How to play? Follow the leader...

There are two sides to the "employment opportunities coin" in the modern classical music industry. One side is the "starving artist" side. This is the side most commonly cited by anxious parents and (frankly) condescending non-artsy people when talking about careers in the arts. The other side of this coin is much more exciting, and is the side that I grasp to in my constant pursuit of a performing career: classical music offers seemingly infinite possibilities, from performance to arts management to blogging to academia, classical musicians (and aficionados) have endless career opportunities.

Within a performing career many musicians will find that they have to wear many hats: performer, manager, PR representative, travel agent…the list goes on. But this blog isn't really about all those hats. Instead, it's entirely about the subcategories of performance - the ensembles and musical situations that we find ourselves playing in - and how they differ from each other. 

Gosh, that sounds boring, doesn't it?! Really, it's not. Concerto playing is different from orchestral playing, and chamber music (quartets, trios, duos, etc) is an entirely different animal from a solo recital. Let's talk about them - and see if you can pick up on my opinions of each performance animal - by breaking these performance situations in to two categories, and then subsets of the categories

Ensemble Playing: It's the blend, stupid

No matter how long you've played an instrument, or how recently you came to music, chances are you've found yourself in an ensemble of some type. Almost all singers have performed with a choir (in a church or on the stage at the Met) and I've yet to meet a non-piano playing instrumentalist that hasn't played in an orchestra or a band. But ensemble playing for instrumentalists doesn't end with the band or the orchestra. The first ensembles I'd like to talk about come conductor-sold-separately: chamber music groups.

The String Quartet (but also the Quintets, and Sextets, and on, and on, and on)

One could say that string quartets are the most prominent form of chamber music for any string player. In the world of professional string chamber music, quartets outnumber all other ensemble types (including piano trios). What is it about string quartets that makes the public swoon? It could be the vast and varied repertory or the sweet sounds of string instruments, but I think the love affair with string quarts lies in the blend of the instruments.

Despite their common ancestry and construction, it is NOT easy to balance four instruments from the violin family. There are a vast number of problems that one might encounter when playing in a string quartet, from intonation to dynamic balance, but the first priority of any new, young string quartet should be the blend of the instruments. A quartet must decide what sound - and the subsequent blend - is the goal. Perhaps that sound changes for each piece (such as a specific sound for Haydn and a different sound for Bartok) or perhaps that sound is consistent, like the quartets of old. No matter, there must be a consensus on sound quality. Totally blended v. solo players. Pure pitch v. romantic vibrato. Vast dynamic differences v. small range of volume. 

If you wonder why two masterworks for violin and cello - duos by Kodaly and Ravel - are not more popular, you need only to look at the difficulties of blending the two timbres for your answer. These brilliant composers did all that they could - ingeniously - to make up for the fact that the violin and the cello just aren't the same instrument! They exist in two vastly different registers, the tone quality of the cello is the antithesis of the violin, and technical capabilities of each instrument are different. The same problems exists in the string quartet, except here, the problems are enhanced by the presence of a SECOND (gasp!) violin and an instrument that defies the laws of physics by existing (the viola). 

A good string quartet cellist lays the groundwork for the rest of the quartet lattice to build upon. This is obvious, but what must a cellist do in a string quartet? How must one play? Let's take a look at a wonderful example of quartet blend, the Hagen Quartett  (one of my favorite string quartets*) performing Mozart's K. 465 'Dissonance' String Quartet. Go ahead and watch the opening few minutes:

Clemens Hagen, the cellist, lays a beautiful ground with his repetitive C-natural before the violist enters with her "dissonant" A-flat. What may not be apparent from the video, but is when you hear this group perform live (or on high quality audio) is the resonance that Clemens brings out on this incredibly soft note. Each articulated note blooms and causes his instrument to ring. Without much (or any vibrato) his sound is both powerful and subdued. You are not necessarily aware of it, but it is quite present. Make note of the rising lines between the violin and the cello. Did you hear them before? The sound of these rhythmic unisons are dominated by the violin (because of the register), but without the cello, they'd feel empty. Clemens knows when to change from the linked bowings and bloom of his repetitive Cs to increase the bow speed and pressure, while making the slurred notes legato, to add to this prominent motion, before then suddenly dropping back - as though the bottom fell out - to his original dynamic and timbre. 

An outstanding quartet cellist knows when s/he is a soloist or a compliment. Being aware of the other parts in a quartet is essential and total knowledge of the score can not be overemphasized. Here, communication is key, and a great quartet cellist can't communicate - or make decisions about his/her playing - without a firm grasp on each part. So sit down with a score BEFORE you arrive at rehearsal. /soapbox

Want to hear another outstanding quartet cellist play some great quartet cello? Check out the Borromeo Quartet playing the second movement of Schubert's 'Death and the Maiden' and be aware of cellist Yeesun Kim and her ability to lay down a solid foundation, play soloistically, and also add touches of color to the texture with her pizzicato. 

* - other favorites include the Lydian Quartet and ETHEL

Playing in an Orchestral Section

Much of orchestral playing, like quartet playing, is about blend, but here the decision is not up to the players, nor is the balance across ensemble. Rather, in an orchestra, the blend happens intra-section. Cellists must blend with cellists and woodwinds with woodwinds. It is up to the conductor to balance the well-blended sections for a successfully blended ensemble.

Unlike quartet playing, the dynamic range of orchestral playing is much smaller. Certainly all players have seen 'ffff' markings in music (and even 'pppp' in the likes of Tchaikovsky), but these markings should be taken with a grain of salt, especially those on the louder sound of the spectrum. Have you heard the phrases, "orchestral forte," or "solo piano?" They refer specifically to dynamic differences between solo/concerto playing and orchestral playing. An 'orchestral forte' is not the same as a 'solo forte,' and a 'solo piano' is definitely not the same as an 'orchestral piano.' The dynamic level in orchestral playing is always softer than solo dynamics. When you come upon a forte dynamic marking, you shouldn't play as loud as you can. Rather, the section must play at that dynamic. Consider how much it takes for eight to ten celli to play forte in an orchestra. Each player should play piano or even (at the most) mezzo forte to achieve the forte dynamic. When one player in the section plays too loudly, the blend is destroyed.

Remember, as an orchestra section player, unlike in a quartet, you are never a soloist. Never. Your job is entirely to play as a unit with a common instrument and common goal. Take a look at the beginning of this movement from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, THE most requested orchestral excerpt on orchestral auditions.

Even with so many cellists in the section the sound comes across as one (VERY LARGE) cello. The players move together, their bows are proportioned similarly and they use the same amount of bow. Even their fingerings (for the most part) are the same. Every detail has been carefully decided upon to unify the sound. You might also notice that no one member of the section sticks out, in either sound quality (dynamics, pitch, tone) or in movement. The section is unified behind the principal player and the conductor. 

Playing in an orchestra is awfully difficult because the sound that comes out of your instrument is only one small part of the larger picture. Take note of the solo flutist entering after the opening theme in the celli. Even her solo playing blends beautifully with the other woodwinds. She knows that parts of her line must be supported by her section, and even as a soloist, her playing is not vastly more important that what is happening around her. 

Blend is the most important part of being a section orchestral player, but what else? Here are a few other things that you must be cognizant of while playing in an orchestra:

  1. Anticipate your conductor - s/he won't look directly at YOU before a tempo change (unlike, probably, in a quartet) so always be aware of what is happening. Don't get caught in your part.
  2. Togetherness - in addition to sound blend, there are concerns of rhythmic blend. Are you with your conductor? Principal? Stand partner? Is your bow moving in the same direction as everyone else? Should you be at the tip or at the frog? How much bow should you be using?! If each player in the section is aware of what each other player is doing around them, there's little chance of a train wreck occurring!
  3. SUB DIVIDE - if anything is the primary emphasis in orchestral auditions, it's rhythm (go ahead and disagree with me, orchestral players!), and you must be aware of it at all times. The easiest way to combat rushing (or slowing down) or difficult rhythms is to subdivide, always at one level beyond the most prominent rhythm (if playing constant, or mostly constant, eighth notes, subdivide sixteenths; quarters, subdivide eighths; etc.)

Coming up next, I'll move in to the second category: SOLO PLAYING! So watch this space! Until then, head on over to FACEBOOK and TWITTER and let me know what you think (string players, wind/brass players…and even pianists)!