Updated: May 5, 2020
I have been trying to practice in an empty concert hall for several months. Unfortunately, the two I have access to are either locked or in use when I want to use them and it costs a significant amount of money to reserve them in advance. Last Friday, however, my luck took a turn for the better and I finally got what I have been waiting for- an empty concert hall that I could use to practice and record a mock audition round.
My hunt for an empty concert hall started last year when I took (and fell flat on my face during) an audition for a major US orchestra. The combination of nerves and the surprise I felt at the dense, hanging reverb of the hall really threw me off my game and I played more poorly than I would have liked. I was entirely unprepared for the sensation of playing a note and having it stand there in space, disjunct and detached from the rest of the music I was trying to perform. It felt like the reverb was mocking me, laughing as I became acutely aware of the hall's strange acoustics and the imperfections in my playing. Two lines into my concerto and I passed the point of no return. My ability to focus left, along with all the strengths I thought I had as a player. The committee kindly allowed me to suffer through one more excerpt before giving me the inevitable "Thank you, next!" It was a humbling (read: soul-crushing) experience but since that day, I have been committed to not only finding ways to manage performance anxiety but also ways to minimize the aural discomfort that comes with performing in large spaces.
The Usual Practice Environment
Despite how frequently we musicians perform in concert halls, it is unfortunate that most of our practice time is spent in rooms the size of walk-in closets with the acoustic ideals of styrofoam boxes. Playing in such rooms is fine for general practice but they don't prepare us for the unique experience of performing in vast, reverberant spaces. We often lose sense of how much work we do or do not need to do to produce a full, projecting sound and bow strokes that sound great with a wall four feet in front of us suddenly sound like... well, you know what they sound like... when that wall is replaced by 2500 seats and two looming seconds of reverb time.
The best way to understand how large halls affect our playing is to simply practice in them more, which I admit is far easier said than done. Concert halls represent investments of millions of dollars and the schools and institutions that own them are understandably hesitant to make them openly-available practice spaces. Given there is so much to learn from playing in them alone, however, I wish doing so was a more accessible and required part of performance education programs.
But I digress...
My Practice Session
My practice session in the hall was pretty impromptu. I had just finished a dress rehearsal and after sitting on stage and talking with another bassist for 10 minutes, I realized that I was the only one remaining and that the hall was mine to do with as I pleased for the next three hours. I sat there for a few minutes, noodling and unsure of what to play, before deciding that my time would be best-used recording a simulated audition round. My only available recording device was my phone so I set it up on a music stand in the center of the audience section, about three-quarters of the way to the back of the hall. I figured this would simulate what an audience/audition committee might hear with some degree of accuracy, plus I wanted to see how audible my playing is over long distances. I ended up recording about 20 minutes over music- a walk-out, 7 excerpts in succession, and several minutes of re-running things and playing other nonsense.
Brahms 2, E-F
Mozart 39, first page
Adams Scheherazade.2 (not standard rep but challenging and fun to play)
Symphony Fantastique, two sections
Those excerpts pretty much cover the gamut of orchestral bass playing and require quick musical codeswitching on the part of the player.
What I Learned And What I Want To Change Next Time
My session taught me a lot, but these were my main take-aways:
1. I don't need to work as hard as I think I do get a good sound in the hall. Within the first few minutes of recording, I realized that I was overworking my bow hand because I thought that if I "dug in" more I would pull a louder, cleaner sound that made its way clearly to the back row. I quickly learned how counterproductive this is and remembered that if I let my weight and large muscle groups do the work, my tone and projection will be optimal more-or-less by default. It's also just exhausting and uncomfortable to make your hand do work better suited to your torso.
2. I have good tone. I was really pleased with my tone in the recording, especially when I listened back on some studio headphones. Even from 60ish feet away, my pianissimo notes were clear and discernible and my low strings sounded huge and resonant, especially in the lower positions of my A string and on the extension. People tend to compliment me on my tone so it was nice to experience what they hear for once as I never really believed them.
3. The camera is a good substitute for a live audience. The physical and mental responses I experience when playing for a camera are almost identical to those I feel when playing for people. I tried to visualize a real committee out in the audience in an effort to more accurately simulate the live performance experience and it kind of worked. I definitely had to tap-in to my performance anxiety management toolbox when I made this tape.
4. Certain imperfections get masked at distance, others are still audible. Whenever I record myself in the practice room, annoyances like bow/rosin noises are extremely prominent and very frustrating. I found that those noises were pretty much impossible to hear on the distant recording, but things like bad attacks or crunched notes were very noticeable. I am sure those bad attacks can be improved with more focus, practice time, and anxiety management.
5. My left-hand moves well and I really like my vibrato. These are two more areas that people compliment me on frequently. I was impressed with the fluidity of my shifts and the smoothness of my vibrato. I had a couple of dumb intonation errors but I chalk those up to nerves and in a few cases, lack of practice.
6. Fast, short notes can get muddy in large spaces. Seems obvious, I know. I experienced this mostly in the Symphony Fantastique Ronde du Sabbat and to a lesser extent in the last line of the Othello soli. The short notes sounded great under my ear and in the practice room but in the hall, the reverb and the distance between myself and the camera obscured their clarity.
I also realized that I need to overdo dynamic/articulation/expression changes to make sure they get clearly communicated to the audience. There were a few spots in my recording where I feel like I should have done more to show changes in character and volume than I did. Perhaps this was a fault of my phone compressing the daylight out of the recorded audio, but I am not too sure.
There are four things I want to change if I get the chance to do this again:
1. Come prepared with some solo rep. There is more to music than playing orchestral excerpts and I need to do more to step out of my comfort zone and play stuff that puts my technique and musicality on the line. I also have a recital coming up so playing solo music be good practice.
2. Play for a live audience. Having the immediate pressure of people watching you is something that the camera can come close to replicating, but nothing replaces an actual audience. It would also be helpful to receive some feedback after I play, too.
3. Record with better equipment. Obviously this recording was spur-of-the-moment so I had few options, but next time I will use a real camera and good mics instead of those built into my phone. The phone worked in a pinch but the convenience of it came at the expense fidelity and sonic accuracy, two things I value when making evaluative recordings of myself.
4. Play in a different hall. I don't anticipate this happening without lots of prior arrangements but it's still a goal nonetheless. The hall I practiced in is small and dry (ca. 1 second of reverb time) compared to the one that thew me off last year, which was huge and very wet (at least 2 dense seconds of reverb time). I would be interested to learn what I need to change in my playing to get a consistent sound and mental comfort level across different venues.
I am glad that I finally had the opportunity to practice in an empty hall. It was an eye-opening, beneficial experience that I hope to do again soon and I would love to hear your thoughts on playing in halls versus practice rooms.
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