Saturday, September 26, 2009


An orchestra was a mysterious thing to me for a long time. I was kind of plopped into them when I was just learning to play the cello, and I didn't understand how all the moving parts fit together. I had rarely heard an orchestra before then and didn't know anything about the music we played.

One thing I didn't understand was what the conductor was doing up there. I had only the vaguest idea of beat patterns, meters, how tempo changes work, and how to watch for the downbeat. I just followed along with what everyone else was doing and tried not to come in in the wrong place. I probably did this for way, way too long -- but it's why playing in an orchestra is fun for string players who don't play so well and frustrating for those who do: One can mostly get away with this, and no one will notice (except your stand partner). Now, of course, I am a sophisticated, educated musician (cough, cough) and far better than that.

Several years ago, I was asked to play principal cello in a small chamber orchestra, and I've been in the job ever since. I'm paid only a small gratuity (shh! don't tell the musician's union!). There are many such orchestras, composed of a combination of volunteer and paid, amateur and professional musicians. Why, I often wonder, do people put so much time and effort into sustaining a group like this when there are more than enough professional orchestras giving concerts and making recordings? There's so much music-making going on that someone could listen to it all day every day. It must be because people find greater satisfaction in playing than in listening.

I've been in a lot of groups like these, both as a volunteer and as a paid professional. This is the first time I've been principal cellist for an extended time, and I like being able to guide (at least a bit) what goes on musically. When I was younger, I didn't appreciate how much work goes into putting a group like this together and organizing the musicians, the scheduling, the music, the venues, the money. I cringe now over how cavalierly critical I was about the groups I was in were run.

All I can do now is try to have a better attitude -- and not agree to do things I don't want to do.  Both were hard for me when I was a struggling freelancer. I like having the option now to say no.

1 comment:

Bill said...

"It must be because people find greater satisfaction in playing than in listening" - Well put!