Wednesday, February 1, 2017


Courtesy of Norman Lebrecht I ran across an entertaining memoir about playing in orchestra. Nathan Cole reminisces:
The following day, I moved back to my assigned seat near the back of the second violins. I began marking some fingerings in the toughest passages. Since I was sitting on the audience side, or the “outside” of the stand, my markings went above the notes. At least that’s how things had always worked…
As I put in my first set of numbers, my stand partner made a sound, a kind of groan cut short. I looked over, the point of my pencil still on the page. “Did you want my markings on the bottom instead?”
    “We don’t mark fingerings here,” he said.
    “Here, you mean at this spot?”
    “I mean in this orchestra.” His face softened, and he added, “Sorry, you’re probably used to seeing them, right?”
I was indeed used to seeing fingerings as a matter of course. My mind was fairly blown.
    “How do you play all this music then?”
My stand partner paused, as if he’d never considered the question before.
    “Practice?” he suggested.
Orchestras are a fascinating sub-culture and I often wished I had played an instrument that would allow me to spend more time with them. My total orchestral experience consists in playing a fairly brief guitar part in a few operas (and one mandolin part in Mozart's Don Giovanni) as well as playing the solo part in several guitar concertos. But I have spent a great deal of time hanging out with orchestral players, so that gives me a few insights as well. The symphony orchestra is one of the most highly-developed and finely-tuned (heh!) organizations that civilization has ever invented. It integrates around a hundred highly-trained musicians into a single instrument of enormous power. It is also the source of a zillion amusing anecdotes, such as the one above.

Here are some others I have heard regarding notes penciled on orchestral parts. Oh, just a note for readers not familiar with the terms. A composer creates a "score" where all the notes played by the individual instruments are placed together in a vertical table. This is what the conductor has on his stand as it enables him to see everything and, most important, how it all fits together. Each individual player (or pair of players in the string sections) has just his individual part, so as to avoid innumerable page turns. Occasionally this part might have cues of the other instruments. Often there are long passages of nothing but rests that have to be carefully counted.

Supposedly, on the original parts used in the premiere of the Rite of Spring in 1913, the orchestral players had scratched out "Sacre du Printemps" and replaced it with "Massacre du Printemps". The English version was "Riot of Spring" instead of "Rite of Spring". In one orchestra who struggled a bit with a conductor known as "Pizzabeat" for the wide and vague gestures he made while conducting, there were a few notes scribbled in the score to the effect of "Don't look up!" meaning, in this particular passage do NOT look at the conductor who will be sure to mislead you.

Going back to Cole's anecdote, I can see where a particularly seasoned orchestra might not want their parts cluttered up with too many fingerings. As a guitarist, however, I think that fingerings written in the score are extremely valuable--even if you do practice! I do know that the principal in each section of the strings has the job of putting in bowings for all the players in his section. This is important for unity of phrasing.

And of course, the indelible rule of all musicians is NEVER WRITE IN THE SCORE WITH PEN, ALWAYS WITH PENCIL. Because sure as taxes, down the road you are going to want to erase those silly fingerings and replace them with better ones.

I have to admit though, that the idea of an orchestra so seasoned and experienced that they don't really need to put in fingerings is rather an appealing one. Perhaps one such orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic, who have been doing what they do, institutionally, for rather a long time. I think my favorite clip of them is with Leonard Bernstein. He is conducting the last movement of the Symphony No 88 by Joseph Haydn and I think it is an encore. Since the Vienna Phillies have been playing Haydn for, oh a couple of hundred years and since Lenny is Lenny, after he gives the downbeat, he mostly just stands around conducting with his eyebrows. I can see a couple of audience members looking a little perplexed: "is that what they pay him for?" But the orchestra knows exactly what is going on: Bernstein is paying them the public compliment of showing that this orchestra is so good that they hardly need conducting:


Anonymous said...

I see the use of iPads in orchestras being increasingly common. Solves the problem of editing the fingerings - plus the orchestra ends up saving a lot of money.

Bryan Townsend said...

Where I live I don't get to see a lot of orchestras, but I notice that string quartets are starting to use laptops or iPads in concert. An interesting problem came in one concert when the cellist's score scrolled when the violist hit his footswitch! I guess that was a Bluetooth problem!