Concerts and such

2 11 2011

Saturday was a bit of a hectic day.

I had homework to do.  In addition, it was the day of the Cambridge University Symphony Orchestra concert, and because of that, there was a 3 hour rehearsal from 2-5 before our concert at 8.  The practice lasted until 5:15.  Let me tell you, 3 hours + of rehearsal before a concert is not a good idea.  Brass players will attest to that.  The phrase is that our ‘chops’ or ‘lips’ get tired.  In reality, that’s not particularly accurate.  Brass players use various mouth muscles in order to produce the correct embouchure (or arrangement of the lips) for playing the notes.  After a while, just like with any muscle, mouth muscles get tired and therefore stop being able to play notes at the extreme ends of the spectrum, and the more you play, the fewer notes you are able to play.  If you play for too long, your lips and mouth begin to look like this:

This has only happened to me once, but it wasn't pretty

Thankfully, I was only playing 1st Horn (the hardest and highest part) on two pieces, and we had an assistant–called a “bumper”–whose main job was to help the 1st player with tedious high bits so the horn player doesn’t become Steven Tyler.  My lips were not shot after rehearsal, which was somewhat surprising.

Initially, I didn’t want to be 1st horn in the orchestra because its very high pressure work.  The parts are the most difficult and the most exposed; there are often little solos strewn about any piece of music and the possibility of a bigger solo.  However, it so ended up that I played 1st on two pieces, including the one that was ridiculously difficult and had both mini solos and probably one of the most important horn solos in the classical repertoire (I posted a link to a video of this solo in an earlier post).  This piece is Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.  It was featured on Disney’s Fantasia 2000 (most of it anyway).

You’re probably thinking, “Matt, why didn’t you want to do the 1st part?  Its the most fun and you get to do solos?  Isn’t that what everyone wants???” The answer is…no.  But this is for a reason.  Here’s a story for you.

I had never really been the nervous type of performer.  I always had this mind frame of “Well, if it goes bad, whatever.”  This was especially true in ensembles; if I had a solo part or whatever I wouldn’t be nervous at all.  Of course, nerves did occur in solo playing, auditions, and selected small ensemble stuff.  But it never was a huge deal.  I knew people who were stricken by the nervousness curse and were just really affected by it.

All this changed for me last year.  The William Jewell Brass quintet was playing an arrangement of “Come Christians Be Committed” in Chapel last September or so.  In this arrangement, I began the first line of melody by myself.  I had been running late so I wasn’t able to warm up beforehand very much.  I also wasn’t feeling that great.  But I didn’t exactly nail the beginning, and had another mistake or two on the first page.  I began obsessing about a part near the end which was really high, and kept thinking to myself “Oh no I can’t do this.  I can’t do it.”  I became super nervous.  The hard part had a little issue with it but wasn’t terribly bad.  By the end I was literally shaking and terrified.

And so my mind began to wage war on me.  Suddenly, it told me, I had become the ‘nervous’ type.  Every time for the next year I had something hard or exposed, I would fret about it constantly, think about it constantly beforehand.  I became a scared player.  Then there was a somewhat disaster in my jury in December (which wasn’t entirely my fault) and my piece in the sophomore music recital completely derailed at the end–these issues snowballed with my rut of nervousness.  Though my playing wasn’t even bad overall, I felt like a shell of myself.  So that’s why I didn’t want to play solos.  I felt like I would mess them up at any point.  I felt like this:

We get to the concert on Saturday.  I’m pretty nervous, because there were so, so many things to go wrong, and the stakes have never been as high.  If I messed up, everyone would know it.  The first half of the concert begins, and I play normal, easy music constantly thinking about how much I didn’t want to play my solos (the last piece of the concert), and how nervous I would be.

But, in the middle of the second piece, something happened.

I was nervous–IN THE MIDDLE OF A 30 BAR REST.  Afterwards I played like, a quarter note.  At this point I said to myself, “This is ridiculous.  I don’t want to feel this way.  I realize I have to play stuff later, so mind, you can just deal with it.”  I immediately stopped being nervous on that piece.  When Stravinsky came around, I was apprehensive–but not terrified.  I survived the piece, and my solos went well.  Steven Tyler and the Tired Lips made an appearance at the very end though.

I think I’ve made a breakthrough.  Its taken me a long time, and I’m not ‘whole’ again.  Its normal to be nervous as a musician.  Everyone gets nervous.  But if you practice the hard bits, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do them in concert.  Fear is an abnormal response.  There is no reason to have fear at a concert.  And I was fearful.

Now I’m just nervous.  While that sounds bad, its actually one of the best things in the world.

P.S.  My watch has suffered some sort of stroke and is now inoperable.  This is sad news.  It was my alarm clock.  Now what?

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One response

24 12 2011
peter Larcombe

Hope you won’t mind Christmas greetings from a random stranger. I’m sitting at home listening to the Nine lessons and Carols from King’s. I googled KCC to show my kids where the service was coming from, and your blog popped up.
It’s nearly twenty years since I led the horns of CUMS1. I’m glad to see that nothing much has changed
Happy Christmas to you and yours, and all power to your embouchure
Peter Larcombe
Corpus 1987-90
peter@larcombes.us

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