Returning back to Symphony Orchestras: Serious Stuff

in Music2 months ago



So, this is going to be a bit of a ramble about some personal thoughts based on a hugely limited sample of heavily anecdotal personal observations.... nothing in here is definitive, and probably should be taken with a grain of salt.

Anyway, to lay the background for this post. I'm a musician, and in the past I played with symphony orchestras as well as chamber ensembles and that sort of thing... however, for the last twenty or so years, I've done almost exclusively Early Music... which means that I'm in much smaller groups ranging from two people to about twenty people. Now, symphony orchestras tend to range up to around 80 people on stage.

... and now that I'm back in Australia, I've also returned a bit to playing with symphony orchestras as well... just because I can! So, having been away from this particular discipline of playing for so long, I'm starting to notice quite a number of things... especially when contrasted with the manner of working that I've been accustomed to for the better part of the last two decades!

So, what are the critical differences between the symphony orchestra and Early Music ensembles. There are two main stand-out differences... the fact that one is huge, and then other is small... and the highly disciplined and salaried structure of the symphony compared to the slightly anarchic and freelance nature of Early Music.

What I have noticed after playing in a few projects already in a symphony orchestra is how SERIOUSLY every takes it. Of course, this could just be due to the specific orchestra... but there is a heavier regime of discipline and hierarchy that comes with a larger group of players, and there is also a larger show of internal politics and crap. I'm not saying that that sort of thing doesn't exist in Early Music (oh my god... it does...), but the level of interaction within rehearsals tends to be just more light-hearted and casual.

Now, much of that difference in interaction is to do with the ability of large ensembles needing to self-regulate themselves to a single vision/direction... otherwise we have chaos. When you have multiple sections of individual players combining and interacting to form a single musical vision... well, too much individuality and deviation leads to chaos... and it wastes everyone's time. You will rapidly be the least popular person... so, there is a real chain of command...

In Early Music groups, you tend to be playing in a section of three at most... and most of the time, a team section of one! In that case, there is no need for committees and authority you are entrusted more with individual wisdom and intelligence (which is sometimes misplaced...). It also means that in a concert, you can act on a whim.

Now, the balance towards individual skill and musical intelligence is something incredibly joyful... but I know that there are many who are terrified of it, and would prefer the comfort of being told what to do... well, the main goal is to NOT make a mistake. It seems like a horrible way to live (well, perhaps a good way to live, but definitely a bad way to entertain!).... but I also know that crazily addictive feeling of subsuming yourself into a larger whole.

So, there is a real contrast between these two styles of playing.... and at the moment, I still haven't found the click that will let me get into the symphonic modern style... everyone seems so scared and timid... I don't get that feeling of rawness that I get in the period instrument groups. It confuses and bewilders me... as I thought that the just rocking out and letting go was part of the joy of playing music?

... but this is the product of our classical music education... I see it in the university students that I have been entrusted to teach. They are scared and shy away from making technical mistakes... even if that distance costs them the ability to tell a musical story and to entertain an audience. They are just playing for a mechanised panel that will just focus on a technical slip... but no one goes to a concert to see a flawless performance... we have those Frankenstein recordings for that sort of thing. People go to be entertained... think about the bands rocking out at the local uni pub, they are not flawless... but they are ENTERTAINING!

Sigh... I really think that this is why Classical Music is dying in general. We take ourselves too seriously... Music was NEVER "high art", it was ALWAYS entertainment... and the sooner we musicians shake that notion of perfection, the better... entertain, communicate and engage... the technical aspects are the tool, but not the message.

... meanwhile, I wonder how long I can last in the symphony before they kick me out for screwing around!

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