Tunnel Vision
25 Mar 2012
Inside the Classics

We’re in the home stretch of the run-up to the premiere of Acadia this weekend (do you have your tickets yet?), and that means two things. The first is that countless hours of preparatory work, technical drudgery, narrative craft, and general detailing are finally beginning to come together into what we hope will be a truly fun and exciting show. The second is that the musicians of the orchestra are actually beginning to learn our parts.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. Many of us have been hard at it for a couple of weeks now, and in a few cases (percussion, notably, where they can’t even begin to practice until they’ve decided how to arrange the furniture and distribute the labor,) a couple of months. But one of the strange realities of being an orchestral musician (as opposed to musicians who play in string quartets or other small ensembles which control their own schedules) is that there’s never enough rehearsal or practice time, and yet you can’t allow that to be an excuse for not being prepared.

If you get right down to it, we’re paid primarily for our ability to learn and execute massive volumes of music very, very quickly. A cynic would call orchestras the assembly lines of the music world. I prefer to think of us as the NFL to a string quartet’s NCAA: both offer a fine brand of football, and there are plenty of people who prefer the college game to the pros for good reasons, but on a purely practical level, the NFL game moves much, much more quickly, as any number of rookie quarterbacks can tell you.

So as orchestral players facing down a brand new score, the first thing we have to do individually is identify which parts of the piece are going to need the most practice. You can do this by playing through the whole piece, but that’s a pretty inefficient use of practice time, so I tend to scan the part visually first, and mark down what look to me like the thorniest sections. In Acadia, that means chunks like this:

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That little bundle of joy is in what we violists refer to as “Emergency Position.” And with a spiccato bowstroke, no less! The other night, before a concert, I watched our first desk working on this page of the piece. When they got to this passage, they made a valiant first attempt to play it, failed, and then turned to stare directly at me. “I know,” I said. Richard continued to stare, mouth agape. “I know,” I said. Richard sighed, and went (cheerfully) back to work.

So tiny moments like that tend to be what consumes most of our practice time, even though that passage will be over and gone in less than five seconds. It’s basically the opposite of the way that composers and conductors look at a piece of music. Their job is to take the long view, and shape the music with a focus on how the audience will hear it. Our job as individual musicians is to sweat every detail we have time to, and execute the little things as accurately as we can, while leaving the grand sweep to the eminence on the podium.

In the case of Acadia, though, I’ve spent the last several months trying to see and hear the piece the way Judd and Sarah do, so as to be able to craft the right narrative for the first half of the concert. I was actually surprised by how difficult it was for me to see the whole score, and not just zero in on one line at a time. During one of our planning sessions, I was embarrassed to find myself constantly having to ask Judd and Sarah to slow down, go back, explain things to me as if I knew nothing about music. Which, of course, I don’t, really, not the way a composer knows about music. (Sarah, by the way, has a degree in composition from Harvard.) It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the things they were referring to in my score, just that my mind isn’t conditioned to allow music to visually leap off the page the same way it does for them. Humbling.

As I practice my own part, though, I’m going through the reverse process, trying to remember that my job is the details. Having spent months learning the score to Acadia, I know exactly how the first movement unfolds, how the bed of sound laid down by the strings and percussion leads to a rising melodic figure in the brass and some fancy interjections from the winds. But none of that can matter to me as I play the piece, because my first movement looks like this…

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…and my concerns need to be a) that I’m playing those patterns correctly, b) that I’m keeping my dynamic level low, and c) that I’m maintaining a steady pulse. Worrying about the winds and brass, or even listening to them, really, is not part of my job description in that part of the piece. Staying together with my section has to be the focus. No room for big picture thinking.

I remember explaining that hierarchy of musical priorities to my mom once, and she thought it was sad. Which hadn’t occurred to me at all, because I’ve engaged with orchestral music this way all my life (or at least since I figured out that I wouldn’t be good at it if I tried to control everything,) and I find it satisfying. But I take her point: as a listener who comes to music to be moved and enlightened, the idea of breaking it down into tiny technical components and ignoring (or at least not making many decisions about) the larger structure of the work must seem tragically restrictive. I even know some musicians who feel that way. (These are musicians who probably shouldn’t play in orchestras for a living.)

But to me, getting the little things right is where my job satisfaction comes from. Knowing that I didn’t cause or contribute to a train wreck, hearing myself correctly execute a run of sixteenth notes that I spent hours practicing, catching an important cue from a distant corner of the orchestra – these are the things I take pride in. And let’s face it: it’s what they pay me for.

<February 2020>

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