Thursday, September 24, 2015

Nasty Habits -- Playing in a Section

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Bassoon Section, ca. 1974 (Willard Elliot, Wilbur Simpson, John Raitt, Burl Lane)

In this post, I'd like to discuss how to play in a bassoon section. School and professional orchestras have started up around here for the indoor season and, once again, there is a demand for harmony in a section.

This is a good time to enumerate some of the things that make a section work well together.

1. Respect

An orchestra functions best when it works as a large chamber music ensemble. Therefore, EVERYONE in the orchestra matters and deserves respect. When dealing with colleagues start by assuming everyone wants and deserves to be in the group and everyone is trying their best. While sometimes this may not be so, it is always best to take the high road.

For each new rehearsal or concert, though, respect should be thought of as a precious commodity -- something that is important for you to earn each day in performance and easy to lose. This will help keep you playing your best day-in and day-out.

Respect for the music you play is even more important. This is the focus everyone should strive for.

A certain amount of special respect is due the leader or Principal player in your section. This person is the leader and the one a section looks to for guidance in terms of sound, style, etc. His/her decisions should be considered authoritative regarding how the section works together.

2. Communication 

Communication that is clear and respectful is very important. In a rehearsal, there is little time to discuss things, so short, clear questions or instructions work best. Use the first person plural "we" when asking about a passage you play with other section mates -- "Can we try. . . "

Section leaders need to communicate with their sections in a timely and clear fashion regarding part assignments, any changes in the parts communicated through them by the conductor, etc.

When necessary, try to find ways to communicate that do not interrupt warming up or disturb the flow of a rehearsal. 

Speak quietly in a way that can be heard, but won't drown out the conductor's voice.

Do not point or gesture at someone else's music. Instead, ask the person to check a bar number or letter in their part and have them tell you what they have there.

Try to use subtle body language when communicating during an ensemble rehearsal. Conductors pick up on aggressive body language and could see it as challenging to their authority.

When giving cues, make your gestures subtle, but clear. Players other than the Principal player rarely have to cue, but if you do, NEVER cue with a bigger gesture than the Principal. Do not turn to the player you are cuing, don't breathe loudly to cue, keep as still as you can while cuing clearly.

3. Tuning

ALWAYS let the Principal player try the "A" first. Once they're in, it's your turn. Principals, be aware that others are waiting to tune as well. 

When tuning chords, it's generally best to tune from the lowest note in a chord up. Instead of making assumptions about pitch, just try the isolated chord without saying anything except, "Can we try. . . "

If there is still a discrepancy, try to be flexible. If you have an unstable note, rely on the other person. Sometimes using a third person's ears to help is useful, sometimes checking yourself with a tuner is helpful. Keep in mind, if you use a tuner, use it only for reference to make sure you are not leading the other person too far off normal pitch level. The context of the chords should be ultimately controlling, not the tuner. WE PLAY WITH EACH OTHER, NOT TUNERS!

4. Etiquette 

Try to rid yourself of any bad habits you have when working in a section. 
  • Keep still and quiet during rehearsals and especially concerts.
  • Notice any nervous habits you might have that will drive your section mates crazy after a while! 
  • Don't crow your reed in rehearsal
  • Keep your key mechanism lubricated so it will be quiet when you play
  • If you must work on your reed, do this quietly. Be careful when handling tools so you don't drop them or make noise with them.
  • Keep the area around you devoid of coffee cups, etc. that can be kicked over
  • Be aware of the space around you so you don't put your things in someone else's space. 
  • Never practice someone else's solo onstage!
This list could go on and on. . .

5. Conductors 
  •  Memorize the first few notes of an entrance so the conductor can have your eyes.
  • When the conductor stops conducting YOU STOP IMMEDIATELY.
  • When the conductor asks you to play something in a different manner, do not speak unless you must. Simply nod. There isn't time for a discussion of musical points.
  • If you don't understand or wish to follow up with the conductor, do so at a break one-on-one. NEVER CHALLENGE A CONDUCTOR!
  • The conductor is not your friend. Excessive time spent schmoozing with a conductor in front of colleagues may backfire!
 6. Colleagues
  • Keep in mind that playing in an orchestra is difficult, exacting work. If you hear someone in your section play something wonderfully, let them know!
  • Show appreciation either by quietly shuffling your feet or clapping one hand against your leg.
  • Save this sign of encouragement for occasions in which the playing is truly exceptional or in which the player has overcome a difficulty or made a fine adjustment based upon a conductor's comments.
  • Excessive praise can be seen as an attempt to curry favor and may even be taken as sarcastic if the performer feels they didn't do their best.
I would love to hear what advice others have on this topic!


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