This appears to be the season of sectional coaching. I visited the South Bend Youth Symphony oboists a couple of weeks ago, and did wind sectionals for Western Michigan University yesterday. Next week I’ll be working with the Northwest Indiana Youth Symphony, and their wind quintet. As always, when I teach I have to put into words concepts that I understand intuitively, and doing so helps me to realize just how much I do know and how much I take for granted in professional ensembles. I sometimes forget how much skill, attention, and complexity goes into what we do.
It’s fascinating, the number of things we can find to work on, even late in a rehearsal cycle with strong players who already know all the notes in their parts. I can use all my normal practice/teaching techniques to help their ensemble: Play slower. Do this passage all tongued. Let’s just separate out the melody notes and then the countermelody and the accompaniment. Let’s PLAY the dynamics printed.
But there’s much more to talk about with groups of musicians, and more to explore. With eight or nine players on four different instruments, there are an astounding number of color combinations available. We balance duets and trios based on the sound we want for the passage, but also on who has awkward, unstable notes and needs to follow rather than lead, and who can easily hear the other person, and who is in the best tessitura to project her tone. An oboist plays really differently with flutes than with clarinets, and a wind section chorale requires a very different sound from a bassoon solo, and we can talk about all those things.
The biggest challenge, though, is how to play together and make compelling music together when you can’t see each other. Watch the conductor, yes, but what if the conductor is unclear, or terrible (like me) or focusing on a different section of the orchestra and not helping?
We spoke a lot about section hierarchy. If you are playing second chair, your assumption should always be that the principal player is correct. Your job is to be right with him ALWAYS, even if he’s not playing precisely with what you see from the stick. If the two of you are off from each other, it is your fault.
Meanwhile, if you are playing principal, your job is to connect mentally and musically with the rest of the orchestra. That might mean getting in mental synch with a player sitting ahead of or behind you. It might mean changing the color of your sound to blend with a flute, or a viola section, or playing out much more prominently to take ownership of a phrase or lead a group of instruments. It certainly means watching the conductor, but often it means finding a compromise between what you see and what you hear, because the group has to stay together. A little physical movement can help, but keying in mentally and listening to the pulse of the ensemble is the most important ingredient.
We had a productive hour yesterday and could have gone for another, easily. It’s a pleasure for me to work with talented students, and I love the challenge of articulating these skills. It’s a great reminder to me to make sure that I’m paying attention in my own performances, too!