From the Winspear Opera House to the Dallas Cowboys Stadium: How to adjust your performance to fit your venue
“If you’re gonna play in Texas, You gotta have a fiddle in the band.”
As 21st century musicians, we live in an age where versatility is essential to our trade. We hear violin in a wide variety of settings, whether listening to Hilary Hahn playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall or Boyd Tinsley rockin’ out to a concert with the Dave Matthews Band. In her interview, Brittany Peterson, Executive Director of Uptown Violins, recounts her experiences performing in diverse settings, ranging from the Winspear Opera House to AT&T Stadium.
Participants: Ashley Rescot (AR) and Brittany Peterson (BP)
AR: Which venues have you enjoyed performing at the most?
BP: I particularly liked performing at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, TX. The acoustics were excellent, the sound managers were good, and the audience was receptive. I played a fun variety of music, including a violin concerto intro leading into a Ledd Zepplin song. I also liked the Orpheum Theater in Wichita, KS. The audience was impressed to see eight members of the same family playing together, and they really enjoyed my arrangement of Vivaldi’s Winter with a modern twist for eight violins. Another memorable performance was the movie premier of Fotolanthropy’s “Travis: A Soldier’s Story” at the Majestic Theater in Dallas. We had the privilege of performing patriotic music for the paraplegic soldier whose life had inspired the movie. Playing at the Ambassadors’ Ball for the presidential inauguration in DC was also a highlight. The guests entered on the Red Carpet, and they loved both our classical music opening, as well as our pop finish. At the end the ambassadors chanted, “One more song,” so we played the most popular song at the time, "We Are Young" by the band FUN, to great applause. I even got to kick off my heels and dance!
AR: How does your audience and venue affect your choice in genre?
BP: You have to know how to read your audience. Stereotypically, younger crowds are often more drawn to the pop sets, including songs by Taylor Swift and Twenty One Pilots. Older generations, as well as people from cultures where classical music is more widespread, may better understand classical music references than the average American. Of course Texans are known for their love of country, so the ability to throw in a lick from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is a huge crowd pleaser. Audiences are most drawn to what they know, so it is important to be able to adjust your set lists accordingly.
AR: What kind of venues and genres lend themselves to the acoustic instrument? How do you prepare a large verses small setting?
BP: In general, I use my acoustic violin for classical playing and in more traditional settings, including symphony halls, historic churches, and people’s homes. If you are playing on a small stage, you don’t need to be powering through an orchestra, so you can incorporate more dynamic contrasts by using less pressure, playing closer to fingerboard, and tilting your bow hair. Concert halls were made for acoustic instruments. When I have played at the Meyerson Symphony Hall, Bass Performance Hall, Dallas City Performance Hall, and the Winspear Opera House the conductors have determined our dynamics. However, if you are a soloist in a large hall, all of your playing has to be stronger in order to be heard over the orchestra. You can’t do as many dynamic contrasts. For example, your piano in a large venue may require flatter bow hair, but perhaps you can still play closer to fingerboard. Try to practice in advance on the stage where you will be performing. In college I would sneak onto the concert hall stage late at night in order to get the feel for it. In this way the hall became more like a practice room, instead of a gigantic stage. I eventually felt like all the stages were the same, whether I was playing in front of five hundred or 50,000 people.
AR: What kind of venues and genres lend themselves to the electric instrument? What are some of the challenges of playing electric violin for venues like the Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium?
BP: I often prefer my electric violin for outdoor venues, large stadiums, band settings, and for contemporary music concerts. New concert venues and many modern churches are designed for bands and musicians who “plug in.” The electric violin is helpful because you can plug in just like the electric guitars and play as loudly as them. You can adjust your volume in a variety of places: on your violin, your pedal, amp, and even in the sound system by a sound engineer.
When you play at any sports stadium, keep in mind that cameras will be on you. You have to acknowledge them every once in awhile with your facial expressions, but you do not want to continuously be looking at them. Sometimes focus your attention on interacting with the other musicians or playing to the audience, giving an occasional smile at the camera. In the age of social media, you want to look as professional and fun as possible, because you could end up on someone’s phone, on YouTube, or with your face spanning from 30-yard to 30-yard line!
When I played for Dierks Bentley at the Country Music Awards, we were performing in front of 80,000 people. The stadium was so loud we couldn’t even hear the drums! As a result, we had to use “in ears.” We were plugged into the sound system, but we also needed a “count off” or a click track, as well as a “talk back” in order to communicate with the person in charge. I could tell him if I needed more of the lead singer, lead guitar, etc.
AR: Do you have any final suggestions for performing, regardless of venue?
BP: My best suggestion is to over-prepare. Before a big concert, I recommend "practice performing" your song 10 times every day for 10 days. This way by the time you perform, you will have practiced it 100 times recently. During this time you can experiment with body motion and different dynamics. Maybe you played too stiffly the first time, so now you try moving forward, etc. Practice in front of the mirror. Record yourself, even though you may hate it. Play your song out for a forgiving audience. The night before the big concert, always get good rest so that you have enough energy for the audience, whether you are performing a Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto or a two-hour pop set. And enjoy yourself! The audience appreciates the concert more if they know you are having fun, too.
Brittany does an excellent job of reading audiences and adjusting her performances to fit their needs. Although some people may believe adaptation is compromise, we must remember that adaptation is not new to the world of music. The musicians transitioning from the Classical to the Romantic Era adjusted their technique and even their instruments’ makeup to accommodate the large stages of Berlioz and Liszt, in stark contrast to the intimate settings of the royal residences hosting Mozart. So if you’re gonna play violin in Texas, you might have to fiddle with the band!
First Fridays with Uptown Violins is hosted by Ashley Rescot, Director of Public Relations. Ashley received her Bachelor of Music from Baylor University, as well as minors in French and English. She taught English as a Fulbright scholar in France for a year, and then obtained her Master’s Degree in French Literature at the University of Kansas. She has taught French to all ages, including a Maman et Moi baby French class, as well as collegiate French levels I-IV. She teaches her own private violin studio and performs throughout the Midwest. Research interests include the relationship between music education and language acquisition, as well as the connection between music and other forms of artistic expression.