To Be in the Orchestra

March 27, 2018, 10:47 AM · A unique kind of inspiration comes from sitting in orchestra next to players who share good chemistry with colleagues.

I was reminded of this phenomenon while sitting next to one of those musicians who minds the details while also projecting a generosity of sound and spirit that invites good playing from all around her. It's just a lot easier to work together, with that kind of attitude.


Of course, this does not always happen. Very often people just kind of "play" in orchestra. Everyone sits side-by-side, but the connection is weak. Or worse, unhelpful dynamics emerge: a stand partner might get fussy and nervous, or sarcastic, or annoyed, or take offense, or fall apart.

But when the chemistry is right, it causes a wonderful phenomenon, call it "orchestral osmosis." The music somehow permeates the people making it, spreading a feeling of unity through the group. And somehow, when the focus is on the music, the notes seem to come a lot more easily. The neurotic awareness of self is replaced by a more stable and balanced awareness of the whole. Entrances seem inevitable, passages flow.

When playing in a string section, this is almost a physical phenomenon. People match each other's sound, pitch, and bow strokes. Motions synchronize, not just bows going down or up, but also the fine details such as smooth vs. stopped, fast vs. slow, unified vs. syncopated. The concept of time becomes a joint conspiracy, as everyone measures it together -- but not by the clock. Silence has purpose. Pitches synchronize and harmonize and clash, all in accordance with a plan. We become cogs in a grand machine; each musician leans into it and all parts become one.

A good conductor can help channel it, but those in the orchestra have to make it happen, they need to tap into a kind of peripheral perception that unites one with the whole. When that happens -- ahh, what a feeling it is, to be in the orchestra.

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March 27, 2018 at 05:50 PM · I am so glad that you emphasized the chemistry. :)

March 27, 2018 at 06:57 PM · Thanks for the reminder. I remember that first rehearsal like it was yesterday. Schubert's ninth and that opening chord just filled the room - it was awesome. There I was, just over 30 and relatively new to the violin but my teacher invited me to play in the multi-generational orchestra that he and other music teachers created as an outlet for their students and friends.

The evolution from a bunch of musicians of differing ages and abilities into an orchestra that could play a good rendition of the program was amazing.

Decades later I get to witness the annual development of a Youth Orchestra from a pack of Young Musicians developing their individual and group skills. It always takes me back to my own introduction to being a member of the orchestra.

I don't play with an orchestra now. I'm no longer a night person although I sometimes miss those weekly sessions of working to get it all together with my fellow second violins. My experience is now vicarious but there is something very special about being any part of an orchestra, even if it is just tuning and adjusting instruments for developing Young Musicians.

March 27, 2018 at 07:19 PM · During my Great Musical Hiatus (I didn't touch an instrument for 25 years, and violin was still far in my future), I had an epiphany akin to what has been described here. It was a warm summer evening and I was walking back to my car after doing some business at a shop in town. I was parked on a back street, and my footsteps happened to take me past a local fire hall whose members had formed a brass band which was taking advantage of the weather to practise outside. Having once played cornet in a brass band myself, I stopped and listened for a while, reminiscing.

Suddenly I had a vision of the music hovering above the players, as if it were a separate entity. The musicians weren't so much playing with each other as they were reaching up and becoming one with something greater than themselves. It was a moving spiritual experience.

Years later, when I got back into music, I began playing first in small groups, and now in an orchestra as well. Every now and then, in both environments, we hit that groove and magic happens. If it's particularly good, all of us just sink through our instruments to the very heart of the music, adding a solid line here, a dash of spice there. And when we finally finish the piece, everyone sits for several seconds in total silence, finally broken by someone saying, "Wow..."

At this point there are no egos, no conflicts, no frustration. We're all serving the music: something greater than ourselves. It doesn't always happen, but when it does it's worth everything you go through to get there.

March 28, 2018 at 03:32 AM · We don’t have any orchestras where I live but I occasionally play with my brother (clarinet) and my sister’s friend who plays the flute. When we practice we usually spend some time making sure we’re all in time and aware of what each other is playing, but the moments when the flute’s counter melody, the clarinet’s harmony, and the Violin melody all flow in a twisting, running, breathing creature... it amazes me every single time and its my favorite place to be.

March 28, 2018 at 07:10 AM · I've had both good and bad orchestra experiences. In fact, I've had both regularly in the last several years, because I've been in one orchestra that has everything right in its chemistry and one that has everything wrong.

One of my orchestras is a semi-professional orchestra with consistently good chemistry. It straddles the line between freeway philharmonic and community orchestra: competitively auditioned, about a third of the string players are professional musicians, and a fair number of the amateurs are subs for professional orchestras. Maybe a little surprisingly for the competition to get in, there are rarely any big egos. Unlike some regional professional orchestras, it has enough community roots and low enough turnover to develop chemistry. When this orchestra gets a piece dialed in, it stops feeling like hard work. The right dynamics and articulations happen without thinking because they simply make sense. Technically challenging passages become much easier; some invisible force pulls my fingers to the right spots at the right times in rehearsals and concerts even when I struggle to do it consistently at home. The music carries itself, and I'm just along for the ride.

Until recently, I was principal violist in an intermediate-level community orchestra with extremely poor chemistry. Surprisingly, the much weaker orchestra had much bigger egos, mostly in the form of older members being condescending toward younger members. Musicians younger than 60 tended to get frustrated and leave within a year or two after joining; I was there for 4 years, making me the longest-tenured person who wasn't a founding member in the 1990s. This orchestra played mostly pops arrangements written for school orchestras... and to me it felt like a lot more work than playing even the most virtuosic repertoire with my other orchestra, because here it really was 30-40 musicians all playing on their own.

March 28, 2018 at 04:28 PM · Playing in an orchestra was a childhood dream of mine. Having a professional orchestra visit and play at my elementary school was what nerved me to take up violin study. Though I began playing in grade school, I didn't get any orchestra experience till some years later, when I entered high school. I adapted well to this kind of playing, and it didn't take me long to feel the chemistry.

In my late teens, starting the second year of my degree program, I won an audition for a seat in the CSO's training orchestra. It was a great experience with a lot of valuable coaching from professional symphony players. Yet, 2 years later, nearing the end of the degree program, I could now see that this wasn't the kind of music-making I wanted after all. For me, the chemistry I'd felt in high school had started to fade. So I decided to pull out and let someone else have a shot at it. I'm sure the administration had no trouble finding a replacement -- always an in-depth list of eager associate members waiting in the wings. Then, too, I had more than the required semester hours for orchestra, so no qualms about dropping it.

I remain an avid fan of orchestral music -- I'm sure I hear more of it than any other genre. Yet, as a player, I much prefer small chamber -- four or five players, one to a part. We're together because we want to be together -- and that's good for the chemistry.

March 28, 2018 at 07:13 PM · I really enjoyed this, Laurie! My favorite line is: "The neurotic awareness of self is replaced by a more stable and balanced awareness of the whole." How wonderful if that transformation could be translated to other human experiences as well.

March 28, 2018 at 09:21 PM · I live in a small community on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and I am a late starter (65 when i bought my first violin and started lessons) and I feel so priveledged to play in our local Community Orchestra...even more than that...I'm so thrilled that we have one! We are a non profit organization and any money we make goes to promote a string program for school kids...currently our school doesn't have one, so this is such a win, win for all involved! Thanks for this article.

March 29, 2018 at 01:37 PM · Opening chord of Schubert 9th? Two horns playing in unison for 8 bars? It’s a memorable opening, but not much of a chord :-)

March 30, 2018 at 08:25 PM · This post really spoke to me. The feeling of being part of something larger than myself is very spiritually satisfying. I don't think I'd play violin or viola at all if it weren't for orchestra.

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