Oh, The Fun of Live Performances! — Weekly Inspiration from Herine
Today’s Weekly Inspiration Blog Post is written by our resident fashionista and cellist, Herine. (It also features a photo *I* took at the August Dusk Variations concert in which Herine & Adam played! Color me excited; a picture I took is being published on the internet! Anyways…) In this week’s post, Herine reflects on the various stresses, joys, and mishaps of performing live. If new inspiration from Fifth House Ensemble isn’t reason enough to read this post, then you should read on because Herine reveals some moderately embarrassing tidbits!
As a performer, there is nothing more exhilarating than those few seconds before walking on stage, having just the right balance of nerves, excitement and focus, feeling prepared and ready to burst with the enthusiasm of sharing amazing music with our audience. Unless, of course, it’s the few minutes after a performance that went extraordinarily well, where there was trust and spontaneity between my colleagues and our audience and it is clear that a great time was had by all.
Do these feelings occur during every live performance? In all honesty, no. The aforementioned formula of nerves, excitement, and focus is very delicate, for one. Most performers will maintain that there are concerts where one of those elements is way out of whack; let’s say for example, that you’re exhausted from an unusually harried week of teaching and performances, causing a replacement of excitement with fatigue, and necessitating even more energy on focus. It requires experience and professionalism to consciously tweak this balance for the sake of the performance and deliver at the highest level regardless of circumstances.
This doesn’t even begin to address all of the crazy variables that also factor into shows done Fifth House-style! We have become conditioned to expect prohibitive lighting, projectile stage props, the pounding of actors’ feet, and a slew of other wild cards that could throw anyone off their game. Because we LOVE the way we do these shows, we’ve learned to quickly identify the elements of performance that we can control and do so by having tons of fully-staged dress rehearsals prior to each show so that we have a sense of what to expect. For example, as far as lighting goes, you may see a number of us reading our scores from iPads this season, manipulated with a foot pedal for page turns. Since they are back-lit, we never have to rely on an external source for lighting, which is a great thing to be able to control!
Beyond preparation, there is also instrument maintenance to keep in mind. As a string player, I’m always gauging how recently I had the sound post of my cello adjusted, my bow re-haired (about four times a year), my strings replaced (every four months, but I’m a cheapskate; at $300 a set, I try to keep my annual string budget under $1K!). All of these factors can make a huge difference in how we sound and feel on stage. I say this because I used to be really stubborn about never using any of those limitations as an excuse not to perform well, until I realized that outright neglecting to change your strings for a year is going to create a lot of personal frustration and anxiety, so solve the problem and change those strings already!!!!
Once in a while, something absolutely crazy happens before or during a performance that, in hindsight, you’re not sure how you got through it or that a much larger train wreck didn’t ensue.
I played a concert on our Commedia dell’ Arte series a few years ago with a horrible bout of food poisoning. Admittedly, I was not thinking about inspiring and sharing music that day; my singular goal was to avoid re-enacting “The Exorcist” for our paying public.
This summer, I had an amazing opportunity to play Steve Reich’s Double Sextet with Eighth Blackbird at the Pritzker Pavilion. The piece has become one of my favorite running tracks on my iPod and requires very gutsy, soaring playing while counting extremely fast-moving and constantly changing mixed meters. Nonetheless, I was blissing out on the perfect formula of pre-concert energy and couldn’t wait to get out on stage; it was one of the most gorgeous evenings of the entire summer with a rumored 9,000 people in attendance! We walked onstage and started the piece. Four minutes and fifty seconds into it, I dropped my bow.
Yup. That’s right. Dropped it. In front of 9,000 people. If you think I’m being overly dramatic and don’t believe me, feel free to check it out in this boot-legged, randomly posted video.
How does that even happen, you might ask? Well, it’s a fluke. Something that probably won’t happen live onstage more than maybe three times in a person’s career. Is it a mistake? Not really. It’s unusual enough to not even bother factoring into the proverbial “list of things I can control.” Is it embarrassing? Sure, in a way. Anything unforeseen that draws attention away from the whole performance and directly onto you is a little embarrassing.
It happened so fast; I remember feeling like the bow made contact with something and just dropped, hitting the stage floor with a resounding thwack. I gasped and scooped it up (fortunately, it didn’t sail across the stage!), plunked it back onto my string and kept playing. At that point, I had to exercise some serious mind control not to re-live the incident or start to theorize why it happened, or even to check my bow for damage. Mostly, I was enormously relieved that I didn’t stop counting or get lost, since it would have taken a while to get back into the groove.
Notwithstanding this, the concert was an absolute blast. A week later, one of the Blackbirds posted a link to the YouTube video. At first, I groaned at the thought of reliving that moment again. However, I mustered up the courage, and then after watching it several times, realized that my bow had hit the edge of my cello as a result of my bridge being unusually low for the season, given a rather sudden drop in humidity. Additionally, it was actually reassuring to see that everything else unfolded exactly as I remembered. I never thought that video footage of a not-so-fabulous moment would actually be so useful!
And you better believe I had my bridge height adjusted for our live radio broadcast the next week. We control what we can, and we chalk the rest up to good stories for later.