Category Archives: performance

Preparing Scottish tunes for my cousin William’s wedding

My cousin William recently asked me to play at his wedding in the Lake District this Saturday (9th april). I’ve been spending quite a lot of time preparing what to play, and I thought I’d take you through the process I’ve been through so that I can make it a bit easier the next time I have to do something like this!

Step 1: Decide on which broad category of music to play (eg classical/folk/popular)

I chose Scottish tunes as William met his fiance at Edinburgh university, and they are having a ceilidh at the reception, plus scottish fiddle tunes work well on the viola

Step 2: Choose specifics of music (eg which piece/tunes)

This took me a wee while, I must say…

Eventually I settled on traditional scottish airs, reels and strathspeys from a book I own called ‘Scottish Folk Tunes’ edited by Kevin McCrae and Neil Johnstone. However, all the tunes are written in Bass clef- an added complication when figuring out keys and how they fit together with other tunes on the viola, which uses alto clef! Good thing I play the cello too sometimes so can just about transpose/forget about the fact that I’m reading bass clef on the viola, which messes with my head slightly!

Step 3: Edit tunes to my own requirements: fingerings, bowings, slurs, dots and ornaments.

Like all traditional music, fiddle tunes are subject to constant interpretation by players and so one printed version may not be exactly the same as another printed version. This is mainly due to folk music being passed down from family to family via oral tradition – fiddlers and pipers simply learnt pieces by ear from their parents or contemporaries, and usually no one bothered to write them down, or in some cases couldn’t write them down as they were unable to read music or write notes on a stave.

In my case, the book I mentioned above is pretty good and is very well laid out and interpreted, so there wasn’t too much re-editing to do, just some ‘hooked’ bowings to work out and fingerings to write in.

Step 4: Figure out an order to play the tunes in which makes sense to me and the listener

I’ve changed my mind several times over this! It all depends on the speed of the tune (eg a slow air is obviously pretty relaxed in tempo, and a reel or strathspey is faster) and the keys and whether the modulation sounds ‘right’ to the listener’s ear. I’m not that practiced at this yet so I hope my ‘set’ is going to make musical sense on saturday 🙂

Here is the ‘finished version’ of my set:

1. Farewell to Whisky by Niel Gow (for those of you who know William, this is particularly appropriate 😀 )

2. Laird of Drumblair by J Scott Skinner

3. De’il Amang the Tailors – not sure, I think this is traditional

4. Auld Lang Syne – traditional tune used at Hogmanay

Encore if necessary – Spey in Spate by Scott Skinner

Second Performance class with Hester- Academy open day: Brahms Sonata in Eb op 120 no. 2, 1st movement (Allegro Amabile)

This performance class showed me the importance of overcoming my nerves, as even though Hester and I performed exactly the same piece as before a couple of months ago in front of Peter and the strings students, I was more nervous and therefore was not as happy with how I played back in November. The problem with nerves that I find is that they’re almost completely random in how they strike- for example, when I played a concerto with orchestra last summer I was nervous but the exhilaration of the performance was such that I got over them very quickly, whereas during this small performance class which was effectively a showcase for new prospective students, I was pretty nervous throughout my performance for no good reason that I could work out. One thing may have been that I sat watching the 2 performances before mine and getting more nervous, whereas in a concert situation like the concerto, one just walks straight onto the platform without having to watch other performers (and subconsciously compare oneself to them, I guess!)

The devastating thing about nerves is that they can spoil a perfectly good, well prepared performance in all but the most self assured performer. I’m pretty sure that every famous performer you’ll see on the concert platform or on the TV has experienced them, and I know for a fact that so orchestral musicians seek help from their doctors for performance anxiety. Even Hester said she was nervous, and she has almost a lifetime of performance behind her, but she is now in her late eighties and when tired as she was then, she loses some of her co-ordination.

My nerves aren’t always as crippling, but here are some examples of the effects that my nerves can have:

  • Bow shake (when the bow wobbles when you draw it across the string)
  • Very tight and narrow vibrato
  • Sometimes, cold hands making it difficult to play
  • Dry mouth
  • Fixed expression on my face which I am self conscious of
  • Intonation problems and errors that I don’t usually make
  • A feeling of ‘I’ve got to get through this’ rather than concentrating on the music itself
  • Ultimately, frustration that I could have done better had I not been so nervous

The key thing, it seems, is not how to avoid becoming nervous in the first place, but how to control the nerves once you get them. But how? I guess it’s a mental thing, and you have to have a very strong inner voice telling you that you are going to be fine and play well. I know there are several books about this, such as ‘The inner game of music ‘ ( which I haven’t read- has anyone found these kind of books to be helpful?

Going back to the performance class itself, as it was an open day, there was no feedback from the audience, which would have been  nice to have. The only comments I got on my performance were from Robert himself. Famously noncommittal, he said to me afterwards, ‘That was very nice, thanks Jess.’

First performance class – Brahms Eb 1st movement with Hester

Overall, I was pretty pleased with how I played – a good thing was that I wasn’t too nervous when I started. Often nerves mean the start of my performance is rubbish then it slowly improves until I get rid of them- I wish I knew how to reliably control them! Hester commented afterwards that the start was lovely, as when I first played it with her she said I played it too slowly and it needed much more flow and momentum. A funny moment was when I announced the piece, saying ‘I’m going to play…’ and she whispered, ‘I hope you said “We’re going to play!”’

The main comments I had from Peter and the other masters students were:

  • It was a good performance but it was too self contained: it could have been more ‘open’ to the audience. I guess this means I was too self absorbed and not performing the piece to the audience enough. Does solving this mean exaggerating gestures, dynamics etc?
  • A greater contrast could have been made between the loud sections and the sotto voce sections, especially in the really huge bits
  • My vibrato needs to be more controlled as it accidentally emphasises unwanted notes (I am already aware of this and trying to work on it)
  • I made a comment about making more effort to phrase in Brahms’ ultra long lines, which some people agreed with and some said that they felt that I had achieved this
  • I felt I still need to have more dialogue and exchange with the piano, as it is after all a duo and not a solo with accompaniment. To do this, I will be looking more at the piano score so that I learn where I am in canon/duet with the piano and what it is playing throughout the movement.
  • Nice comments were made about my lovely tone and palette of colours – thank you!