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Emily Hogstad

Jumping off a cliff

March 15, 2012 at 7:26 PM

A couple weeks ago I got an email from a string-playing friend. There was a second violin emergency in her orchestra. Violinist needed. Stat. Please. Help. Beethoven 7 – third piano concerto – here are the rehearsal times – here’s what you’ll be paid – will you do it? Can you do it?


My first instinct was no. No, I can’t do it. When I agree to play a concert, I like to be prepared to the max, to have my parts half-memorized, to know who I need to listen to when…to know everything I possibly can, and then to guilt myself for not knowing more. This job, however, would consist of me getting a symphony and a concerto I’d never played into run-through shape for the first rehearsal in a few days. It would be my first chance to make a positive or negative impression on the members of a semi-professional orchestra I’ve watched since my teens, which I’ve toyed with joining for years, in some hypothetical far-flung future where I’ll be much better than I ever am. So far I’d spent the majority of 2012 alternating between lying on the couch sick with the flu and playing slow scales in alto clef. I can’t imagine a worse preparation.
Can you do it?, she asked.

*Can* you do it?, I asked.


When I was 14 and went to my first orchestra rehearsal, I had no idea what to expect, so I sought advice from an older violinist friend. She said, “When you don’t know what’s going on, fake it.” I faked it the entire rehearsal. But gradually, with work, I stopped having to fake. A few semesters later, I was in the first chair of the second violins, and the conductor shook my hand at the final performance.

When I was accepted into the summer camp I knew I wouldn’t be accepted into, I was struck with a heady mix of terror and excitement. I was the least advanced, worst-trained player there; graduate students and competition winners abounded. One of the faculty members there was a fantastic player and person who had played second violin in my favorite recording of the Bach double concerto. During one of our last concerts, she played in our chamber orchestra, and I was her stand-partner in Brandenburg 3.

When I was asked by a professional musician if I’d like to try some duets sometime, I blanched. It felt like a waste of his time, like a gesture of sympathy, but I couldn’t bear to say no. Nonetheless when we got together I stalled. And stalled some more.

“I’m scared,” I finally said. For some reason, no reason, no reason at all, I was scared.

“You don’t need to be scared,” he said. “It’s just playing.”

He was right.


There have been times when I fell on my face. I’ve bombed auditions. I’ve lost orchestra seats. I’ve mis-read a scale…that was one octave…in C-major…in front of an important teacher…numerous times. Once when I was recording my recital for summer camp auditions, I wasn’t told until a few minutes before I set up the mic that the pianist was actually a trombonist and only played simple Suzuki accompaniments on the side…and I’d brought her a piano transcription of a Wieniawski concerto. So there have been disasters.

But the thing is…now that I think about it, I don’t remember the disasters nearly as clearly as I remember the exultation of the unexpected successes.


One semester my youth orchestra took on three movements of Beethoven 5. It was the biggest musical project I’d been a part of up until that point. At the concert, before we began, the conductor asked us, “Before this concert, how many of you had played a Beethoven symphony?”

A few kids who had been lucky (and let’s face it, wealthy) enough to go to summer camp raised their hands.

He smiled. “Now how many of you have played a Beethoven symphony?”

We all raised our hands.

Is it strange that I don’t really remember anything about how the performance went? But I do remember finishing it and being backstage, waiting for a ride home. The heavy door to outside was open. Kids were leaving and shouting. Everyone was giddy. I sat in front of a bank of lockers and tried very hard not to cry. All that work, and the moment in the hot spotlight, the exultation, all come to this…sitting backstage, the music turned in, the folder empty, everything over. Not knowing when it would happen again. If it would happen again. If it could happen again.


Can you do it?


After deliberating, I hit reply.

The cursor blinked.

“Yes,” I typed. “I’ll do it,” and I clicked send.

Sometimes I guess you just have to jump off the cliff, and have faith you’ll land on your feet, fiddle in hand.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on March 15, 2012 at 9:22 PM
Just out of curiosity, which movement of the fifth did you NOT play?

You'll enjoy the 7th. It always feels much more classical and less romantic than the 5th or 6th. Glad you took the challenge.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 15, 2012 at 9:34 PM
I enjoyed your blog. Accepting challenges like that is the essence of becoming a really good musician. You gotta challenge yourself, even if you don't think you can do it. You will surprise yourself.

In terms of things that have bombed for at least one really good musician, I recommend the youtube "Jon Nakamatsu's Losers Club."

From Elizabeth Musil
Posted on March 16, 2012 at 3:03 AM
Thanks for posting this! It's good to see how others also get nervous playing out of their comfort zone, and how much reward one can get from it. I'm glad that the "risks" you've taken have paid off so well for you!
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on March 16, 2012 at 3:59 PM
Lisa - the slow movement. The first, third, and fourth were really pushing it for us! Strange, maybe, but this is a no-audition small-town youth orchestra, so getting even three movements together was a huge leap of faith and accomplishment for our conductor!
From Sevde Guzel
Posted on March 16, 2012 at 4:32 PM
This was a wonderful post. Congratulations :).
From John Cadd
Posted on March 16, 2012 at 11:56 PM
Your uneasy reactions ,so well described , remind me of a Hugh Laurie interview.He said his family influence was strict Presbyterian and dissaproved of "fun". (something like that) He said " I don`t know what to do with Pleasure. I don`t know where to put it."
But the real music in concerts is really in the Symphonies . Maybe I shouldn`t say that on this forum. You are not stretched out in a Symphony and have the chance to listen and play at the same time. Glad you are enjoying it .
From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 17, 2012 at 2:41 AM
Sometimes I think that being a musician is simply about saying "yes" to just about every crazy musical proposition that you are offered, and from a young age. I find that my most conscientious students tend to be the ones who are reluctant, and for that they learn to sight-read more slowly! What is the best way to learn to sight read? Showing up to rehearsal unprepared! (I know that that doesn't exactly sound like a great nugget of wisdom!)
From Malcolm Turner
Posted on March 18, 2012 at 1:21 AM
Emily, a lot of times practicing a piece before the first rehearsal is counter-productive. You learn it the way you think it goes, or the way it's played on your favourite recording - then you get to do it with the orchestra and the conductor wants different things brought out. So then you maybe have to unlearn what you've been doing, and that's harder. The most important thing in a section is fitting with the others - using the same amount of bow and in the same place as your leader. It's all about awareness of what's going on round you. We've all come across players who can (and do) play all the notes perfectly - but in their own way. They're a menace, and they are the ones who won't be invited back. And don't be afraid of "professional players". Most are very nice people, and after all playing duets is meant to be FUN
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on March 18, 2012 at 4:42 AM
I dunno, Malcom, to me in a situation in which I'm being paid to play a (to me) complicated symphony, in which I only have a few rehearsals spread out over a couple of weeks... I feel like I have an obligation to show up being able to play at least eighty percent of the notes at performance tempo. If I would have gone in there sight-reading it wouldn't have mattered what the conductor would have wanted because I wouldn't have been able to play the majority of it. I feel more comfortable learning notes in a different style than not knowing the notes at all. Different strokes for different folks. Maybe with more experience my sight-reading skills will improve. Certainly would be nice.

"And don't be afraid of "professional players". Most are very nice people, and after all playing duets is meant to be FUN." Exactly. Which is the realization I meant to imply that I had...

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