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Fiddling with an orchestra

Posted by jonno on Monday, February 1, 2010

In my last entry I wrote about putting myself in the hands of a classical teacher.  Since then I've stirred up some real trouble.  In four days I'll be rubbing elbows (literally) with a bunch of symphony violinists.  Here's the story.  The italized part was already posted in the forum, so skip ahead if you read the post.

Last fall, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) sent around an email inviting "rusty musicians" to apply play music with them for one night. I've never shied away from interesting experiences before, so I filled out an application. I was honest about my playing level and background, and even so, they picked me (along with hundreds of others) to join their orchestra. Closet and amateur string players, brass, tympani, woodwinds, etc, are converging to form an orchestra without any rehearsals. We’ll be play it one two nights - 2/2/10 and 2/4/10, four shifts a night with a new batch of rusty musicians in each batch. We'll be paired up with regular orchestra players. I think this is a pretty cool way for professional musicians to connect with their community - I hope it catches on!

I told my family and friends. A lot of them decided they'll have to see this in person. Then about 3 weeks ago, I got a shock when I received the music that we're going to play - the 4th movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony #4. Not only that but they're putting me in with the first violinists! A lot of it is in the upper part of the fingerboard, but the speed is the fatal blow. It is full of 16th notes that are played at 144 beats per minute (that's 574 strokes per minute, 9.6 strokes a second!). It is so fast that the bow barely moves.  
I wrote to the BSO just to make sure they didn’t make a mistake - I asked “What are your minimum expectations of musical abilities (i.e., “if you can’t at least do <describe skills> then it would be best to withdraw”)? They replied “We are excited to welcome any and all levels, without reservation! The only requirement is that participants are excited to attend and contribute to the best of their ability.” Well, they’ll get the sincere best of my ability, for what it’s worth.
I wrote about what I’ve been doing to try to prepare, but I think I’ll put it in the FHO blog rather than post it here because of its length. If anyone is interested, (and if I survey this Thursday night), I’ll let you know how it goes. 

I've thought a lot about crying uncle over the past week.  Lot's of good reasons to throw in the towel. But I really want to do this!  My classical teacher has been diligently trying to help me prepare, but time almost run out. I have one more lesson and after that I’ll be in the final 24 hours of preparation. I sent an email to my teacher today to let him know that a miracle did not occur, I did not wake up as a sudden virtuoso. I’m sharing this with the FHO community thinking that some may be able to relate to the perseverance, frustration, and fun associated with making music on the fiddle. 
With just four days remaining to prepare for the BSO Rusty Musicians’ gig, I have to be both realistic and strategic about what I can do to get the most fun and benefit from the experience.  I am sending these to you so you can comment, clarify, or re-program my thinking. 
In addition to the notes, fingering, pitches, shifts and bowing, playing Tchaikovsky at tempo (72 BPM, half-note = 1 beat) requires that I:
  • bow 16th notes at this speed,
  • keep the bow incised into the string, and
  • hear the beat notes in every measure as I play.
In the course of taking lessons from you, I’ve discovered that learning the violin is similar to scaling a glacier (at least I think so, I’ve never done any ice climbing).  At first, the slope is totally smooth and slippery, ascent is impossible.  Your instruction, corrections, and encouragements point out where I can find handholds.  Practicing the assignments, in a way, is like pounding at the ice with a pick-axe or kicking with my spikes to form a foothold.  After a while (and seemingly out of the blue) this combination of understanding and effort produces a few foot/handholds and I can ascend a few steps.  However, until that point, my efforts feel like I’m jumping on to the slippery slope and trying to grab at the hand/footholds that I know are there, but just sliding down again.  With the requisite # of attempts and focus, I reach a point where the hand/footholds start to form, and eventually I find some purchase.  This is accompanied by the revelation “Oh! So that’s what you meant!”
Several weeks ago, you reminded me that I need to learn to play the 16th notes in 4-note or, preferably, 8-note chunks so I can execute them as a single unit.  I thought I understood what you meant, but only this past week I realized that I was still playing the passages note-by-note.  Now, I can do some of the passages as a single unit, some of the time – but these hand/footholds are just starting to form. 
With the metronome at 72, I found it impossible to fit all of the notes in.  So I tried just an open string and aha! There’s the rub!  Still too many notes to fit into the beats.  As a warm-up, I practice playing an open string with a relaxed shoulder/arm and accenting every beat.  Now, for 3 or 4 beats I can keep pace with the metronome.  I feel progress, but it is gradual. 
Focusing on this has helped me to hear and feel the beats.  After the warm-up I play the actual notes and try to keep pace with the metronome.  I also try playing with the recording.  I’m making progress, but, my fingering and pitches suffers terribly.  So I take short sections and work on them at a slower tempo with the bow moving ¼” - ½” that it does when playing at tempo.  Then I increase speed to try to get up to tempo keeping the fingering clean and feeling the beat notes.  I am almost reliable on a few measures, but many fall apart well before I get to the 72 mark.  I think that part of the problem is that I fail to keep the bow into the string, so I’m wasting valuable nanoseconds re-engaging the string.  (No hand/footholds have formed on this part of the slope yet!) 
Working on these things feels like the right thing to do.  Even so, I recognize that there are large sections of Tchaikovsky that I haven’t learned at any tempo.  I’ve played through a couple times, but it is still like sight reading (with all those ledger lines, it is more like solving a cryptogram).  BSO is four days away.  So here’s my strategy.
  1. I am going to attend the Tuesday evening Rusty Musician performances with a metronome and earpiece in my pocket so I can figure out what tempo they start with and what tempo that they actually play by the end of the hour. 
  2. When my turn comes on Thursday night, I will play the passages where I know the notes and I have a chance at keeping the beat.  If the tempo is 60-65 (slower than 72 but still insanely fast), I have a shot at playing most of pages 1 and 2, some parts of pages 3 and 4, and a little of page 5.  If the tempo is higher than that, well…
  3. Even so, I know that my fingering and bowing will not be clean and hardly sound like music, but my objective is to start and stop with the violinists around me.
  4. For the measures that I don’t know, or are beyond my skills, I’ll keep the bow on the string, stationary, and count the beats until we reach safe passage (i.e., a section I can play).
5.    I’m practicing this approach by playing along with the recording.  This itself is a challenge, but I am getting better at keeping my focus on the beat and keeping my place in the music.  Even though I am using software that allows me to slow down the tempo, I’m playing along at 72 only.  If, on Tuesday night, the tempo is slower, I’ll spend Wednesday trying to play along at that tempo. 
I look forward to our lesson and any counsel you have to offer. 
Your (ever more) humble student -


9 comments on “Fiddling with an orchestra”

Cyndy Says:
Monday, February 1, 2010 @3:39:01 PM

What an opportunity--the chance to practice with a goal like that in mind and the chance to perform along side seasoned orchestra members--and how I admire you for giving it a try. Blog again when it's over and let us know what it was like! Cynthia

mudbug Says:
Tuesday, February 2, 2010 @1:39:16 AM

Don't forget to dry clean your tuxedo! Break a leg.

Arkansas Traveler Says:
Tuesday, February 2, 2010 @1:48:27 AM

Sounds like a wonderful opportunity... to be part of a orchestra, and play to so many folk in your community...
Have a marvellous time...
'appy fiddlin'

Humbled by this instrument Says:
Tuesday, February 2, 2010 @7:43:22 PM

Uhm, how's about this for 4) For the measures I don't know, I'll improvise. Let them carry the basic pattern and I take off. I been fiddling a while, have some hot licks, and I say ol' Tchaikowsky needs to hear ME during these parts. So I'm gonna stand, rear back, and FIDDLLLLLLLE!

mudbug Says:
Wednesday, February 3, 2010 @12:58:22 AM

Good plan, Humbled! When you stand up, send your chair flying backwards into the viola section, like "The Killer", Jerry Lee, himself, mighta' done, and yell out "Roll over Tchaikowsky, and tell Bethoven the news". Sure to be a hit with the percushun section, who are always looking to liven things up a bit!

scrubber Says:
Wednesday, February 3, 2010 @10:24:33 AM

The 'thing' about orchestral playing is that there are MANY players on the part! A mordid example -- SIX pallbearers carry the coffin to rest! Could any of these bearers carry the coffin individually? NO! However, given the fact that there ARE six of them, they carry it with ease!

You don't have to play all the notes to 'carry the load'!! Just ensure that the notes you DO play are in the right place!


edkarch Says:
Thursday, February 4, 2010 @4:43:08 AM

Well it is the day. If I didn't have to get ready for the monster snow storm I would drive over to lend moral support. Your plan of attack is so well crafted I think you will be surprised at the positive results.

tiquose Says:
Thursday, February 4, 2010 @7:54:03 AM

I can't wait to hear the story of what happened! Does Polly know what you're up to?

jonno Says:
Thursday, February 4, 2010 @8:25:42 AM

Ha! No I don't think word of my escapade has traveled all the way to Colorado!

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