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Sucked into a Musical Vacuum

Musicians of all ages can fall into a bad habit of just learning their part. Anyone can learn their part for the next band concert, their solo for the next orchestra concert, or their technical passages in their chamber ensemble, but learning an individual part is only one piece of the puzzle. Yes, it is the job of the conductor to keep all of the individual parts organized, but how much more could be achieved merely by increasing individual awareness? Have you ever had a chamber piece crash and burn, and your group just didn’t know what happened? Awareness and preparation are the answers.

The key element to this discussion is context. The word context refers to an autonomous whole, but the word content refers to smaller parts. According to Webster, the two definitions of context are:

1. The parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning.
2. The interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.

Below are a couple of examples of how important context is:
Context is more powerful than you might think. The pizza slice above takes on a whole new identity based on its environment. It’s not so appealing when it is lying on a sewer drain! Similarly, that excerpt you are practicing over and over again for your next audition is much more appealing in its intended context as well.
It’s amazing how a simple thought can change depending upon the… context! We expect our pets to curl up and take a nap in odd places but not airline pilots! Consider this the next time you find your cat napping in the fruit bowl or your dog asleep behind the sofa.

For a musician, there are two key ideas here:

1. The varying parts of a composition are interrelated!
2. Someone else’s part can shed light on what you are doing!  

Sometimes the difficulty in music has nothing to do with the notes and the fingerings; it has much more to do with how you treat them, and the relationship that you create between your part and the larger ensemble. For example, expressive playing is a beautiful skill within reason—and within the boundaries of the composer’s work. Some liberties are acceptable and some liberties are expressive, but there are other liberties that are considered overboard, gaudy, ineffective, or inappropriate.

There are innumerable examples of how the context of an excerpt changes the performance of it, but the Overture to Rossini’s La Scala di Seta is a perfect example to point out. The oboe part below was excerpted directly from the orchestral score and includes all of the dynamic and articulation markings in the score.
There are some liberties that can be taken with changing slurs and dynamics that would be encouraged, but there is a strong tendency to take liberties with the rhythms and the tempo that can get an oboe player in trouble with the orchestra. Some people see that they have a lyrical solo, and they get a little too excited. In a prominent solo like La Scala, other people have to be able to play with you, phrase with you, arrive at cadences with you, and join you in the affect that you are trying to achieve! There are expressive tools that can enhance this experience, but there are also expressive tools that can undermine your intentions.

The bottom line is: Don’t play like you are in a vacuum! Be expressive and play beautifully, but make informed decisions about phrasing!

Lessons From the Emergency sub

I have always loved getting the opportunity to substitute in different ensembles. I enjoy working with new conductors and getting to meet new woodwind players as well. Every orchestra is different. They function differently, and each ensemble offers a new set of experiences and challenges.

The woodwind substitute is either filling an occupied chair or helping fill out the ensemble for a work that requires an extended wind section. One of the challenges is that you are temporarily in someone else’s job. You are temporarily someone else, especially if you are hired at the last minute. Sometimes it means that person got a better opportunity or had some sort of conflict, but the job of the sub becomes more difficult when you are filling in for someone who is ill or had a family emergency. It can feel rude to be enthusiastic when someone is going to a funeral for a family member.

Subbing can be an exhilarating and rewarding opportunity, but if you don’t know how to do it, it can quickly turn into something much more horrific. That being said, there are a few things that the freelancing musician can do to increase their odds for success.
For the double reed player:

  1. Make a lot of reeds. While it may only take one reed to get through a gig if they only hire you for the last rehearsal and the performance, you don’t want to get caught with your pants down. If you make a lot of reeds, then you are more likely to have a variety of reeds for a variety of circumstances. You won’t have to try to come up with a Wagner reed or a Mozart reed at the last minute. You might already have one!
  2. In addition to keeping reeds in different stages, try to keep cane in different stages of production as well. If you do have to make a reed at the last minute, it will be a lot easier to grab some shaped or gouged cane than it would be to go back to your bag of tube cane.
Preparing for the Emergency:

It sounds like an oxymoron, and you might think that other musicians and the conductor should give you some leeway because you are an emergency sub, but you still have to perform as if you had advance notice and time with the music to prepare your part. The best thing you can do for yourself is to exceed your colleagues’ expectations.

What can you do to prepare?

  1. Get a recording! When you accept the gig, find out what the repertoire is, and then go find a recording… A good recording. You would be surprised how many people get to a gig that wish that they had either listened to a better recording or listened more carefully to the recording they used. In many cases, listening and studying a score can decrease the amount of time needed to learn the part.
  2. Get your parts as quickly as possible! Sometimes you can pick it up from someone a couple of miles away, but it isn’t always so easy. Find out what parts you are playing and if someone can scan them for you or meet you at a place that is convenient for them. If you really can’t pick up the folder of music until the rehearsal, check with your teacher or former teachers, they usually have a wealth of orchestral music. Check with your colleagues, and check the internet! You might find it on IMSLP or just floating around on a random site.
  3. Find a score! Depending on how complex the music is, a score may be an invaluable tool for preparing your part. Sure you can listen and study the solos, but what about the rest of the piece? If you have a lot of rests, it’s helpful to look up “landmarks” in the score of recognizable themes, melodies, or textural changes that will help you know where you are in rehearsal. What about taking notes on who you have to play certain passages with? It could help to know that you pick up a melody from the harp or from the second flute. You don’t want to miss something just because you aren’t aware of the context. It will also help in knowing when you have unison pitches to match with someone on the other side of the orchestra, or even worse, the tricky major third! You can look in a library or look on IMSLP for a score. Get a print copy or download one to your tablet just in case you need to refer to it during rehearsal.
  4. If you are working with a piece that is really intricate or technical, you can practice with that good quality recording that you found earlier. It will give you a good idea of transitions, meter changes, and aural cues.

Before you get there:

  1. Get directions! This seems self-explanatory, but you would be surprised how many people only think they know how to get where they are going. Confirm the location, look it up on a map, and write down directions even if you are using a GPS system. Things go wrong with technology! You don’t want to be late because your GPS died or you lost the satellite right after you got off the interstate.
  2. Be prepared with snacks, water, or coffee. My experiences have involved a lot of time in the car – anywhere from one to three hours. You don’t want to be cranky or sleepy before rehearsal starts, and you don’t always know what kind of area you are driving to. Starbucks is not universal. There are whole cities that exist without them…   Picking up a quick snack might not be an option either.
  3. Be prepared to go into an auditorium with no heat in the winter or no air in the summer. If it isn’t a union orchestra, you might still be playing in an auditorium with no heat when it is snowing outside. Similarly, keep a blanket or something warm in your car. you don’t want to freeze if you have car trouble.
  4. If you have a long drive, you might want to make a checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything. While it’s never happened to me (knock on wood), I have had colleagues drive hours away and forget their reeds, their instrument, or their dress shoes. Oops! I have forgotten my music before. There’s nothing more terrifying than that moment when you think you might have forgotten something. Save yourself the trouble. Make a list.
The biggest thing to make note of during the gig is to be a good colleague. I can’t emphasize this enough. Talk to people and smile even if you are stressed out or tired. Leave your anxiety and your stress in the parking lot. As a sub, know when to be a leader, and know when to follow the regular players. Play with people, not against them. You don’t want to butt heads with someone musically. Be the kind of colleague you would want to work with. Be the kind of player that you would want to play with. Be prepared and play like it is your job instead of a temporary assignment.

Good luck and Happy Subbing!

Julie C