When you were at music college did you feel that your course really prepared you for your orchestral career?
By the time a music student leaves college, if all has gone according to plan and they have worked hard enough, they should be well equipped to play their instruments. As a student, you expend most of your energies perfecting control of the chosen instrument and in many ways this is the correct path. At this stage of an instrumentalist’s development, by definition, orchestral disciplines mainly take second place.
As a teenager I had been in the National Youth Orchestra (of GB) for three years and whilst it was a great experience (coming from an all male boarding school and spending several weeks of the year surrounded by many beautiful girls was indeed a major leap forward on the journey of life!), it contained little in the way of resemblance to the professional orchestral world that I was subsequently destined to be part of.
For a start, we were all sent the music weeks, if not months in advance of the first rehearsal and once each course was under way, there were between ten days and two weeks of training sessions to perfect one programme. In a London orchestra, the turnover of repertoire is incredibly swift with often up to three or even four different programmes a week. Monday could be rehearsals for a Tuesday Brahms symphony, Wednesday an opera evening (usually one rehearsal), Friday rehearsals for a Mahler symphony on the Saturday and maybe (not so often these days!) on the Thursday two sessions at Abbey Road recording the Tchaikovsky piano concerto from the previous Tuesday night’s concert. And it goes on like this throughout the year.
Once at music college, I attended woodwind sectionals and there were numerous rehearsals for one off orchestral concerts, if you happened to be one of the lucky few who survived the internal audition process. In many ways, these activities merely gently supplemented the primary purpose of mastery of our chosen instruments.
Your question certainly raises an extremely interesting point, which needs to be both discussed and acknowledged by music institutions and students alike.
The discipline or ‘art’ of being a good orchestral player is different to that of being a soloist, or recitalist. Each requires very different skill sets. I am not saying in any way that one is more demanding than the others. Put simply, each requires different forms of compromise.
In a flute and piano duo there will be degrees of compromise as each participating individual will have very specific thoughts and ideas as to how a piece should be interpreted or performed. With rehearsal and discussion, hopefully there will be a meeting of views and the final ‘product’ will be satisfactory to both. If not, then it is probably time to look around for another pianist!
Playing in the heart of an orchestra is certainly more complicated. Firstly, there’s the conductor. Some are good and even great, the majority are woefully average and there are some incredibly bad ones too! Sometimes (rarely) they trust their players, but invariably they crave absolute control and will quite often dictate to the principal soloists of an orchestra how they want a particular solo played. In turn, this may well not line up with the soloists concepts of the piece in question. The topic of the conductor is a complicated one and warrants several chapters, if not a book by itself!
In a large scale work, an orchestra, apart from the influences of the conductor, could also have 110 musicians in it. This is 110 people all with their own ideas and beliefs as to how a piece should be played. 110 people with different views on exactly how loud ‘PP’ or ‘FF’ might be. 110 people with different ideas as to tempi. 110 people with different ideas as to the appropriate timbre. 110 people with different views on articulation. 110 people with different beliefs about intonation. The list goes on! Added to this is the fact that as the ensemble grows in size, the further apart everyone becomes. Hardly ideal for seamless co-ordination or spontaneous communication.
The larger the group, the greater or more powerful the ‘radar’ needs to be. You have to listen not only to your immediate surroundings but to instruments that could be 30 to 40 feet away. This part of ‘ear-training’ is a very small part of the schedule at music college.
Then there are the acoustics to consider. Large groups need to play in large halls. This can also make absolute ensemble difficult. As an example, many London orchestras rehearse in Henry Wood Hall in Borough. It is an old church that has been converted into a rehearsal venue. To the conductor, because of the acoustics of this hall, the woodwind will sound late to the strings. The only way around this problem is for the woodwinds to anticipate in a way that makes them feel as though they are coming in early. It all feels very uncomfortable but at least, the conductor is happy. However, as it is an unusual acoustic, it requires extreme measures.
Experience is also an invaluable orchestral ingredient. In March 2014 there was a somewhat naive article in The Spectator, where the author was in favour of orchestras taking on more young players (and by implication, throwing out the old). They had energy, enthusiasm and vitality to bring to the group. Older players might be a little tired or technically not as good as they used to be and certainly not as ‘hungry’ as the younger players. What the author didn’t acknowledge is that the art of playing in an orchestra is a skill that can only be established over time. He should have researched his subject matter more thoroughly! Of course, there are now many exciting orchestras made up of young people, but do they possess the range of subtlety and refinement of those of the great, established orchestras? I strongly doubt it. In wine terms, an orchestra made up entirely of young players, could be a ‘premier cru’. An established orchestra with a healthy balance of old and new members could and should command ‘grand cru’ status. When I joined the LSO, although I had played in numerous freelance orchestras, I was still very green. It was by listening to the more established people in the LSO, both on and off the stage, that I developed my understanding of what was required to be part of this high octane group of musicians.
To any student who is thinking of becoming an orchestral player may I suggest the following, if offered a symphony orchestra engagement;
Above all, be well prepared (apart from anything else, knowing that you have given 100 percent to your preparation will help reduce anxieties).
Get your hands on the flute part as soon as possible, either from the internet or from the orchestral librarian (incidentally, none of the orchestral excerpt books available can do justice to the entire works they are attempting to cover).
If you can source a copy of the score, even better as it is just as important (and often more important) to know who else is playing at any given moment of the work in question.
Make sure you listen to the work on Spotify (for example), or purchase a recording from Amazon or iTunes.
Finally, once you are seated in your chair, try to remember that conductors really do like to be looked at!
Did you find that you had to adapt your playing to suit the orchestras where you were principal?
In many ways, the answer to this is really a continuation of the previous question and ‘adapting’ requires skills that the standard music college doesn’t usually equip an instrumentalist with.
When we play on our own, we have a particular concept of sound. There are many textures that can be created on the flute, which might sound wonderful in a small room, but simply don’t carry in a large concert hall. So, yes, we have to adapt our sound.
Then there is the challenge of adapting to repertoire from different periods in music. The sound that I want to make in a Brahms symphony is going to be very different to that in a work by Stravinsky or Bartok. I vividly remember the first time Bernard Haitink conducted Brahms when I was in the LSO and his first comment was to ask the brass to take the edge off their sound to create a more round tone throughout the section. This simple request completely changed the texture of the orchestra and instantly the overall sound was so much warmer and as a result more intimate. On the subject of Brahms, flute players also need to realise that if you add excessive vibrato to the woodwind chords (for example at the end of some of the slow movements), those chords will sound out of tune and more to the point, will be virtually impossible to tune. Much better to go for a centred but still sound with a shallow vibrato, if any at all.
I have commented many times that the closest a woodwind player gets to playing in a string quartet is by playing in one of the four inner principal positions of the section in a symphony orchestra. Here, there is constant interaction between the flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon. However, each has the capability of making different textures, sounds, dynamic ranges and attack. To be a good orchestral woodwind player you have to learn to be able to blend. Principal players can sometimes believe that they need to impose their skills on a group and whilst it may come across as great playing, invariably it simply sticks out. Of course, in flute solos such as those in Daphnis or l’Apres-midi you will want to come across as more soloistic, but for example, in the slow section of Rossini’s William Tell, the flute should simply accompany the cor anglais and the fast solo in Leonora 3 should at least start as a duet between flute and bassoon. Knowledge is King!
Texture between instruments is also necessary. If I am playing in unison with a clarinet, my approach is going to be different to that of being in unison with an oboe or bassoon.
Then we have the differences between playing in a chamber orchestra as opposed to a symphony orchestra. In a chamber orchestra I am more likely to play in a lighter way. In both chamber and symphony orchestras I have been encouraged to play incredibly softly (Claudio Abbado and Murray Perahia come to mind here, as absolute masters of balancing an orchestra). Equally, until I joined one, I never really appreciated just how loudly one could be expected to play in a symphony orchestra, in particular if a Shostakovich or Prokofiev symphony appeared on the menu!
Do you prefer symphony orchestra or opera? Since you have been principal of both.
I knew from the age of 13 that I wanted to play the flute, so being able to play anywhere and be paid for it was all that mattered!
When I was at school, there was a new test once ‘O’ levels had been taken, to establish your strengths. This was with the view of making suggestions as to which professions would ultimately suit you. This was a cutting edge, computer technology created test, which was going to be invaluable in guiding 6th formers to their future employment.
I really wasn’t a very good student at school. In short, I loathed academic work (of course I now absolutely adore subjects like History and Geography) and simply couldn’t get my head around the sciences. I remember arriving for my Physics ‘O’ level exam and having opened the envelope a ‘eureka’ moment took place. I knew the answers to the three compulsory questions. For the duration of the three-hour long exam I drew graphs and diagrams and made what I thought were extremely sage answers to these questions. I walked out of the exam room on a cloud. I had finally cracked physics.
Not only did I fail this exam, but I also managed to get the second lowest percentage of anyone across the entire country! In short, I had written nothing but utter garbage.
The test after my ‘O’ levels was more of a general intelligence test. Everything was timed and you had to write down which was the odd one out etc. Of course, as soon as anyone tells you that you have to answer a page of questions in 40 seconds, blind panic ensues. Just like playing word games where you have to make as many words from the letters on the table in a minute or less, the mind goes blank (“Countdown” as a matter of life or death!).
A couple of weeks later I was summoned to my teacher’s study to discuss the results of this test. He was looking suitably grim. His comments were along the lines of the following:
“Come in and sit over there. We have the results of your test here. You really didn’t do very well and your final score was poor. They have established that you are good with your hands, so suggest that you look into a career as a carpenter, or join the army”.
Incidentally, this teacher was the same one that after a colleagues particularly poor test result said:
“Well done Parkinson junior. I have the results of your Latin test here. You’re going along the right tracks, but sadly in the wrong direction!”
In answer to the original question, I couldn’t say that I prefer one to the other. They are very different disciplines, which subsequently require very alternative approaches and techniques.
When I was younger, I loved the fast lane of the symphony orchestra life. There was a vast amount of repertoire to discover and the turnover of work was incredibly swift. The conductors were inspiring (Abbado, Bernstein, Boulez, Davis, Previn, Rostropovich, Haitink) and having the chance to experience distant parts of the world through touring, was a dream come true.
However, in the twenty years that I was in the LSO, the world changed significantly and increasingly touring was not so enticing. As an example, whereas once we would travel to Greece for a series of concerts, due to lack of funds, it was now a case of arriving on the day of the one concert, rehearsing and performing and then flying home the following day. The only ‘down time’, might be a meal after the concert before retiring to bed.
It was more about survival than enjoyment.
I had an interesting time at ENO. All of the work took place in London, most of it at the Coliseum, which is in a hugely vibrant part of the capital. From Trafalgar Square up to Covent Garden there is a wonderful buzz of activity and life. Some of the repertoire was truly enjoyable to play. Rosenkavalier, Onegin, Billy Budd, Boheme, Tosca, Traviata, Death in Venice and my absolute favourite, The Mikado! Sadly though, few of the conductors came anywhere close to having either the skills or understanding of the scores that the above seven had in my LSO days. If they weren’t particularly inspiring, or simply not good and the opera in question had little of interest, it was going to be a long and painful run of three weeks or more. At least with a symphony orchestra, conductors tend not to outstay their welcome and if they aren’t up to scratch, they are usually gone in no more than a couple of weeks and often less!
In the end though, I realised that I missed being on a stage. The pit at ENO was fine, but on the basis you cannot see many of them, there was a lack of contact with the audience. I missed halls such as the Musikverein in Vienna, the Alte Opera in Frankfurt and many of the other incredible concert halls dotted around Germany and Japan. I missed seeing just how captivated or moved an audience could be by both music and musicians.
…TO BE CONTINUED
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