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Playing in an orchestra

kevgermany

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I've been learning for quite a few years now, decided earlier this year it was time to do something useful instead of just going to lessons and practicing at home. A colleague plays alto in a local orchestra and they were looking for a tenor (both cover the French Horn parts), so it was arranged.

It's been a very good experience, we had a concert last night which went really well, and was my first concert at this sort of level. So highly recommended.

I thought I'd share some of the challenges I had...

Tuning - this lot tune to A=443, so the mouthpiece wouldn't go on far enough at first. Then I had to adjust my playing to keep all the notes in tune at the higher pitch - and play in tune with the rest of them.

Timing/Counting - This was the hardest part. Pace varied from faster than I'd ever played, to so slow I could easily play 4 notes per beat without breaking into a sweat. Unlike more modern music where there's always a drum or bass to keep the beat, for many bars there was nothing. You have to watch the conductor and count every bar. Great when the conducting is metronome like, but real conductors aren't like this, so when in the middle of a slow bar someone's struggling with a tricky bit and the conductor starts conducting the notes (good move), someone like me counting loses it... Coming in on time in fast pieces is surprisingly easy. There's a strong rhythm to lock into. But in a slow piece where the rhythm is more like being rocked by the waves finding the right spot is often really tricky. Feel it said my wife, yes, but....

Speed. I've learnt a lot more respect for classical musicians. First time I've had to play at over 200bpm and it didn't come easy. When I had to read the part, play and watch the conductor, my brain became overloaded and I struggled a lot here. It's where arpeggio practice in all keys really helps, as does much repeated practice, starting slow and gradually building up speed. Eventually I worked out that if I practiced about 15% faster than we were playing in orchestra I had enough control to be able to relax, follow the conductor and read it. The counter part of this is playing very slowly, but accurately. And moving from a piece at over 200bpm, pretty much straight into soemthing at 30-40 bpm means the tendency is to cut notes short, wrecking the mood. Yes you need to feel it, but it also gives you a chance to really form notes. Think long tones...

Playing without notes - some guys might manage it, but not me. I can barely remember the bar I'm reading, let alone a whole piece. Net result is that sight reading skills are very important and this includes locking into the key, reading the accidentals - and not mixing up sharps and natural accidentals, something that's becoming a problem as my eyes deteriorate. Another issue here is reading ahead without losing your place. Nothing worse than getting into a repeated pattern which changes in the first bar of the next line of music.

Complexity - When I listen to music, modern stuff is relatively simple - few parts, lots of simple repetitions. Short melodies. Classical is a lot more complex. And playing like that really makes you aware of the differences and ability of the classical composers. But the complexity means there's more going on, more to listen to and you need to learn to filter out all the voices that aren't important to what you're playing or about to play.

Volume - Well most of us start off playing loud. It's what saxes are for, isn't it. OK, so after a while you learn to control the volume, play quieter, but usually as part of a passage. I had to come in on time at PP level, with notes all over the scale. This really exposes shortcomings in your technique. Not sure how many others do it, but I was relying in the reed to kick in and make the note sound. Can get away with it in modern stuff to some extent (and I was...) but for classical stuff, the note must be there at the right volume instantly. Not the place for subtoning, either. On the positive side, at FF I could make as much noise as the trumpet.

So what do you need?

Concentration. Not be distracted by the audience moving around, kids playing...

A really controllable mouthpiece (PPT, despite the big tip on mine fits the bill perfectly). Needs to have power, and the ability to go from a smooth horn type classical sound, to the low brass rasping sound in a tuba. Also be able to play really quietly - i.e. whisper level on tenor. Well fitting, reliable lig as well. You don't want that reed moving as you play.

Well played in reeds - not just one, but a reed case full. You need the reeds well soaked before you play so they don't go off as you play. But you need to be able to compensate as they change while you play.Nothing worse than coming in alone and squeaking loudly cos you're not in control - or having a solo to play and blowing it because the reed is a touch soft.

A comfortable leak free sax - nothing destroys quiet playing more than a leaky sax. You can't blow through sax problems at PP. But you need to be able to play comfortably for a few hours - that means pads that seal with light finger pressure. And learning not to grip too tight.

Well developed embouchure - your embouchure needs to be well developed and in training. No biting, sore parts in your mouth. Automatic control over it for hitting the notes precisely. Ability to play reeds in varying states of stiffness over the range of the sax.

Staying power - you can end up playing for a few hours pretty much continuously.

Ability to enjoy yourself under pressure. Nothing worse than being told, even nicely, by the conductor that you're not doing what he/she needs, and then having to solo it in front of the orchestra until you get it right. Mind you it happened to all of us. and having someone conducting who expects a lot makes the praise you get for getting it right even more worthwhile.

Ability to play the boring lines well - there are parts of the scores where you have a single note to play/hold for many bars. In one piece I had 9 bars of a single G# for instance. Just counted and listened to the melodies I was supporting.

Will to improve. Nothing pushes you more than playing with people better than you and playing out of your current comfort zone. Takes a lot of commitment and effort to pick up and play at a new level. But... Feels great aftwerwards.

Ability to criticise yourself constructively. Too many of us develop a bad habit with self criticism - we allow it to pull us down instead of using it as a tool for guiding practice/improvement.
 
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jbtsax

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A very insightful and accurate description of the challenges of playing in a large ensemble. Are you transposing parts written for the horn in F on the fly or are the parts written out in your key of Bb? There is a chance that Smart Music might have some of the orchestra pieces your group is playing which is an excellent way to practice by playing along with you in control of the tempos.
 

Nick Wyver

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Good fun isn't it? Though
Complexity - When I listen to music, modern stuff is relatively simple - few parts, lots of simple repetitions. Short melodies. Classical is a lot more complex.
Haven't you got that back to front? Anything post Beethoven can be incredibly tricky.
 

kevgermany

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Are you transposing parts written for the horn in F on the fly or are the parts written out in your key of Bb?
Conductor is writing out our arrangements. One for Eb for the alto, one for Bb for me. I'm not up to transposing on the fly. Might end up doing some on bari as well.
 

kevgermany

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There is a chance that Smart Music might have some of the orchestra pieces your group is playing which is an excellent way to practice by playing along with you in control of the tempos.
Thanks, I'll check it out. Nutcracker suite for Xmas. Some of those pieces have a lovely horn lead. Nowhere to hide....
 

Jeanette

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Great piece Kev and well done again on your first performance :)

I think the hardest parts of ensemble playing for me are when I haven't got the melody and counting, why they won't all play at my speed is beyond me :)

Another big difficulty and something I struggled with tonight was when the tenor sax was playing a different part to me and my ear was drawn to his part and I just kept messing mine up. If you have someone else playing the same part as you it is so much easier.

You can't beat having a great conductor though.

Would recommend giving an orchestra a go to anyone starting out it really brings you on, assuming you have a good group to play with.

Jx
 

Jay

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A very insightful and accurate description of the challenges of playing in a large ensemble. Are you transposing parts written for the horn in F on the fly or are the parts written out in your key of Bb? There is a chance that Smart Music might have some of the orchestra pieces your group is playing which is an excellent way to practice by playing along with you in control of the tempos.
I use Photoscore (the free one that comes with NotateMeNow, also free) and then download and transpose in Symphony Pro, for anything that isn't straightforwardly concert pitch to Bb - or even if it is, if it's fast and twiddly.

Played Saint-Saens 'Baccanale' and Kalinnikov no.1 on Sun, on my new little soprano - being a cornet or 2nd trumpet, so no transposing needed - just as well, as it was the first time I'd seen those parts (been a bassoon and bass clarinet up til then!)
 

Tenor Viol

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Well done Kev and good piece.

My musical journey started in 1993 when I started singing lessons at the age of 33. After 6 months, I joined my teacher's choir which introduced me to ensemble performance. I sing bass so don't usually have the melody, although usually key to the harmony. My first Christmas concerts were weird as I was singing the bass line of well-known stuff, not the tune.

My first big work was Handel's Messiah, which is a big demanding work. As you say, wide, varied tempi with at times complex rhythms and intervals to sing (not to mention getting the words in the right place). One of Handel's pitfalls is giving you a sequence of say 4 groups of 4 semi-quavers, the first three following a pattern and then the 4th has a twist in it, or suddenly throwing the rhythm off the beat or across the bar line (syncopation and hemiolas).

When I took up cello 4 years ago,I immediately joined a community orchestra as I knew how useful that would be and it really pulls you along. As you say, you are forced to play at a given tempo - the most important thing is not the notes, but being in the right place in the music.

Here's a link to short (2 min) extract of a concert with me playing cello - this was my first SERIOUS concert on cello earlier this year - there are only 3 cellos in the orchestra...
 
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jadoube

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Nothing worse than being told, even nicely, by the conductor that you're not doing what he/she needs, and then having to solo it in front of the orchestra until you get it right.

I found it an advantage to be sitting alongside a better player sharing the pad. Hauled me along well above my ability ... until the day when they don't turn up to rehearsal and I was without my security blanket. :eek:

Still fun though isn't it.
 

kevgermany

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Just the two of us covering the horn parts. And first is a lot better than me. You're right about missing the safety blanket.
 

Tenor Viol

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Been there - had it today, just two of us on tenor instead of seven... and in a couple of weeks I'm going to be lead cellist due to absences too....
 

swhnld

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Great to learn another type of playing! An orchestra is definitely a bit different, but lots of fun, especially after playing when all get together for chatting.

I don't know at what level of professionalism your group plays, but for my orchestra it is not allowed to count the beat visible with moving your feet . Little trick is then to have shoes with enough space to wiggle your toes and count with them.

Another trick is to get a recording of the peice you practice and use it at home as background to figure out the melody.

Last tip for today, depending on where you are located, consider earplugs, you can start with the simple mushroom shaped ones before getting them measured with perfect filters for the type of music you play and fitting invisible in your ear. In my orchestra nobody used them for years untill we changed position, and I came sitting in front of the trumpet/trombone sections. My ears hurt for days after that rehearsall and afterwards I bought the simple ones. Some people laughed about it, but a few years later the topic became more popular due to a new conductor who asked all of us to test our hearing, and then discovering that people where 50% deaf on one side due to their neighbouring instruments. Since then many have started using the plugs, though it also took time getting used to them and the effect it has on your own levels of playing.
 

kevgermany

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I'm lucky, I sit at the back with the brass to my right. I'm mighty glad I'm not in front of them. I've got some of the plugs you describe, I'll put them in my music bag.

As for tapping - full foot, no restrictions.
 

jbtsax

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Arggg! Sitting in front of brass players. Don't get me started. In my college alumni band, I sit directly in front of the 1st trumpets. I kid my longtime friend Dan who plays first chair that he can tell his dynamic level by how far my ears are blowing forward. Funny, he never seems to get the hint. :)
 

jeremyjuicewah

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Well done Kev. Its a big step, specially in a totally structured set up where you cannot employ tricks of extrication or even pretend that you "meant to do that."

On a course at Benslow Music, my downfall was counting bars, always got lost somewhere and had to wing it a bit, often crashing.

So congrats to you, I envy you the big sound of all the musicians. I am not sure anymore that it is a thing I will ever experience.

Mike
 
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