My passion is to help others in the community, young, old, and everyone in between, find relevance and joy in learning, performing or listening to classical music.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Excuse me, Mr. Conductor - you're kind of messing me up!

As a collaborator, there is one phrase, or variations on a phrase, that I frequently hear from those that I play with - "It's always fine when I'm playing by myself!"  It's usually said in such a way that it could really be translated into the words, "You are really messing me up - would you please get this right?"  With young musicians especially, those words are often accompanied by tears.   Anyone who has worked with an accompanist or collaborator will probably be able to identify with this scenario but solo performers, I'm thinking of pianists mostly, rarely encounter this troublesome scenario.  Why is this?  Over the past couple of years I have been working on a solution to this problem but it wasn't until the past couple of weeks that I have put the puzzle pieces together to understand what is going on, or more often, not going on.

The event that turned into a lightbulb moment for me was my first rehearsal with the New River Valley Symphony for our upcoming performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto.  This is the first time I have studied this marvelous piece and I have been working on it pretty steadily these past four months or so.  I approached learning the concerto in a very careful manner, being careful to heed my own advice and the advice of my previous music teachers.  The week before I was to meet with the orchestra I met with two different pianists to run through the entire concerto.  I still remember how frustrating it can be to put together a piece of music with an accompanist for the first time.  I was trying to be responsible.  Well, in spite of my good intentions, those run throughs were just as frustrating.  Especially in difficult fast passages, I kept falling apart and getting completely finger-tied.  I wanted to stop and say, "Hey, what do you think you're doing?  You must be doing something wrong because you're messing me up!"  In fact, I may have said something along those lines...sigh.  Anyway, I tried to be mature about the whole situation and decided that I would simply have to get to the bottom of it before I met with the orchestra.  In other words, I stopped blaming my dear piano friends and decided that it really must be my fault!  I know, I know...shocking!  

So what was the deal?  Why, in spite of my hours and hours of meticulous practicing, was it so difficult for me to stay on track when I was putting the music together with the orchestra part?  While mulling the problem over I realized that perhaps I had a rhythm issue.  For someone like me, who takes pride in being good at rhythm, I was horrified at the thought but still decided to test myself - I turned to one of those difficult passages and I made myself count out loud while I was playing.  Aha!  Bingo!!  I couldn't do it!!!  As a direct result of this discovery, I have spent the past week playing those passages at a moderate tempo while counting out loud.  And to counteract the bad habits I had unknowingly worked into my playing, I have been making sure that while I count out loud, that I feel internally and externally where the main beats of the measures are.  Since doing this, playing with the orchestra has not been a problem at all!  

It's funny.  As a professional musician, it seems almost absurd to me that I still need to count out loud  and I wonder if the pros do this themselves.  But I guess it doesn't really matter - what matters is that I can now perform next Saturday without running the risk of stopping the whole show, staring down the conductor and saying, "Excuse me, Mr. Conductor - you're kind of messing me up!"

For those of you who might be interested, here are some more posts I've written that have to do with next Saturday's concerto performance:

WANTED: Pictures and storylines inspired by Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

What we can learn from Beethoven and his 3rd Piano Concerto

The slow "moment" from Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

Another Florence Foster Jenkins scenario? (a.k.a. Erica makes the crazy decision to rent a concert grand piano)

A discovery about Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto and Clara Schumann

Let's play, "Stump the Pianist" - AARGH! (a.k.a. How Erica finally memorized the cadenza)

And if you are wanting to hear and watch a great pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, performing the entire piece, click here and scroll down until you see the YouTube videos!

Videos of Mitsuko Uchida performing Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto

Stay tuned in the next week for more posts about this concerto!


  1. Ever since I first heard the adage "a right note at the wrong time is still a wrong note," I began counting every single line I sing or conduct internally and out loud just like you described. Only when I can stop at any point in the line and immediately know which beat I'm on do I stop doing it. I know it sounds over the top, but it's the only way I can think to prevent the situations that often seem to just appear out of nowhere at moments like the one you experienced. Don't worry about the need to fix little things like that—it happens to everyone, even with the counting!

  2. Ryan, thank you for your comment. I particularly like how you know when it's safe to stop that practice of counting out loud. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Erica,
    That's the first step in the preparation of the Houston Grand Opera chorus. We count-sing EVERYTHING. And later in the process, if things go amiss somewhere - that's what we always go back to. And, voila! It fixes the problem every time. And, if I don't say so myself, I dare you to find a tighter sounding opera chorus anywhere on earth! :)

  4. Amazing how simple it is, really, to fix something that feels complex. I will definitely have to come hear you guys sing sometime. And when I do, I'll be smiling thinking of you all counting out loud internally. Thank you for your comment!

  5. counting aloud and the metronome are the only way I have a prayer of being with my fellow musicians. And its interesting that I do this routinely as an ensmeble player and orchestral player, but that often the impulse to "forget" to count takes hold in solo playing... have to fight it!

  6. Thank you, Alicia. Good to hear from you and to know that yes, lots of the pros still count out loud too. By the way, I love your website - beautiful :-)


  7. Erica, I think besides keeping us from rushing, counting out loud also helps to "split your brain" at a critical passage. We need to "check in" every beat with the whole to sync well. Bravo for being honest (or should I say "scientific"), reducing inevitable self-perception errors.
    Many times (not every time, I admit) when I'm frustrated by another's behavior (esp. someone I live with), I ask myself, "What do I call it when I do it?" This helps me understand the difference between "spontaneous relief of gastrointestinal pressure" and "burping intentionally to annoy someone".

  8. Rick,
    That concept of "checking in" is such a fabulous way of putting it! Yes!! And that allows our bodies and minds to sync and to rest assured that all is well. There's nothing quite so uncomfortable as feeling like we're always on the verge of falling apart whether it be mentally or physically. Not fun!

    And ha ha, love your analogy in regards to dealing with another person's behavior. The phrase, "Think before you speak" comes to mind in situations like these or maybe it would be enough to simply say, "Just think!"

    Many thanks, again, for your feedback.

    All the best,

  9. I know many conductors still count out loud during score study (on and off the piano) and a handful can be heard murmuring beats from the podium [gasp]. Many still use a metronome, too! Unfortunately there seem to be many more who don't do either and blame soloists for errors :(

    Similar to Rick R above, one way to deal with frustrating behaviors from performers is to ask them how you can help. There's no blame or accusation, but it recognizes things aren't as together as they could be. As with anything 'live' flexibility remains the name of the winner's game.

    1. Oh dear, Stephen. I wouldn't have guessed that there are conductors that have rhythm and pulse issues. That would make it pretty difficult to keep an orchestra and a soloist together. Wow.

      And I like your way to approach an issue with a soloist. I try to do the same thing with the folks I accompany. It usually goes better when I approach it that way.

      Thank you for your perspective as a conductor - I find it very interesting!

      All the best,