In Conversation: Blair Harris

In Conversation: Blair Harris

Performance practice, staying true to your artistic goals and starting the day with music. 

Blair Harris
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Blair Harris

Performance practice, staying true to your artistic goals and starting the day with music. 

Your upcoming concert with Andrea Katz sees you perform some of the masterpieces of the cello and piano repertoire, including works by Beethoven, Brahms and Debussy. Can you tell me about the programming process for this concert and why you chose the pieces that made the cut?

We both felt we wanted to join forces to explore these powerhouses of the romantic repertoire. Over years I have dedicated myself largely to contemporary music, but this program is a great opportunity to explore something different.  Ultimately we chose these three works because they resonate with the both of us. We can share our ideas and past experience with the vision of finding a new collaborative voice for these great masters.

When working on duo repertoire, as you are doing with Andrea in the lead up to Rhapsodic Cello, what does an ideal rehearsal schedule look like? How do you stay efficient when you have limited time and how important is it to take time just to have fun and relax with your colleagues?

Andrea and I have been working together everyday and will continue to do so up until the performance. It is so important to come up with an interpretation that is highly personal to both of us to create a unique and exciting performance. The rehearsal process is often the most interesting aspect of being a performer, we have both allowed space in our schedules to put this concert foremost in our minds. We will relax after the concert!

Your portfolio career sees you working on a huge array of music from romantic gems and crowd-pleasing musicals to 20th-century works and brand new commissions. How do you manage all of your different projects and do you have any advice for instrumentalists hoping to pursue a career as a freelance performer? 

I just adore all music! Whatever I am working with at the time often becomes my love affair. I try to divide my time evenly between all the projects but am also careful to create space in the final lead up to a major recital or especially demanding program of chamber music, so it can be my only focus. My advice to successful freelancing is to always stay true to your artistic goals. It is so easy to get overworked as a freelancer because we feel like we always need to be ‘busy’ to been seen as successful. It is really important to keep up your personal practice regime and to feel like, no matter what the gig is, you are in control of your instrument and proud to contribute. Our self-esteem as musicians is intrinsically linked to how we perceive ourselves on our instrument. If we let that side of ourselves down, things can take a turn for the worse and we lose confidence.

In your own personal practice, do you have a tried-and-true schedule that works every time or does your approach change based on your current projects? 

I have a rule now every day starts with 30 minutes of technique before breakfast. This really sets up my day to feel powerful and connected to the cello. Performing solo works or duo programs is extremely demanding, your interpretation needs to be really embedded well beyond the hands to be able to communicate the work in a spontaneous manner. I spend a lot of time now away from the cello, reading the scores making possible interpretive decisions that I will try in my next physical practice session. I find I am much more creative this way being free from ever getting caught putting technique ahead of musical decisions.

For those students with end of year recitals on their minds, can you share three of your best strategies for getting performance ready?

Start early! Cramming for performances doesn’t work. Your body and mind need time to digest the repertoire both musically and technically. Giving yourself a large lead up also allows you to rest certain pieces for a few days and come back to them with fresh eyes.

Always practice with a purpose. Choose one aspect you would like to improve at a time and achieve it. It’s easy to feel an ‘All or Nothing’ mentality when leading up to performances. But by breaking things down into achievable goals you’ll see quick improvements and build confidence. Mindless repetition is an absolute waste of time!

Perform as much as possible. Whether it be a phrase to your practice neighbour or a run through of one of your pieces. Too often we get caught up in this ‘it has to be perfect’ mentality. This isn’t realistic without allowing yourself to be comfortable performing. Schedule a few informal runs for people you trust and stick with them. At the end of the day, music isn’t about an exam or a grade, it is about communicating something highly emotional and powerful with other human beings. The more you do that, the better off we will all be.

Blair Harris and Andrea Katz present Rhapsodic Cello at Richmond Uniting Church on July 22 at 6pm. Tickets available on the door and online