Sunday, May 29, 2005

Orchestra Syndrome

Seldom acknowledged is a terrible problem facing every orchestra musician, especially string players. Over decades they play probably billions of notes. If they got even a penny for each of them, they would all be filthy rich. But this all comes with a price what I call the orchestra musician syndrome. The quality of playing drops when the quantity increases. Out of necessity the players have to cheat, both with intonation and accuracy of notes. Let’s face it: much of the repertoire is far harder to play than any piece written for solo. The composers didn’t even expect the musicians to accurately reproduce what they wrote on paper. At least in the case of Richard Strauss, he publicly said so. This reality has very little to do with learning a few measures of standard excerpts when playing an audition. Why not give the applicants the next two or three week’s worth of actual repertoire, and tell them to prepare it as they would in a real work situation? At least hand out one of the ‘Ring’ operas, if the job involves playing in the pit. A good idea would be to have a randomly selected member of the orchestra section play the same stuff incognito, and have the new hopefuls be compared to this standard. Forget about perfection and concentrate on what a person’s actual contribution would be like.

So, in time the playing, in most cases, becomes more and more sloppy. It is impossible to pay attention to intonation and quality of sound when one cannot hear his/her own playing in the mass of sound surrounding them. Wind and brass players are in far better position: they, at least in case of principals, are solo instruments at all times, and also have only a tiny fraction of the notes to worry about, compared to, let’s say, a violinist. An average concert program has close to an hour and forty-five minutes of music in it and it has to be prepared in barely over eight hours of rehearsing. A soloist or a string quartet would easily spend over a hundred hours on a program with similar length of music.

My teachers always warned me about this: if I ever joined an orchestra, it would affect my playing in a negative way. Of course being young I didn’t take them seriously enough. But now I can see this happening with young students, who are far too busy with their youth and school orchestras. With demanding academic expectations and lots of homework, there is only a limited amount of time for other activities, such as music. I never understood why many conductors of student orchestras would choose such impossibly difficult repertoire for the youngsters to play. From early on, much of the playing the youngsters do is substandard, out of necessity. A student might sit in an orchestra 8-9 hours per week, having to fake much of the time, and then he/she is supposed to completely reverse the attitude at home, and practice the important music seriously and with utmost care. In some cases I have had to ask students to get out of at least part of the orchestra playing, and the improvement in their development has been almost immediate. But being involved in a youth orchestra has become an important social must for many young musicians (and their families). Equally important seems to be the pecking order, where they are placed within their sections. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against music in schools and youth orchestras, quite the contrary. I just wish the people in charge would think of what would benefit the students best, not just what would be fun for them to conduct.

Starting at 13, I took part in the first national youth orchestra in Finland, during a summer festival. The young musicians, mainly 16-18 in age, came from all over and most were excellent for their age. I was the youngest, but played as concertmaster from day one. Our conductor, who was in charge of the National Opera at the time, was wise, and we only played repertoire all of us could handle 100%: Mozart, Mendelssohn and such. The orchestra sounded excellent, probably better than many professional groups.

If a professional orchestra wants to keep their musicians playing well, they should rethink the way these artists are treated. Perhaps everyone would need time off much more frequently, and have solo or small ensemble opportunities often enough to force the individual to pay more careful attention to the quality of their playing. What if everyone would have to play a short recital every three to five years to have their contract renewed? Treat an orchestra more like a sports team, or serious competitive business, not as if it were the post office! Financially this, of course, wouldn’t make sense to any management, but an art institution shouldn’t be another Enron.