Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Getting the Most out of Orchestra, or: You're Already Sitting There, Right?

Any music student of even a moderate degree of seriousness ends up spending some time in orchestra rehearsals. In fact, usually they end up spending a LOT of time in orchestra rehearsals. There’s lots of very good reasons for this. Many bass players are drawn to orchestra for the artistic pleasure of playing the great orchestral repertoire. Others are “made” to play in orchestra for a variety of reasons: parents or teachers make them, they have orchestra as an assigned course in school, or perhaps they’re even sent off to a music camp or festival where they need to play in orchestra.

Playing in orchestra is at the heart of what bass playing is about for a lot of us, and the orchestral repertoire offers us a chance to play some of the greatest music ever written. I got into music as a career because I wanted to play in orchestras, and that is still true of most of my students. I’m happy to say that I still love playing orchestral music after quite a few years of doing so, and I hope to still be enjoying it 30 years from now!

However, loving orchestral playing and orchestral music is not the same thing as loving every single orchestra rehearsal and concert that I’ve ever been involved in. Despite one’s best efforts, sometimes playing in orchestra can be a total drag. Conductors can be clueless or boring. Repertoire can be uninteresting or just something you’ve played a few times too many recently. Your fellow musicians can be grumpy, clueless or just plain bad at their jobs, or you can simply be distracted by illness, tiredness or life events.

I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at finding ways to make my time playing in orchestras as personally productive as possible. I realized fairly early on that it was asking too much to expect every rehearsal to be an amazing experience. Once I figured that out, I decided to try to find some way to get something worthwhile out of orchestra even if that thing wasn’t always artistic bliss. While I haven’t always been successful, I’ve been pretty good at finding useful things to do while the conductor is droning on at the first violins or the brass are finding new ways to play very very very loud.

During orchestra we can focus on a few areas beyond just playing our part and following the conductor. Four of my favorites are: our own playing, the playing of the orchestra musicians, the conductor, or the music itself.

Our playing: A famous description of armed combat says that it consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Orchestral bass playing can often match this description pretty well! While there are certain difficult passages that require our full concentration, there are often long stretches of playing that are not technically challenging for most of us. These stretches can feel like a long, boring eternity of half notes in half position, but they can also be a great opportunity for us to practice. This is especially true for students who are working on some element of their technique. Are you working with your teacher to correct some element of your bowhold? Focus on doing it during your orchestra rehearsal! Are your shifts too fast? Coordination not what it could be? Use your orchestra parts as left hand etudes! It’s amazing how much quicker we can make needed changes when we keep our brains on during orchestra rehearsals, correcting technique problems as we play. After all , we may be in orchestra for literally hours a day - often a longer span of time than we actually practice by ourselves...

The playing of fellow musicians: During the long rests, tacets, and whole notes that so often occupy us in orchestra, look around at what your orchestral colleagues are up to. To play well in any orchestra or other ensemble, we have to have some sense of how the other sections of the orchestra work. I always pay close attention to the wind soloists and principal strings in particular. What little motions does the principal oboe make as he/she starts a solo? Maybe you notice that, when the principal viola is absent, that the viola section seems to play more together. What is the assistant principal doing (or the principal not doing) that is helping the ensemble? When the percussion section plays especially well together, are they looking at the conductor, or at each other, or at their music? Orchestras are very complicated machines, and figuring out some of how they work can help us do a better job as orchestral members - and can improve our own ensemble work.

The conductor: They are mysterious creatures indeed, those conductors. It is our responsibility as musicians to follow them and to do what they ask of us, yet sometimes they seem like a hindrance rather than a help. We all need to figure out what makes for a good conductor and what makes for a less-good one. When I’m working with a conductor I like, I try to figure out why I like them. Is it their clear beat? Their expressive gestures? Their cruel, caustic comments about our playing? Their LACK of a clear beat? The funny stories they tell during rehearsal? Even trickier than analyzing why I like them is trying to figure out if their ideas and gestures are actually creating a good performance or not. Sometimes, I’m having an awful time in rehearsal, but then when I just focus on what’s coming out of the band I have to revise my opinion of the conductor upwards! Since the ultimate goal is not just to make the musicians happy, but to create great musical performances, it’s important to figure out not just what makes me feel like I’m making great music, but rather what is making great music for the audience.

The music: Besides just enjoying the music itself, we also need to learn how the music fits together and “works” if we are going to be able to play it well. Listen to the playing of the orchestra and figure out what you really need to listen to in order to fit in with your colleagues. I often listen in particular for two things: Where the melody part might take some rubato, and what is happening rhythmically in the inner voices. Once I figure out what these parts are doing, I can often cue into one or the other of them to make sure that I don’t lose tempo. There’s too much going on in orchestral music to focus equally on everything, so we need to work out how we can be a help to the ensemble rather than a hindrance. The benefits of this kind of listening can pay off in unexpected ways; if you get called at the last minute for a gig and you know what to listen for in the piece, you can manage to pull off a solid performance even if there’s little or no rehearsal time.

By focusing on all these, perhaps you can turn those hours of orchestra into useful hours of musical work and practice.... Or at least reduce the boredom level when it starts getting unbearable!