by Perry Holbrook, Director of Orchestras Walton H.S., Marietta, GA
Bows moving in unison. Musicians swaying with the music. An incredible wash of resonance. Is there anything more majestic than the sound of the string section of an orchestra? When a string section is playing well, it is an incomparable thrill. One of my student violists put it this way: when my stand partner is playing aggressively, and the people in front and behind me are moving and playing aggressively, I feel confident and can lose myself in the music. I am a stronger musician when I perform with others.
I remember the moment I personally fell in love with the sound of a large string section. It occurred during my first rehearsal of an all-city junior high school group in Wichita, Kansas. As we began to play a transcription of the fourth movement of Brahms Symphony no. 1, I knew what I wanted to do with my life; I wanted to play in an orchestra. But do all musicians feel the same way about section playing? Is this something that can be taught? Wind players are taught to love ensemble playing. The players that have held the second trumpet chair in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Vincent Cichowicz and now John Hagstrom are revered as legendary musicians who are masters of ensemble skills. Wind players regard a symphony orchestra chair as their ultimate aspiration.
Do string players place a similar premium on fine ensemble playing? Perhaps it begins in Suzuki studios with the teaching of only solo repertoire. Perhaps the fact that the heroes of the string world are soloists has something to do with it. Maybe it is more complex. Maybe some talented musicians had bad experiences in their high school orchestras. Whatever the case, a significant number of musicians don’t understand what an incredible experience fine ensemble playing is.
I believe as teachers we have a duty to teach our young string students what a fine and noble thing ensemble playing is. The legendary Gustav Mahler states, “What is best in music is not to be found in the notes.” I believe the finest thing music has to offer is the ability to touch another soul. Simply put, music is about communication. One definition of communication holds that communication is the successful conveying or sharing of ideas or feelings. Most musicians believe that music is one of the most powerful and complex forms of human communication. As musicians, we have all felt music speak to our soul.
One of the most unforgettable moments of my career occurred in the days following September 11, 2001. In the days leading up to this most tragic of days, my orchestra and I had been rehearsing Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. On September 11, we watched events of the day unfold on the television in our orchestra room. Silence gripped our room. We couldn’t imagine playing. At the end of the week my student officers asked if we could perform the Barber in tribute to the victims of September 11. Our Principal listened and agreed to hold an assembly for the purpose of letting our student body gather as a group to express our feelings of grief. On September 25, 2001, the band, chorus, and orchestra of my high school each performed for the entire student population in our school gymnasium.
Our contribution of the program was the Barber Adagio. I remember worrying whether this piece could succeed in this environment. My students seemed so nervous. As the music began, I lost myself in the shape of the opening phrases. Slowly, the long crescendo began. As the music swept inexorably toward the magnificent, extended, E Major chord, I stopped worrying about the acoustics and became conscious of the passion in my students playing. When the moment came, I held the E Major chord and basked in the radiance only a large group of strings can produce. Then came the most amazing part of the piece, the silence. 2300 students sat silently as that moment of silence screamed with an eloquence words could never equal. When we finally broke the silence, my orchestra played with awareness that 2300 students truly understood what we were trying to communicate through music. Our orchestra spoke as one voice, communicating with others. Sixty-six students and one conductor spoke as one. Because of what an ensemble had to say, an entire high school listened.
What happened that day has affected my teaching to this day. If music is a form of communication, then a group of musicians working together to present a unified interpretation of a great work of art is the ultimate act of communication. There is great power in a large group of individuals coming together to speak in one voice. This is the essence of ensemble playing.
So how do students learn to love ensemble playing? First, they need to have a model
Take your students to see a professional symphony orchestra. I would suggest seats in the balcony. Show them what the result of detailed rehearsal is. Tell your students that you can see why the orchestra sounds so good. There is magic in good bow placement!
Second, buy a video camera
High school football coaches have been video taping practices for fifty years. I believe that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million. Sometimes high school string students simply aren’t aware that they are playing in the wrong part of the bow. Watching a video of practice can be quite informative. Modern digital cameras are capable of extraordinary clarity. My orchestra benefits greatly from freezing the tape and analyzing what they are seeing.
Third, work with your students; urge them to move while they are playing.
Have you ever seen a great string section play without moving to the music? Sometimes young string players are afraid to reflect the music in their body movements. There is great comfort in playing in a string section that moves together. It encourages aggressive playing.
Fourth, teach phrasing as you are teaching technique.
Technique without musicality is an empty vessel. Don’t fall into the trap of always conducting things the same for the sake of precision. Teach your students to watch you.
Fifth, set high expectations for your students.
Your students will reach whatever expectations you set for them. If you demand musicality in your performances, your students will play musically for you. This is so important in an ensemble situation. My students revel in the moments where it all comes together, like that magical afternoon in 2001.
Sixth, make playing in an ensemble fun.
Fun is not ha-ha fun. Fun is something that is learned. Some people think running a marathon is fun. Some people believe that calculus is fun. In my opinion, fun is when you’re playing in a group at an extremely high level, everyone together, communicating the intent of the composer, and upholding the highest of musical standards. Give your students this opportunity and they will have fun and they will do anything you ask of them.
Seventh, remember that your students are kids.
Some directors become upset when their students tell them they are in orchestra because their friends are in orchestra. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. How many times has a string quartet or other chamber ensemble failed because of tension within the group? If an ensemble gets along, they rehearse better. I encourage social activities. I want the members of my orchestra to enjoy each other’s company.
Eighth, place great value on ensemble playing in your orchestra.
Introduce your orchestra to great ensemble players like Paul Katz of the Cleveland Quartet. Introduce them to great ensembles like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in New York. Invite symphony players to come and work with your students as well as to share your experiences. Above all, encourage your students to attend orchestra concerts. I was thrilled to learn that 29 members of my program attended an Atlanta Symphony performance last week.
Finally, believe in the music.
Just like the transcription of Brahms First Symphony that I played in Junior High School, the music still has the power to speak to young musicians. The power of art is timeless in nature. If you believe in the value of an ensemble experience, your students will as well. Don’t be afraid to show your love of orchestral music to your students. When your students walk in your room after school, are you listening to orchestra music? If not, what does this say to your students?
In my opinion, the most moving musical moments occur when a group of people work together to refine a work of art and present it in one voice.