We all know how important it is to spend time practicing the fundamentals. From working on open ropes to developing left-hand dexterity, The Strade is packed with insights from string players around the world, sharing their expertise and tips for perfecting your playing.
Sometimes though, there just isn’t enough time for perfection. I’m talking about those times in the orchestra, where maybe due to the volume of music playing or the difficulty in puffing out the eyes (sometimes both) – the best thing to do next. It is, of course, pretending.
I remember one of my forays into the professional orchestral repertoire was when I was 21 and did an internship with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, back in my home country of New Zealand. The first opera of the year (and in fact of my life) was that of Richard Strauss Salome – a true baptism of fire. Rehearsals for it landed a week after another intense program of symphonic works (i.e. life in a professional orchestra). My office partner, who was 20 years behind me, could sense that I worried about not being able to nail every accidental note of the opera. She looked over, waved her hand, and said, “Don’t worry about that. It’s just noise – an effect! The brass will cover us.
Although this comment may seem flippant, it has great practical value in the life of an orchestral string player. There’s no point in obsessing over every note if you don’t want to be heard. Save your energy for exposed solos and rhythmic unison passages. Indeed, often faced with something seemingly impossible, it turns out that the composer was right after a “washing” of sounds and colors. During a composition workshop in 2014, I was in a situation where I had to decipher a mass of black notes all in treble clef, solo, in front of the rest of the ensemble and the composer. When I finished my “interpretation”, he clapped and said, “Yeah! That’s it, that’s exactly what I want. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had improvised on the spot, but the man was won over by my valiant commitment to recreating the character of his play.
Much of the simulation is looking for the game. It’s an art. Although the notes are not executed with 100% accuracy, other skills must be used with confidence to at least give the impression that you know what you are doing. Crucial skills include sense of pulse and rhythm (no one likes to let out a deafening false note in a silence), bow choreography (if your bow is in the same direction as everyone else, that has to be wiser?) and behavior – no one will suspect anything if you to see as if you were reproducing the character of the play. Tip: Raise your eyebrows when playing soft passages, then frown when it’s fast and loud.
If you ever feel frustrated that you don’t constantly nail every note in the orchestra: take comfort in the fact that hardly anyone does. Music is written to convey a larger picture: stories, characters, gestures – which are hard things to write down, let alone ensure they are readable and idiomatic. It is important to illustrate the general outline of the music. Like any orchestral violinist who has played Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter will attest to this: knowing the general form is the greatest tool in your arsenal.
The wonderful violinist Rachel Barton Pine told me recently: “If our violin concertos were written only by violinists, we would get very idiomatic things, but perhaps never transcendent. Hostile string writing reminds us that we, as instrumentalists, are the vehicle through which a larger musical idea expresses itself, as we expand our overall capabilities on our instruments.
But until my personal technical abilities are extended, I will continue to aim for the downbeat. Anything extra should just “add to the effect”.