Alban's Blog

We are our own worst judges

How was your concert? – I never know how to answer this question. I don’t know, honestly, how good (or bad) a concert was I played in myself. Why is that? Because we are our own worst judges.It starts with the fact that we have the best seats in the concert hall, right behind the instrument, and the last time I heard a cello concerto in the audience, I was shocked because the cello sounded tiny. No, that wasn’t tiny, that is the sound of a cello out there. It ain’t as big as it seems right behind the instrument. So we don’t know anything about balance, not even really about sound, since the sound changes so much in each hall.

All I can know is if I hit the right notes and if I “felt” good, if I managed to do musically what I wanted to do. Do I really know this? Yes, I know if I felt good, but already hitting the right notes is a very subjective thing. And as I had to find out the other day in Vancouver, not the most important thing;

After having skied most of the day I had to play the second performance of Shostakovich’s No.1 Concerto, which went quite well (or at least the people reacted that way), and the audience demanded an encore. I had practiced right before going on stage the second movement of the Ligeti Solosonata, which I thought I had in my fingers rather safely. Well, no, after four lines I had my first blackout, had to jump back half a line and even thought about stopping, admitting of being far too tired and exhausted and offering a Sarabande of a Bachsuite instead.

I decided against that, stuck to it and somehow faked my way through this very fast piece. It was what one might call “on the edge”, or rather at times over it! It was in my mind completely out of control, I even had to jump about one line towards the end because I had no recollection of the notes I had to play (once the doubt creeps into your memory, hardly anything seems to stay in there…). This performance easily ranks among the most scary times I had on stage – the outcome? People loved it, even musicians thought it was very strong (check out the Blog “On Tour with Janos”) – how come?

I didn’t hit the right notes, I didn’t feel good and I doubt the sound was great. It must have to do with the aura or the charisma of a performer, which grows when he puts in more emotion – and fear is a very strong emotion, I guess. I knew I wasn’t on top of my game, I was afraid of making a fool out of myself, and that made me work even harder and through this I must have grabbed the audience in a different way than if I would have easily poured these pyrotechnics all over them. On top of it it is a mad piece and it might as well sound mad.

But it also happened to me with the Bach Suite No.5, which I played publicly for the first time a couple of years ago at Wigmore Hall in a live BBC broadcast. I play it scordatura (the a string tuned on g), which makes it for me more difficult to memorize. On stage I got so nervous that I lost any confidence in my memory – had to start the Gavotte even twice because I had no recollection of the first cord. It felt like the most embarrassing performance ever, but the audience loved it very much, and I received e-mails and calls of strangers who were deeply touched. Probably the fear and the hesitation made it almost sound as if I improvised the whole piece in the moment, which is not the worst way to play the Bach c minor Suite.

But then there are times that I feel great, but people around me don’t seem “to get it” – well, maybe because it really wasn’t that great. We musicians all work so hard on perfectioning our craft, thinking a lot about interpretations, little details of where to start the crescendo, how much rubato to play, but at the end of the day something else counts for much more, which cannot be planned practiced. It is the “special something” which some people try to fake, some people never experience it, but it is something we all long to possess, because this is what makes performing so wonderful and unique vice versa recordings.


  • Latif Ladid

    Nice blog. Listening to your music while writing these lines. So, you are influencing me positively ๐Ÿ™‚

    Just answer: How did you find it as I am more interested in my audience’s views and feedback. You will be surprised to hear their views and get ready to either thank them or give answers to nice questions or to tough ones. But wear your smile always with dignity ๐Ÿ™‚


  • Bob

    Not to worry, Alban. Nobody’s memory is better than yours, but nobody’s memory is perfect either, especially when the body is tired. How is Reger coming? I started learning #2 to keep you company. So far I have to say that it is not bad but not great music. Which isn’t to say it can’t be performed successfully, but it might go over better in live performance than on recordings. Have you considered putting a video clip on YouTube? Not that you should give away performances, but the whole world should have a chance to see your awesome talent. Paganini or Ligeti would be just the ticket. Or Britten, to which I’m listening now.

  • Alban

    Unfortunately I don’t have a video except the one on this page. But how does one post things there? Never tried it…
    I’ll put a new blog up about the Reger-experience, just have to organize some stuff here at home. Thanks for the good idea with the video though!

  • Shunske

    Hey Alban, long time no write! Lovely blog, lovelier entries…so-called perfection in art! And yet art is so human. Heck, it’s not so bad after all that they like it best when we get caught with our pants down ๐Ÿ˜›

    And above all, I’m reassured that memory slips happens to you too ๐Ÿ˜‰ Take care, the best of the bestest to you.

  • Alban

    Hey, Shunske, that’s a good point – maybe people are just to realize we are just humans after all ๐Ÿ™‚
    Yes, Latif, I will definitely keep smiling even if I get tough criticism, hopefully! It’s just starting, so we’ll see how I deal with it…


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