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Rebecca Darnall

More interviews with violinists on topics of orchestral playing (Orchestral Research part 2A)

December 21, 2012 at 6:07 AM

More Interviews! Apparently the last blog got a little big, so I'll start another page of interviews. I am expecting a few more.

Please refer to my "Orchestral Research Part 2A: Interviews with violinist on topics of orchestral playing" for other interviews. The questions given were:

1) If a violinist does not have the opportunity to study with professional violinist with an orchestral background and wants to become an orchestral violinist, what advice would you give them?

2) What are your top five pieces of audition advice you would give to violinists?

3) What are your top five pieces of orchestral playing advice you would give to developing orchestral violinists?

4) What are your top five pieces of advice for new concertmasters?

5) What is your view on the future of the orchestra?
INTERVIEW 9 with Nathan Cole, First Associate Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and member!)

1) To become an orchestral violinist, you will have to win an audition, and that’s tough to do without some input from someone who has won before. So one piece of advice is to find a professional to play for at least once before an audition, even if you don’t have the opportunity to take regular lessons on auditions/excerpts. Starting at the end of 2012, everyone has the opportunity to study excerpts with me online through ArtistWorks. The site is! But no matter who your teacher is, most preparation for an orchestral career takes place before you think about actually auditioning. You have to get your playing to the highest possible level, by whatever means necessary. Playing in an orchestra requires the same complete control over dynamics/articulation/intonation that you need for the solo repertoire. So all the practice you’ve done on concertos, Bach, Paganini and Kreisler will come into play, believe it or not! Play concertos, recitals, chamber music, and anything else that keeps you performing. Finally, whenever you do play in an orchestra, no matter what the situation, treat it as a professional would treat it. More on that in question 3, but in general this means taking ownership of your contribution and your influence on those around you.

2) 1: Be ready one month in advance. This means that not only have you definitely decided to take the audition (surprisingly, many people waffle until a few days before!) and made your travel arrangements (ditto), but you have all required music including solos together in a binder. Your fingerings and bowings are marked, although you reserve the right to change your mind later. But simply by doing the above, you won’t believe how focused your practicing becomes. You’ll also save tons of time and heartache by never having to search through a stack of music for a particular excerpt. Imagine your heart racing while you search on stage at the audition... 2: Make your concerto first priority. In 90% of auditions, you’ll be playing at least a couple minutes of solo before any excerpts. The first thing you play is the most important. It’s the committee’s first impression of your sound and everything else about your playing. And if the audition list asks for the first movement, practice the entire first movement, including any cadenzas. I’m often asked by students, “do I need to know the whole movement?” I always ask how they’ll feel if they do get to the finals and have to play an unprepared section. It happened to me once, so I know! 3: Have a plan for the start of each selection. When you practice, have an opening routine for every piece or excerpt. This routine should take you from turning the page to the excerpt in question, through putting the instrument up and the bow to the string, to playing the first note. All of your opening routines will have a common base, but they’ll be different depending on the tempo/dynamic/character of the piece. Rehearse these routines hundreds of times before you’re called upon to use them at the audition. 4: Think of the audition as a winning situation. Some people treat it like a test in school: you start with a perfect score and every mistake you make is “points off”. That’s really not how committees listen, so instead, think of starting at 0 and gaining “points” as you go. The more you show a committee, the more quality sound and intelligent phrasing you give them, the better you do. With this mindset, a “mistake” doesn’t set you back because you have an opportunity with the very next bow stroke to continue scoring. Many players give up partway through an audition, not realizing that the committee has already forgotten the “huge” mistake. 5: Ask for feedback as soon as you can. Many people can’t wait to escape the scene of the crime after not advancing at an audition, especially if they feel they played badly. They’re convinced they “know” what happened and why they didn’t advance. In fact, they may be surprised to find out that they were close to advancing. Or they may be shocked to know that their audition came across as slow and boring, rather than rushed and tumultuous as they had assumed. The fact is that it’s impossible for you to know what a committee hears out in the hall. Add to that the fact that a committee is made up of a whole lot of different individuals, each with his own set of ears. You may not be able to get feedback, or you may only get it from one or two committee members. So you don’t have to take every piece of feedback to heart, but if you get the same feedback from several committee members, or the same from audition to audition, then it’s time to make some changes.

3) 1: Watch your principal. Of course, as musicians, our ears are our most important tools. But the fact is that there’s plenty you can’t hear in an orchestral setting, depending on the hall, how close to the front you’re sitting, or how close to the brass you’re sitting! You need to use your eyes. A lot. You may be comfortable playing a certain stroke off the string, or in the upper half, or divisi. But players in great orchestras know that their opinion about such things doesn’t count. What counts is their ability to play any note an infinite number of ways. It may seem antiquated, but you simply have to use the bow exactly as your principal does. This way, the section sounds better and looks better. But there’s another, more subtle benefit, something that great orchestras maintain religiously. When all players in a section pay attention to details, the spirit passes to everyone else in the ensemble. People talk less in rehearsal, they count rests more carefully, they pay more attention to the smallest turns of phrase from other sections. In short, the group truly becomes an orchestra. 2: Study the conductor. Don’t just watch for tempo and dynamic changes. Seek out the gestures that really communicate something. Decide for yourself what gets everyone’s attention (and produces results) and what’s just visual noise. Listen to the conductor’s comments and decide what’s really effective and what could be said better. When you do these things, not only do you learn a great deal about leadership, but you learn to anticipate that conductor’s wishes rather than just reacting. This is how a great orchestra is able to play with a second-rate conductor and still sound good: the group is ready a split second in advance and refuses to be surprised. 3: Learn to mark your music properly. Professional orchestras are required to rehearse a piece on Tuesday or even Wednesday and perform it on Thursday. They know the music already, but they have to get used to a particular interpretation very quickly. Guess what gets in the way of focusing on important matters of interpretation? Extraneous and unclear markings! For example, when I first joined the Chicago Symphony, I was shocked to learn that fingerings were forbidden. That’s right! Only the concertmaster marked fingerings. Nobody else wanted to see any. It was terrible at first, but I eventually realized that I needed to know the music well enough to play it without fingerings anyway. Not only that, but there were times that I had to move up for a concert when someone on another stand got sick. Then I was glad that I didn’t have to be distracted by unfamiliar fingerings. The same goes for descriptive words in the music. You may like a conductor’s turn of phrase about a measure sounding heroic, or languid, or holy, but don’t write it in the part! What about the next conductor three years later, who conducts it not holy but aggressive? Do you want to see the word “holy” in the part then? You can remember the sound the conductor wants, and he should be there in any case to show and inspire you. What you should be marking, and very clearly: bowings, as soon as they are changed; dots, dashes, or the words “off” or “on” to signify general bow strokes; breath marks, ritards or other tempo/dynamic changes that are not in the part; string choices and non-vibrato choices given by the principal. Get in the habit of watching, listening and marking these right away. And erase any extra markings! Pretend that someone will have to fill in for you in the concert with no rehearsal. Would they be able to survive with your markings? 4: Be prepared. Do your part to make your orchestra the kind that has a meaningful first rehearsal. That’s why the great orchestras only need a few rehearsals (at least if the conductor is competent): the players come in ready to go, from the front to the back of the group. 5: Be aware of your effect on your colleagues. It should go without saying that mutual respect has to inform every minute that you’re on the job. That’s easy enough to remember in conversations, but how about your non-verbal communication? Did you know that everyone around you can tell whether you care? Every orchestra has one or two “black holes”. They’re the ones who are tired all the time. They don’t like the conductor. The hall is too cold. But there’s a dangerous balance point: a few more such people, and someone else wonders why they should care since others don’t seem to. Then another person’s morale falls, and another. The best groups are made up of people who are aware of this process. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna, and heaven knows musicians have survived for centuries by coming up with stinging barbs about conductors, soloists, etc! But there’s a difference between solidarity and complaining. Stay vigilant! It can happen to anyone! Resist it!

4) 1: Get used to eyes on you all the time. Obviously people look to you to lead all aspects of playing. More on that soon. But in addition, your energy level and degree of involvement will inform everyone else’s. There were days in Chicago where I felt like “checking out” mentally because I felt tired, didn’t like the piece, or didn’t care for the conductor. But looking up at the concertmaster and seeing him giving his all kept me in the game. 2: Anticipate questions. As concertmaster, you’ll be asked to explain all of your choices. That goes for bow direction, bow strokes, slides, string changes, divisis, and everything else. You don’t have to prepare as if for a trial, but you must know your reasons for your choices. If you’re new as a concertmaster you may not have much more than “this works for me”, and in that case you must be honest about your reason. But listen constantly for what sounds good as a section, and let that inform your choices in the future. Don’t be caught at the beginning of rehearsals with inconsistent bowings and strokes. You’ll have to change them and irritate the section in the process. 3: Work with the conductor. Your most important job is to lead the violins, and by extension the strings. But you can also be a big help to the conductor. For example, some conductors work mostly in Europe or Asia and have limited English. You can make sure that the conductor’s spoken messages get through, either by word or deed. More importantly, it’s your job to make choices that no one else can make. Does the conductor give a sign that looks like it may be a downbeat? You must come in decisively and risk being alone. Or you read the other principals’ minds and decide that no one will come in. Only you can save the moment. That’s a very big moment indeed, but there are countless smaller ones that fall to you. Does a certain accelerando always happen too quickly? Then your motions should be relaxed and smooth. What about the opposite situation? The conductor then needs your help to encourage the section to move it! 4: Work with your section. Some situations call for direct instruction, and others call for more nuance. It’s your job to get results, so listen to your colleagues and learn what works best for them. For example, if a conductor is making everyone tense about a certain entrance, and the entrance is getting worse rather than better, it wouldn’t help for you to add another layer of anxiety: “Don’t come in early there!” Instead, you might let the conductor be “bad cop” while you’re “good cop”: “Let’s keep a quality sound on the first note.” Nobody can be liked all the time, and that certainly isn’t your job. But all of your interactions with your section, and all of your colleagues, must be rooted in respect. Even if someone dislikes you, they’ll go along with you as long as you have their respect. 5: Listen to the orchestra. It’s easy to get caught up with your own playing, and the playing that’s closest to you, i.e. your stand partner and the “inner circle” of strings on the front stand. But the audience will hear the entire orchestra, and you’re in a position to facilitate interactions between string sections, between strings and winds, and between orchestra and conductor. Ultimately the conductor takes responsibility for balance and interpretation, but even the best conductors aren’t infallible. They’ll appreciate a well-timed suggestion to repeat a certain transition, or to show an entrance more clearly. And if they don’t? They’ll realize their mistake when they’re looking to you to help with a special ritard or an extra bit of espressivo!

5) I believe that orchestras are special groups of highly talented, creative people that will inspire people for generations to come. However, too often we think of ourselves as collections of 32 violins, 14 violas, 12 celli, etc. Currently (fall 2012) there’s a lot of negative news out there about symphony orchestras, and it’s our job to separate the mean-spirited from the real. We can’t lose our conviction that people are moved by great music played with passion and commitment. That’s our most important contribution, because only we, the musicians, can bring that to an organization. But just because we’re passionate and give great performances doesn’t mean that people will pack halls and pay lots of money to hear us. Think about what you spend money on, when you have extra: people you know; causes you believe in; things that entertain you; things that your friends spend money on; things that “people” are talking about; things that nurture your soul. 100 years ago, a person with money could have checked all these boxes when considering a symphony concert or subscription. Now, we can’t count on very many of these. So the orchestras that are succeeding are the ones taking charge in these areas. They introduce their musicians to audience members on a personal level; they present themselves as ambassadors of their community; they’re not afraid to package their concerts as entertainment; they entice audience members to bring friends, through promotions and various types of performances; they make innovative use of social and traditional media; and they maintain the highest level of artistry. All of these must come together for orchestras not only to survive but to show the full extent of their members’ talents. This may very well change our audition process and job description. But these changes must come through real dialogue between musicians and boards/administrators. You can see from all of my advice above that nothing great happens without watching, listening and collaborating. This is true for interactions between musicians and the rest of the organization, just as it’s true between orchestral sections.
INTERVIEW 10 with Ted Ashton, Professor of Violin at Brigham Young University in Idaho. Also has served concertmaster for various orchestras.
(interview done over the phone)

1) Play a great deal. Take every opportunity to play in any orchestral setting so not only can you play in different orchestras but under different conductors.

2) 1) Play pieces in a variety of settings. Students need to play excerpts in a
lot of situations so they feel comfortable not only with delivery but with
acoustics, pianos, etc.
2) Start in the middle of the piece or in an odd place so you know the
excerpts front to back
3) Mental imagery--imagine yourself in that scenario
4) Be stylistically correct. Know your composers and their intentions and
show your stylistic control
5) It’s valuable to observe competitions, be involved in more than just the

3) 1) Play lots of excerpts. Once you develop technique on solo repertoire
get into orchestral repertoire
2) Practice a lot of sight reading
3) Listen to a lot of recordings
4) Play in any orchestra you can, wherever you can
5) (no answer)

4) 1) Understand you lead precision
2) Understand styles and bowings. Don’t be afraid to try new bowings and
try passages with multiple bowings
3) Observe other principals
4) Work with a carrot and not a stick. Be kind to your colleagues
5) coordinate bowings and styles with other principals

5) I am more positive than most. Music devices cannot deliver the aesthetic experience that live music can. We all crave for the emotional satisfaction and people want to be involved. Live settings do that and people want that.
With that said, there will have to be some reaching out to the young people to help them see the value of music in their lives, and orchestras adjusting to what the younger generation sees as music. We should be educating and enlightening. We program concerts that educate people on the great classics, and at the same time we reach out to new things to bring to the concert hall. Some orchestras have become elitist and have cut themselves off from reaching out. My fear is that with low money and high expectations of pay, orchestras will not focus on outreach—where the focus needs to be.

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