Friday, 19 March 2010

Playing in groups - interpreting dynamic markings

When you are playing a solo with piano, you do the written dynamics, scaled to whatever size of room or hall you are playing in. Fitting in isn't much of an issue.

But when you play in a band or orchestra, the temptation is always to play out a bit in order to be heard over everybody else. So everybody plays a good solid mf even in the soft passages, and when they notice even that doesn't get through, they play a bit louder still! As a result, all dynamic range for the group disappears, leaving no audible distinction between passages which are nominally soft and those which are supposed to be loud.

There are some general rules that you have to follow when playing in orchestra or band.
  • If you are playing accompaniment, play two notches quieter than the written dynamic. So for instance if there is an instruction in the part to play mf, you play p.
  • If you have a long held note as part of the accompaniment, start it 2 notches quieter than the written dynamic and then immediately drop one further notch. Long notes are boring. They are part of the texture, but absolutely must be lower in dynamic than the moving parts.
  • If you are sharing the tune, play the written dynamic.
  • Hairpin instructions for brief crescendos and diminuendos should be exaggerated. They are there for a reason, and so they have to be discernible to the audience. But an exaggerated crescendo has to be matched with an equally exaggerated diminuendo to return you to your original dynamic.
  • If you aren't principal horn, make sure you aren't playing louder than the principal - match whatever he or she is doing if you are playing similar stuff in harmony together.
  • If you are solo on the tune, play one or two notches louder than written, probably with a "projected" tone.
This is the basic balance for a large group. If everybody in the group gets into the habit of doing this, the sound texture suddenly acquires a beautiful clarity. Details become audible that couldn't be heard before. The conductor can then make individual adjustments - he can choose to ask individuals to bring out items of interest, e.g. countermelodies or rhythmic flourishes.

This is especially important in band rather than orchestra. With an orchestra, there is quite a bit of variation in tone colour available between the strings, the woodwind and the brass. With band, the string tone is unavailable and you just have wind sounds (plus percussion and perhaps string basses). So the range of tone colour variation is significantly reduced. All the more important to give the audience more variation in dynamic level, otherwise the performance becomes very boring and one-dimensional.

But this requires a degree of trust. There's no point playing accompaniment quietly unless everybody else is willing to do the same. So you are dependent for the effect on everybody agreeing and remembering to play the accompaniment softly. Until a group is used to doing this, it may mean that the conductor has to keep reminding you.

In both band and orchestra, the horn players spend most of their time blending into the middle of the harmony. That's the nature of being a tenor instrument. At one point you'll be joining with the woodwind, at another you'll be adding warmth to a cello tune, and at another you'll be with the brass for a chorale. But in many pieces, in the principal horn may be lucky to have 8 bars of solo. I've played plenty of pieces where the horns have less than that.

Blending is what horns mostly do. They form a tonal cement that glues together harmonies and provides an element in a wide variety of composite tone colours. It might not sound all that glamorous, but at least you have a separate part each. Have a thought for the second violins just in front of you in orchestra. 12 or 16 of them all playing the same notes, even less opportunity for individual expression. They rarely play the tune but are stuck in the middle of the harmony. And they have more notes they have to practice.

Playing in orchestra or band is about teamwork - and just as in a sports team each player has his or her own defined role, so it is in an orchestra. You can choose to be good at the role or not. If you want to become a professional, you have to understand and accept the role. If you are an amateur, you may surprise yourself how much pride you can gain from doing your bit as well as you know how.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Playing in groups - obvious starting points

I'll start with some obvious points - ones which ought to be self-evident, but often aren't.

Practice your part
You'll play better in a group if you've practiced your part at home. Practicing an orchestral part at home doesn't mean ploughing doggedly through all the notes. It means identifying the difficult bits and practicing those so that they don't cause you to panic in rehearsal or performance. For instance:
  • Difficult entries
  • Solos
  • Awkward slurs
  • Passages with breathing issues
  • Complex rhythms
Ideally, have a listen to a recording before the first rehearsal, with a copy of your part in front of you. The purpose of that is to identify any exposed bits that will need practice, and to get an idea of the speed the conductor is likely to take it.

If you can't do that before the first rehearsal, then go over the part as soon as possible after it.

Take the example of Brahms 2, which I played with Hillingdon Philharmonic last month. You can take a look at the first horn part here. Things to practice here are as follows:
  • The opening solo
  • The forte passage before B, and the quavers after
  • Getting the rhythm right and steady for the repeated syncopated notes between E and F
  • The solo just after the 2nd time bar
  • The high notes in the passage after K
  • The exposed passage of the first 2 bars of L
  • This big solo after M
  • In the 2nd movement, the solo at A
  • The solos at C, after D and after E
  • In the third movement, the opening solo
  • The entry before C
  • In the fourth movement, the entry after I
  • The passage at M
  • The entries at O
  • The last 17 bars
Depending on your level of achievement, there might be other passages you feel you need to practice as well. What I've mentioned above is all the exposed bits that absolutely must be right, plus any other awkward moments.

The proportion of a piece that needs detailed practise depends also on what it contains - how difficult the piece is overall, and what proportion of your part is exposed.

It is very useful to be able to efficiently prioritise your practice like this - you improve the most important things in the least possible time. If you're a professional (or want to become one) then this saves you a lot of time, given that you will get through a tremendous amount of music in your lifetime, and if you are an amateur, then you probably have a busy life to lead apart from your music and your practice time may be limited. Use it as efficiently as possible.

Be ready at rehearsal
Make sure you arrive before the rehearsal is due to start (ideally about 15 minutes before), and that you have your instrument, a pencil, and eraser, your music, your mouthpiece, a music stand, and a bottle of water if you need it. Also make sure that you have oils and (if your valves are string-coupled) spare strings available, just in case you find that have you to do some maintenance or running repairs.

If you are professional or a student, you should have warmed up at home beforehand. That's not always possible for amateurs who go straight from work to an evening rehearsal. If you are in that situation, develop an abbreviated 2-minute warmup that you can do in a corner before the rehearsal starts. My short warmup consists of a few long notes, followed by slurred arpeggios using all key combinations, just to get the lips moving. You will work out from experience what works for you as an effective short warmup.

Make sure you can see the conductor
In order to watch the conductor, you have to be able to see him. Make sure your seat position is such that your view of the conductor isn't blocked by the head of a tall person sitting in front of you. You need to have an uninterrupted view of the conductor's face and of his beat. Both are equally important.

Position your music stand and adjust the height of it so that with your normal playing position you can see the music comfortably and see the conductor over the top of the music with minimal movement of your eyes and without having to move your body. Ideally, you should be able to look at the notes and be able to see the beat with peripheral vision at the same time.

The common mistake is to position your stand too low. This has two adverse effects. First, it means that you tend to slouch in order to see the music properly, and second it increases the angle between the music and the conductor, making it much harder to see the conductor while you're reading the music.

I'll talk more on watching the conductor another time. But the first prerequisite is that you can see him comfortably.

Are you sitting comfortably?
Especially for amateur groups, rehearsal venues are often less than ideal, and that includes the seats. If you have a regular orchestra you play for and you know the seats are a problem, bring a cushion or something which will make the seat more comfortable and make it easier for you to maintain a good playing posture. Don't moan about the seats, do something.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Playing in groups

Looking back on my musical education, it seems to me that there is a very important aspect that was not taught me by any of my teachers, but which is vitally important to good music-making, whether as a professional or as an amateur.

This aspect is the art of playing in groups: in orchestra, in bands, in chamber groups, or as a soloist with a piano accompanist.

There are skills to be learned about playing in groups that are entirely independent of your technical capabilities on your chosen instrument.

In a way, I'm lucky, both my parents were fine amateur musicians (and one was a music teacher), and they involved me in amateur music making at quite an advanced level throughout my childhood, and I remember them offering ideas about playing in a group whenever I described problems. I suspect that I obtained a larger part of my musical education by that means than I previously realised.

Group technique is not something that is much taught. Looking back on it, it was something which the teachers at music college hoped that we would sort of pick up as a result of rehearsing pieces in orchestra, but rehearsal technique and group playing was not discussed as a separate discipline. I'm coming to think that it ought to be.

So in the interest of passing on whatever might be useful of what I've learned, I'm going to do some articles over the next few weeks on orchestral and group playing.

Fast pieces and difficult rhythms

Some pieces are just plain hard to play. Too many notes! Too many awkward rhythms.

Amongst amateur players, it is (incorrectly) assumed that you have to try and play all the notes in your part in orchestra, and (equally incorrectly) that the thing which distinguishes professionals from amateurs is that the professionals can and do play all the notes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, professionals will play a higher proportion of the notes, but in this context what really distinguishes them is an absolute ruthlessness in cutting notes that are unplayable so that they can keep together.

When you play a fast passage, if it isn't a solo it often doesn't matter that you don't play all the notes. What does matter is that you keep up with everybody else, and that the notes you do play are in time.

Most important of all is that whatever is on the first beat of the bar must be strictly in time, and any entries must be strictly in time. You drop out or modify whatever you need to do in order to make sure you stay with the rhythm.

Is this cheating? If you choose to call it that. But if you do this in rehearsal, and even in performance, there is a good chance that nobody will notice. Probably not the conductor, and certainly not the audience. But they will all notice if you are struggling behind the beat because you can't play all the notes fast enough.

The score is not holy writ. It does not have to be rigidly adhered to. The performance is what matters, the performance is the work of art. The sound you produce is what the audience has paid to come and hear. Give them the best you can - which means amongst other things making sure that everything you play is in time with the rest of the group.

This concept is really strange to a surprising number of amateur musicians. I've given some thought to why this is. It seems to me that a number of factors are at play here.
  • Amateurs generally haven't had a musical education that has gone quite as far as that which professionals have undergone.
  • The art of cheating is only taught at a fairly advanced level, so as not to encourage people at too early a stage to abandon attempts at improving their technique.
  • So, the art of cheating is not really taught to people who occupy most places in amateur orchestras.
  • When professional come in and supplement the ranks of an amateur orchestra, they are usually technically so advanced that the amateurs don't even notice when a bit of cheating goes on. They are so bowled over at what the professionals can do.
So this is directed a bit to conductors of amateur groups. Where necessary, explain to your players that cheating is OK, that if there is a choice between playing all the notes late and keeping time while playing only some of them, that you really want them to choose keeping time.

It will take time to get them used to the idea that by dropping notes they are actually playing better. But the overall result will be worth it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

You have to watch and listen!

At orchestra yesterday evening, we were rehearsing 3 pieces, all of which are very tricky in terms of rhythms and changes of speed.

In Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture, there are several places where there is a huge rallentando before the speed returns to what it is before.

In Elgar's Sea Pictures, we have been told about several passages marked colla parte, where the singer will be pulling the speed about. We've been warned that we cannot possibly know until the soloist arrives what speed these passages will go. So the conductor has been trying out various speeds to get us to practice following him.

Ravel's Piano Concerto In G has a number of places where the speed changes quite suddenly, and also a great meny places where things happen off the beat to varying degrees.

I'm not going to name the guilty parties, but there was a definite tendancy among a number of players to select a tempo for themselves, and then put their heads down and plough on regardless of what the conductor was doing.

In Romeo and Juliet, there was one point where the horns are playing triplet quavers during a huge rallentando. I could see how far the conductor was slowing down, it was a loud passage, so I decided very confidently, loudly and deliberately to follow him to the point where the final quaver was about a quarter the speed of the beginning of the bar - just to show the other players what needs to be done to keep with the conductor. There were several other passages where the horns aren't involved, where the orchestra came out of the end of the rall probably a beat or more ahead of the conductor. They just weren't looking.

During the coffee break, several people came up to me and said how nice it was to have an utterly solid horn player in the orchestra. The compliments of course are very nice, but the compliment would be greater if they would copy what I'm doing and coordinate their tempo with the conductor and the rest of the orchestra.

There are two aspects to this.

First, you must watch the conductor at all times. Your music must be positioned such that you can always see the beat out of the corner of your eye, and you have to be ready to react. It is only by watching the conductor that you get advance warning of changes of speed. If you don't look at the conductor and respond to his gestures, he loses all ability to shape the interpretation.

Second, you must listen, and make sure that you don't rush quavers, or get ahead of the beat that everybody else is playing. If you have a sudden single note to play, you have to listen and make sure it happens in the right place. For that you have to be able to hear what the rest of the orchestra is up to so that you come in right.

It's part of teamwork - the performance is scrappy if we don't all play together.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Raising the tone 3 - Fitting your tone to the music

The most immaculate control over your tone quality is no use to you unless you have an idea as to what sorts of tone should be used and when. This takes us back to musicality, which I've discussed in previous posts. You can't discuss musicality much in abstract, it is best considered with particular examples in mind.

As it happens, I played Brahms 2nd Symphony last weekend with Hillingdon Philharmonic Orchestra, and it includes one of the great orchestral solos for horn, towards the end of the first movement, and a solo which happens to be perfect when considering how to use tone as part of your expression.

Here is the solo in full. (The part is for Horn in D.)

It starts off piano and dolce, growing out of a very calm mood that the music has reached at this point. The horn is accompanied only by held string chords played piano, so the horn provides the only movement here. The mood is calm bordering on serene. So the tone colour needs to match this.

So it needs the lightest of attack on the first note, barely tongued at all - the note should emerge rather than specifically start, and the tone should be as smooth as you can make it, not the slightest hint of any brassy edge. The tone doesn't need to be dark, there is no foreboding here. Everything should sound perfectly relaxed over the top of a A7 chord in the strings held for the first 2 bars.

Then things start to get a bit darker. The accompaniment goes into an E minor chord and then progresses though a number of keys, all minor, and the horn starts a crescendo. The solo is gradually rising in pitch, in dynamic and in speed with the stringendo. There is a sense of urgency about it, even perhaps of menace or danger. The tone colour needs to reflect this. More volume gradually of course, but also a bit more of a brassy edge to it. Not too much, just enough to help contribute to the urgent mood.

The sense of danger increases through the stringendo, especially in the bars which start with a crotchet rest for the horn. The attack on the crotchet following needs to be much firmer to put a stress on the 2nd beat of each bar - each 2nd beat is starting at a new and higher pitch and so adding to the urgency, so stress it, give it a harder tone to go with the attack, and come off a bit for the slurred note following. At the same time, the accompaniment is getting louder and moving faster to add to the effect.

And then you come to the held written Ab, marked forte. This is the climax of the phrase, and it has to sing. The instant you hit the note, you are still in urgent mood, but at this point that accompaniment suddenly ceases to move. It isn't quite a happy chord it stops on - it is a diminished 7th underneath the horn, but the sense of running from some great danger suddenly passes. The horn has triumphed over its enemies! So the Ab should have a firm attack and an edge to the tone just for the instant of the attack, and then immediately the tone should turn into a big mellow sonorous sound, and everybody in the audience can go "Ahhhh!". The volume needs to be held throughout the note. The strings reduce to piano over the next 2 bars, leaving the horn in heroic possession of the battlefield.

And then we can start to relax. There is a diminuendo over the next three bars, followed by a final flourish ending on a concert D with a perfect cadence underneath in the strings. Everything is now perfectly happy and relaxed and the mood restored to the serene state it had at the start of the solo. The instruction to the whole orchestra as the solo ends is in tempo, ma piu tranquillo, "in time but calmer". You match this with your next entry (still quite prominent) after 4 bars rest. The music retains this serene mood as the movement gradually winds down to its ending a minute or so later.

The solo isn't the greatest technical challenge - it isn't particularly high or loud or fast. But it is a great musical challenge. By means of tone colour and expression you have to communicate serenity, danger, heroism, relaxation and tranquility in quick succession to the audience. Few solos call for such an expressive range in such a short time.

Let's consider a couple of other items. Here is the opening to Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto.

It is fortissimo for all four horns in unison. In the 2nd, 3rd and 4th bars, there is nothing else playing except for a brief but huge orchestral chord on the 2nd beat of each bar. This is clearly an heroic call to arms for the contest between piano and orchestra that is about to begin. (It is such a great tune that it is amazing that Tchaikovsky never bothers to repeat it in this form again.) You need a big bold brash sound with a firm decisive attack on each note, and each quaver needs to be held for its full length. Quite a bit of brassiness is perfectly appropriate here.

And now for something completely different. This is the opening of Bruckner's 4th Symphony.

The piece starts with the strings ppp holding a tremolo chord in Eb, and the horn comes in on the dominant of this chord. "Immer deutlich hervortretend" literally translated is "always clearly protruding" (The score actually has the instruction "ausdrucksvoll" or "expressively" on the entry). So, your sound has to be clearly heard, but that isn't going require a great volume over strings playing as quietly as they know how. So there's always going to be a risk with this solo. The mood is calm and serene, and your entry has to be the same. So you can't tongue it heavily, even though a light entry greatly increases the risk of a clam on the opening note. You have to minimise this by having the note visualised before you start. It's a semitone higher than the oboe's tuning A, an octave higher than the note initially held by the first violins, and the dominant of the opening chord. Whatever technique you use for obtaining a pitch reference for the entry, make sure that you concentrate really hard for it!

The tone has to be as clear as spring water and with hardly a care in the world. This entry is not easy but you must make it seem the easiest and most natural thing in the world to play on the horn. With Bruckner even the loud passages don't require a brassy edge to them, they require a big fat sonorous sound to them, but this passage is not loud. The Bb semiquaver must be deliberately and accurately placed, and the slur back to the F has to be perfectly smooth - you must practice this until you can completely eliminate any risk of hitting any intermediate harmonic on the way up.

The Gb of the second entry has a slightly darker harmony under it, but you don't need to take much notice of that. Just concentrate on giving the Gb the same tone as the opening F. Everything resolves back into Eb major when you return to the F.

The last entry is lower in pitch and lower in volume, and the strings at last start moving around and becoming more prominent, even though nominally still ppp. Let the last note fade to nothing. After that, the passage is repeated with 1st flute, 1st oboe and both clarinets sharing the tune you have just played.