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Playing in public

I’ve just had one of my worst and then most enjoyable musical moments. It is all to do with my stupid inability to control my performance nerves.

The ridiculous thing is that I can seize up even if I’m only playing to my teacher and one other. That is what happened yesterday evening. I joined up with my 11-year-old cello companion, Lilou, for a rehearsal of the Vivaldi double cello concerto (first movement).

In my morning practise I played my part OK, albeit not brilliantly. Then when together with Lilou, I completely went to pieces. It is quite fast so you are really relying on your internal musical memory rather than the notes before you. In my case I played passages as if it was the first time I had seen them.

I sometimes think it must be rather like gymnastics: you launch on a complex and rapid movement. Once started there is no room for pauses, you can’t afford to stumble – unless you can recover and hope nobody has noticed the little hiccup. (It is interesting I did not really have the same problem in life when making speeches or, when young, acting. It is easier when you are not playing or singing with others to find ways to cover moments of anxiety, maybe with a little pause or some dramatic gesture.)

Worse still, this Vivaldi depends on the two cellists playing at exactly the same tempo, completely in time with each other. We were not. Lilou and I were incapable of playing at a regular tempo throughout the piece, we were accelerating at random. Lilou was making lots of mistakes too, but one of the things wonderful to watch is how she is progressing so rapidly. She is much more at ease with the fast passages than I am, and does not seem to suffer from nerves.

When I got home I was quite shaken by my disastrous playing and was all set to announce to Anne, my teacher, that I thought I should stop performing in public.

Then this morning I had a totally different, completely positive experience. All the local primary schools are involved in a project to sing two songs composed and written (in Arabic) by a writer/composer/singer from Montpellier, Amine Hamerouch. This morning there were three sessions in which different schools were introduced to the songs by Amine, and six of the teachers at the Ecole de Musique provided an instrumental backing.

Anne had asked me at the last moment to play with the teachers, as there was a second cello part. The music was simple and the atmosphere so informal and chaotic that I played all morning without having nerves!

The children – all in the middle years of primary school – were absolutely hilarious, and I thoroughly enjoyed this chance to be entertained by them. In all three sessions the children did not hesitate to put their hands up not just to answer questions about the music, but to ask their own questions or give us their opinions. The main song was about Peace – so of course we had several call out how there should be no more killing or destruction.

The first audience was about 80 children from the two le Vigan primary schools. The next two sessions were much smaller, partly because in both cases Covid had caused one of the two schools to withdraw. So the second session was just 11 children from the little village of Alzon, and the third session, in Bréau had about 20 children.

When Amine asked them if they had ever been to Morocco or Algeria or could speak Arabic, a lot of hands shot up and we got quite complex explanations of their connections. (One little boy said his dad came from Morocco or Algeria, but he couldn’t quite remember which.) And when it came to lessons on pronunciation of Arabic sounds like AA, Ha, and Dda , these children were delighted to be able to shout out the correct version.

I was so busy being amused by the antics of the children that I completely failed to be nervous. Yes, there were a few places when I tripped up on a note, or failed to play a B flat, but I went on playing, knowing that nobody other than Anne beside me had probably noticed anything.

This evening I have a rehearsal with an adult pupil ensemble – three violinists and two cellists. In theory I should be more at ease with them as I am one of the two more experienced players. But Anne has cleverly found music with parts at different levels, so I cannot afford to be complacent. Once again, we will be playing in public at the end of term, ‘audition’, although given Covid restrictions the audience will be mainly the parents of the other players. Anne says this to encourage me to not have nerves. Hah, we will see.

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