Perhaps it's respect for his audience:  not just one "audience", but thousands of people who come for a real event every night.  Does he dare disappoint the few young pianists who have come to get a first look at a phenomenon?

That makes me wonder, as well, just how healthy it might be as a youngster to idolize a performer like Kissin.  Surely his gifts are obvious, but will every child with extraordinary gifts develop the same combination of endless work and limitless motivation?  And should they?

The closest parallel I could come up with in sports is Tiger Woods, because of the same basic factors:  work and motivation.  Tiger, unlike some of his peers, has dedicated himself to his sport since childhood.  He also, by all accounts, has worked consistently since that time to improve and maintain his level.  He has certain concrete milestones to chase (records), but I suspect that that is not his sole motivation.  Does that one motivation work every single day, year after year?

The answer, I believe, is to be found only in the whole-life view.  Kissin, like Tiger, has found fulfillment doing what he does best.  On some days, the joy of playing is enough to prompt several hours of good work.  Other days, it's an upcoming deadline such as new repertoire to be performed.  Still others, a long-term goal suffices to get the work juices flowing.  And finally, when all else fails, routine:  what would a day be without six hours of piano?  Many of us are afraid to face a day without coffee.  Or our favorite TV show.  Is it for us to say that coffee and television are be more "natural" for everyone?  Kissin made a combination of choices long ago and they have served him well.  I hope they continue to do so.  And I hope that we benefit for decades to come.

9 years ago |
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A quick entry to remind myself of the importance of the first try in practicing.  The usual practice method is to pick a tough spot, work on it for a while until it gets better, then, satisfied, move on to another spot.  Most often the first pass of the tough spot goes by without a thought, since you have the chance to work on it.  If there is a thought, it goes something like, "wow, that was bad, this needs work".  You knew that before you played it!

The first try should give you an indication of what that spot would sound like in a performance.  Remember that in a performance your nerves are up and not everything comes off at its best.  So, if you're performing a piece tomorrow, and your first try at a certain spot is bad news, it will probably remain so in performance the next day.  That's why advance preparation is so important.  The tenth try, the one that finally satisfies you, is much less relevant.  It points to where your first try might be in a week's time, which is good to know.  But that's a much hazier concept thatn the here and now.

This shouldn't be taken as doom and gloom, though.  The good news is that if you give sufficient time in between, you can have several "first" tries each day.  In fact, this is absolutely essential to speeding up the work process.  Do your first try, but listen objectively with the object of prioritizing the things that need work.  Not just "that was bad", but "the second measure felt shakiest because of the string crossings."  So spend 60 seconds working on that and do another pass or two.  Note any changes that resulted, and move on to do a first try at another spot.  Half an hour later, return to the first spot for a fresh "first try".  Now you're getting performance practice every half hour! 

9 years ago |
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For those who hate playing or reading about scales, maybe you'd better skip to another entry...

I have a very clear sensation while I play scales of literally scaling, climbing something.  I envision a ladder.  It doesn't have to do with playing a scale up or down, but with how I'm progressing.  I can feel when something clicks and I'm making positive changes, ones that will stick.  Those are steps up.  Even if something doesn't go the way I like, that's not necessarily a step down.  When my mind wanders, or when I try really hard to do something, that's a step down.  I love the feeling of climbing and finishing scale work in a good place.  Of course, some days there doesn't seem to be a way to pull myself out of a rut!

Today was fine though; lots of work on a four-octave scale, a minor.  The only four-octaves I do are G, A-flat and A.  Above that my arm and wrist complain loudly!  Perhaps the worst feeling while playing a scale is the sensation that my left hand has been hung out to dry, way up high.  There's a certain amount of room you need to create (by bringing the left arm/hand around) on the way up a big scale or arpeggio, but on the way down the original position must be reclaimed.  If you delay that, you end up with a terrible frame (bent wrist, vertical fingers) in the middle positions and shifting down becomes very inconsistent.  When I make my goal on the way down the reclaiming of my starting position, everything goes more smoothly.  A four-octave scale is a great testing ground for this, and speeds/bowings should of course be varied constantly.

It's a strange experience practicing a piece right after you've heard it played by someone else.  That would be Ein Heldenleben, which all last week was played (owned?) by our concertmaster.  Hearing a great example opens you up to the possibilities that lie in the music, rather than the usual attempts to improve your playing incrementally.  Let's hope that continues for a while.

9 years ago |
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After teaching three lessons in a row today and spending a fair amount of time on scales, it's hard to avoid thoughts of the ugly beasts.  The scales, of course.  I've done them and so have you, and we both know someone who has done more than we have.  How much is enough, or too much?

On my site natesviolin.com I tell the story of my first lesson with Felix Galimir, where I learned that I would be spending a couple hours on scales every day until further notice.  Like most tasks that seem (or are) monumental, this yielded lots of good fruit.  I didn't exactly keep it up, but a normal practice day has me doing between 30 and 45 minutes of scales.

For my students that don't have pressing repertoire deadlines, I don't mind if they devote a third or even half their time to scales, as long as they are showing good improvement and increased fluency with them. For those who have to get through more repertoire, I think half an hour is a good minimum.  This includes arpeggios and double-stop exercises, of course.

After working through some of Ruggiero Ricci's left-hand book and noting his love of thirds, I've found a big daily dose of thirds very helpful for the hand and the ear.  It's impossible to have a bad hand frame while you're negotiating passages in thirds, so this can really iron out some of those issues.

I don't teach a scale system, although I use the Flesch book because of its completeness.  In my own work, I play single-note scales in separate bows, both on and off the string, and slurred (free bowing).  Arpeggios, same thing.  Thirds, then fingered octaves (static 1-3, static 2-4 and finally 1-3 2-4).

For the single-note scales I like to work through 6 to 12 keys, and for the double-stops just two or three.  I leave a key and then come back to it a few minutes later to see what sticks.  The idea is to keep things moving and to constantly vary the game.  60 or even 30 seconds of focused work on a scale will be very productive, but don't be surprised if your mind wanders at that point.  A new key or a different kind of scale is essential.

And if your arm/hand gets fatigued, take a break!  No good will come of continuing to pound away at something past its time.  That's how I've hurt myself the few times it's happened.  Thank you very much, Paganini 24th caprice!  Actually, it may have been Bach or something else.  It just sounds more valiant if it was a caprice.

9 years ago |
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