Tag Archives: concerts

Another new experience

Last week I wrote about the experience of leading an orchestra while under the influence of a cold and its medication.

Another concert

Yesterday I was again leading a concert, with a different orchestra. It’s a smaller, less ambitious one; most of the music this time was (somewhat) less demanding. We played one of Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suites, Schumann’s Cello Concerto, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring by Delius, and Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony. The symphony acquired its nickname from some mechanical accompaniment patterns in the slow movement, which are (somewhat) reminiscent of the ticking of a clock.

However, the conductor had decided that one passage in the “clock” movement should be played, not by the entire section of first violins, but just by me. The music was straightforward, I felt I could make it sound nice, and it seemed to work OK musically. As far as I know it’s not a standard way of performing it, but I was reasonably happy with the idea.

The same cold

Colds take time to go away, especially if you go off and play concerts when you ought to be at home recovering. So I wasn’t yet rid of my mine. But that was fine: I’d found out a week ago how to cope with it, and I was feeling significantly better.

A different problem

Well, fine except for the fact that it had created a new, unwanted challenge. During the week, my left ear had become blocked with catarrh. So I could only half-hear out of it.

This makes a huge difference when you’re playing. The violin is right next to your left ear, and can be very loud. You become used to how loud it should be to blend correctly with the other instruments. With a blocked left ear, the violin sounds as if you’re hearing it from a distance and it’s very hard to know how loud it is. In an orchestra, it can even be hard to tell whether you’re hearing yourself or someone else.

So as the concert approached I was quite nervous about that aspect. As well as the volume, I had very little idea what kind of tone I was producing. All I could really go on was other people’s opinion when asked, plus the physical sensations of using particular bow speed and pressure. I was worried that the solo, accompanied by two wind instruments, would be either far too quiet or far too loud.

In the end I played with the bowing that felt right, and asked people in the rehearsal about the volume. They thought it was OK, so I went with that for the concert. Usually–with a normally-functioning ear–the task is to feel as though you’re playing considerably louder than the other instruments, and correctly judge the amount. Instead, I tried to make the distant sound of my own playing roughly equal to the sound of the other two. I’m not sure whether this worked, but I think it might have done. I got some nice comments, anyway.

It was also hard to hear whether I was putting the necessary dynamic phrasing into the solo. I simply used more or less bow as appropriate, tried to keep the right feel of the bow on the strings, and hoped it was working.

In the past, practising at home, I’ve found a blocked ear provides an unplanned opportunity to hear the violin “from further away”, and the situation can be used for that. Maybe there’s even a practise technique here, involving an earplug. But it’s not an experiment I ever wanted to do during a concert! Thankfully it’s a while now until my next one, so hopefully it’s not an experience I’ll have to repeat.

And the rest is . . .

Are rests restful?

Not necessarily!

I mean the rests musicians talk about: those points in a piece where not only don’t you play anything, but you’re not meant to either.

Two orchestral trombonists talking on the radio some years ago put it well. Trombone players generally have a lot of rests in an orchestral piece. One said “If you’re sitting there counting 76 bars’ rest, it’s not very exciting”, to which the other responded “Actually it’s a lot more exciting if you don’t count them!”

Absolutely. What could be more exciting than having no idea where you are in the music, and frantically trying to find your place in time for your loud, prominent entry which might demolish the performance if you get it wrong?

If you’re not a musician, or if you’re some kind of musical genius, you might wonder what the problem is. Surely it’s just a matter of counting numbers, then when you get up to the appropriate one, you start playing?

In theory, yes. But in practice, there are a few pitfalls, and it pays to be aware of them. The ones here are, of course, the ones I’ve experienced; I’d be interested to hear of any others, and even more interested to hear of techniques people use to counter them.

Counting from the wrong place

The first risk happens right at the start of the rest. Sometimes the last bar before a number of bars’ rest contains just one note, which is on the first beat of the bar. This is then followed by, say, 16 bars’ rest. I find it very easy to accidentally count the nearly empty bar as the first of the rest bars, then risk playing a bar too early. It’s also easy to get confused part way through the rest as to whether I made that mistake or not, and be unsure whether I need to add an extra bar at the end.

Counting the wrong rest

This can happen surprisingly easily. Long rests are typically broken up into sections, for example 3+16+11+5 bars, corresponding to natural sections of the music. This is helpful for various reasons, but when you’ve been counting for a while it’s easy to forget whether you’re on, say, the 16-bar rest or the 11-bar rest. It also happens when there are two similar-length rests on different lines of music. If there are two 10-bar rests three lines apart and you look away from the music, then when you look back it’s quite easy to settle on the wrong one–and get a nasty surprise when you start playing again and the notes don’t fit.

Counting in the wrong time signature

Non-musicians might be surprised to hear that the number of beats indicated in the time signature of a piece (or section of a piece) doesn’t actually tell you how many the conductor will do to a bar, or how many you count to a bar. A time signature of 4/4 theoretically means there are four beats to a bar, each a crotchet (“quarter note”) long. In fact it can mean anything from one to eight beats per bar from the conductor, depending on how fast or slow the music is. “Is it in four or in two?” The answer should be clear from looking at the conductor, since different patterns of movements are used, but you know what conductors are like . . .

So it’s essential to know before you get to the rest, so you don’t find yourself counting half or double the correct number of bars. Or worse, having to do mental arithmetic at the same time as counting, when you realise part way through that you got it wrong. (That is in fact possible, but it is not stress-free.)

And there’s the situation, of course, where the time signature changes just as your rest starts, and you miss it. This is worst at the bottom of a page: once you’ve turned the page, you can’t even see that you missed the change.

So it’s not enough to know how many bars to count: you’ve got to know what sort of bars to count, too.

Forgetting to stop counting

This one happens in long rests which are divided up. You’ve got 7+16+18 bars’ rest, and you’re happily and automatically counting the bars. Then you realise that you’ve got up to 25, and none of the sections is that long. Oh dear. Do you subtract 16, or 23 (i.e. 7+16), or give up and keep counting all the way up to whatever the total is? And while you’re thinking about this, you’ve counted another couple of bars so the arithmetic’s different . . .

Losing the beat

Certain rests can be particularly stressful to count because the music that’s being played by other instruments is misleading to the ear. There are a couple of instances of this in the slow movement of Symphonie Fantastique, which I played in a few days ago. The oboe and cor anglais have long, lyrical solos and a duet. But their rhythm is displaced in a way that sounds as though the barlines can’t possibly be where they actually are. If you try to count the rest by listening, rather than by watching the conductor, you’ll be hopelessly wrong. Those two sections are mainly unaccompanied too, so there’s nothing else to listen to in order to keep your place. The only solution is to simply watch, count the conductor’s downbeats, and possibly even ignore the beautiful solo which you can hear: if it’s making you lose your place, then you need to shut it out.

During rehearsals, at least of the amateur orchestras which I know, a similar hazard occurs if the instruments still playing are hesitant or the ensemble starts to deteriorate. It can be quite terrifying counting a rest when you can hear several different versions of where the beats are . . .

Oh and let’s not forget foot-tapping. In my experience, someone in an orchestra who taps their foot “to keep time” invariably taps it out of time with the conductor. Probably because if they were watching the conductor they’d be in time already, and not need to tap their foot. When you’re counting a rest, a tapping foot is a rival beat and a dangerous distraction.

And as for people who count their rests out loud . . . ! The problem here is that often, not everyone’s rest starts in the same place, so they’re most likely counting different numbers from the ones you are. But that belongs to the next problem:

Losing count

Maybe losing count is the most obvious one, but I’ve left it until last.

If you’re a musician, how were you taught to count rests? How, for example, would you count six bars of four beats each?

Everyone I know counts like this:

ONE, 2, 3, 4, TWO, 2, 3, 4, THREE, 2, 3, 4, FOUR, 2, 3, 4, FIVE, 2, 3, 4, SIX, 2, 3, 4.

Or without the emphasis:

1 2 3 4 2 2 3 4 3 2 3 4 4 2 3 4 5 2 3 4 6 2 3 4.

See what you’re doing? You’re counting two sequences of numbers at once: the bars and the beats. And if you lose concentration and let your mind mechanically count numbers without adequate supervision, there’s a danger point at the beginning of bar 5, which I’ve highlighted: it’s easy to miscount

FOUR, 2, 3, 4, FIVE, 6, 7, 8, NINE, 2, 3, 4 . . .

Also, in a slow tempo, it’s possible to be distracted by the “2, 3, 4” within the bar from remembering which number bar you’ve reached.

So I’ve recently started experimenting with avoiding beat numbers altogether when counting rests, in the same sort of way we traditionally divide beats:

Two beats to a bar:


Three beats to a bar:

ONE & a TWO & a THREE & a FOUR & a

Four beats to a bar:

ONE … & a TWO … & a THREE … & a FOUR … & a

This means that instead of a seqence of numbers in my head like “1 2 3 2 2 3 3 2 3 4 2 3”, I have one like “1, 2, 3, 4”. I’m finding that this feels considerably more relaxed and is also much less error-prone. It feels like clearing a lot of confusing clutter out of the way. The beats of the bar are now a rhythm rather than a rival sequence of numbers.

The only problem is that I’ve still not quite decided how to count bars with six or more beats, especially slow ones. I’m still experimenting with that.

I also–hopefully reasonably discreetly–count the bars on my fingers, which acts as a useful check especially when counting a large number of long bars.


When you’re playing in a concert, I think you have to do everything you can which will make your life easier. Any little technique which will help should be used. My suggestions for less stressful rest-counting are:

  • When a rest is coming up, consciously focus on the bar before the rest, making sure that you don’t count it, and on counting “ONE” in the right place, so you both get it right and know that you got it right.
  • If you’ve got a long rest divided into sections, try to write something in the part to tell you what’s being played, so you have a way to check which rest you’re on if necessary.
  • If you’ve got two similar-looking long rests, then when you start counting, make a conscious mental note of which one you’re on, in case your eyes stray from it.
  • When a rest is coming up, remind yourself a few bars beforehand how many beats there are to a bar–even if you think it’s obvious.
  • While counting, don’t let it become so automatic that you forget how many bars to count! Keep the stopping point in mind.
  • If what you hear is confusing, don’t listen to it. Count the conductor’s downbeats.
  • Don’t tap your foot, or count out loud, if you want to keep your friends. If you do find yourself foot-tapping, stop immediately and watch the conductor instead.
  • Try to find the way of counting wihich involves least “mental clutter”, so you can simply count the bars.

A cold and a concert

The cold

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 [1] 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 rehearsal

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.

The concert

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.


[1] 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]

Enjoyable concert: full rehearsal and concert day

I wrote the previous post after the first rehearsal. We had a second rehearsal on Friday night (with the choir and the full orchestra: Wednesday was just strings), and then a final rehearsal on Saturday afternoon, with the concert in the evening.

Friday rehearsal

The main thing that became apparent at the Friday rehearsal was that the orchestra seating was going to be very cramped. This is quite uncomfortable for a string player. The reason is probably quite obvious: you need to be able to move the bow freely without either jabbing somebody with the sharp end, poking them in the ribs with the blunt end, knocking anyone’s music over, or damaging the bow by hitting an immovable object such as a stone pillar with it. And you want to be able to sit at an angle which allows you to see the conductor, the leader and your music, and which also allows your “desk partner”–the person you share a music stand with–to do the same. And THEN you want to accomplish all this without getting a stiff back from sitting awkwardly.

Everything seemed fine until the cellos said they hadn’t got room to play. Obviously something had to be done about this, so we all moved a bit thereby sharing the discomfort out. Now we were all short of about an inch of space compared to what we needed, rather than the cellos each having a foot less than they needed. We shuffled around into carefully crafted positions which just about made playing possible. I remarked that an inch of movement in any direction would prevent me playing. Everyone else seemed to be in a similar situation. All the chairs were in exactly the right position and woe betide anyone who moved them…

Then the alarming announcement: during the first half of the concert, it would be necessary to completely dismantle the string section after the first piece, to make room for a piano. Then, after the piano had been finished with and trundled off again, we would have to restore the seating and play our string piece. Things like this add considerably to the stress of a concert! So I was rather apprehensive about how it would work out. (I once had the experience of playing the whole of Suk’s Serenade for Strings without being able to see the conductor at all, at a concert in which the wind players performed a piece on their own directly before ours, and moved all our seats around in the process.)

Dress rehearsal

The Saturday afternoon rehearsal was good. The choirs sang well, their improvement from the day before was quite noticeable, and they seemed likely to improve even more by the evening. The orchestra’s playing was good too. But the leader–remember I was sitting with her, at the front–had got a bad cold and a cough which was threatening to become uncontrollable. And she had lots of solo passages to play. So it was quite worrying that she had to leave the rehearsal several times in search of drinks, cough medicines and so on. What if the cough got out of control in the concert and stopped her playing at a crucial moment? Who would play the solos? Very possibly me, but whereas she’d spent time at home practising them to make them sound wonderful, I’d be sightreading them, during the concert…!

I’m sure people in audiences just go along and listen to the music, unaware that all this stuff is going on!


In the event it worked out fine. Katy was full enough of cough medicine and heaven-knows-what to be able to play without disruption, and somehow managed to be full of medication without her brain clouding over; the solos were absolutely beautiful, and our performance of the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis seemed to take off–and miraculously, we did in fact manage to get our seats close enough to the original arrangement for us to be able to play it. And it was interesting hearing the original Thomas Tallis hymn–the one used by Vaughan Williams as the basis of the Fantasia–sung by a small choir at the back of the church before we played the actual piece.

It was quite a varied concert: music for big choir and full orchestra, for strings alone (the Fantasia), for choir and organ, for small unaccompanied choir (the Tallis hymn), and for solo singer and piano. (The solo singers were the baritone and soprano who would be singing in the second half for Fauré’s Requiem.)

So I enjoyed the concert, but was also very relieved when the first half was over, with all its potential sources of unwanted excitement. And judging by their response, the audience did too. The prolonged silence after the end of the Requiem before the applause started was a good sign; if the piece is performed well the audience like to enjoy the closing silence for a while before clapping. That’s very unnerving for the performers: it feels as though actually, they may never start clapping. But the enthusiastic applause then started, and we knew it had gone well.

And then off home, exhausted.

Enjoyable concert: string rehearsal

Last night I went to the first rehearsal for a concert I’m playing in on Saturday. This is another nice event: it’s a mainly-choral concert which happens once a year. There is a small orchestra consisting of invited players, and a very good choir which I think consists of invited singers. (Well I’m assuming they’ll be good; last night was a strings-only rehearsal, but this will be the third year I’ve played and they were excellent the first two times.)

The music (for us) is

  • Vaughan Williams, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
  • Fauré, Requiem
  • Vaughan Williams, Towards the Unknown Region

though probably not in that order.

I’m not sure how well-known Vaughan Williams is outside the UK, so perhaps I should say a little about the Fantasia (and then give you a Wikipedia link or similar when I’ve looked it up). In this country it’s regarded as the string piece of all time, really (unless that place belongs to Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro). It was originally written to be performed in, I think, Gloucester Cathedral and it is written for string orchestra, a second, smaller string orchestra of about 8 players (seated well away from the main one), and string quartet. Just strings. In the original performance the string quartet was again seated separately, but we’re playing it the usual way: the leaders of the string sections stay in their normal seats and play solo for the quartet bits. We’re not playing it in a cathedral but we are playing it in a large parish church which isn’t much different from a cathedral and has just the right acoustics.

It’s a lyrical and very English piece, which uses everything from the sound of a quartet on its own to the lushly orchestrated sound of the whole string orchestra playing as loud as they can… Actually, around 18 months ago I had the opportunity to play it at an orchestral study day (just for strings) where we had an orchestra of about 60 string players; now that was quite something.) The second orchestra typically feature as an ethereal sound in the far distance, which continues after a climax from the full orchestra or which precedes a dramatic entry by everyone. The piece is based on a hymn setting by the Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis, and a small choir will sing the original from the back of the church before we then play the Fantasia.

For this concert I’m sitting at the front of the first violins, next to the leader. I hadn’t known this or maybe I’d have looked at the music a bit more, because it means that I have to lead the orchestra in the sections where she’s playing solo as part of the string quartet. But I’ve played the piece before, so that’s OK. Anyway I digress. Her comment about playing the Fantasia after a summer of non-playing was “It’s like a nice hot bath”–which it is, really.

Towards the Unknown Region was a new piece to me. As I feared from the title, it did, towards the end, ascend speedily to heights on the violin which are unknown to many players… I ought to have a look a that section before Saturday. There’s about half a page of it.

And yes, the Fauré is the same piece as in the conducting course (see Opening the Envelope and How the conducting course went), but in a different version: this one has a full violin section. But it’s still a viola extravaganza really; we only play for a few of the movements, and then when we do play we often feel as though we should try to sound like violas. 😉

There’s another rehearsal tomorrow, then the concert is on Saturday. I wasn’t really in the mood for rehearsals and concerts yet, but this should be good. 🙂