As of Friday, May 4th, I have performed Hamilton 100 times.  This is incredibly hard for me to wrap my head around as this time last year I had just performed my Master’s Recital and was weeks away from graduation with nothing certain on the horizon except a desire to move to New York City.  Upon further inspection of the 100 performances to sold out crowds approaching 3000 people per show is the realization that we have performed Hamilton for close to 300,000 people…and all it took was three months of touring and performing eight shows a week.  What’s even more incredible is that despite only a handful of technical issues and one case of a flying prop into the orchestra pit, the show has been incredibly smooth and consistent thus far. 

So, how did we put the entire show together in a little over a week?  How did the band establish a cohesiveness within our first, nine-hour rehearsal day?  And how did we unite our cohesiveness with the cast and crew that had been working separately for many months before we even came into the picture in just a couple short rehearsals?  From my limited perspective, I believe a combination of three interdependent factors led to smooth sailing from the beginning: personal preparation, high expectations, and a universal excitement surrounding the show.  First, with our extremely limited rehearsal time together and a sold out crowd waiting for us nine days after our first rehearsal, we had to individually be able to play the show cold before we even walked in the door.  Beyond this, we had to already have a deep understanding of the interconnectivity of the orchestration beyond our individual parts, which would be expanded as we played together more.  However, this personal preparation would be unsuccessful without the high expectations pushing each of us to our limits in the months leading up to the first rehearsal.  If left to our own devices, we would have been stuck in the “good enough” mindset with no desire to overachieve.  Finally, the magic glue that brought everything together was the sense of excitement surrounding this show: it put us in the right mindset during our preparation, it coated our interactions with others in professionalism and mutual respect, and it reinvigorated us in the moments when we were physically and mentally worn out.  On their own, preparation, expectation, and excitement are extremely important factors that drive us to work our hardest, but it is the combination of all three that make Hamilton a reality eight times a week.  

A year ago, I could have never imagined that my first audition would prove fruitful, but once the shock of success wore off I realized the magnitude of the responsibility I was given: I was tasked with performing the same show eight times a week, 52 weeks a year to capacity crowds with sky-high expectations.  I knew this would require a level of consistency, endurance, and relaxation both mentally and physically that I had yet to realize in my playing.  While I had done strings of performances of the same works before (week-long runs of musicals, operas, and other concerts), I had never done eight shows a week in which I was single-handedly responsible for playing my part-usually I was part of a section of violins all playing the same part.  I knew that I would need to fundamentally re-engineer my process of preparation and practice in order to produce results I had never before attained.  For this post, I will explain the process of preparation that I undertook in detail, focusing for now on the months leading up to the first rehearsal.  While I am aware that my process will not prove fruitful for everyone who tries it (since every individual has different strengths, weaknesses, and drivers), I am nevertheless compelled to share the many facets of my preparation as to inspire others to delve headfirst into their passions without fear of failure.  

During the audition process, I was given the opportunity to sit in the pit at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York to watch the musicians perform Hamilton.  Although I was not as familiar with the full score by that point (I had been focusing primarily on the songs I had to audition with), it was an incredibly insightful and eye-opening experience to see and hear how the original quartet (the same one that performed on the soundtrack) plays the show: from the technical elements like articulations, note lengths, and timing with the click to musical elements like phrasing and use of vibrato.  This completely transformed my approach to the music and greatly informed my months of preparation, which I will detail next.    

In the months leading up to the first rehearsal, something my former drum teacher repeatedly told me stuck in my head: “Prepare 200% so that when you’re nervous or having an off day you can still deliver and exceed expectations.” However, doing this is not as black and white as simply practicing twice as much as you think you need to: preparing a musical book is like doing the multi-faceted, semester long assignment that integrates everything you’ve learned up to that point…and don’t even think about procrastinating.  This was very much uncharted territory for me, and all I could think of was how I would not be able to re-record at all in live performance (I was able to do this as much as I wanted for my audition).  So, my ultimate goal was to apply the same deep-level technical and musical understanding to the entire book as I did for the audition songs, to gain a complete context of how my part fit in with the rest of the quartet, band, and vocals, and finally, to be able to perform this consistently and accurately.  In order to make the most of my time, I purposefully overestimated the amount of work I had to do and underestimated the speed at which I could accomplish this.  

From many years of experiencing different practice and rehearsal techniques while saving the methods that worked for me, I codified something I call “Layered Practicing:” a combination of studying without an instrument in hand and then learning and re-learning the same music through different lenses.  This practice method builds an incredibly detailed and intricate understanding while at the same time gaining an unparalleled level of familiarity and flexibility.  Before I even began playing through the book, I listened through the entire soundtrack following along with the violin part and noting the idiosyncrasies between the print and the recording in a journal.  In my first pass through, I focused primarily on technical things like note lengths, articulations, fingerings, and style while also making notes about sections I perceived would be difficult either for technical or tuning reasons.  After studying five songs, I would transfer the notes I took to my part and practice slowly to absorb the intricacies of the part while applying what I learned from my homework.  Once I got through all 50 songs, I repeated the process-this time focusing on musical aspects like phrasing, use of vibrato, dynamics, and timing.  As I became more familiar with my part, I would isolate sections of certain songs to practice slowly each day for mostly technical reasons and then slowly put them in context and work up to speed in a variety of different rhythms, accents, bowings, and articulations in order to fully ingrain the patterns in my head and fingers.  I slowly worked from playing sections of songs, whole songs, strings of songs, whole acts, and finally, the whole show.  As I played through more and more, I was able to focus less on my part and more on how it fit in with the others: I made notes in rests as to other instruments playing or the passing of motivic ideas as well as times I was playing with others.  Meanwhile, I continued listening to the soundtrack in a variety of environments and focusing on different elements to glean other details subconsciously.  

After a month and a half of practicing and studying this way, I met with Jonathan Dinklage, the Concertmaster/Violin 1 chair for Hamilton in New York, in order to ask a couple questions I had concerning how the quartet should fit in with the ensemble in terms of timing and intonation, concerning the job description of the “concertmaster” in the context of a string quartet, and concerning other general things including how he would recommend I practice in my last month before rehearsals.  In order to make the transition between practice and performance as smooth as possible, he gave me a recording of the video feed from the conductor camera with audio to practice running the show as it would be in a live performance.  He said this is how he would prepare the show if he was subbing and added:

“Practice running the show along with this video while counting every rest and focusing on every detail-until you cannot take it anymore.  If you do this, you will have a fantastic first show, and a terrible second show-but then you will be good!”

And so, in addition to the process I had already begun before, I began working my way up to full run-throughs with the conductor video while noting any additional differences between this new recording and what I had grown to expect from my prior study.  In essence, after learning the show completely with the studio recording, I completely re-learned the show with the conductor video a month and a half later, from the ground up.  By learning the show in a variety of different ways with slightly different variations, I was paving the way to be more sensitive and flexible with the company I would eventually be working with on the Philip Tour.  In order to build stamina in a healthy way, I started by running the show once or twice a week, eventually building to a run-through every day the week prior to our first rehearsal.  Finally (flashback to the beginning of my preparation), I knew that in addition to being able to do everything aforementioned, I would need to greatly improve some basic things about my violin playing alongside learning the book.  In my practice journal, I wrote the following things down to be consciously and subconsciously working on during my preparation:

Intonation in all keys, always

Clean relaxed shifts, always

Clean strokes on arco, no extra noise

Better string crossings and bow changes

Relaxed, precise trills (all dynamics)

Relaxed, precise tremolos (all dynamics)

These are things that I am still working on improving every day on tour, even after 100 shows-they take a lifetime to truly master.  However, I know that I have made tremendous progress on them by writing them down and keeping them in mind over the last couple months.  

In the end, I walked into our first rehearsal feeling 100% confident in my personal preparation, and quickly learned the absolute joy of experiencing what it feels like to put a show together with an entire band, cast, and crew that had spent months preparing for this moment.  The ease with which the show came together in just over a week is a testament to incredible preparation, high expectations, and the magic that surrounds Hamilton.  As someone who had never been satisfied with my preparation in the past, I believe this process showed me the mindset that pushes me to accomplish things I didn’t think possible as I said before: overestimating the amount of preparation needed and underestimating the speed with which it can be accomplished.  I have more stories and lessons from the days following our rehearsals and first performances, but I will save those for other posts.  Even though my lessons or recipe for preparation may not resonate with everyone, I hope that laying my process and thoughts bare will help you to realize that you too are capable of accomplishing the things you feel are unattainable.  

4 thoughts on “Be Prepared

  1. This is an awesome post Austin. Learned a lot from it and a great read for any musician aspiring to be doing what you are doing. One thing that you didn’t discuss that I’m sure played a big factor is who you are as a person. You are an incredible professional, humble, kind, and easy to be around. I’m sure that plays a factor when consider who they want to work and live with while you are on tour! You’re a true winner in all fronts, proud to call you my friend!

    Like

  2. So so happy you’re sharing these educational details and making them applicable to everyone! Super stoked for the new direction of your blog 🙂

    Like

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