Practice

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There are many differing viewpoints as to what practice is necessary outside of a full-time job as a musician; for example how much preparation is needed before a first rehearsal, whether the rehearsals themselves are there to practise in and other viewpoints.

In my personal experience, how I use my practice time is never the same, depending on whether I’ve played the piece before, whether we’re on a heavy rehearsal schedule, and so need to pace myself, or whether there is something special both inside or outside of work, such as a concerto, or a particularly demanding opera such as Wagner’s Tristan, that needs preparation.

This article http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/ is rather apt in the approach to take to practice, and is certainly something that I have experienced; hours of time spent on something where my brain hasn’t been present doesn’t lead to a lot of progress. Yet ten minutes focussed on a particularly difficult couple of bars, if approached in the right way, can yield the breakthrough.

I have also over the years had to reevaluate the way I approach things. Practice techniques that may have worked at college – I’m thinking particularly of a month or two spent with Sevcik shifting exercises – may not work in the same way once in the profession, and I find my approach to things is generally more piece driven, rather than general technique these days. But these things are a learning curve, and certain things work better for some than others.

One of my colleagues asked me how much I practised once and I couldn’t give him a definitive answer. Enough to be able to play well what we were working on sprang to mind, which sometimes is a standard that never quite gets reached because some of the passages in Tristan are definitely a work in progress and I hope only for continual improvement! Enough not to look like a complete idiot at work and avoid embarrassment could be another standard, and that can require more practice for certain pieces rather than others. Enough to satisfy my own musical standards; perhaps a closer answer, but one that is different for everybody, and depending on what you are aiming for, can be a problem in itself if different people have different starting points at first rehearsals.

It’s all a bit of a movable feast, and entirely dependent on the musician’s work ethic, and their understanding of what is expected of them, and how much practice they think that requires.

Inspiration

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I’ve been asked about the interaction between orchestra members and conductors, whether we all know the pieces so well, we could play it without a conductor, and what we gain from different conductors.

Well I suppose the simple answer is yes. I suppose we could play repertoire without a conductor. It’d be an interesting exercise – more difficult when the orchestra is in the pit and there are singers on stage. There are operas we know better than others, and can play from memory, and know roughly what speeds they go, and where the singers are likely to need time, or want to breathe, or just want to be musical…

But whilst a conductor deals with the basic logistics – setting the speeds and keeping orchestra with stage, and.. well, keeping the orchestra with itself and rehearsing and practical matters, he or she has a role to play which is more important than that; one of crafting a cohesive musical intent, or offering a vision for how they want the music to go – in other words, how they want us to play, how they want the singers to sing, how to interpret the music. It’s about inspiration. If they weren’t there, everyone would have their own ideas about how to interpret the music, because everyone has a different personality, and responds to the music in a different way.

So, for example, La Boheme can be a very distinctly different experience with 2 different conductors. We have an Italian conducting it at the moment who seems to breathe life into the score, whilst allowing the singers the time they need, but keeping the flow in the music so it doesn’t grind to a halt, whilst creating the most stunningly beautiful moments where you could hear a pin drop, and you hardly dare breathe. However I’ve done other versions in the past which I have not found quite as joyous to experience.

Diffferent conductors have different approaches – some are former players, and so have more to say about their former instruments. Some like to speak in poetic pictures and give you an image to “play”; some are all about the sound, and how that should be a living thing; some speak about how the relationship between orchestra and conductor should be a two way thing – that players can offer up their interpretation, and the conductor’s viewpoint may be influenced by it.

Mostly I find that as long as a conductor can show me what he wants, then I get something from it; perhaps a different viewpoint that I hadn’t considered – a way of playing that hadn’t occurred to me, sometimes a passage of music that hasn’t made sense to me before will come alive and fall into place with a particular conductor due to the way he or she explains it in gesture. The conductors who have to explain everything – talk at length about what they want – in other words telling me rather than showing me, those are the ones that are less inspiring.

First Night

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Tonight Tristan and Isolde opens for the first night of a limited run of performances in our summer season, which concludes with a concert performance in Edinburgh at the Festival in August.

We had the dress rehearsal on Wednesday, which was encouraging in a lot of ways. Personally speaking Tristan is such a complicated piece to play – it ranges to the extremes. You can be sitting counting to 49 bars, playing a chord, then counting to 32, then playing a little phrase – this is fairly unusual for a violin part. The other extreme is having a line which comes from nowhere where you have to instantly play some fiendishly difficult passagework (Thanks Richard…). It makes it a difficult piece to pace yourself in, because it’s a bit like a rollercoaster. Then there’s the emotional side of it to add to all that. So the dress rehearsal turned out to be better than I expected. You never quite know how a run of a show is going to go until you’ve actually done it, and there was definitely a sense that it was all starting to come together.

Performing to an audience always makes a difference. The opening night of any show adds a little adrenaline and nerves to the mix, and an even more heightened sense of concentration and excitement. There is usually a buzz in the pit that adds another level to the whole performance. I’m personally hoping that the arrival of the performance run brings an electric atmosphere with it tonight.

Aches and pains

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Over the course of a career, musicians may develop various physical issues that make playing difficult, or simply ones that cause discomfort after a long day at work.

I’ve read in the papers about how bad backs cause a lot of sick days with 9 to 5ers, but for those of us who sit holding instruments in strange positions that are unnatural to the body it can cause a myriad of different problems. You can work on the best posture and the most natural and comfortable position, investing in time spent with teachers, or learning the Alexander Technique http://www.alexandertechnique.com/at.htm to try to prevent as much as possible. Some people swear by yoga or pilates to strengthen the body and keep it healthier whilst sitting in one position for several hours.

But those long hours rehearsing or performing do inevitably bring up issues to deal with – as an opera player (and previously ballet), long hours in the pit have brought up various things over my professional career to deal with. Generally opera and ballet performances are longer than concerts – concerts can be more quickly draining, but opera/ballet could almost be described as a distance sport, one where stamina and strength are really necessary.

Back when I played for the ballet company, 7 shows a week of the same show (Tues-Sat evenings with two matinees Thu and Sat) meant that by the time I left that job for my current one, I had mild De Quervain’s tendonitis in my right wrist from playing a lot of tremolo (rapid reiterations of notes). It still surfaces from time to time when we’re playing a lot of Rossini (which has a lot of that sort of thing), but generally is just mildly annoying rather than debilitating.

I know violinists with shoulder problems that make bowing difficult, those who have had nerve damage that cause them to be unable to lift their right arm above their shoulders, viola players who struggle with the weight of the instrument, so it pulls things out of alignment.

Particular composers can cause more trouble than others. Wagner, due to the length of it, can be rather taxing. The first time I performed a run of Tristan and Isolde, I tore a muscle in my left forearm; that gave way in the middle of a show. The next big Wagner opera I had a problem with my right forearm. This time, I’m taking care to be really careful, as it’s not something that I want to happen again!

However, there’s another thing that can cause problems, and that’s something that can be overlooked. Tiredness. Playing for long hours in emotionally draining situations where you are giving of yourself so much does lead to exhaustion, especially if then afterwards you go home to a busy family with kids, and other responsibilities. Last year I had to take time off work after falling down the stairs at home and bruising my ribs and pulling various muscles. I missed a step, because I was tired. It had been a particularly heavy time at work, and I’d not been resting enough. It’s an easy mistake to make, and one that was rectified by a week of rest and boredom at home for me, but isn’t that easily fixed if you’ve got lots of other responsibilities.

So when an injury occurs, or pain beyond the norm is felt, we turn to our “people”. The chiropractors, osteopaths, physios, people we trust to help get us back to functioning and workable. I have a physio that I trust – that when my shoulders are tight and unmovable – as can happen with lots of playing under any sort of stress (which is bound to happen at work sometimes) – she gets me moving again, and able to carry on.. until I can go on holiday for 2 weeks in the sun and give myself a break…!

The rehearsal process

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For any given opera, the rehearsal process begins for the orchestra with full orchestra rehearsals. These are rehearsals with the conductor to learn the music, rehearse it to the point where we know it pretty well and are ready for the Sitzprobe. There may also be sectional rehearsals during this period; these are rehearsals with only certain sections of the orchestra, the first violins or the strings as a whole. These are really useful for making things better quickly.

The Sitzprobe is where the singers and chorus come into the orchestral rehearsal room and we rehearse all together. Prior to this point, there have been numerous production rehearsals which the singers have been attending; these are rehearsals where the director of the show decides what will happen on stage in the show. These are accompanied by piano, not orchestra. There are primary rehearsals in rehearsal rooms, then Stage and Piano rehearsals, which are on the actual performing stage.

At this point the next rehearsals are called Stage and Orchestras. The orchestra goes into the pit, and the singers onto stage into costume. There is usually one Stage and Orchestra rehearsal for each act of opera, and one at the end for a run of the whole show prior to the dress rehearsal. These rehearsals are usually really exciting; the orchestra get to see the set, to start hearing the opera as a whole.

The last rehearsal before the opening night is the dress rehearsal. This is a run, one where there is an audience, but not a performance as such; sometimes we stop and rehearse if things go wrong. Singers may not sing out the whole time, but may “mark” to save their voices. It’s a useful rehearsal as a barometer of how the first night might go, what still needs work, and how the technical aspects might work. It is also generally when we find out how long the performances are, when we might finish a show.

Cars

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As a musician, and especially one who tours a lot, it is very necessary to own a car. It would be a very complicated thing to tour by train and a car is not only convenient when I’m in Cardiff, it also means I can get to work in twenty minutes rather than an hour – which is what the bus would take.

Unfortunately, cars can come with their own special type of trauma, and the last month has been rather too busy with it for my (and my bank account’s!) liking.

I’ve had two cars in my time as a driver. The first – a trusty Rover – met its end on a roundabout in Cardiff in the pouring rain on a dark Friday night in winter on the way home from Bristol on tour. It sounds dramatic, and it felt like it at the time. Standing on the side of a roundabout having called the AA, I’m still in my concert black, I’ve a violin on my back, and it’s raining.. heavily. It’s like a bad film. Thankfully a colleague stopped and helped me push the car into a nearby shopping car park, and he took me home. I returned to deal with it the next morning. It was very old, bless it, and it had seen me through a lot of mileage, but I thought.. enough, and started looking for a new (at least to me) car.

I had decided to go for a nearly new Ford Focus due to the very nature of its supposed reliability; there had been many promises of checks that had been applied to the car so that it would be no problem, and was very unlikely to break down on the side of a motorway or a roundabout, that being my foremost top of the list must-have. However the litany of issues that followed could almost be comical if it wasn’t so depressing.

Leaking seals were only the beginning. Driving down the motorway in the rain to a gig when the car had only been a month in my possession, I was slightly perturbed when I changed gear, and found the gear stick wet. Water was dripping through the windscreen into the car. Then it was the rear door seals.. on both sides.

Then a month after the guarantee ran out, the ABS pump went. Needless to say, that got fixed, though it was a painful one… £1500 later!

Then it turned out, the particular version of the Focus I had didn’t have a cover over the engine, and water got into the spark plugs on a regular basis, which meant problems with ignition, as the plugs would rust through. Twice yearly visits to the garage to get plugs changed to ensure them being able to remove them without them falling into the engine and causing serious damage.

Then the latest incidents… on the way home from Plymouth a month ago, the battery light on the car comes on, the lights go off, and I break down at 1am 100 miles from home. Home on the back of a lorry arriving at 3am. This time the culprit was the alternator. So that got replaced.  Having only been in my local garage getting the plugs fixed a month earlier, I felt like I was seeing rather too much of them. Indeed my mechanic, on seeing it was me, just went “oh not you again!”

So.. here we are today and I sense the end is nigh for my poor old Focus. Reading the litany of issues above that I’ve had with it right from the beginning, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. The engine light is now on, laughing at me mockingly in its defiance. “You thought it was over?” it says.. “back to the garage with you…!”

Enough might be enough…

Nerves

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I’m often asked whether I get nervous before I perform.

After 10 years in the professional business and years studying and performing at student level before that, the answer is not as much as I used to. It tends to depend on the performance, how important it seems, and the level of exposure!

The 18th performance of Traviata is not nervewracking. Opening night, however, depending on how rehearsals have gone, may be different – the first outing of something, whether opera or concert, is always more unfamiliar and therefore more likely to feature nerves. I expect that when Tristan opens, I’ll be a mixture of nervous and excited. When we did Ariadne auf Naxos – and I played the second violin solo part, I was definitely nervous, because it was out of my comfort zone. Leading a show for the first time can give rise to those sorts of feelings as well.

Concerts on stage are also slightly different – you can be seen, whereas in my usual work, I’m hidden in a pit; however the thought of embarrassing myself by making some loud mistake in front of my colleagues is probably worse than on show in front of an audience!

Chamber concerts and solo concerto performances are less frequent and definitely more nerve wracking.

It does depend on what you’re familiar with – if you’re a concert performer regularly, perhaps those are less nervewracking, or someone who performs concertos all the time, that’s where your comfort zone lies. I think a certain amount of nerves is useful if you can channel it into the music – makes the performance more exciting for the audience and makes the concentration level higher – it’s far easier to make a mistake in the 18th show of Traviata than the first night, at least in my experience.

If however you are unused to any type of performance, any public performance can give rise to terror of a degree that can prevent any sort of performance at all! I am recalling a small 12 year old boy who was playing in a second violin section of a youth orchestra that I was coaching. We arrived at concert day, his parents were no doubt in the audience. They all went onstage, and I got around to the audience to see him walking back offstage. I ran back around to see what had happened, and it turned out that he was so nervous, he’d cut his E-string with a small pair of scissors that he’d hidden in his pocket, hoping to escape from having to perform!

Routine

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I’m back to the “life in Cardiff” routine this week.

That means rehearsals for the new operas, which this season are Tristan and Isolde (Wagner) and La Boheme. (Puccini)

Tristan is possibly my most favourite opera – both to play and to listen to. It’s such a passionate piece with the most gloriously heartrending music and some of the most stunning passages of singing you’ll ever hear. 5 hours plus passes very quickly in this particular opera.

La Boheme is one of the most beloved of Puccini’s operas – we’ve not started rehearsals for that yet but the production rehearsals for the singers onstage have started now.

My usual routine also involves choir on a Tuesday night – I’ve missed Tuesday nights since we started tour in March. Usually I meet my friends from choir at the pub for dinner so we’ve finally had a catch up – I’ve not seen some of them for weeks.

Napoleon

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Tonight I’m playing in a concert that is themed around Napoleon.

The first piece is the 1812 overture by Tchaikovsky. As I mentioned in a previous post, we are doing the version with chorus, and the prayer at the beginning in Russian is quite beautiful.

Tchaikovsky was commissioned to compose the piece to commemorate Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon’s advancing army at the Battle of Borodino in 1812.

Following that is Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon, a string quintet with narrator that the principals are performing. There were 2 reasons for the composition – the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, Schoenberg heard President Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” radio address; and in January 1942 he received a commission from the League of Composers for a short chamber work.

The text is by Lord Byron; it mirrored Schoenberg’s support for the fight against Hitler.

It’s a complicated piece to put together, taking many hours of rehearsal; However it is an incredibly powerful piece of music – I’m speaking as someone who has just experienced it for the first time.

The concert is finishing with Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, the Eroica. Beethoven wrote the piece with Napoleon in mind, and at one point was going to dedicate it to him. It’s said that when Napoleon declared himself Emperor Beethoven’s admiration was lost and he tore up the page with the dedication.

Oh.. And we do have cannons for the end of the 1812. I’m hoping I’m not
going to jump every time they go off!