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Orchestra Discipline
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Barry Nelson
June 15, 2014 - 4:48 pm
Member Since: October 31, 2011
Forum Posts: 299
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Typical Concerns:
1. Balance: There is always a concern in orchestras about balance, so that each section can be heard in the way the composer intended. Depending on the training and sophistication of the group, as well as the size of the string sections and the quality of all the instruments, one of the concerns is that the brass sections don't overshadow the rest of the orchestra, particularly if you have brass players who have formerly only played in bands. It must be emphasized that orchestral playing is sometimes more subtle and more soloistic than some other kinds of musical experience, and thus careful attention needs to be paid for ensemble playing between the smaller choirs of instruments.

2. Intonation: Players need to be periodically reminded about intonation, as this is affected by the hall, the temperature, the quality of the instruments, and numerous other more subtle factors. Thus retuning is called for, particularly at the beginning of the orchestral musician's training. Casals likened developing good intonation to having a conscience. What typically happens is that young musicians who have not had their attention drawn to this important factor will, at the beginning of their more professional training, find that it seems as if they are playing more and more out of tune, when in fact what is happening is that they are only just realizing that they are playing out of tune.

3. Rhythmic accuracy: Rhythm is the "soul of music," and generally students will not maintain a very high accuracy unless they have been trained to do so. For example, it is likely that the distinction between dotted rhythms and triplets is not going to be very great, unless this is carefully demonstrated and the teacher insists on correctness.

4. Bowing/breathing articulations: Articulations are created differently by the different instruments, but the similarities are striking. The stringed instruments are "singing" instruments, and thus should be played with vocal articulations in mind. For the most part, articulations in the strings are created through bowing technique. It is important to get the string sections to understand that their bowings must be consistent, both within their section and with respect to the other string sections, as well as consistently phrasing in a coordinated way with the non-string sections. This is primarily the work of the conductor, but also of and with the concert master and the section leaders. Decisions about bowings should be made prior to rehearsal, as much as possible, and parts should be marked. See "Sectional Rehearsals."

Responses to conducting gestures must be consistent and reliable in order to produce the required sounds. These gestures include attacks, various articulations (e.g., staccato, legato, passages or notes), cut-offs, dynamic changes, changes in meter, reception of cues, and so on. The success in most of this is dependent on the skills and training of the conductor, particularly the communication of the tactus, and the general musicianship, imagination, and self-discipline. It is really bad form for a conductor to get angry with a group when they are not producing what the conductor is imagining; mind reading is not one of the required skills in orchestral playing, though sometimes it helps.

5. Orchestral discipline: There must be some strong, overriding conception of each piece, which is agreed upon by the time of performance. The better trained and more professional the group, the less rehearsal time is required. Just like a University is not a democracy but a benevolent dictatorship, so an orchestra is more like an army than anything else. There may be, and often is, grumbling in the ranks, but the leader of the orchestra must lead or nothing can be accomplished. I've seen orchestras fall apart because of lack of respect for conductors; conducting is a very demanding job.

Thus, the respect factor is worth a second look. And not to belabor a point, and at least to some extent with women especially, it is good to let the students know from the beginning that the director has extensive experience in the professional world (if this is the case), a high level of training, and a low tolerance for unprofessional behavior.

6. Seating: Seating is a more important issue than many conductors think it is. I think policy decisions have to be made in teaching situations; are you going to rotate, so more students can get different kinds of experiences-- OR are you going to seat students primarily on the basis of your evaluation of ability, in order to get the maximum potential, musically—OR are you going to consider other factors, such as seniority, good behavior, etc.? And what do I mean by "good" behavior? Are the most musical students the most polite, the least resistant, the more pliable? No, unfortunately not. I think often the best musicians may be the most difficult, but lessons have to be learned about reliability, and sometimes this is going to be the ideal time for these lessons to be learned.

With older groups, it might be helpful to point out what professional life is like for musicians; being on time, being prepared, attitude, etc., can mean the difference between being hired again, or taken off a list--since there are so many good players to choose from, anyway, as a rule, and professional people do not want to be bothered with prima donna behaviors. These are the cold facts of professional life, whether in the musical sphere or elsewhere, and students would do well to be prepared for this.

7. Sectional Rehearsals: These rehearsals are sometimes dismissed as unimportant, but really they are a great time to teach technique, ensemble playing, and to continue the focus on professional behaviors and responsibilities. Graduate students or section leaders can be good resources for leadership during these rehearsals, though that can engender resentment if it's not handled properly. Throughout professional life, there is always some underlying negativity which is based on competition or other negative feelings. Rehearsal time is a great time to demonstrate professional attitudes. Personal issues can and should be set aside for the greater good of producing beautiful music, which is really the point of everything. It is important not to lose this sense of purpose.

8. Motivation: In a teaching situation, the agenda is to impart knowledge, demonstrate or encourage the development of skills, and harness youthful enthusiasm. While I maintain that too many long lectures during orchestra are counterproductive, students as they are developing need to have the experience of knowing the commonly shared cultural information that so many have shared before them; that Beethoven wouldn't take any nonsense from anybody, that Mozart was brilliant and funny, that the world is both larger and smaller than they think it is, and the 18th, or any other century, is not as far away in time as they think it is. Music is a way of rising above the petty concerns of life, a way of connecting with the best minds in history, and of connecting with the world at large. Hopefully, students will develop the sense that playing music is a privilege, and find that working toward a better performance is a positive and enriching experience.

Bach : As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness

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