Updated: Jul 31, 2020
One of the most important skills I’ve developed in my time as a musician is self-criticism. This isn’t a negative thing. It helps you improve. Most musicians learn this skill from their teachers, whose example is crucial to the rest of their lives and careers.
I was fortunate to have excellent teachers who found the right balance between compassion and criticism. I now critique almost every performance, often giving myself a mark out of ten.
Let’s imagine—you have a chance to audition for the orchestra of your dreams. You practice hard and learn to reliably repeat the difficult, nerve-wracking passages required to pass the test. You self-critique every time to improve your performance. Soon it becomes habitual—even after you win the job. You realise it’s necessary to grow and avoid becoming complacent.
Through the years, you recall highlights from different concerts. You remember beautiful melodies, perfect tempos, enchanting acoustic venues, and so on. Some recording sessions stand out too. You remember moments where the atmosphere was perfect. You remember solos where you delivered exactly what the producer or conductor wanted. You remember how everyone focused in and found a collective rhythm. This is the magic of the recording studio.
“Through the years, you recall highlights from different concerts. You remember beautiful melodies, perfect tempos, enchanting acoustic venues … ”
Recently I saw a first ‘take’ by a wonderful colleague that made the hair stand up on the back of everyone’s necks. It was one of those musical moments that I had to capture… and I did! You too can hear it soon.
As a child, orchestras excited me—their dynamics, their people, their challenges. I followed the stories of some. The Royal Philharmonic (of whose teenage club I was an enthusiastic member—we traded players’ names like football cards!), the London Symphony Orchestra (the royalty of English orchestras), and the English Chamber Orchestra (seductively expensive Londoners with their Rolex and private jet sponsorships).
All three orchestras delivered fan merchandise. The London Symphony Orchestra, among others, featured in Andre Previn’s hardback Orchestra. He filled the book with photos of glamorous film sessions at Abbey Road and other snazzy London venues. Recording sessions oozed coolness: producers laying back in their soundproof box, adjusting knobs and requesting, “Just one more please!”
I was hooked.
“I realised sensitive management of all artists is vital. When things get fraught, tone of voice, accuracy of description and brevity are crucial. This is how the ideal record-making process begins.”
The films I saw of chamber music recordings were even cooler. I heard Perlman, Barenboim, Zukerman and Du Pre experimenting and refining their work until their joint interpretation was as settled as the Beatles.
I have synesthesia. This means I can ‘hear’ colours. When I worked with orchestras, it was the perfect takes—with real flow and a musical bassline—that made fireworks go off in my head.
At the BBC symphony in the early 2000s, I did an attachment with our senior producer. I sat in the soundproof room, studying the score. I watched my colleagues from behind the glass and made suggestions about how they could improve.
I realised sensitive management of all artists is vital. When things get fraught, tone of voice, accuracy of description and brevity are crucial. This is how the ideal record-making process beings.
To be continued …
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