What Makes an Orchestral Musician an Effective and Sensitive Section Player?

Mike Lawson • String Section • June 6, 2019

Share This:

As I am a very moody individual (by anyone’s standards), ensemble rehearsals have always been both a challenging and a life-affirming environment – an environment very rich with potential.

I find that there is a point of no return in any given rehearsal that is wise to be aware of, that is very personal, and of which, with awareness of the issues, can be avoided.

That point of no return is where you hit the “shut-down.” Whether due to anger or otherwise, the experience can result in justified post-rehearsal anxiety – usually worry about how obvious the experience was to others and wondering who could tell just how overwhelmed we became.

I see a tiered threat of damage when assessing my own behaviors (a level one, two, or three disaster). All three are a disaster in some way, because if you give up in rehearsal, shut down, or allow the frustrations to get the better of you, it means you are no longer contributing to the rehearsal in a positive way. If it is your job, then you are getting paid to contribute. Even in unpaid orchestral situations, others rely upon you and there are expectations regarding ability to keep it together.

I have to assume that we all have bad rehearsals after which we fret – when we wish the experience had been more under control and become worried about the potential professional consequences. Unfortunately, it seems that the more stress one is under, the more difficult it is to keep things from getting to you. I cannot say that this is something that I have completely overcome. I am fairly sure I have grown better at controlling the degree to which I emotionally respond. There are fewer tears.

Some years are much more under control than others, and I am aware of the need to arrive to rehearsals as calm, well, and healthy as I can. What I have at this point is some significant experience with the sequence of events that can amplify your emotional situation and those which can sometimes minimize the consequences.

The next logical question is: what is it that happens in a rehearsal that most often derails any musician? There are two broad categories as I see it. A personal inability to achieve – for whatever reason – what is being asked of you during intense work, sometimes under scrutiny and exposed, or sometimes a very hard section you’ve put time into that is not going well. This is the experience that we can most directly learn to control. It gets better as we grow into the orchestral role and career.

An inability of either the ensemble (or of specific musicians sitting near you) to play in a musically sensitive manner. I am addressing the second.

The concerts are separately unique experiences: intense, focused and intent on the musical moment. Immersion is complete when the learning and planning and preparation processes is done well. That is what we are all working for: useful preparation resulting in a performance that feels amazing-and communicates our energy to the audience (and sounds good)! This past weekend I had the good fortune to perform Brahms Symphony No.4.

As a violinist, the Brahms is exciting and invigorating; it takes every ounce of energy you have to give, from beginning to end. It is an intense work, so much so that when I was preparing and studying the Symphony and listening to the entirety of the music, it was almost too much, and somewhat exhausting and overwhelming. If not performed with nuance, sensitivity, and intentional phrase shaping, or if the orchestra is limited to dynamics to phrase and doesn’t make themselves subtle and flexible with the nature of the sound and its context, I can see this being a taxing concert experience. Or a skipped track in a playlist. Skill alone is not what tends to impress when considering most things artistic.

I was very excited about the weekend. As with anything one does with other people, it is wise to go into the situation with some acceptance that there will be the unexpected, that there is much that is not within our ability to control – to temper our enthusiasm just a little with reality. I think that is a healthy approach.

If there is one frustration likely to cause discontent amongst musicians, it would be having to play in a section of string players who are defined by accuracy. They know their notes, they may watch the conductor well. They often are pleasant company with great rehearsal etiquette. All of which are essential – and secondary. To having the finesse/bow control/and expressive abilities equal to the needs each piece of music requires of their musicianship – to express and to be musical.

A grouchy disposition is rarely appropriate in most workplaces (the symphony orchestra being no exception), but we are human and we all are susceptible to irritation and periods in which we arrive into a situation already high-strung.

We can have a pep talk with ourselves in the car before the music begins, but it is most difficult to rein in the frustration when an orchestral section (or perhaps a few members of a section) is not playing the music as professionals really ought to be doing. It makes the whole experience one of self-control, though there may be a few moments of real music…in general, it is an awful way to feel a concert series.

Over time – or when one is most emotionally invested – it becomes really hard to ignore the kind of playing around you that is clunky, brittle, and usually loud with little or no flexing with conductor’s musical direction. It’s also hard to ignore music that is rushed, when the notes are individually identical, or if there is no sense of shape or music or phrase.

Such playing is to be expected in youth orchestras or community groups…but in professional ensembles? Something I have found helpful is to appropriately learn a safe way speak your thoughts, opinions, observations, and generally discuss the rehearsal and the key players and how we experience them. Just be careful – be absolutely sure it is done within a group of those orchestra members who you feel safe and comfortable with. You do not want to have the worry that your comments will be repeated in a damaging way.

The information gleaned from the experiences, the frustrations, the excitement, the hope, the expectations, and the confusion of those around you can be the very thing that makes you understand the environment more clearly and avoid paranoia, which will result in nothing good.

A colleague and friend who is a very high caliber musician confided in me recently that she was unhappy with the lack of musical musicians around her. When she said “I don’t care if someone misses notes or makes a mistake if they are making music and playing sensitively,” I may have, just for a moment, danced as whole layers of shameful thoughts re-evaluated into a more thoughtful observation.

I also felt like this is possibly a huge problem for orchestras in general when the players who make real music are indistinguishable from those who play perfect notes. It can take away the greatest thing we have in our profession: the orchestral experiences that are such an emotional and physical and professional high that we keep on doing it. After all – it isn’t that those who are doing this for a living are the best or the most talented, or the exceptional aspiring students who end up comprising the professional landscape. It is that we are still doing it. So, yes, it really matters when the most obvious motivation to continue doing this job is siphoned from our musical experience.

Yet, what exactly is the nature of the problem? Can it be addressed? Taught? Learned or avoided (individually or at large)? As I am known to do, I sought the insights of my friends and betters to get perspective. After all – I might be an offender in a manner I am not aware of.

I’d like to share one of the responses.

“My pet peeve is when people aren’t aware of the rest of the orchestra. Listen to other parts and how yours fits in. Be aware of section hierarchy – address most questions to section leader during breaks instead of directly to conductor during rehearsal. A faux pas I see a lot. Seems obvious but match bowings to section leader–not just direction, but the part of the bow they are in, and pay attention to their articulation. Match gestures in general. Don’t have to full on lead if you’re not section leadership, just use some body language to help pass the message back. A little cueing goes a long way for the poor folks in the back.

“Another faux pas I see: lift and put down instruments together for rests. It looks sloppy to have instruments all over the place. Match rest position. Match in general—how to hold bow during pizz is the first example that pops into mind. I don’t imagine the issue of finding sensitivity as an orchestral musician can be anything new. I can present my thoughts regarding the dilemma of it in regards to teaching with certain conviction that we face the time-old question that behaviorists have been posing for a very long time. When you get down to it: playing musically is a behavior that can gain in effectiveness as one develops increasingly more skill on their instrument in which it can be put to use.”

-Anonymous, viola

Nashville, TN

Nature or Nurture?

I suppose what I hope to learn myself comes from sharing the things in this article with others and getting back the best kind of conversation and discussion possible in order to better my ability to both teach and participate in music-making. As callous as I seem in my writing, I am aware that I am referring to people with feelings and ambitions and efforts and hopes of their own that are not to be taken lightly. It must be something that is done in the teacher/student capacity – and done carefully.

Perhaps when doing so it would help to determine that which can be presented as a learnable and recognizable musical and/or technical element and what part is primarily instinctive (in the art of phrasing). Try finding things that are specific but can be most easily put to use in other recognizable yet new situations of playing. Some things – like how to treat pizzicato without killing the note or when it is actually supposed to be played rough (ex. Shostakovich) – are more about knowledge and therefore can be given.

Some ways to look at this that might work in the studio:

• Find those teachable units that can lead a student into recognition and integrating phrases into technique.

• Intellectually-recognizable symbols, instructions, patterns, line shapes, et cetera

• Identify elements or uses of basic elements to advance musical expression by manipulating them

• What approaches of manipulation work and what is not generally tasteful when done on our instruments

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!