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Success at International Graun Brothers Competition

In November, I won first prize at the Internationaler Gebrüder-Graun Early Music Competition in Bad Liebenwerda, Germany. It was a wonderful weekend, and a friendly competition with a family feel, but the highest musical standards. If you fancy reading a bit about the competition, here's the write-up in a local newspaper (in German!)...

And here are some thoughts from my hotel room, and afterwards on the flight home:

Thursday November 1st: "It is silent in my hotel room. This unsettles me a little; in London there is never silence. Furthermore, there’s no WiFi in this hotel. Now, of course, I don’t need it, technically. I am here to compete in a music competition, for which I need my recorders, my music, and my own talent, none of which need downloading! But of course, as a Londoner, where we are surrounded by the internet, it’s quite strange to be "cut off".

I am sitting on the hotel desk chair, watching the sunset, which has chosen this very evening to spread across the sky, church in the background. The church is nestled in the centre of the town; it has huge triangular roof, and a decorated spire with a splendid clock. Now it is set before a dramatic backdrop of pale blue light, the last of the day’s sky, and, above that, deep blue and red. And though I have been watching it only ten minutes, the red has dwindled, and now just a thin band remains. The silhouettes of the trees next to the church lose their reality quickly, and they now appear to be cut-outs, trees of the imagination.

Let’s start from the beginning. Tomorrow I am competing in the Graun Brothers Competition in the town of Bad Liebenwerda. After the usual 4.30am start to get to the godforsaken Stanstead airport, I flew to Berlin on the joyous airline that is Ryanair, and then took 3 trains to reach Bad Liebenwerda by 1.30pm. This was impressive; I had not expected to make various connections, and, having done so, I realised that I had advertised my arrival time to the hotel as 4pm. The hotel was closed; oddly, so was everything else. The town was so quiet that I started to feel worried. The only reassuring elements to be seen were the posters advertising the competition; at least I was in the right place! The Burgerhaus, where registration was taking place, wasn’t open yet. I couldn’t find a café which took cards. (Ah, such a Londoner I have become!) I wandered up and down the main street for a while, exploring and vaguely looking for a cash machine or ‘Geldautomat’. I couldn’t find any. Having not brought any euros because I assumed I could pay by card at least in some places (again, seriously, such a city girl), I found I couldn’t have any lunch without any cash. Due to some strange blip, my phone wouldn’t connect to my 4G data, and so I needed to find WiFi in order to find a cash machine. But there wasn’t any Wifi that I could see… until I happened upon the church’s Wifi, aptly named ‘Godspot’! After a while, a cash machine was found, in a sort of deserted unit, which seemed to be a bank, but was in fact a dark room which looked anything but open. Rather odd. But it gave me 50 euros, and I headed to Backerei and Café to have the only available vegetarian sandwich (excellent, but huge) and a Heisse Schokolade.

Since then I have been practising in my hotel room. Now, it’s always a little odd practising in hotel rooms. For a start, one worries that one is disturbing others. I would never practise later than 8pm in a normal hotel – but on this occasion, I don’t really think that there are any other people here, and if so, they will also be competitors. I am also on the second floor, far away from the management, a jovial man in any case. I feel I should practise for several hours, but at the same time, I also am exhausted from having around 3 hours sleep last night, and tossing and turning during that… I would do better to have a ridiculously early night. The other odd thing about practising in hotel rooms is that often the acoustics are strange, and one’s tuning sounds terrible. Perhaps it is terrible (!), but somehow, it is very different to how it was only yesterday. I also have sore hands from playing the voiceflute for over an hour. I still find it quite a stretch, particularly since I broke my finger last year. I am taking a little break while I warm up my alto. I don’t want to exhaust my instruments before tomorrow. Recorder players don’t have it easy when it comes to instruments being temperamental. One of my instruments has the habit of getting extremely clogged up in performance (but never in practice), dropping an octave mid-flow. Others feel ‘fluffy’ in the practice room, but then develop a beauty of their own during performance which you can never quite capture afterwards. It all depends to a great extent on the humidity, the weather, your hands, the amount of moisture there is in your breath, most of which you can't control! And it’s always different when nerves kick in. I always suffer from a dry mouth when performing – not to the extent it prevents any technique, but it’s uncomfortable. So, here I am in my hotel room, practising in various ways which might be totally irrelevant to atmospheric conditions tomorrow!

I have been very impressed by the competition so far. You have to pay for your travel yourself, and an entry fee of 25 euros per musician, but apart from that everything is provided. We have been put up in this lovely hotel, for up to 3 nights, (breakfast included), and meals are provided in the Puppet Museum next to the Burgerhaus. Yes, the Puppet Museum. The town music school is also open to us tomorrow morning for practice, (with a harpsichord and two spinets available), and we also receive 5 minutes practice time in the audition hall, something that is rarely considered in my experience. This last element really makes a difference – there is nothing more off-putting for a performer than being presented with a context which is totally unfamiliar. This would never happen in a concert setting, and it is an entirely false situation, which quite simply provides an advantage to those who happen to have performed in the venue before, are confident in new environments, etc. To have even 5 minutes alone in the room beforehand creates a fair level playing field.

How do I feel about this competition? For a start, I was incredibly surprised to reach this stage. There are 7 instrumentalists in the live rounds, and 2 prizes. I am not sure how on earth what I considered to be a rushed, substandard recording, managed to get as far as it did. I suspect perhaps not very many people applied, because the competition itself is quite difficult to find online, and only the dedicated would find it! I am confident, and for once in my life not particularly nervous. I have decided quite specifically to treat this as a learning experience rather than a competitive environment, and as a result, am significantly more relaxed. However, that feeling of ease has just been maimed by the fact that I tried to play an Allegro movement, and I simply can’t produce co-ordination between fingers and tongue. I think this is the 3 hours sleep taking its toll at last. I think I will go in search of dinner, and leave the final bits of practice until tomorrow. I need to sort out one fast passage, sort out some alternative fingers, and check whether I can play some of the knee high notes in the dress that I brought with me...

On the plane home... Sunday 4th November

I slept very well indeed on Thursday night. It was rather glorious to be myself, in a new place, a new bed, with just a few belongings, and a particular purpose in being there. Very refreshing, and oddly freeing. On Friday morning, I had breakfast with a friend (whom I not seen in a year or two, one of the best things about competitions), then headed to the music school, where I discovered that ideally one should book a room on ‘the list’. As I had arrived so early, there hadn’t been a room booking sheet, and it had entirely passed me by. I ended up back practising in the hotel room again, which was perfectly fine. However, my attention was hardly on practice locations; instead, my mind was focused on the fact that my accompanist (and husband!) was delayed in his journey by a late-running train which caused a missed connection. If he were to wait for the next train, he would arrive at 2.20pm, only half an hour before our warm-up time on stage. While this would have been physically possible, we would not have been able to rehearse at all. And so there were several panicked calls in which Tom and I attempted to find taxi companies in the small German town of Falkenberg. These were not particularly forthcoming, and I decided to bite the bullet and find the competition organiser. The minibus was organised to pick Tom up from the railway station and drive him back. A relief, and he arrived at 2pm, half an hour rehearsal time before we had to dash to the Burgerhaus for our warm up slot.

We speed-rehearsed, then headed to the Burgerhaus, where we grabbed a few minutes on stage, figuring out tuning, balance, testing the harpsichord. All fine. So off we hurried back to the hotel where we threw on our concert clothes, and I attempted to do some yoga. In reality, this 30 minutes of allocated relaxation consisted of some half-hearted moves, and an attempt to breathe through one nostril with a slight cold. It didn’t work. So, the audition/slot, whatever you like to call it. I was rather nervous, and the stage was extremely hot. After the first piece, (around 9 minutes), sweat was pouring off my face! I performed parts of sonatas by Graun, CPE Bach, and Quantz, all composers of the ‘Berlin school’ of the late eighteenth century. Not exactly the recorder’s repertoire, but I rather love it. Apart from that, I don't have much memory of the performance. I think a lot of people assume that musicians are entirely present in performance. In reality, it is remarkably easy to drift away, no matter how pressing the circumstance. I found myself worrying about all sorts of things while playing; second guessing what the jury were thinking, what I myself would think of my performance in 10 minutes’ time, that kind of thing. You wouldn't really countenance that this kind of double-think is possible while actually playing a musical instrument. But the brain is a strange and complex beast, and it turns out it can do two quite different things at once. Afterwards, I remember thinking, ‘A bit messy, but fine’. I felt I had presented myself in a way which was authentic, but then authenticity isn’t always appreciated by competition jury. I was comforted on stage by the presence of Tom; one of the best things of having your husband, the person you trust most in the world, as your harpsichordist. I am eternally grateful to him for re-arranging his schedule so that he could come with me on this occasion. So, much relieved as one always is, we started to pack up outside the hall.

Incidentally, I don’t think anyone ever really enjoys a competition audition slot. Short, artificial, they make one feel rather small, and without much point. There is usually no audience (save for the jury, who don’t give the impression of an audience) – although here, there were a few people dotted around, which was nice. Often, as well, the room is not a concert hall, and there is no acoustic. Actually, here, again, the experience was much better than in many competitions, as all the slots were in the Burgerhaus concert hall, which is a lovely room with a nice high stage, plenty of natural light, and a slight ring to it. I enjoyed it more than many competitions I have taken part in. After our performance, one of the jury dashed out of a side door (apparently from nowhere) and asked for my card. ‘I shouldn’t really say this at this point’, he said, ‘but I wanted to say that I enjoyed your communication so much – you tell a story not only with your music, but also with your eyes, and your movement’, etc. Well, that was lovely to hear, and certainly it reassured me that I deserved to be there. I later found out that there had been many solo entries for the competition, and my assumption that I had only been selected from a low uptake was totally wrong. But I always have a tendency to put myself down – a quality I find very irritating at the best of times, and totally debilitating at others. We headed for an early dinner at the lovely family restaurant I had been to the previous evening. I rather like eating by myself, but it was brilliant to be able to go to that particular place a second time. Wonderful, home-cooked food, and friendly family service. Tom had an incredible Schnitzel, and I some gnocchi – followed by a sort of torte, the flavour of which we could not really understand, but tasted rather great, with marzipan and perhaps dates. After that, we did very little. Bed very early indeed, as Tom was exhausted after 3 hours sleep. I finished my friend’s excellent new historical novel while he slept, then fell asleep myself.

Saturday was fascinating. Again, this competition trumped others by laying on excellent activities on the day between the competition rounds and the award ceremony on Sunday morning. In the morning, all the participants and accompanists were able to take part in a Historical Improvisation class with Martin Erhadt, a specialist from Leipzig. A fantastic class, improvising over various ground basses. Once I got over the not so small terror of having to improvise solo on the spot (I love to prepare EVERYTHING in my life to the tiniest detail!), it was very enjoyable. Great fun to engage with the other participants, and make friends. Tom and I have both made some friends for life at this competition – something which cannot be underestimated. It is connections like this which make a musical career worth it. People matter. We learnt an English folk tune, ‘Yellow Stockings’, which was more difficult, and I struggled to improvise over the unusual harmony. Incidentally, as I have perfect pitch, I find improvisation easy in many ways; but what holds be back is the anxiety which accompanies it… So, towards the end of the class, my brain just checked out, and I felt suddenly exhausted…

In the afternoon, Tom and I had elected to perform in one of the cafes in the town – a short concert of an hour. We were playing in a cool café which had so many old-fashioned teddy bears everywhere, and which was full of locals who stayed to hear the whole hour. Again, this was a great opportunity, and we were paid a small amount for our efforts. We performed a few pieces from the programme for the competition, and then for the rest of our hour showcased some of our new Scottish Baroque programme, which went down really well. We introduced each piece in German, which was fine in general, though we had to check a few translations…. In the evening, the organisers had laid on a historical dance evening. Many of the locals had turned in various historical costumes, and a (slightly intimidating but very efficient) dance instructor led everyone in the various dances. I didn’t really feel much like dancing – and in any case, our food appeared at 7.30pm. I was glad, as I had inadvertently drunk a very very large glass of red wine on an empty stomach. I mopped it up with bread and yoghurt/chives – a staple of the region. But after the break, the evening livened up, and the last dance was ‘Yellow Stockings’. I loved performing on stage for the dancing – totally exhilarating to get faster and faster… and almost lose control. I certainly need to live on the edge more.

This morning (eventually there, phew!) was a little odd. No-one really knew what format the final award ceremony and concert would take. There was a division of temperament amongst the participants. Some had assumed that, were they to win, they would have to perform immediately. They arrived at 10am in the concert hall, wearing full concert dress. Others, such as myself, figured that the likelihood of winning was very small, and that we may as well stay in our comfortable travel clothes until it was necessary to change. After all, there would have to be around at least 5 minutes’ pause to throw on a dress! After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, and headed to the Burgerhaus. The hall was full of people; and it clearly had been well organised, and advertised to people from the area. At the beginning, a local 15-year old violinist performed, and then later a young boy as well – presumably from the Elbe-Elster region. Clearly people in this area are very proud of their musical heritage – something we don’t do very well in the UK, necessarily... The regional branch of the bank, Sparkasse, was a major sponsor of the event, and a representative of this spoke at great length (over 30 minutes!) at the beginning of the event. Unfortunately, he spoke quite quickly, and although my German is decent, I couldn’t understand very much at all, so it was increasingly nerve-wracking, as we had very little idea of whether he was going to be announcing the prizes or indeed when!

Eventually, the organiser came on the scene once more, and the solo instrumentalists were all brought up to the front. Each of us received a rose. By this point I was incredibly nervous – an entire hour of anticipation had led up to this point, and with every bone in my body I wanted it to be over. In fact, I simply didn’t care one way or the other! Then they announced the two equal winners of my category. A flautist first – Pablo – and he went up and shook hands with lots of different people, as you do. Then, I thought, ok, who is it now? And it was me. And I was totally not prepared, (wearing VERY casual clothes). Then pictures, smiling, various things to hold, various places to go, told what piece they wanted me to play in the concert (the Quantz, damn). Then a dash to the loos to throw on the dress while the ensembles were being announced. Panic – my recorder is not warm? Quick! Get it to Tom so he can warm it while I change. Then I warm it while he gets ready. Quick look at the score. More nervous than Friday – why?! Very warm. Playing 4th in the concert. All other winners (1 flautist, a singer, and 2 ensembles) waiting to perform outside, all warming up, congratulating each other warmly (nice). I joined in the congratulations, and then the performance; fine, bit messy, not as good as Friday, but ok - and thunderous applause. Looked at Tom – Tom very proud. Really enjoyed the other players’ performances as well. Really brilliant. Tired, so tired. And an hour later, we were all on the train back to Berlin, planning when we could meet again.

So, a wonderful experience, but utterly exhausting. There is so much emotional energy involved in musical competitions, and it is perhaps rather misdirected. In an ideal world, musicians shouldn't have to 'compete' - each musician has something entirely different to say, and competitions are in many ways a test of accuracy and virtuosity rather than musicality. However, they are a wonderful learning experience, and this one in particular really valued each competitor - I would thoroughly recommend it!

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