From Concertmaster Ken Johnston
When I was a kid, what scared me in performance was the same thing that thrilled me about it. Come to think of it, it was the same for me in baseball- speed. (It’s hard to admit that there were summers when baseball got more consistent attention from me than violin playing.) I didn’t necessarily listen to music with “speed” in mind, but I certainly practiced the violin with speed in mind. Young people, certainly young people of my gender, feel alive negotiating with things that go fast - notes, balls, people, bats, vibrato, trills, what have you. Things in motion simply hold one’s focus, and the more motion, the better. Plus, I was fairly convinced that the source of riches and all the glory in the world lay in speed- in violin passagework and baseball.
As we all know, disasters lie on the darker side of glory. Most of us at sixteen feared and admired our peers with the best fastball. A strike zone wasn’t all that relevant here, so as a batter, one scored as much fame by being quick to duck as one did by actually connecting. In violin playing, it was pretty much the same. My fear and excitement in any performance was a function solely of how fast I had to play…or duck. The more fast notes I saw in front of me, the higher my pulse. (In musician parlance, this is called seeing “lots of black on the page”.) It was a simple unit of measurement- if I could hit all of the notes, there was glory, and if I stumbled, not so much.
These days, I’m not so afraid of speed, nor am I particularly interested. It’s strange to realize that there’s been a reversal of sorts. I stood backstage immediately before the performance Saturday on my 40th birthday, thinking briefly on 15 years of a pre-concert ritual. I stand and wait until my friend, (also Ken), dims the lights and then gives me the ok to walk onstage. There is a moment when everything goes silent. This is the loudest silence I’ve ever known. In this moment, Ken looks me over to check for shoe laces undone, a crooked bow tie, some other errant affliction of attire- and then sends me on. Many things have happened in these seconds. I once tripped on a stage hook as he opened the curtain, and made it to about a 45% angle with the floor before I righted myself. That silence was splintered by his profane exclamation, and as you might guess, my beating heart. In another incident, a guest had gone onstage right before me to address the audience, and after concluding, she raced off of the stage in terror and we collided. My lip was split, and I spent most of the first half of the concert licking it to check in on the bleeding. I’ve never fallen asleep in my dressing room and lost track of time, but I remember a guest conductor who did! As I walked down the steps to the stage, he poked his head out of his door, still obviously undressed, and asked me to “stall the orchestra tuning”. I suggested that we wait a few minutes before I walked on and he assured me that we should start, that he’d be right down. So, I walked onstage…slowly. I wondered if he’d appear. I bowed…slower still. I waited for the orchestra to tune and then sat down in silence louder than a siren and cooked under the stage lights until I heard, to my relief, applause again.
It’s funny to remember that this backstage time used to be “slow” time, when nothing moved. It was wonderful, this past Saturday, to think on how I miss that time when the orchestra is off during the summers! These days, the last part of my pre-flight check includes a nod back at my conductor and a quick word. I’m more afraid of tripping than I am of fast notes, and the “glory” part of things is now a shared thing, as opposed to what it used to be - just mine.