String Competition

March 06, 2012

Each spring the Kansas State University chapter of ASTA hosts a string festival with the stated goal of introducing 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students to performance competitions. It also gives college students preparing to be music educators an opportunity to adjudicate performances. My teacher suggested that I participate as an adult beginner as it would give me some outside feedback on my playing, as well as another opportunity to perform.

My performance was good, even with a couple of memory lapses. Playing "for real" is vastly different than playing in the privacy of my living room. And preparing a piece for performance is different than just playing it.

Taking a piece I already had completed in my lessons, Minuet No. 3 from the 3rd Suzuki book, and practicing it daily for five weeks introduced me to true practice. Taking the piece measure by measure and really working on each note, learning to start from any point in the piece, playing at a faster or slower tempa -- all these things helped to improve my mastery of the piece. By the end of my preparation the mistakes made during any given playing of the piece were accidents rather than inability to perform.

I made some use of a video camera to record my performance. Being able to watch myself was instructive. My cello sounds so much different from the viewer's perspective than it does from mine. I feel the notes as much as hear them, and there is often a sandy, gritty sound sitting literally on top of the bow and string connection. The audience doesn't hear the string contact as intimately as the player, by the time the sound has traveled to their ears you just have music. It is far easier to hear someone else's intonation mistakes than to hear your own. Watching myself play was at times painful as what had sounded good to me the player sounded awful to me the audience.

The other benefit of videoing yourself is the added stress. If you make a mistake it's on film. When you play live there aren't any "do overs", filming yourself emulates that to a degree. I probably video taped my practice 3 or 4 times in the weeks leading up to the competition. Next time I'll video every practice so as to become completely at ease with playing "live".

Saturday morning I did not play my piece. The thinking behind this tactic was not to waste my best performance on an empty room. I did warm up by playing the required scales and by playing the first measure of two of each section of the piece. When I sat down to play for the judges my hands were suddenly sweaty and I was very nervous.

Minuet No 3 has two halves, basically two separate minuets wedded together. The first half further breaks down into two sections that are each repeated. The second half also has two sections, but they aren't repeated. You play all of the first minuet, with repeats, then all of the second minuet, and then all of the first again (sans repeats). I bobbled the first section ending the first time through but managed to stay in time with my pianist. In other words, I played the wrong notes in time with the music. At the end of the piece I had a memory lapse and had to pause for a moment before finishing the piece. There were also some intonation issues, but on the whole this was the best public performance I've given.

Both judges had some good comments for me to consider. Intonation focus and better bow hold being two. It was also noted that I appeared to "crouch" over my cello, and that sitting up straighter might be more comfortable. Both judges also remarked that I was confident and had presence enough to play through my memory lapses.

I think this was a wonderful learning experience for me. My understanding of what it takes to truly prepare a piece for performance has improved immensely. My only regret is that opportunities like this are infrequent - meaning I'll have to wait a while before I can perform for comments again.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.