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.

1 comment:

  1. I use bifocal lenses and had a pair of glasses carefully crafted that set the reading part to be abnormally high to keep the stand position high. I cant move my head up and down to see the page like when reading a book. My head is relatively fixed. So depending on where the focal point for reading is makes a huge difference as to where the stand position needs to be. I had to explain this numerous times and have my glasses recreated several times before I got a pair that worked.