I’ve had a cold all week. It started to come on on Monday, and got steadily worse, reaching its peak on Friday or Saturday.
Normally this wouldn’t matter too much, but on this occasion one of the orchestras I play in was having a concert, playing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
And normally, if I was too unwell to play in a concert, it would be possible to ring or text some of my violin-playing contacts, and find someone willing to substitute for me in the concert. Two problems with that, though:
- I’d contacted most of them already, asking if they were willing to assist in the orchestra as extra players: so I already knew that most of them weren’t free, and any who were were already playing.
- On this occasion, I was the leader–or if you’re American, the concertmaster (a much grander term!))
In fact, finding the extra players we already needed had proved a very difficult task, because of there being too many other concerts on at the same time. Everyone was already playing somewhere.
“But surely,” I hear you say, “it’s just a cold. Why does that matter?”
Well, think about it. For a start, coughing and sneezing are not particularly quiet activities. Then there’s the matter of the runny nose and of only having two hands, both of which are fully occupied playing the instrument. How do you blow your nose? And then there’s the mental requirement of a concert: sustained concentration so as to keep your place when counting rests, stay alert to what’s happening around you in the orchestra, and avoid falling into various musical traps (such as entries which don’t occur quite where you’d instinctively expect). And if you’re leading, you’ve also got to use your body language to communicate information to the rest of the first violins, or to the whole string section. A fuddled brain is not helpful, whether it’s caused by a fever or by medication.
And the cold stopped me doing the practice which I really needed to in the week before the concert, as well . . .
So it seemed that
- I was probably not fit to play
- I had no alternative but to play
and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
I don’t usually take anything to keep the fever down for a cold unless it’s high enough to make me start feeling particularly ill; research  suggests that its purpose is to help the immune system to fight the virus, and that recovery is quicker if the fever (within reason) is allowed to do its job. On the other hand, this was a concert . . .
So on Thursday morning I phoned the local chemist’s for advice on what I could take to enable me not to cough, sneeze or (sorry) drip for a three-hour stretch, and I got some Sudafed tablets (60 mg of pseudoephedrine hydrochloride).
On Friday I tried them out, together with Nurofen (ibuprofen) for the fever, and it looked as though I had a fighting chance of making it through the concert physically. As for the mental aspects, I wasn’t so sure. If I had enough concentration for the reahearsal, would I have any left for the concert? Would I absorb any information from the rehearsal anyway? And what about the passages which I’d planned to practise during the week but hadn’t, because of being ill? Would I have my wits about me enough to make up for that?
The day had the usual pattern for the orchestras I play in: three-hour rehearsal in the afternoon, concert in the evening.
In the event, things went better than I feared. I was still a bit fuddled, but the Nurofen did a good job of keeping my temperature down enough for my brain to be reasonably functional. But it was also a state in which I clearly couldn’t concentrate very hard.
In fact, though, it can be an advantage not to concentrate too hard in the dress rehesarsal. One skill, learnt over time, is that of managing the amount of mental energy you use, so as to have enough left for the concert. I always maintain that during the rehearsal you should concentrate enough to notice your mistakes, but not enough to avoid making any. People laugh at this. But I’m serious. As you make mistakes in the rehearsal, you accumulate a mental list of things which could go wrong; as a result, you’re prepared to watch out for them during the concert and give them special attention so they don’t go wrong. Whereas if you play stunningly in the rehearsal, you neither know where the pitfalls are, nor have enough concentration and energy left to avoid them. I think this is the truth behind the popular saying that a “good” rehearsal means a bad concert and a “bad” rehearsal means a good concert.
Anyway, I played during the rehearsal with the concentration I’d got–which wasn’t much. I was relieved to discover that that the passages I’d been worried about, and hadn’t been able to practise during the week, had nevertheless improved. They’d been going through my head all week; I have a theory that when this happens it’s a sign that some unconscious “internal practice” is going on. I don’t know whether this theory has been tested by any research.
I was also relieved, instantly, to find myself automatically doing the necessary body language for entries, accents and so on, despite my lack of concentration. In fact it was even happening when I felt quite disconnected from my surroundings and from the rehearsal. I think this means that as far as the brain is concerned, it’s just another set of learnt techniques like those of playing notes on an instrument. Once you’ve learnt and practised them they become automatic, just as notes which have been learnt become automatic.
After the rehearsal the medication started to wear off and I began feeling decidedly grotty again. I waited a while, timing my next dose to take effect properly before the beginning of the concert and not wear off before the end. I started the concert with rather less concentration available than I really wanted, and concerned that maybe I’d overdone the rehearsal. Would I be able to sustain my concentration through the concert?
What you do in this situation is to ration the concentration. The more you’ve practised the music, the easier it is to do this, since more of the playing happens automatically. (This had been one reason I was worried during the week about not being able to practise). The idea is to conserve energy as you can. You play the straightforward passages in “automatic mode”, and “wake up” for the problem ones. And you know where the problem ones are: you found them in the afternoon, by not trying too hard. While you’re playing the straightforward stuff, you can be reminding yourself “The entry near the bottom of the page happens in a tricky place, so it’s really important to count the rest just before it” or whatever.
And you mustn’t waste energy on anything other than playing the music. Mentally, it’s a matter of quietly keeping your place in the music, keeping an eye on your playing, and being prepared for the next bit. If you start thinking about train times home, or worrying about the difficult bit that’s coming up–as opposed to just reminding yourself what you need to do to play it–then you’re wasting energy. It’s not a matter of “concentrating hard”–that uses energy too–but of gently bringing your attention back where it should be. And when there are points where you can relax, it’s important to use them to relax.
By the way, I think physical and mental relaxation while playing are often quite distinct things. Some passages require no mental effort at all to play, but are physically quite demanding. Here, your mind can relax but your body has to put in the effort. On the other hand, “rests” in the musical sense can be anything but restful mentally. Clearly you have to count them accurately, and you can’t relax from that activity until you’ve started playing again. (And there are pitfalls. Some rests can be very stressful to count. I’ll write more about that in another post; for now I’ll just say that it can be made less stressful if you’ve got practical techniques for it.)
What should while you’re counting a rest is that your body relaxes as completely as possible, while your mind counts the rest. But what can happen is that if the rest is a tricky one, the mental effort of counting makes you tense up physically in sympathy with it. So maybe learning to relax your body and mind separately from each other is another skill of musical performance which one learns.
The concert went pretty well. My memory of it is mostly of being in a rather stupefied state, of using all these energy-saving techniques to get through it, and of some rather unfortunate intonation from one of the extras in the brass section during the Dies Irae section of the final movement. But as the brass player wasn’t one I’d invited, that wasn’t my fault.
Anyway the audience reacted positively, the concert went as well as it could, and I was surprised afterwards when an audience member commented “You led really well”–from my point of view I’d mostly been trying to make sure I survived to the end with no disasters, really. It was an educational experience. But next time I lead a concert I’d prefer to do it without having a cold, please.
 Maybe one day I’ll get round to looking up the various pieces of research I keep mentioning in my posts and linking to them. Many of them have been mentioned in science news releases at ScienceDaily. For now, you’ll just have to trust that I’m not making them up. [back]
When I worked on my Master’s Project a couple of years ago, I came across several articles regarding mental practice. If my memory serves me, mental practice can be just as useful for a musician as physical practice. Of course, we need both, with lots of physical practice thrown into the mix!
Conscious mental practice can be good. I wondered about doing some during the week, but turned out not to have the energy for it when I took the music out.
I once learnt most of the notes (with suitable fingerings) for a performance of Missa Solemnis during 45-minute bus rides to work, and it really did have virtually the same effect as practising with the instrument. It was also a good way to miss my bus stop! From my own experiments with it, mental practice needs to be in the context of a lot of regular playing, since it relies on imagining accurately the sound and feel of playing the instrument. Without enough regular playing, my imagination loses its clarity and accuracy and I can’t tell that I’ve just mentally played a note slightly out of tune or whatever.
As for the unconscious practice that I’m speculating about, I think the current physiological understanding is that between practice sessions, and particularly while asleep, the brain “rewires” itself in response to the practice. It wouldn’t surprise me if the music perpetually going through one’s head after practising was a side-effect of that process, or a necessary part of it: consolidating the note patterns and so on. But I’m just speculating.