The Lute Society: Avoiding Concert Disasters

Avoiding Concert Disasters


The following pieces of advice were elicited in the prize draw competition in Lute News, the prize draw being held at an April meeting. Some entrants approached the competition in a spirit of levity(!), yet all the advice is based on (sometimes painful) experience. Many thanks to all those who contributed. ‘Let others’ shipwrecks be your sea-marks!’

Play something easy well, rather than something hard badly.

If difficult bits are unavoidable, cheat (e.g. a three-note chord played cleanly is better than a finger-breaker messed up).

Begin with two or three very easy pieces you know well, as slowly as you dare, before you play your big ‘party piece’; by then you will have warmed up and with luck the ‘adrenalin wall’ will have come down and you will have stopped shaking. The masters of old knew this well; many lute books begin with easier preludes, recercars, and tastar da corde.

An obvious point: make sure you have your music (my son once didn’t check it, fortunately there was time to collect it). Likewise, check that you have music stand, tuning meter, spare strings, concert attire etc.

If playing from single sheets of music, make sure they are the right way up, especially if using several sheets. (I once turned the page and the next sheet was upside down!)

When in the venue, you cannot expect that the acoustic will be the same when the hall is full of people as when it is empty, but it is worth checking:
1) that the chairs are stable and do not creak,
2) that if you are playing in an ensemble, the chairs are correctly arranged to allow a good line of sight with the other performer(s),
3) that any noisy air-conditioning or heating can be switched off before the performance begins,
4) that the lighting does not dazzle you, or reflect badly off your music, especially if the music is in plastic wallets or pouches.

If playing in a non-concert hall venue, such as at a party, banquet or club, where you do not know what the lighting is like in advance, take one of those small lights that clip onto a music stand; your client may expect you to play in a spot where you can barely see your music.

Also, for a non-concert venue, remember to ask at the time they offer you the booking whether you will need amplification or not.

Churches especially can be penetratingly cold, and no one can play well with cold fingers. If you keep your ‘core temperatute’ up, by keeping your torso really warm, then your fingers shouldn’t be too bad. Lots of thin layers is the best way to keep warm, so pack two or three fine lambswool jumpers which you can wear on top of one another if the venue is unexpectedly cold.

Unless you know that you can confidently improvise remarks to introduce the pieces, without becoming nervous, why not fully script each introductory remark you will be making from the platform?

Lute songs are very wordy, and not always easy for modern audiences to follow. At a lute song recital, include the full texts of all the songs in the programme, (in the language of the audience if playing abroad). An added bonus, if you do this, is that people will come up at the end and compliment the singer on his or her diction!

. . . however, make sure that there are no page turns in the programme in the middle of a song, otherwise your music will be interrupted by the sound of rustling paper at a critical moment.

Have a spare lute standing by, if you can.

Don’t be lazy about tuning in the week before the concert. If you keep your lute perfectly in tune at all times it should behave well on the night.

The night before the concert, check that the pegs are all quite firmly in. In warm weather especially, they can work loose, and pop out hours before the performance—or even on the stage.

Even if you don’t normally play with gut strings, keep a spare gut string for each course with your spare strings—at the very least for the top course. Nylon takes ages to settle down, but gut settles down very quickly. So if (as happened to me recently) you open case before setting out for the concert venue to find the top string has gone, you can replace it with gut, and play in tune in the concert a couple of hours later, where a nylon string would have to be retuned after every single piece.

If you depend on spectacles to be able to read your music, make sure you travel with a spare pair, especially on overseas trips. (A tour of Poland was nearly ruined for me when an item fell from an overhead flight locker, breaking my glasses, as I was getting on the plane. Lucky I had a spare pair!)

One or other of the many relaxation techniques should be tried before the performance. Deep breathing, and meditation techniques are good, but my own salvation is in a bottle. No not that kind! Bach’s Rescue Remedy is not a drug; it can be used by anyone of any age and unlike the beta-blocker type of relaxant it does not in any way diminish clarity of thought. If anything, I find it enhances it.

A good cure for nerves, if you are accompanying a singer, is to remember that 90% of the audience’s attention is on the singer (or melody instrument player if you are playing continuo for another instrumentalist)—you may even care to think of yourself as a member of audience, enjoying your fellow musician’s performance, which you are merely there to facilitate. Moreover, if you take this attitude the singer will thank you afterwards for following her or him so assiduously!

Enjoy the performance, never mind a few wrong notes, if your mood is good it will come through in the music. (And if you don’t look as if you’re enjoying the music, how can you expect the audience to?)
The advice of an old musician: the only thing the audience will remember weeks or months later is the conviction behind the performance. Janice Joplin couldn’t sing bel canto to save her life, and both Jacqueline du Pre and Jimi Hendrix sometimes played out of tune, but that wasn’t the point!

Do not drink coffee for 24 hours before a performance, your hands will shake more with adrenaline and caffeine on board (an eye surgeon told me this when I asked him why he was not drinking coffee in the rest room).

A rock band doing their warming up will totally defeat any tuning system. You will not hear, neither will any meter pick up anything other than then bass thump! I used a Peterson tuner with a Schaller Oyster contact pickup and the meter went crazy. Fortunately the whole week prior to the performance I had retuned my instruments every day. If your amplification system is unusual, take it and do not rely on anything the PA techs tell you.

Tune in the place of performance and don’t adjust it if you move to a room with a different climate. It will come back in tune (hopefully) when you move back to the performance space. This can be a drastic difference where there is air conditioning, heating etc.

If you are prone to break certain strings, have some pre-stretched new strings. Put them on the lute or another lute and tune up to pitch for a few days, then take them off and keep in the lute case.

Boring as it may sound, a checklist is a good idea if you are booking quite a number of concerts in the coming year. To forget to ask just one venue just one question can lead to a lot of embarrassment. How long do they want the concert to last? With an interval or without? Do they need to be presented with an invoice on the day? How many programmes should you bring, if you bring your own? What about parking, PA, heating, green room, refreshments, accommodation? etc etc.

And a little less seriously...

Always sit in the back row near the exit.

Pay someone better than you to do the gig.

Don’t play to people who know anything about lute music.

Don’t lace your corset too tightly.

Whatever you do, don’t play ‘Greensleeves’.

Don’t forget your lute.

Don’t bring your dog on stage.

Don’t tie your shoelaces together.

Don’t think about your mother-in-law.

Traditionally the audience at lute recitals are gently lured into a complex sound world of subtle nuance. Forget it. Go on the offensive, unsettle your audience. Chew gum. Don’t let the audience have any clue of your ability, by distracting them with garbled nonsense such as ‘Johnny Dowland was known as the Shakin Stevens of little old London Town and this is one of his top numbers, it goes something like this . . .’

Wear black with mirror shades and sprinkle glitter in your hair! Adopt an Andy Murray set-point-winning posture with your baseball cap turned round. Voila! The audience will be so numbed that they won’t even hear what you’re playing, let alone pass judgement on it. This way you get to pick up the cheque and head to the pub—job done!

(From I.M.A. Haggis, Central Lowlands, Scotland) Mix ten tablespoons of heather honey with half a pint of Highland Park malt whiskey, consume in a single go without taking a breath, then crawl onto the stage!

Translate your entire programme from French tablature into Italian tablature, and then, on separate sheets, into German tablature, place all the sheets together, tearing them into 1 inch squares. Shuffle these vigorously before re-assembling them into a random format. Play the resulting music from right to left and from the bottom to the top. The audience will think it the best ever concert of atonal lute music they have ever heard and a standing ovation is guaranteed!

Issue tin-openers to the audience so that can open the tins before they throw tomatoes at you—the tins can cause terrible damage to delicate musical instruments.

And some original 17th century performance advice...

Many thanks to Tim Crawford for sending this in, it comes from The Rules of Civility; or certain ways of Deportment observed amongst all Persons of Quality upon several Occasions (1685) reprinted in Notes and Queries which was ‘a medium of inter-communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, etc’, in the issue of 4th July 1857.

Chap. XV—If we have a faculty in singing, playing upon the Music &c, how we are to demean.

If you have a talent in singing, musick, or making of verses, you must never discover it by any vanity of your own. If it be known in any other way, and you be importun’d by a person of quality to show him your skill, you may modestly excuse yourself. If that will not satisfie, ’tis but civil to gratifie him readily, and the promptitude of your compliance atones for any miscarriage; whereas a sullen and obstinate denial savours too much of the mercenary, and either shows that you would be paid for what you do, or that you think him unworthy of your skill; and this unwillingness and difficulty to sing, &c., does many times dispose people to censure, and make them cry out to his face sometimes, ‘Is this all he can do? This is not worth the trouble he put us to to intreat him’.

When you begin to sing, or play upon the Theorbo, Lute, or Guitar, you must not hawk, nor spit, nor cough (before those that attend) to clear up your voice. Neither must you be too long in tuning your instrument.

You must have a care of seeming to applaud yourself by any affected or fantastical gesture, nor by any expression that may signifie how much we are delighted ourselves: as to say, ‘Now observe this note, this is well; this excellent; take notice of this cadence,’ &c.

You must observe likewise not to sing or play so long as to tire the company; you must end therefore so discreetly as to leave them with a relish, and opinion of your faculty, that they may be tempted to invite you another time; otherwise you will be in danger of being told, ‘It is enough,’ which on his side (if the person who sings is a gentleman) is as much rudeness as to talk to him and interrupt him.