Sitting through a complete performance of Bach’s Cello Suites is exhausting, no matter how good it is. Think about it: 3 hours of music, all composed in one particular style and with the simplest of materials. There is no piano to fill in harmonies or bass lines. No percussion to lay down a rhythm or pulse. No lyrics to follow. And on top of that we are expected to sit and watch someone moving his or her bow back and forth on stage, progressively getting sweatier and sweatier, practically running a marathon but in cello terms, for 3+ hours! And there’s no commentator in the background to shake up the mood, roaring “AND HE DID IT! BOY, that was exciting! Let’s see if this next movement is as successful…” I am joking. I do hope that day never comes. I must say I have an enormous amount of admiration for those audience members who sat through my entire Bach suites recital at the Sydney Conservatorium, especially considering that I played six Australian pieces in addition to the Bach suites. Entitled Six Suites, Six Echoes, it was without a doubt the longest time I have ever spent performing on stage alone.
But in all seriousness, how does one build up the stamina to do that? It is not really comparable to practicing for several hours because on stage we are experiencing a completely different kind of adrenaline and concentration. In the practice room we can take breaks whenever we want. Performing on stage, on the other hand, requires so much focus, energy, endurance (not only physical but also emotional and mental) and oftentimes, an ability to tap into one’s willpower! I must confess that by the time I got to the sixth suite, my left hand was as stiff as a board and my shifting felt jerkier than usual. It didn’t help that I had played Jack Symond’s gigue en sourdine moments earlier, which included ridiculously high passages on all four strings - ie. plenty of opportunities for ROSIN to cake up on my fingertips. The result was my fingerboard getting sticky and shifting becoming more of an issue. Sometimes the opposite is the case, especially when one’s sweat trickles down the fingerboard, essentially turning it into a Slip’N Slide for your fingers. It is during a time like this that one’s willpower comes into play, in a way driving you to the end.
But back to the question, how does one build up the necessary stamina? and memory for that matter? I think it’s all about slow progress. Right now, for example, as I write this, performing a complete recital of Bach’s suites seems unfathomable. I’m in vacation mode, my fingers are not quite in shape and my mental stamina is not even close. But this concert was nearing the end of my tour; I was in good form and had performed multiple suites in several concerts. I also had the psychological confidence; I knew I could do it since I had performed a similar recital a few years prior. So physical stamina was, for me, not a major issue.
But there are other ways to develop good physical form. I can’t call myself a true cellist and musician without proper technical maintenance. As part of my regular practice routine, I always include scales of some sort, whether that be single note scales or double stops and octaves, which serve to strengthen the hand and fingers and remind me what it feels like to play in tune and with a good sound. I also give plenty of attention to the bow, exercising usage in all the different parts of the bow, from frog to tip. But this is all maintenance. Like teeth-cleaning. It just goes without saying; it is simply a necessary part of being a musician. Besides, if Heifetz had to practice scales then I sure as hell do.
With the Bach Suites, mental stamina is just as significant as physical. It is tricky music! Multiple voices to pay attention to, string crossings to negotiate, technical hurdles to overcome, musical nuances to bring to the fore. The only answer is a consistent amount of physical AND mental practice. By physically practicing the music, I don’t mean just woodshedding and detailed work (which of course is absolutely necessary), but playing it through from start to finish with emotional commitment and making a habit of doing this, especially in the days or weeks prior. It is also important to be able to start in different spots, not just the beginning of each movement. By mentally practicing the music, I mean going through the score on the piano, thinking about the relationships of harmonies and keys, of tempi and mood, of structure and phrasing, being able to hear how it goes in your mind, studying treatises and performance practice manuals (the long plane ride to Australia was a good opportunity for this). Fortunately for me, my other concerts throughout the tour were all building up to this final one. In each city I had performed concerts of three suites and three echoes, which, in addition to all the pop-up performances, educational workshops and other events, meant that I got a great deal of practice with them! The same above-mentioned principles can be applied for memorization. Of course I didn’t have time to go through all six suites every day. In fact, I think it is safe to say that all of my physical practice with the suites was taken care of by the time the tour had begun. How much time was I going to have on the road?! Still, for me, sometimes just going through every note in my head (away from the cello) made all the difference. I remember, prior to my Melbourne recital of three suites and three echoes, the night before I was too exhausted to practice so instead I lay in bed and went through all the music in my head, making sure it was all in order. And it absolutely made a difference. Before a recital in Adelaide on the other hand, I hadn’t played the fifth suite in a while and my performance on stage felt very chaotic and on edge, as if I was worried I wouldn’t remember which notes came next.
Mentally going through the music reassures my mind and body that I know it, that I know what I want to communicate to the audience. It reminds me how I feel about the music! And that is important. I’m sure the same goes for anyone.
I’m glad I got this all written down here because many people came up to me after concerts asking me about stamina and memory and I never felt like I had enough time to fully answer their questions.
Indeed, answering questions was a big part of my endeavor. In each city I had the privilege of visiting all kinds of different people and answering many insightful questions. I’ve already written about many of the adventures I’ve experienced in other cities, but the activities in Sydney and Orange provided yet another opportunity to reflect. In Sydney I visited an assisted living complex, a rehabilitation ward in a hospital, and took part in one more Dance for Parkinson’s class. These were all very different events, but what I felt to be most important in all of them was the effort on my part to engage with them in some sense. To involve them in my performance or discussion. Not just play for them, but make it a two-way kind of interactive event. With Dance for Parkinson’s, the very nature of the workshop meant that we were responding to each other - I was responding to their movements and they were responding to my playing. That is why it felt so connected and wonderful. With the hospital and assisted living home, however, it was more difficult. I didn’t simply want to play for them like any other ordinary performance, but I wanted to ask questions, hear their stories, hear about their interests in music. If I were to do it again, I would even ask them if they would like to try drawing the bow across the strings, making sounds that they may never have had the chance to before. Perhaps they might want to dance or paint while I play. It just felt so delightful when these people were truly responding to the music, not just sitting there listening idly. And I think that is what community engagement should strive towards. Not just ticking off a box saying that one visited a hospital and played for some of the patients in intensive care. But to connect with these people, truly. In Orange, too, I visited a rehabilitation clinic and spoke with students at the Regional Conservatorium. Again, it was wonderful to meet these people, speak to them and play for them. But looking into the future, I would love to make it even more of an interactive and immersive experience.
I must give thanks to my brother, Harry, for making our visit to Orange possible. Harry is a medical student currently living in Orange and is working at the hospital there. It was so gratifying to know that the medical community in Orange was so supportive of the arts, so accommodating of my team and our desire to visit patients in the hospital.
It has been such a pleasure meeting so many interesting people throughout my journey. I knew this project would be life-changing, and it has been so not just in the musical sense. I am inherently an introverted person, and for most of my life I have found myself to be most comfortable in quiet settings or when alone. Now, a month after my tour, I find myself eager to meet people and learn about them, their histories, their interests. I myself am much more open and aware of how I relate to other people around me. I see myself wanting to reach out and connect with people with a kind of childlike curiosity, something I had forgotten still existed inside me.
Anyhow. If you have not already, please take a moment to enjoy some photos from the tour on my Facebook page, which is accessible by the public: www.facebook.com/rnarrowaycello
Let me also add that in my goal to Bring Music to Life, I am in no way implying that classical music needs to be awakened or brought to life. Someone asked if there was a subtle implication in the project title that this was the case. Perhaps I should have been clearer. I guess we could have entitled the endeavor, Bringing Music to your Life or something along those lines, but Bringing Music to Life just sounded more crisp and concise. Classical music is alive all around us. And there is plenty of it for everybody! Enough to suit the infinite personalities of all the different human beings on this planet. Music isn’t a one way thing - if you don’t like Beethoven it doesn’t mean you don’t like classical music. Some people love Taylor Swift but hate The Beatles, some people love Celine Dion but aren’t so keen about Eminem. But all these artists, though they represent different genres, fit under the umbrella of “popular music.” So what I’m getting at is, in terms of classical music maybe you like Brahms, or maybe you like Bach, maybe you like neither and prefer Steve Reich or Philip Glass. In any case, I think there is something for everyone.
I cannot thank you enough for your support throughout this endeavor. Every day I smile with gratitude to all of you who helped make this dream come true.