The violin and I have a love-hate relationship. I started playing at age 4, and have continued on and off for over 30-or-so years. Some of the time this was by choice, other times… not so much. After all, how much choice do you really have when you’re 4? It scares me a little to think that, with the exception of maybe my parents and siblings, I’ve had a longer relationship with my fiddle than I have with most humans.
The “hate” part of the love-hate relationship is what comes to mind first. I hate that from the minute I started school until today, everyone thinks of me as “the violin kid.” I mean, sure, the violin was an important part of my formative years, but it’s not like I was born with the thing strapped to my arm. Another thing is that I can’t hear a car horn or an elevator “ping” without thinking: d minor 7th chord, or seeing the note in my head. Most people listen to music to “check out” and relax but I listen to music and my fingers start playing air-violin. Oh, and the next person to make a violin-hickey joke is seriously going to get smacked.
But for someone like me, playing a musical instrument was probably the best thing that ever happened (even if I hate having to admit it). I will admit that I’m really shy and playing violin taught me how to get up in front of a crowd.
An Octave of Things I Learned About Public Reading from Playing Violin
There’s this old violin joke…
Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
A: Practice, practice, practice.
My violin teacher used to say: “You practice 120% so that if you mess up 30% at the concert, you still get it 90% right.” I’ve learned that the best way to prepare for reading in public is to read the piece over and over to anyone who will listen. Read it so many times you practically have the thing memorized. Of course, there is such a thing as “over-practicing,” where you practice so hard you actually squelch the life out of the piece, but really how many of us have ever had that happen? When in doubt, learn from the Boy Scouts and err on the side of being prepared.
2) Pick a piece that shines.
If the goal is to wow the audience, selecting the right repertoire is key. In particular, try to pick a piece that shows your work in its best light. It always drove me crazy that I’d play a difficult baroque solo sonata and the audience would snooze but if I chose a short, easy, flashy piece I’d get a standing ovation. It’s ridiculous, I know, but sometimes the obscure, difficult solo sonata comes across as snobbish and overly-intellectual while the short, flashy piece reads as fun and engaging. If all you get is one chance to stun an audience, sometimes short/easy/flashy is the way to go.
3) Remember: the audience is on your side.
Unless you’re defending your thesis in front of a panel of professors or you’re a lawyer giving your closing statements to a jury, chances are are the audience is not there to judge you. They’re rooting for you. Make the most of it!
4) Don’t worry about mechanics.
The fastest way for me to mess up a violin performance is to think about my bow hand, or my posture, or my feet. The minute I become hyper-aware of some mechanical detail or technique, all bets are off and I start making mistakes left and right. The same is true for reading. If you start to think about the actual words or grammar, that’s when fumbles can happen. Which brings me to #5.
5) Hear the story in your head.
Whenever I feel myself focusing too much on the mechanics of what I’m playing, I force myself to hear the music in my head. Same is true for writing. When I read, I try to get caught up in telling a good story, rather than the minutia of my writing. Sometimes I’ll even do the voices when reading dialogue.
6) If you make a mistake, just move on.
Don’t stop or go back. Pretend it’s part of the piece. After all, what are the odds that someone will know it’s not? By the way, this is especially you’re reading something that’s not yet published.
7) Don’t make faces.
This is a corollary to #6. I’m queen of face-making when I play. If I’m playing something difficult, I snarl at the fingerboard. When I make mistakes, I mouth swear words. I know this because my parents have oh-so-graciously captured all these moments on video. My point is, if you act like you’ve made a mistake, everyone’s going to notice that something’s up. If you just keep going, no one will ever know.
8) Smile and have fun.
Even if you think this experience is about as enjoyable as getting a root canal, smile at the audience. If you pretend you’re having fun, chances are, you’ll find yourself enjoying the moment and the audience will respond.
In the end, the key is to let the piece you’re reading become a part of you. Sometimes, when I’m playing a performance, I have that moment of panic where my mind goes blank and I don’t know what comes next. If the piece has become a part of me, then my fingers keep playing even if my brain is having a momentary short-circuit. The same is true for reading in public. Let the story become a part of you and even if you lose your place or get nervous, you’ll be able to keep going because the story wants to be told.