Bernie Parent, concert soloist

Well, now that I’m out of the closet as a hockey fan, I can start clearing all this out.

Any athlete and any musician have a large number of things in common, as people who use their bodies to perform in front of others in real-time, and whose performance can be judged by objective and immediate standards of success as well as subjective ones.

There are differences of course — in sports, half of the people “on stage” with you are trying to trip you up, whereas in music, the audience is your biggest enemy (let’s face it, either it seems that way, or it is that way). And in sports, one bad game won’t lose you your job, whereas in music, one bad concert just may. It’s understood and tolerated to a small extent in sports that someone “on stage” will lose. There are allowed to be no losers in music. And it’s no better for soloists; in the NHL, a 1.89 goals-against average will get you into the Hall of Fame. The only GAA allowed in classical music is zero.

The similarities between sports and music have already been treated in many ways, but mostly in the rah-rah-head-butt sort of way where people talk about poorly defined or undefined words like “confidence” and “a winning attitude” and other platitudes that are worthless when you are in the practice room. (And the differences between the two activities is substantial: one does not have to learn to check someone into the boards differently in order to communicate a sense of vulnerability and loss.) What I’d like to do is highlight some of the unglamorous, concrete, nuts-and-bolts ways in which the similarities in the two activities can be exploited for mutual benefit.

More alike than you think

In hockey, the goalie is as close as any position comes to being a featured soloist. The defensemen and the line can and do act as units, with each player helping to compensate for the weaknesses of the other players. With the goalie though, he’s pretty much the only person out there in that role. He is the most circumscribed and yet in many ways at the same time, the most crucial person on the team — and when something goes wrong, there’s only one place to point the finger. Let’s look at how the practice and performance habits of one of the game’s greats can translate to music, particularly as a soloist:

If it’s not under your control, don’t waste time on it.
  • That which is in the past is not under your control, i.e. don’t let a bad period turn into a bad game. This is equivalent to Rachel Barton Pine‘s admonishment in her sadly vanished resurrected podcast about preparation for competitions and auditions that if something goes wrong as you are practicing performing, just let it go. It’s in the past. The only thing you need to worry about is what’s under your control: what you’re doing right now, and what’s immediately coming up. Don’t let one mistake in the past bleed forward into the future and infect it as well. If you effed up, put a fence around it and move on.
  • That which is someone else’s job is not under your control, i.e. cut your angles, and stay square to the shooter. Understand what’s within your purview and focus yourself on that.

Freak out in practice, chill out on stage.
Parent was famously intense, stressed, and bad-tempered during practice. He broke sticks in fury, and if any of his teammates scored on him, he’d fire a puck at them:

One day in training camp, as a forward artfully slipped the puck between Bernie’s pads and into the net, the goalie slammed his oversized stick against the goalpost in disgust, snapping it in two with a sharp crackkk.

“Barnyard!” bellowed [then-starting goalie Doug] Favell, doubled over with laughter, “you’re nothing but a damn sorehead!”

During a game, all of that bled away, and he was happy Mr. Hey-I-Just-Stop-The-Puck. A typical story:

In the final minutes of 1974, with the dreams of any hockey lifetime hanging by one goal against Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, Parent called over Simon Nolet.

“From the bench I see Simon give him an annoyed wave and skate away,” Clarke said. “I asked him ‘what did that crazy bleeper say?’ and Simon told me he was bragging about his new golf clubs.”

Visualize yourself making saves in every situation, on and off the ice.
Among musicians, it’s called mental practice. Just because you aren’t near your equipment doesn’t mean you can’t be playing, in your mind.

And because this can often be misunderstood, I want to underline this and explain it a bit. “Visualize” means to see it and more importantly feel it from the inside, not to simply watch yourself from the outside as everyone applauds. This isn’t some healy-feelie rainbows-and-dolphins New Age confidence booster. This is neurological training. If you are currently studying a piece of music that is 6 minutes and 2 seconds long, you want to sit quietly in a chair, or lie down someplace, and look up again 6 minutes and 2 seconds later. You are making your mind do everything it would do, except actually play the instrument. Pay attention to the notes, see them in your head. Think of everything you need to think of — there’s that big chord coming up, okay, there’s that leap, okay, three trills in a row here. Your brain is doing everything it must do during a performance; after all, one plays an instrument with one’s mind. The body just translates what the brain tells it to do, and you want to train your brain to react. That way, you will never be surprised. No matter what direction the puck comes from, you will already have saved it before dozens of times, in your mind.

Being a concert soloist, no matter what your stage may look like, is a 24/7 thing. Even when you aren’t playing, you’re playing.

Listening to RBP doing the Bruch Scottish

— and that Guarneri is perfect for her. I’ve got another CD of hers on the old Amati she had, the 1617, and that thing sounded plasticky when she played it. She asks a lot of a fiddle; she’s a very athletic player. And that Amati used to buckle under it. The Guarneri sings more and more sweetly the harder she pushes it. I can’t imagine a better player for that thing. By rights, when she’s gone, it should be called the ex-Pine.

And it sounds like a viola on the low end — a nice, deep sound, dark and savory.

Anyhow, it’s this CD. Go get it.

A heartening podcast by RBP, and wondering how the pros cope with swapping out their instruments

That would be this one, with her old teachers the Vamoses. It was a long, rambling discussion of the Barber with which I’m unfamiliar, including considerations of specific sections and live on-the-spot playing, and during it there were two things that stood out to me:

1) Pine hadn’t played the Barber for a while at that point, so she was rusty. It sounded great for being rusty, but there were definitely places where her fingers tangled and she was frustrated. How heartening to hear that she really does have to woodshed. I mean, we all know that these people do and that it takes endless amounts of work to get that good, but it’s still reassuring to hear it, then and there. Obviously, even her rusty renditions of the excerpts were far better than most people would ever be, but it was still reassuring to hear a tier-1 virtuosa actually working instead of performing. Like Valentina Lisitsa’s YouTube practice sessions.

2) She and the Vamoses talked a bit about working around annoyances on her violin — even her beautiful old ex-Soldat has an irritating wolf on it, apparently! And Almita Vamos talked about one on hers that was fairly inconveniently placed. I’ll stop complaining about Stevie’s incredibly irritating wolf in first freaking position. It’s been good lately, too — my luthier had mentioned to me that fiddles can misbehave during the air conditioned months since A/C dries out the ambient air around them. I know that I haven’t had the A/C on in a little while, and I haven’t sworn at that G for a while.

In general, I’m noticing that the better I get and the more comfortable I feel, the more attached I’m getting to my viola as well. I’m starting to feel very possessive of it in a my fiddle mine sort of way now that I’m thinking of him in terms of what specific colors I can get out and how I can get him to sound just like what I want. It’s like the minute the bowing became more important than the fingering, that’s when it became mine mine mine.

I don’t know how professionals manage it with all the impersonal swapping around; in that podcast, Pine mentioned all the fiddles she had played on in her career — this del Gesu, that one, a Strad, the old Amati she had (that I dislike). It was impressive how she knew them all intimately (including the wolf tones on each one argh), but I still don’t fathom how she was able to surrender each one. She’s certainly on an ideal one for her now. The Amati sounded squeaky and plasticky under her muscular style, especially on the high end where it tended to buckle under the demands she made of it. The ex-Soldat is just right for her style of play, singing more sweetly on the high end the harder she pushes it, and I love the viola-like sound of it as much as I’m going to love the sound of any violin.

Nevertheless, it must have been hard for her to swap out repeatedly like that, and I don’t think I could manage playing one I didn’t own outright. Few to none of the tier-1 types own their own instruments, though. They just cost too much. It’d be like owning a Botticelli. I guess at that level, you just see yourself as the latest in a long line of accomplished musicians who have held that instrument and played on it.

Still though. It still brings to mind what happened to Dylana Jenson, though. No way would I let some rich asshole have that much power over me. Zillionaires don’t get that rich by being nice. It doesn’t even necessarily need to be a case of bilious behavior; there was a recent instance (and damn me for not recalling whom) where a wealthy violin collector died in a car or motorcycle crash, causing his lawyers to lock down everything he owned to straighten out his estate … including several lovely old violins that suddenly had to go back home.

Screw that noise. The only way anyone will get my viola away from me is if they pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

Jesus, are there no other string players who are inspired by singers?

It’s so bizarre. I’m listening to some of the interviews on RBP’s Violins Rule podcast, and they are quite interesting, but man. One of the big things that people always say about stringed instruments is that they sound like voices — and yet every single string player in these podcast interviews, and most other interviews I’ve heard, talks about how they love guitar players and find inspiration in guitar players, etc. etc. etc.

Jesus. I seriously am the only string player in the known universe who found the majority of my inspiration from singers, inspiration to play this box with strings on it that supposedly sounds like someone singing. Crap.

The hell with guitars! I admire the living daylights out of EVH and Neal Schon, but seriously. Art Garfunkel! Cass Elliot. Frank Sinatra? Steve Perry! Aretha Franklin! Jesus on toast! I simply cannot be the only string player who see this, on this instrument that’s big claim to fame is that it’s a replacement voice.

The Tavern Violin and Left-Handed Playing

Podcast 58 and podcast 60 make an interesting pair.

Renaissance violin bands are sounding to me a lot like rock bands. The violin wasn’t treated in most renaissance-era lists of instrument techniques because “everyone played it and it was everywhere,” it was more of a working-class tavern instrument than one associated with people of quality, most violinists played dance music and weren’t expected to read music but improvise, they stood while playing, they needed to make a bright sound with lots of overtones to be heard over party noises … Next to Bibbens’s statements about her experiences in rock bands (the relative unimportance of reading music versus improvving), it becomes obvious that the violin was the electric guitar of its time when it was first created. If you’ve ever been to a wedding reception where the band consisted of the typical drums-keyboards-bass guitar-lead guitar, you’ve heard the equivalent of a renaissance violin band.

Also, the stream of statements in podcast 60 about how the bow is the soul of expressiveness, the left hand is secondary, the music comes from the bow, etc. etc. etc. stood out to me instantly. The next time someone tries to sell me the BS bill of goods about how being left-handed and putting the bow in the off hand is an “advantage” because I get to waste my better hand on the less important side of the instrument, I’m going to have them listen to this podcast. Then, I’m just going to slap them.

Also interesting to think of the nonsense I’ve dealt with learning to play left-handed in light of the comments David Douglass made about playing a renaissance violin on the arm as opposed to the shoulder and having violinists come back stage and yell at him for it. Pine sounded incredulous, but any left-handed player can tell similar stories. (Right down to the similar tales of country fiddlers being tolerated for both playing left-handed and playing on the arm because they are assumed to be lesser players who don’t know any better.)

We may live in the 21st century, but some people are still in the 14th it seems.

In other news, I seem to have ditched the shoulder rest for the moment; we’ll see how long that lasts. The divot the viola is making in my extremely inadequately padded collarbone might demand either the return of the rest or a more padded cushion.

Rachel Barton Pine

She’s probably my favorite working violinist at the moment, with Mark Wood in a photo finish for second place. She’s very ecumenical in her love of music, and insatiable. She creates herself as an expert in anything that interests her. I don’t think she knows how to be a dilettante. And her interpretations and approaches to music are incredibly alive, blood-filled, and meaty. She tears into music like a cheetah into a Thompson’s gazelle or a highwayman into a barrel of stout. She revels in it. Every piece of music she touches breathes and sweats and lives.

Yeah yeah, train accident. I know. That’s the sort of preposterous event that’s so far beyond the imagination of any sane human being that the only thing that can be done is to stand powerless before it and then attempt to reassemble oneself afterwards, a process that never stops.

It’s her life before that accident that impresses me. We all hear a great deal about so-and-so brilliant prodigy in one thing or another, and somehow it’s never remarked on or even noticed that all of these supposedly brilliant kids just happen to have surgeons and college professors for parents who know exactly what to do with a bright kid, and who just happen to have been best friends with Dorothy Delay. It gets old.

Pine wasn’t one of those. Her family had no connections, no random friendships with the faculty of Juilliard, no “just so happens” coffee brunches with Riccardo Muti. Her family had no connections and less money, with phone and electric service getting cut off constantly, constant moving, and a mother that feared that violin was a rich kid’s hobby. And Pine latched onto the thing and made herself a violinist. She created herself by sheer force of will from the ground up, long before that accident.

Yeah yeah, train accident. Given the force of character and unstoppable nature of the woman, amply demonstrated long before that day, that train was bound to lose that fight. And it did. Nothing stops Pine. As much as her brilliance, her bullheadedness humbles and amazes me.