Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Old (and Young) Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Here's a theme and variations, with apologies to Benjamin Britten.   The theme is a rondo, which will keep recurring: an orchestral musician must primarily develop the ability to listen to and respond to what the other instrument sections are doing. This is more important than all the rest, tuning, dynamics, timing, etc.  It doesn't mean that these aren't important, but the player who is hearing what their role is in relation to the whole orchestra will almost automatically play in tune, in time and at the right dynamic. It is a fact that if you were to audition for a professional orchestra, it is not the individuals with the highest technical ability that would necessarily get the job, but the ones who can play as a part of the orchestra.

To play well in an orchestra is to respond to what is going on around you. What not to do then is easy to explain and it is: don't bury your head in the music.  Now for the variations and here is the essence of what to do: listen to other sections, especially those on either side; be able to see the conductor - seeing the conductor in your peripheral vision will be fine. We're aiming for teamwork in the manner of a football or hockey team with each player having their role and a game plan, but also in the sense of a piece of clockwork with all the cogs and wheels driving one another with a synchronised single purpose in mind, in this case to make music. Violins, could you hear what the cellos were playing? Flutes, could you hear the clarinets' contribution? If you couldn't then make the effort next time until you can.

To "hear" the rest of the orchestra is not as easy as it sounds for the temptation, the instinct even, is to focus on your own piece of music and simply attempt to play it in time with the beat of the conductor. The audio equivalent of tunnel vision is the result. You will then at best only be properly aware of and hear the person sitting next to you. It's a peculiar phenomenon - with all that sound being produced, you would expect to be able to hear it! And you can, but the point is to be aware of what you are hearing and be able to shift the focus of your attention around.

With "tunnel ears", you aren't able to hear and respond to the other parts at all and the end result becomes lifeless and inexpressive. As soon as a player gets over the fear of making a mistake or losing their place and can begin to shift his or her attention to the surrounding sound field, they will begin to play well as an orchestral musician.

This leads to another variation on my theme. The notes of a music score are fixed, but the notation is only a guide to what the end result is to be, so an orchestral player has to remain flexible and alive to the possibilities.  For example, a forte marking does not necessarily mean that individual players should play louder for it may be an indication that at this point in the music the whole orchestra plays tutti and the end result is forte given the sum total of the instruments, rather than any particular emphasis on how they are blown, struck or bowed. Likewise, knowing whether your part is prominent, of equal importance, or is background accompaniment will only be clear when you can listen to and hear the rest of the orchestra.

If you are inexperienced, it is even more important that you should fight the instinct to bury yourself in your own music for this will encourage forming a habit that will be difficult to break later. Paradoxically, if you follow my advice you will find that by letting go of your own music and being aware of others, you will play much much better.

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