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.

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