On Friday morning, before heading off to our Swansea concert, I picked up my music for this year's Vale of Glamorgan Festival (which commences this week). You always know it is going to be a complex week, when the office has to send a detailed floor plan, carefully labelled, so everyone knows exactly where to sit for some pieces. It was with this thought in mind that I decided it was high time I investigated the dots for these concerts!
The 2012 Vale of Glamorgan Festival will celebrate the 75th birthday of American composer Philip Glass, the 80th birthday of Danish composer Per Nörgård, and will highlight the music of Chinese composer Qigang Chen.
As a student, a contemporary score used to send me into the depths of despair, panic and horror. Sometimes they still do. However, now I try to rely on four simple steps to get me through:
1. Don't panic
This is pretty self-explanatory, but often easier said than done. Panicking never got anyone anywhere - especially if they played the viola and were confronted with a passage that involved treble clef and multiple leger lines at a very fast tempo.
2. Take careful note of all the performance directions
There are occasions when you open a score and there will be several pages of instructions before you even get to the music. Though often dull to wade through, this can make your life a lot easier come rehearsal time.
It is also worthwhile taking time to look at all the performance directions in the score itself as you are frequently asked to play your instrument in a manner not necessarily explored in mainstream repertoire. Sometimes, even after you've done all this, you still don't know what is being asked for - that is then the job of the conductor to make an artistic decision regarding what may be required, or, if the composer is present, they will explain what effect they are looking for.
3. Mark your part carefully
By this, as a string player, I do not mean write loads of fingerings in indelible ink into your part (at least not without first consulting your desk partner). However, to me there is no shame in writing little reminders to yourself regarding mutes, rhythms etc. There is often enough to think about when performing contemporary music - you need to look for any opportunity to make life easier!
4. The metronome is your friend
The contemporary music of today often has exceptionally complex rhythmic patterns - the sort that make you feel like you are having a meltdown if you think about them for too long. I always practice this type of music with a metronome. If I don't, I just get stressed, headachy and really very grumpy.
The festival promises to be a real fusion of east meets west. I'm particularly intrigued by our second concert, which features several instruments I've never heard of before. Do come along, out of the utterly miserable weather, and try something new!
The BBC National Orchestra of Wales will be performing at BBC Hoddinott Hall, as part of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, on Friday 4 May and Friday 11 May. For more information and to book tickets, call 029 2039 1391.