"This is a difficult piece of music to play" is a a cry that I often hear, though perhaps not so much in the summer with orchestra rehearsals on hold, musical colleagues away on holiday or busy with other things. I take this time of year to focus on my own musical development, practice and learning and on determining my aims for the future. A little musical luxury that I experienced recently was taking part in a strings group for a few days of solid music-making at an education centre called Jackdaws in Great Elm, near Frome. The luxury of this experience was (apart from great food and company) the opportunity to dissect in detail three short pieces of music, taking three whole days from dawn til dusk to do this. The course was mainly about ensemble playing but involved perennial basics, particularly tuning, which require the ability to listen and hear as well as play.
Later, back home, while thinking about what lies ahead for our orchestra, I was editing the recording that I made of the Jubilee concert in May and listening intently to what it contained. The question that arose was, how would it be possible to improve the orchestra's overall musical performance and sound quality?
It would be easy to say that "everything" can be improved. It could, but what came out strongly from that CD recording were two intractable problems that I'd been learning about on my course, namely tuning and phrasing. Issues such as tempos, overall style and dynamics, accurate entries, climaxes, diminuendos, etc., are all generally dealt with during rehearsals, but those elements of tuning and phrasing depend as much on the individual musician's ability as on the conductor's hard work and interpretation in bringing the whole thing together.
Correct phrasing is not immediately apparent in the written music. You can play the notes exactly as written, but it doesn't mean that they will be phrased correctly and the end result, the "output", will not be musically satisfying without this ingredient. Phrasing is as much to do with personal experience and musical instinct as it is about learning how it is defined. The other bête noire, tuning, particularly for strings, is as much to do with listening as it is to do with technique and this needs, like phrasing, the ability to listen and hear and reach a consensus with surrounding players. Without this tuning and phrasing consensus, the music will sound uncertain and lacking in direction. I've been learning how professional string ensemble players approach these problems and, believe me, they spend an awful lot of time on them. Nota bene that the words "in tune" and "unique" have in common that "almost in tune" and "almost unique" are both meaningless.
I can recommend that all orchestra members obtain a copy of their Jubilee concert CD recording, not so much for its entertainment value, but to listen hard to those elements that I'm talking about. When we return to rehearsals, I'm planning on working with the string sections to make improvements. For example, I hope to show how tuning is a dynamic element, not a fixed one. After tuning up, strings warm up and subtle alterations in pitch need dealing with. Tuning from the bottom (bass or cellos) up and listening to chordal harmonies are other vital considerations.
I have the pleasure and privilege of currently preparing a Beethoven Quartet (op. 132 in A Minor) with our Pauntley strings group. This is a magnificently daunting work but can be approached by considering phrasing and listening carefully to chordal tuning in just the same way as any simpler piece of music, with satisfying results. It's a case of not regarding the music as "difficult" but of considering separately and in detail the building blocks that it contains. This is like putting a magnifying glass over the music and then through the glass seeing how those building blocks are individually quite simple (maximum magnification would reveal a single note). To achieve musical perfection is infinitely difficult; to achieve musical satisfaction simply requires patience, hard work and focused regular practice.