How to get yourself ready for that solo gig of a lifetime
By Miranda Wilson
Any string player soloing with an orchestra must project her sound in such a way that it’s audible at all times, even though she’s up against an orchestra full of instruments that are objectively louder than stringed instruments—the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections. It’s completely different from the art of playing within the orchestral string sections, where players must match sounds, and standing out from the crowd is a big no-no. Ironically, musicians spend most of their lives preparing for the first scenario by learning the major concerto repertoire, but are far more experienced at the second kind of sound production.
The profession being what it is, most string players simply don’t get to play concertos with an orchestra every day. But what would happen if you got offered the concerto gig of a lifetime tomorrow? Would you be ready to jump in and make the kind of sound that would lead to further invitations? Studying what the top players are doing, then imitating it in practice, can bring you one step closer to your performance goals.
“People who play every day in large concert halls are used to making the kind of sound that fills up large spaces, so consequently they know that gestures have to be bigger if they’re going to project.”
1. It really is all about the bridge.
You know that thing your teachers kept telling you about playing closer to the bridge to project your sound better? They were right. Projection really is about finding a balance between a contact point close to the bridge, a bow speed slow enough to accommodate this, and the right amount of pressure from arm weight that will give you a sound that contains both a strong core and resonance from the overtones. Watch the best players on YouTube and you’ll see that all of them have figured this out.
Many years ago, I was privileged to hear superstar cellist Lynn Harrell performing live two days in a row. The first day, I was seated in the front row, where I was mesmerized by how consistently Harrell played close to the bridge—at every dynamic. There was a little harshness to his sound at times, but the next day, when my seat was at the back of the hall, I realized that the harshness didn’t project—all that projected was Harrell’s glorious, almost superhuman tone. Even his most exquisite pianissimo projected perfectly.
It can be hard to train yourself to play consistently by the bridge if you and your instrument aren’t used to it, so start with something straightforward like long-tone scales. I recommend beginning on your highest string in the highest register with a one-octave descending scale in the key of your choice. This is effective because it’s easier to play close to the bridge in the upper register.
Once you have a good “bridge tone” on the highest pitches, start to descend in pitch, experimenting with a speed and pressure that will enable you to keep the bow by the bridge even as it gets harder to maintain a good sound. Next, figure out how to adjust the parameters of tone production to keep you close to the bridge as you work on études and repertoire under tempo. It may sound a little harsh under your ear at first. A small amount of harshness doesn’t project as long as there is beauty in the core of your sound, plus the resonance that comes from overtones.
2. Never play with less than your best sound.
Top soloists produce a tone that compels the audience to keep listening, and it’s not exclusively because they’re playing on superior instruments. Of course, it would be incredible to own a Stradivari, but a great artist sounds great on any instrument because she never plays with anything less than her best sound. She doesn’t waste time in practice messing about with a feeble sound because she’s “working on left-hand technique right now.” Great players match left-hand techniques with their best right-hand techniques, bringing their best sound to everything they play, including fundamentals.
3. Big spaces foster big playing.
If you only ever practice in small rooms, you may think your expressive gestures are big enough, and it comes as a shock to learn from recordings that you aren’t doing half as much as you thought you were. If you’ve ever had the honor of playing alongside someone at the absolute top of the profession, you’ll notice they bring a heightened sense of energy to every gesture—often in a way that looks like exaggeration.
When I was a student, I once had the luck to read through some chamber music with one of the world’s leading violists, and the experience was electrifying—everything she did was so much bigger and more beautiful than the way I was used to playing, and I had to up my game to keep up with her. Afterward, I concluded that people who play every day in large concert halls are used to making the kind of sound that fills up large spaces, so consequently they know that gestures have to be bigger if they’re going to project.
If you want to play like them, you should do everything possible to practice regularly in big spaces. This is hard if you live in a city where space is at a premium, or if you’re a student working in tiny conservatory practice rooms. Get creative: You may be able to barter with a local church by offering to play along with the choir on Sundays in return for being allowed to practice in their hall a few times a week.
Once you’re in there, fix your gaze on something at the back of the space—the exit sign, for example—and aim to project your sound all the way to that object. Better yet, bring a trusted colleague with you and have them sit in the back of the hall to give feedback on your projection. If possible, bring a pianist and ask him or her to play louder than usual so you can practice making your sound even bigger than it needs to be.
4. Consider what you’re teaching yourself.
Whether you know it or not, your practice is always teaching you something. Your success—or lack of it—in performance on a stringed instrument is shaped by what you teach yourself when you’re not performing. If you make it a goal of practice to use the heightened sound and gesture of concerto playing, even if the orchestra is only an imaginary one at this point, you’ll be able to replicate the sound in performance. They say you should always be prepared to start your dream job immediately. Spend your practice time wisely, cultivating that larger-than-life projection common to all top soloists, for whom greatness started in the practice room, too.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Strings magazine.