Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Percussionists and Professionalism

I was thinking about some of the pressures professional musicians have to cope with and by chance ran across this story on the NPR blog: "A Musician and the Audition of His Life". At first you think it is going to be one of those motivational success stories, but no, it is more like a tragedy. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

This reminds me of an incident in my first year at university in music. An acquaintance of mine was a percussion student. The local orchestra had programmed some Wagner, I think it was the prelude to Lohengrin, not sure which act. Here it is:

After listening to that and looking at the score, I'm not sure that was the piece! But it at least gets you in the mood. Like this, the piece they had programmed had a long orchestral build-up and at the climax, perhaps six minutes in, as in the clip above, the percussion signaled the climax by introducing their new sounds. In the prelude to the first act of Lohengrin, in the clip above, it is the clash of cymbals that does the job. In my hazy recollection, it was a triangle. Perhaps one of my readers can recall which Wagner prelude I am thinking of? Anyway, it doesn't matter to the story. The orchestra, having only one full-time percussionist, the tympani player, had to hire a couple of extras for the additional percussion. My acquaintance was one of the students chosen, even though he was just in first year. As I recall, the part was very simple: count hundreds of measures of rests for those long six minutes of build up and then hit the triangle a few times (in the correct rhythm, of course). Anyone could have done it with a minute's instruction. He goes off to the first rehearsal, mis-counts the rests and misses his entry. So they fire him. Instantly.

That is one of the aspects of playing in orchestra that outsiders never see: if you play percussion, or brass, or winds, there can be long waits before you play. But you have to come in, in exactly the right place. Counting rests is quite nerve-wracking! If you have a fertile imagination, as I do, as soon as you start counting another part of your brain starts wondering, "did I start in the right place?", "did I miss a bar?", "did I just zone out for a minute?" Imagine this going on for six long, long minutes... Pretty easy to miss your entrance.

The solution is simple, though, and I'm surprised his teacher didn't clue him in. Just go to the music library, get the score of the piece and a recording and listen to it several times with the score so you know exactly what the music sounds like just before you come in. Then you don't even count those six minutes of rests, just wait for your cue. A 'cue' is a signal, perhaps a melody in another part like the violins, or a rhythm that stands out. Anything that will tell you exactly where you are. You just write this into your part in small notes. Nobody told me this, by the way, the first time I played in the orchestra. I think it was Rossini, The Barber of Seville that has a guitar part in act one. In any case, it was a fascinating experience playing in the orchestra pit. I wasn't used to trying to tune my guitar surrounded by forty other musicians also tuning! I also wasn't used to following a conductor. But after a rehearsal or two, I got the hang of it. Once, in another opera, there was an aria accompanied only by guitar and cello. The ensemble (meaning the precise fitting together of the voice and two accompanying instruments) never seemed quite right to me. It felt as if the singer were going one way, the cellist another and the conductor yet a third. One night I just instinctively followed the singer and got chewed out afterwards. Then I remembered that it was the conductor that was the boss! You follow him, no matter what.

One reason that I found following the conductor tricky is that a guitarist needs one eye for the shifts in the left hand and one eye for the music. So which eye do you use to look at the conductor? Luckily, for most of my career I didn't have to worry about following the conductor because I was the soloist. In a concerto for guitar and orchestra, the orchestra, led by the conductor, follows the guitar. When I was playing the Villa-Lobos concerto, we were playing through the second movement for the first time. The guitar just has argpeggios at the end so I played them, watching the conductor, waiting for him to slow down for the end. He never did. Afterwards I found out he was waiting for me and I was waiting for him. That section is from about the 4 minute to the 4:36 mark in this clip.

So much of music comes down to split-second timing. Oh, and by the way, we split the seconds pretty small sometimes! You can play a lot of notes in a second. Or miss a lot of notes!

Here's a little thought to muse on: all you need to pass a stockbroker's exam is 60%. So you may be entrusting your precious savings to a guy who got 39% of the questions wrong on the exam. For medical classes, it is apparently 70%. The teacher of your children might have graduated with a pretty low mark too, but I understand that with grade inflation these days, the average mark at university is an A minus, so it's hard to tell. Let's compare it to the standard of professional musicians. If a soloist walks out on stage and only gets 90% of the notes right he or she would get horrific reviews! I can recall hearing Pepe Romero play the Concierto de Aranjuez with the Montreal Symphony a few years ago. I knew the piece extremely well, having played it with orchestras several times myself, and had even spent a summer studying it with Pepe in Salzburg a few years previously. So it's not an exaggeration to say I know every single note of the guitar part. The score for the guitar part is 23 pages long and there are, at a guess, a couple of hundred notes per page. Say something between 4500 and 5000 notes altogether. In his performance he missed one (1) note and it was barely noticeable even to me. What's that in percentage terms? He played correctly 99.98% of the notes.

That's the standard of professionalism in music: 99.98%

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