High-altidute and low-temperature training

High-altitude training is a concept that is familiar to any of us who have watched the Olympics or the Tour de France. However, the practice of using extra-difficult training situations to build one’s performance capabilities can be expanded to include a lot more applications than simply riding or running in thin air to that normal air feels thick.

When we hear commentators discuss high-altitude training on TV, they always make the point about how much stronger the athlete feels when they return from 8,500 feet above sea level to sea level. What we forget is how crap they feel, and how badly they perform when they first move from sea level to 8,500 feet.

Somehow, I was reminded of this when David Hoose and I were talking last week after I had spent the morning working with his conducting students. Most music students tend to treat every learning situation as a performing situation- this means that they’re more focused on avoiding mistakes than on what they’re learning. In a lesson or masterclass, nothing rattles a student more than making a mistake, but the mistake could easily be the least of their problems. If you miss a cue, at least you knew it was there and can get it next time. Better to focus on the concepts still unlearned than to worry about maintaining your dignity as a performer. Failure is the ultimate teacher, and there’s always time to recover your pride.

Suzanne and I had our own experience of a bit of high-altitude training in our Saturday morning dress rehearsal with the Cambridge Symphony….

I may get in some trouble for saying this, but I’m starting to view the fact that so many churches I perform in have a climate that would make the last survivors of the Franklin Expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, who spent over 2 years with their ships frozen in solid ice, shiver from the cold as definitive proof of the non-existence of God.

Of course, the congregation of this church would not know what I am talking about- on Sunday mornings, the church is warm and cozy and fully heated. However, for a mere rehearsal with 90-odd musicians, it was bitter cold- see your breath, let your teeth chatter cold (ever play an oboe with chattering teeth?).

Now, if I had 90 guests coming to my house, I’d make sure they were pleasantly warm. If a church were really God’s house, wouldn’t He make sure the heating were turned on a few hours before the arrival of His guests?  Shouldn’t an omnipotent deity at least ring the caretaker to say “I’ve got 90 musicians coming on Saturday, can you put the heating on the timer?”

I used to work in a church with lovely acoustics in Manchester that was also always an icebox for the rehearsals. Before each concert, the orchestra manager would call and remind the caretaker to turn on the heating Saturday morning, and after every concert the head of the ladies committee would want to know if it was better than last time “we turned it on extra early for you this time- 1:30 in the afternoon, nearly half an hour before your rehearsal,” she would crow with pride.

Any OES members who can remember me breaking a mild sweat on January nights in the Vert when the heating there wasn’t working can testify to the fact that I don’t get cold very easily. (Fortunately, the frequent lack of heat in the Vert is only proof of the non-competence of some of the people running the building, not the non-existence of a monotheistic deity). However, this time, in spite of 3 layers, including a thick wool sweater, I was freezing, as were the many musicians in their parkas and ski-caps. Worse yet, my poor cello was nearly frozen solid. Normally, I’d put the G and C strings of my cello against just about any instrument in the world, but at that temperature, it sounded like a plywood box with a cold.

Of course, the heating was turned on. We could tell this because it makes about 85db of white noise in the room, making it even harder for the orchestra and soloists to hear each other.

Finally- what is the deal with carpet. Carpet is death to music. Let me repeat that- CARPET= DEATH TO MUSIC. One of the biggest disappointments of my years in Pendleton has been my failure to convince the wise heads at the city government to remove the nasty carpet from the Vert Auditorium to reveal the lovely, antique floorboards that lie beneath, a simple, inexpensive procedure that would have transformed the orchestra’s product. This church obviously has put some effort into becoming a music venue, as is obvious from the acoustic clouds that swoop and swirl overheard in the gale force winds coming from the heating system. Why then, carpet this beautiful old building?

Anyway, it was a somewhat frustrating morning, until I remembered my conversation with David earlier in the week. This could be my high-altitude training for the week, and there was no point in worrying about my first performance at 8,500 feet. I resolved to let go worrying that I wasn’t playing the piece as well, or making as nice a sound as I could under easier conditions, and instead use the morning to figure out how to build my capacity to weather tough ones.

When we returned for the sound check the next day, the church was toasty warm from the visits of the morning parishioners. Once again, Suzanne and I felt like we were playing on proper instruments instead of toys, and we had the luxury of being able to feel our fingers and toes. I no longer shivered between phrases, and at one point, I even felt a blessed drip of sweat on my brow!

Then, at concert time, they finally turned off the heating- the infernal fans went silent, and it was like stepping out of a vast fog into clear, albeit carpeted, sunshine. And the concert felt like the easiest go at the piece yet. Sea level air made us feel faster and stronger.

I have to say, I’ve worked under a lot of crappy conditions in recent years. I think I’ve learned a lot from it that will serve me well in the years to come, but one thing I’ve learned is that conditions do matter. People who run multi-purpose venues often treat the music part of multi-purpose as “allowing musicians to use the building,” with no consideration for creating a space where the musicians can hear themselves,  or for what the music sounds like in the hall. It’s all well and good toughening yourself up, but every musician who puts the work in should get to hear themselves in a decent space. We’re far more dependent on the spaces we work in than theatre groups or dance troupes.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “High-altidute and low-temperature training”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Notes from my 85 F composing studio, afar in sunny California:

    – Always put lots of repeats in your music, so conductors have a second chance of fixing their conducting mistakes.

    – Carpet is a deadener, but what about audience members in their coats and hats?

    – I would think that this would be nothing for most members of the orchestra, including the conductor, since most would have grown up playing and marching in mid-west football games.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    ChoralBlog is new to me, but looks like a great resource. Alan Simon makes this interesting point about my humorously inteneded take on churches freezing guests…

    “His complaint about unheated churches doesn’t take into account that churches sometimes have official policies about heating which sometimes plan to freeze visiting groups in order to save money. This is their choice, although they should be upfront about it when renting the space.”

    What about the whole “do unto others” thing? Doest that no longer apply 🙂

    Read the whole thing here

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