By Daniel Levitov
Many string players perform not as a soloist, but from the string section of an orchestra. Though orchestra is almost always part of the curriculum during the school years, you may have spent hours and hours of practice, private lessons, and recitals learning the major concertos, sonatas, and études. String players often are trained on solo repertoire, learning not only technique, but also interpretation, sound projection, and a sense of dynamism appropriate for solo work. Section string playing can at times feel worlds away from that training.
From a position in the back of an orchestra, it is often too easy to feel artistically detached, more factory worker than artist. But I have found great enjoyment playing in all parts of an orchestral string section, and as I have gained more experience, I have found that section playing has its own challenges and rewards. In many ways, playing from the middle or back of an orchestral string section is as challenging as playing from the principal chair, and yet the skill set you need is very different.
Yet as a section player, rehearsals and performances can be challenging and enjoyable. But you must learn to listen more attentively, perform more precisely, and feel more involved in the music-making process.
Learn to Multitask
Sitting at or near the back of the strings requires an intense concentration that has to be focused in many different directions. First, you need to learn the notes, bowings, dynamics, and articulations indicated on the music in front of you. But this is only the beginning of the orchestral journey, and in professional orchestras, this is done before the first rehearsal. Good section players learn their notes well enough that they can focus on other things: following the conductor, watching bows and bowings, listening for and following solo and accompanimental voices, and leading. All at the same time.
In this way a section string player can be an artist, contributing and responding to the churning, shape-shifting, symbiotic entity that is the symphony orchestra.
Follow the Conductor
Constantly check in with the conductor to seek out any subtleties of interpretation not indicated in the score. Does the conductor push forward or ask the orchestra for a difference in articulation or sound quality? Does the conductor seek to rebalance the orchestra so that a certain orchestral voice is heard? These questions need to be asked from any chair in the orchestra, but from a position within the string section, you have to seek solutions a bit differently.
Every gesture of the conductor is subject to a certain level of interpretation. If the notes are to be played short, how short? If the strings are to play louder, how much louder? And with what type of sound? As a section player, learn how to interpret these physical gestures by examining the playing of your principals. Strive constantly to incorporate the conductor’s wishes as a group, and not as an individual. Learn not to sublimate your own musical energy, but to channel it through your section. This creates a well-blended section sound, and allows the section player to feel artistically involved in the overall interpretation.
A cohesive string sound consists mainly of a cohesive approach to the bow, so bowing and bow placement are absolutely critical to fine orchestral playing. When it comes to bowing, those in the back of the section must work harder than the front of the section. Catching bowing changes is as much an art form as a skill. In the top professional orchestras, the principals will not want to interrupt the conductor’s rehearsal flow with a bowing change, and so only the most complicated bowings are passed back verbally.
In the section, I try whenever possible to sit in such a way that I can see my principal’s bow as well as the bow of the concertmaster. As a cellist, with bows below the level of the music stand, this can be difficult to near impossible. Set up in such a way that you can see at least a part of the bow arm and bow of the front stand and the concertmaster out of the corner of your eye (this means getting to rehearsal a little early).
Then, as the rehearsal progresses, be on the lookout for a change from what you have bowed in your part. But don’t mark the part the minute you see a change. Sometimes the principal is just trying something out. Look to see if the people in front are marking it, and then look to make sure the principal is consistently playing the new bowing.
Only then should you pencil it in.
Bowing in the same direction is only a small part of cohesive string bowing. From the vantage point of the back of the section, look at bow placement across the string section. Again, look to the leaders of the string sections to see where they are in the bow, and look to your own leader for your section’s interpretation. If the concertmaster is playing at the very tip, ask yourself if your music matches the first violin part, and look to see that the front stands are also playing at the tip. The same is true for articulation.
As you play, listen to your section and match it. Mirror the physical gestures that you see to create sound that will blend and contribute musically.
Follow the Leader
Don’t tell your conductor, but there are times when the baton is not going to provide the information you need to play beautifully within your section. For example, in Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, in the last movement, the lower strings need to watch the first violins in order to place their eighth notes at the end of each bar. The conductor is likely to be making smooth gestures for legato in the violins, and so the only way to play accurately is to line up the pizzicato in the cello and bass (and the arco eighths in the viola) with the firsts.
Again, make sure that your interpretation of where to play matches the rest of the section, so having multiple points of focus is critical. As this passage continues and the second violins take up the melody an octave lower, the seconds have to attune themselves to the rhythmic activity in the firsts as well as the winds to make sure they are lining up. However, the rhythmic voices can’t just play metronomically; they need to watch the conductor and the seconds, as there is often flexibility in a passage like this.
Leading from the Back
It’s a mistake to think that playing from the back of the string section means that you are forever following and never leading. Just as in a string quartet, leadership is required at all levels. Imagine if the second stand follows the first stand and the third stand follows the second and so on. What would happens is that the back stands would be late all the time!
In order to avoid that, the back stands have to make a commitment and lead, always being sensitive to what they hear and see around them. In a passage such as the example cited in Beethoven’s symphony, concertmasters may feel that they are dragging their section along and having a hard time playing allegretto, as printed in the score. But if the back stands are leading, the front stands can feel freer and be lyrical and less autocratic in the way that they lead.
When the last note of a great symphony hangs suspended in the air of the concert hall and the audience waits to applaud, reaching out to catch the last bit of sound, you know that performing as part of a symphony orchestra is an experience like no other. When you challenge yourself to listen for everything and become fully engaged, you learn to play with sensitivity, precision, and passion. These skills can help you succeed at an audition and during a practice, and will even transfer into your solo playing.
Next time you’re sitting in the back of the string section, sit up a little straighter, listen a little harder, and have a great time doing it.