Watch the conductor. Look for the downbeat. Make eye contact. Watch. Make eye contact. Watch. Look. Follow. Watch. Watch. Watch.
Watching, looking, following, are all an integral part of orchestral musicianship and performance. Every conductor wants their musicians to watch, to follow, to connect. But, I often wonder if the young musicians that find themselves in my ensembles are thinking, "How am I supposed to watch when I have to play all of these notes?" If they aren't thinking this, they certainly are saying it with their actions.
Yesterday, in the Intermediate Concert Orchestra at Interlochen, we addressed that very issue while working on William Hofeldt's beautiful composition, "The Faraway Place." This is a lovely slow work in 3/4 time that has lush string sounds, several interesting divisi sections, and rich close harmonies. The first violins are asked to play up to sixth position, but outside of high pitches, the technical challenges are minimal. The beauty of that situation is that the ensemble and musical director may then focus on the elements of ensemble that truly make a work dynamic. This, of course, includes the skill of watching the conductor and being very aware of all that is happening in the ensemble.
With this work, I will focus on phrasing, the intricacies of truly moving dynamic changes, and the all important skill of following a conductor and allowing the conductor to push and pull temple in meaningful purposeful ways. All of these skills require the musician to lift their eyes up to, to watch, and to communicate purposefully with both the conductor and the other musicians in their section, as well as the other sections. The musician must not only know what their part is doing, they have to know what all of the others are doing as well.
In a rehearsal yesterday, we were working on some of these skills with minimal success. The students were playing their parts reasonable well, but there was very little sense of ensemble or unity. I decided to create an etude out of a simple major scale with the goal of eliminating the note reading aspect of the task at hand. This, essentially, eliminates one of the multitude of tasks that the ensemble was asked to complete. I used to an old trick that many directors and teachers have used in the past by creating a round out of a 2 octave major scale. I had the ensemble play 3 quarter notes on each pitch (same meter as the piece) of an E flat major scale (key of the piece) in 2 octaves. The Violin I section played first, on the third note of the scale, the 2nd Violins and Violas entered on the tonic, and on the fifth note, the celli and bass entered on the tonic. When we arrive at the top of the 2 octaves, we don't repeat the tonic and simply come back down. Some directors will have one section hold a pedal tone on the tonic. This creates a beautiful round, reinforces the key, and provides an opportunity to drive home the need and benefits of watching the conductor and each other throughout the exercise. I conduct throughout the etude. I never let the 3rd pulse of the measure rush. (This is a common problem with young ensembles.) At times I stretch the tempo and other times I push it. Sometimes these changes are subtle and other times they are drastic.
I also usually have the violins and violas stand for this exercise, because I am always trying to promote more movement in their playing. This is another related concept and I will address it in a future post. But, the natural movement of playing while standing is often lost in the young orchestral musician. I see so many "statues" in ensembles of every level. We must promote movement in the orchestra so that students may give and receive visual communication from not only the conductor, but every individual piece of the ensemble. Movement is also a key component to expressive playing, regardless of the visual communication aspect. I see fluid movement in young ensembles less and less in my work. I will continue to "wave this flag" in all of my work as a conductor and clinician!
This etude is wonderful for driving home the necessity of watching and lifting up one's eyes. It invariably is less than terrific the first time we do it. Students lose focus on the task, become passive, and, ultimately, it doesn't' really work. Often the 2nd time through, it works better. Yesterday, I went back to the piece after we did the etude twice, and it was much more cohesive! Then we returned to the etude and it was much better! The concept was beginning to realized.
Many of you know that my belief that all good pedagogy has 4 important components. There is a SYSTEM, it is SEQUENTIAL, It has strong, authentic, NOMENCLATURE, and involves a HARMONIC UNDERPINNING. This exercise has all of this. It is a system designed to encourage young musicians to watch and communicate with purpose. It is a starting point in the sequence for this skill that ultimately comes back to the repertoire. With this, I introduce the nomenclature of push, pull, ritard, rubato, upbeat, downbeat, etc. And, of course, the major scale, possible pedal tone, and tonality are the foundation of the harmonic underpinning. All of this is rock solid, from my perspective.
So, regardless of whether you are rehearsing a grade one arrangement of "Let it Go," from Frozen, or Barber's "Adagio" with an all state level group, the challenge remains of getting the group to watch in a meaningful, purposeful way. Perhaps this exercise will provide the foundation for a lesson for you to use. I feel like it was effective for my ensemble yesterday. On we go!