So, last night I played a Filthy Spectacula gig in Liverpool. We were due onstage at 11, the night ran late, when I left I had to get the second night bus under the Mersey (I’m with my parents on the Wirral for a few days. If you don’t know what the Wirral is, guess what, it’s across the Mersey (a big dock-off river … ) from Liverpool) then a taxi a bit of a way. I got to bed at about 2 a.m.
At 9:15 this morning, I pulled myself back out of bed, had some breakfast, put some clothes on and went off to join the slightly expanded family church band, again on violin. Just hymns and worship songs, generally pulling alto lines out of SATB copies for the former and improvising around the chords and in response to the melody on the latter; plus the upper part of a fully-scored double descant to ‘Thine be the Glory’ (that my dad wrote probably at least 15 years ago and is now an Easter fixture at that church).
Now the interesting bit to me is that on 7 hours’ really pretty bad quality sleep, after a very long day (we arrived at the gig for a soundcheck scheduled for 5:30. Which didn’t happen till about 7.) and nil rehearsal, I not only got by but people were very complimentary, including one lady claiming the music ‘really lifts’ when I’m there (bear in mind both my parents and my brother plus a very competent worship guitarist / singer and a brass band-background cornet player do pretty much all the ‘big’ services, so it’s not like I’m adding 50% to the usual musical forces) – and Mum saying she was glad she was on the organ out of sight with the stuff I was adding to ‘The Old Rugged Cross’.
Instrument cases are good conversation starters; depending on context, about as good as beards. I had a lengthy rambling chat waiting for and on the night bus with a guitarist, country fiddle aficionado and jam night organiser, in the course of which he compared guitar (easy, supposedly – at least quite easy to get something like music out of) to violin (much more chance of producing an unpleasant noise for months or even years after taking it up), saying of playing guitar since a child that ‘it’s just like second nature’.
This morning, under the circumstances, seems to demonstrate fairly thoroughly that a moderate level of violin playing (up to and including both easy sight-reading and, interestingly, tonal-triadic improvisation) is ‘second nature’ to me – I certainly wasn’t functioning at any higher level than that at the time! And I think that is to do with a level of constant familiarity with playing that wasn’t around in the decade from me stopping lessons to going part-time pro, that has arrived over the last few months of practising, rehearsing and performing basically constantly and with much more focus and self-critique than immediately before.
But if you think about it, that’s a slightly odd statement. If practice makes perfect, surely I’ve been practising playing with full concentration, under circumstances as good as I could make them, with serious preparation? Not doing more or less whatever I can on the fly while nearly asleep on my feet.
Well, maybe. But then again, it’s not like I’ve become a top-grade concerto soloist overnight. I get hired for jobs three days before the performance. Music often doesn’t reach me before a same-day rehearsal. In band gigs, sound guys show up late, monitors don’t let you hear what’s going on properly (or force you to wear earplugs because they’re overall so loud, and then you can’t hear properly), kit (anywhere from pickup to PA) malfunctions, you sweat like a pig and struggle to grip anything cleanly. And then of course there are the hours on trains and coaches and walking round unfamiliar places with your phone giving you walking satnav.
Actually, all things considered, jobbing professionals usually play under worse circumstances than amateurs. There are many quotes about amateurs and pros, mostly far too nourishing to the professionals’ egos. Here’s my version, much more observation-based: Amateurs perform when they’re ready. Professionals decide they’re ready when they have to perform.
The key soft skill for a professional musician (as such, ignoring the elephant in the room of being a fantastic low-budget marketing executive)? Winging it, for high stakes, successfully.