On Section Playing and Being In Charge

For me, the best part of being a fellow with the Civic Orchestra is that I’m always learning. Tonight I’m learning how to turn my experiences into a blog post (something I find very challenging). This afternoon I learned how to help an orchestra play with its soloist in moments when the soloist and much of the orchestra can’t hear each other very well.Yesterday morning, I collaborated with a public school music class that was composing music to accompany a story the students had written. While there, I learned strategies to approach middle schoolers so they feel at ease and are eager to share their ideas. In the afternoon I learned about my own struggle to create a truly legato musical line. During a recent concert cycle, I learned how the sections of our orchestra play together, as I experienced the orchestra from a new perspective.

As a violinist, a lot of my orchestral experiences are located on the outside edge and often toward the front of an ensemble. I’ve become accustomed to reading beat patterns from the side rather than head-on, to the luxury of hearing the other string sections clearly, and to the sonic force of the winds and brass being tempered by distance. However, during the last week of February, sitting last chair of the first violins in a work scored for over a hundred musicians, I found myself surrounded by horn players, harpists, and a celeste, sitting a few feet from the clarinets and approximately a mile away from the conductor and my section’s leader. This was not exactly a familiar environment.

In our first rehearsal, I felt completely lost. I actually found I was able to hear much of the orchestra more clearly than I do when I’m sitting on its edge; aligning my playing with the winds, for instance, was much easier than usual. However, I couldn’t hear my section at all, a difficulty exacerbated by my lack of a stand partner. (The last chair of a section often sits alone.) Since I couldn’t hear, I needed to look, but the way we were set up that day, I couldn’t see the concertmaster unless I turned away from my music—which, in that first rehearsal, I still very much needed to see. I missed quite a few notes during our first read-through as I tried different ways of looking up and dividing my visual focus between my music and the front of the orchestra.

As I gained security through our rehearsals, the portion of my attention that had been frantically analyzing how to play with my section shifted to gathering information about how our orchestra plays together. An orchestra and its sound, its strengths, and its weaknesses are a bit like a soup: each of the musicians on stage is an ingredient with his or her own “flavor,” or unique qualities as a player, and together these flavors become an entirely new thing, an ensemble as a whole. But within that, you can still taste the individual flavors and figure out how to tweak them so they’ll better complement each other. Sitting behind the violins, I noticed things about how our section plays that I hadn’t been aware of while sitting amongst them. I noticed how when certain instrument groups would play together, one would sound behind the other, often because of differences in how the instruments create their sound. I thought about how the violins could change articulations to be more precisely together with my new next-door neighbors, the horns, and how the back of the cello section and the back of the violins could better synchronize our shared melodic lines.

In a later rehearsal, Mo. Friedman wanted more power from the second violin section. He said something to the effect of, “The first violins usually think they’re in charge, but I want to hear the seconds here. You guys lead.” There was nothing unusual about this statement–we jokingly imagine the first violins as the divas of the string sections (though we all know that distinction really belongs to the celli)—but this time, it made me think about how when I play first violin, most of my attention goes toward listening to all of the other players in the orchestra and determining how to play exactly with them, as well as gathering information from the conductor, with the remaining, fairly small percentage of my focus going toward actually playing my part. The last thing I feel is “in charge” of anything other than being the best ensemble player I can be. I’ve always found orchestral playing to be incredibly difficult: there is so much information to respond to, on a level that doesn’t compare to playing with a pianist or in a string quartet. What does it mean to be “in charge” when you’re sharing the stage with a hundred other musicians?

During our concert, finally at ease in my seat amongst the horns and harps, I was struck by how similar sitting last chair of a section felt to leading a section. A non-musician recently asked me to describe what I do when I’m sitting principal of a section or concertmaster of an orchestra. I replied that I think most of the job is listening to everything that’s going on. I take visual cues from the conductor and other players to determine exactly when and how we need to play, and then pass that information along through my physical presence. I can help everyone play together in terms of both time and musical gesture. But I noticed the same micro-communications happening around me in the back of the first and second violin sections: the way my neighbor lifted her bow arm to play would influence the moment when my sound would begin. I could make the person next to me feel confident or on edge, depending on how I breathed before an entrance. Earlier today, a community music program tweeted a quote from one of its students: “What I love about being in an orchestra is knowing that you are not alone.” I have to agree with her: the sense of interconnectedness with the hundred people around you on stage, as every movement you make influences the way another person plays, is extraordinary. None of us are in charge, and all of us are in charge, of listening and responding to what we hear and see, and of communicating as intentionally as we can with our fellow musicians. Then, together, we can create an experience for our audience.

By Tara Lynn Ramsey

Photo by Todd Rosenberg