Monday, February 7, 2011



Have you ever wondered what goes on in the mind of a solo performer at the start of a concert as he is bowing to the rapturous applause of the audience? As the applause dies down, he looks to the conductor and nods his readiness. The conductor turns to the orchestra and the music begins.

I have never had the honour of playing a concerto accompanied by a whole orchestra before a live audience but I can very well imagine what hell the performer goes through at the start of each performance. I have been through, however, something on a much more modest scale but which was no less harrowing an experience but I will come to that in a minute.
Just the other day, I was listening to this on youtube (click on it and enjoy!):

It is of course a most delightful performance of Mendelssohn’s Fingal Cave Overture but as I approached 7:36 on the video, I was seized by a strange palpitation, my breath became shorter and more rapid, the palms of my hands turned clammy and I found myself perspiring. That’s because I used to take the ABRSM and Trinity College examinations a long time ago and in one of my technical tests, I had to play an orchestral extract of that same piece.

These orchestral extracts are different from the usual three period pieces that a student has to play. They are meant to examine the student’s technical ability, especially when he’s playing in an orchestra. I recall there were two orchestral extracts I had to play for the technical test in that examination – one was this piece by Mendelssohn and the other was a Wagner’s extract. The Wagner’s piece was extremely fast and I recall slowing it down because I didn’t want to stumble and make mistakes.

Here is what the examiner wrote about my performance of the orchestral extracts. We’ll ignore the comment on my performance of Wagner in which I admit my tempo was way too slow but let’s look at the comment on my Mendelssohn:

“There was a clear line if the tone lacked projection. This was however at about half the original tempo.”

That’s music exam for you – there is always something wrong or not quite right with your performance. But I suppose the examiner must be right. He’s a renowned wind player in a well-known orchestra in the UK and he’s got impressive credentials that filled a whole page in fine print.

I don’t know if it’s just me but do you notice that praises in music exam results always end with a “But…” or a “However,…”?

I will give an example of that same exam I took. In one of my three period pieces (it’s always 3 period pieces in all graded exams), the comments begin in a rather promising vein. This was Wiedemann’s Romance which has some rather technical parts in the piece and is played unaccompanied.

“The tempo was well judged and the pulse was well maintained.” Wow! Finally, I was exonerated – my tempo which was judged to be at half the original was now declared to be “well judged”. But of course that’s not all. The judgment goes on: “ALTHOUGH there was a tendency, now unaccompanied, to tap the foot”. The examiner now comments on my foot!!!

I have a lot more to say but I will post Part 2 another day. For now, I hope that all of us will look at professional concert musicians with a great deal more respect. This is particularly important in the less “cultured” countries like mine where 99% of the population can’t play an orchestral instrument to save their lives. The next time you see a performer on the stage in a concert hall with his or her instrument, applaud a little louder because if any one of us music flops (and I have already excluded the 99% non-musicians) were to stand in his shoes with our instrument, we’d be seized by a strange palpitation, our breaths would become shorter and more rapid, the palms of our hands clammy and we’d be perspiring most pitifully.

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