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On That Note: What Do You Think About When You Perform?

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Robert Cohen

On That Note contributor Robert Cohen was finishing a series of concerts with the Fine Arts Quartet here in Milwaukee when he joined Lake Effect for our monthly conversation about making music. This time, he was mulling over a question that a friend of his had asked him after a recent performance: what did he think about when he was playing?

Cohen says it's an interesting question and it varies from performance to performance. "I mean, we're preparing for that moment (of performance) for so long," he says. "But in the first millisecond or two, when the strings start to vibrate and the cello starts to vibrate, and you feel the resonance, you have to almost adjust instantaneously to meet the mood of the music you really want."

Cohen notes that how he walks onto the stage to what last minute adjustments he might make to the cello are all things that he thinks about in every performance - although much of that thought is second nature by now. During the performance itself, there is almost constant mental monitoring. "You're sensing your physical actions all the time," he explains. "You're listening incredibly carefully because you need to know whether your plans (of how to play the music) are working out."

Classical pieces or movements can often last a half hour or more and Cohen says you can't stop concentrating. He likens it to being in a huge sea of music. "You are really in there. Right in the depths of the music and the level of concentration is enormous." Not to mention the physical exertion.

But is it all worth it? Cohen laughs. "Of course. You want each moment to be special not just for the audience, but for yourself."

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.
For 35 years one of the worlds leading cello soloist, Robert Cohen is an award-winning recording artist, conductor, artistic director and pedagogue who has been broadcast on TV and radio throughout the world. His passionate views on the art of learning, performing and communicating music have been widely published.