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Karen Allendoerfer

Play louder . . . play softer

May 10, 2012 at 9:11 PM

Beethoven's 1st symphony has a Trio in the 3rd movement which is pretty tricky. It's easy to get behind, especially in the back. I'm in front, and in an early rehearsal I hear this happening over and over again, like I have an echo behind me.

A person on the stand behind me taps me on the shoulder with her bow. "I think you're leaving out that rest. Or maybe you're skipping a measure somewhere."

I feel mortified. I mean, it has happened. I have left out measures and rests. I have led the section astray. But I don't think so, not this time. I can hear the horns and see the conductor, and I'm a pretty major Beethoven geek. I know what this piece is supposed to sound like. And it's fast.

Still, I spent the next week listening to and playing along with a recording. Because the problem could have been me. But by the next rehearsal, I know I'm right. Even if I wasn't before, I am now. It's fun, fitting in my part. I nailed it every time at home, and I'm flying. Still, overall, live, it's a bit of a soggy mess. And there's that echo again. I think, I know what I'm doing, I'm just going to come in correctly and they can follow me. So I do. My stand partner is with me but the echo doesn't go away. I play louder, so I can hear myself, so others can hear me, I think.

And then it happens: I get shushed. Okay, yeah, the music says, um, pp. "But I'm the only one who is coming in correctly!" I protest, mentally. "I'm the only one who's keeping up. If I play too softly *everyone* will be behind." But, well, I need to listen to the conductor. I observe the printed dynamics, and I can barely hear myself. But I do, in amidst everything else. And I'm still right.

Over time and rehearsal the echo goes away and the violins start to blend together. The conductor talks about the importance of watching rather than listening from the back. The problem with listening from the back is that the sound takes a split second to get to you. I actually know this from when I've sat in the back, but I sort of forgot. And this playing louder thing--in spite of my good intentions, it's not helpful. To be a good leader maybe sometimes it's necessary to play softer. To hear what everyone else is doing and what the section really needs.

* * *

Beethoven's Choral Fantasie has a little string quartet part near the beginning of the Finale which is pretty tricky. It's easy to get off from each other, no matter where you are sitting. I'm first violin, and I can't hear the second violin. I drop down a little bit, trying to hear her. The whole thing sounds weird, but I don't know why. I play even softer, trying to figure it out.

When the conductor cuts us off, the second violin leans over and says, plaintively, "I can't hear you at all!" Really? Hmm. I can hear myself just fine. I'm in a higher register, on the E string, which to me cuts right through all other ambient noise by virtue of its pitch. "I can't hear you either," I confess. My stand partner, who is sitting right between us, looks to the right, then to the left, and then leans back against the back of her chair.

"Next time I'll look over at you right before we come in."

The next time it's a little better, but still not really nice, not what this piece deserves.

"I think you should just play louder," someone remarks. The conductor agrees, "go ahead and make it a solid mezzo-forte." I also note that there is, for this piece, an enormous grand piano with the top partially up sitting between me and the audience. Who is going to mind if I play louder?

So, I play louder. I look at the second violinist before we come in. And then I kind of dig into the string. Not a lot, but no more of this dainty stuff. I can hear the cello, and I'm with her, at least.

Now everyone thinks it's much better. It goes well in the performance too.

So, when to play softer than you want to? In a section.

When to play louder than you think you need to? When you're the only one on your part!

It doesn't sound that tricky when you put it that way, but surprisingly, it is.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 10, 2012 at 10:39 PM
Fascinating blog. We rehearse at a church fellowship hall where it is almost impossible to hear anything anyone else is doing decently (imagine doing all this underwater and you get the idea). It is always a major shock when we do the dress rehearsal in the acoustically excellent theater where we do our concerts, and you can hear everything very clearly for the first time. I'd give my ability to play decently in 4th position for a rehearsal space where I could hear what you hear.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 11, 2012 at 1:50 PM
We rehearse in the same church where we give 3 of our concerts. It seems to be a decent space--the audience likes it, anyway. It has a balcony and seats around 300, maybe 350 if people really pack in (not usually). This is what it looks like from the outside, , and this is the inside, from the balcony. It's one of those modern churches built in the 1960's or 1970's, not really what you think of when you think of a New England church building.

When it gets really "interesting" is when we perform in the Town Hall, which is where we have two of our concerts, the Family Concert and POPS. Someone put part of one of the Family Concerts on YouTube because of the soloist:

She's amazing, and even more so because you can hear all the babies and toddlers and the people coughing and turning the program pages while she is playing.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 11, 2012 at 2:34 PM
Your space looks as if it would be acoustically decent. Our rehearsal space is just a big hall with a very high, vaulted ceiling. The shock of going from our rehearsal space, where you can't hear anything decently, to a theater, where you can literally hear a pin dropped on stage in the last row of seats, is intense.

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