By Strings Staff
Playing live in an orchestral setting not only requires practice to know the pieces and play them with proper technique, but it also requires careful attention to the nuances of your fellow musicians and the conductor in order to make something greater than the sum of its parts. This is equally true for section playing as it is if you are playing a solo. Here are some tips for playing with an orchestra in both situations.
Improve Your Orchestral Playing, Even from the Back of the Section
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. 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. Below are some ways to stay engaged, and you can find more details in this article by Daniel Levitov.
- 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. 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.
- Follow the conductor. Constantly check in with the conductor to seek out any subtleties of interpretation not indicated in the score. Every gesture of the conductor is subject to a certain level of interpretation. 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.
- Cohesive bowing. 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. 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.
Projecting Over an Orchestra
Any string player soloing with an orchestra must project her sound in such a way that it’s audible at all times, even though she’s up against an orchestra full of instruments that are objectively louder than stringed instruments—the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections. It’s completely different from the art of playing within the orchestral string sections, where players must match sounds, and standing out from the crowd is a big no-no.
But what would happen if you got offered the concerto gig of a lifetime tomorrow? Would you be ready to jump in and make the kind of sound that would lead to further invitations? Here are some tips on projecting over an orchestra when it’s your time to shine. (Check out more details in this article by Miranda Wilson.)
- It’s all about the bridge. You know that thing your teachers kept telling you about playing closer to the bridge to project your sound better? They were right. Projection really is about finding a balance between a contact point close to the bridge, a bow speed slow enough to accommodate this, and the right amount of pressure from arm weight that will give you a sound that contains both a strong core and resonance from the overtones.
- Never play with less than your best sound. Of course, it would be incredible to own a Stradivari, but a great artist sounds great on any instrument because she never plays with anything less than her best sound. Great players match left-hand techniques with their best right-hand techniques, bringing their best sound to everything they play, including fundamentals.
- Big spaces foster big playing. If you only ever practice in small rooms, you may think your expressive gestures are big enough, and it comes as a shock to learn from recordings that you aren’t doing half as much as you thought you were. People who play every day in large concert halls are used to making the kind of sound that fills up large spaces, so consequently they know that gestures have to be bigger if they’re going to project. If you want to play like them, you should do everything possible to practice regularly in big spaces.
- Consider what you’re teaching yourself in practice. Whether you know it or not, your practice is always teaching you something. If you make it a goal of practice to use the heightened sound and gesture of concerto playing, even if the orchestra is only an imaginary one at this point, you’ll be able to replicate the sound in performance.
The complete edition of the Care & Repair of Violin or Viola series from Strings magazine gives you a library of video and written instruction that will provide you with extensive knowledge that will help you understand your instrument and, in turn, be a more informed owner and user of stringed instruments and bows.