Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Learning an instrument.... as an adult!

In a recent comment on this blog, Jennifer ruminated on the idea of learning an orchestral instrument.
My first reaction is the obvious one: It's never too late to start!

But the toughest row to hoe for an adult learning a new instrument is this: You know how good it can sound in the best of hands. Learning an instrument with this knowledge is what makes it so difficult.

As a kid, you don't care, because you don't know! During a recent visit to my parent's home in Oakland, a neighbor, Howard Jackson, recalled listening to me practice my french horn during my formative years. (In my parent's home, the front door opens to an atrium, where I often practiced when the noise of five brothers and sisters was overwhelming.) Mr. Jackson went on to say, "yeah...one day my wife said to me, 'I remember hearing Edward play his horn, and then, after a few years, he started sounding good.'"

Of course, I thought I sounded good all along! But Ms. Jackson's experience was a bit different from mine.

For an adult, the key is to go easy on yourself. If you want to learn the violin, or the oboe, or the horn, you will need tremendous patience.

But the best place to start is with the piano. Here you have a veritable orchestra; every sound, melodic fragment, magical harmony and percussive thrust, right at your fingertips.

And with the piano, you won't ever have to worry about playing in tune.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Why are the strings sitting there?

You may wonder why I change the seating of the strings from time to time. It may appear to be random or arbitrary, but hopefully, if you've been paying attention, you already know the answer.

One thing is a given: of the two groups of violins (every string section has five sections: first and second violins, violas, cellos and basses), the first violins always sit on the left side, downstage, in clear view. Most orchestras have the second violins seated just inside the first violins, with violas and cellos to the right, and basses behind them.

Then why do I sometimes place the second violins opposite the first violins, downstage right?

It wasn't my idea. Berlioz did this in the early 1800s, and Mahler did the same in the early 20th century. First and second violins seated next to each other is a relatively new phenomenon, within the past 75 years or so. Why did it happen? I'm not sure, but I can guess..... perhaps during a recording session, back in the days when recording was still a new venture, some wiseguy producer might have asked, "hey, why are the violins separated? Put them together!" Or maybe a second violinist approached a conductor and respectfully asked, "Maestro, can we please sit next to the first violins? We have so much of the same music, and it would be so much easier for us to play together if we were seated together." The idea caught on, and stuck.

But in the last 10-25 years, more and more orchestras began seating the violins like Berlioz, Mahler and Wagner seated them -- on opposite sides of the stage. And the reason is a decidedly musical one, for which the benefit is mainly yours, not ours: because composers such as Vivaldi, Beethoven and even Bruckner wrote for violins stereophonically. When we did Vivaldi's Four Seasons with Sarah Chang last year, did you notice how the violins often talk with each other? In Bruckner symphonies, the violins often trade a musical idea back and forth. And in the finale of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which you will hear later this season, the first and second violins engage in the musical equivalent of a fencing match, parrying back and forth right up to the movement's climax.

For some composers, writing stereophonically for violins is not a feature of their musical style. So if we do a program of Ravel, Debussy and Poulenc, I'll put the violins together. (Whether the violas or the cellos take the downstage right position is a matter of preference.)

You may ask, then, when violins are opposite each other, "how do you decide where to put the violas and cellos? Who sits inside the first violins, and who sits inside the seconds?

Toscanini liked the cellos inside the first violins, and I think Mahler did this as well. (Indeed, for Mahler symphonies, it makes a lot of sense, as the first violins and cellos often play the same melody together.) For this season, you will often see the violas inside the first violins, because we are in a Beethoven year, and B. loves to group the first violins with violas, and second violins with celli. Indeed, in the 3rd movement of his Symphony no. 3, in the Trio, which features the french horns prominently, both pairs strings seem to be involved in a bit of gamesmanship.

So you know -- most second violinists dislike playing from the downstage right position. They would much prefer being inside the first violins, in their comfort zone. I can understand why. When they share the melody (or an intricate accompaniment) with the first violins, it's easier to keep the ensemble tight and taut when playing side by side.  But it's nice for audiences to hear the music the way it was intended to be heard.

Performing in the Belding

During my pre-concert talks before performances last month of works by Beethoven, Sibelius and Dvorak, I asked all four audiences to raise their hands if this was their first experience listening to the Hartford Symphony perform in the Belding. I was astonished at the response -- all four pre-concert audiences (by my unofficial tally from the stage) was clearly over 50%, maybe even closer to 3 out of every 4 people.

So, for most of our audiences last month, hearing the Hartford Symphony perform in the Belding was a first time experience. And, predictably, most were wowed by the sonic difference. Mortensen Hall is a very large space, nearly 3,000 seats, and orchestras generally sound better in smaller venues. (It isn't the only criterion, but it's a good one.) Belding has anywhere from 800-900 seats, depending on what's going on that night.

When I did my first concerts with the orchestra several years ago, I did not like the Belding at all, but that was my impression from the stage. Now when we perform in the Belding, the sound on stage is much better.

Why the difference?

A few days ago, the HSO's Technical Director, Ken Trestman, gave me my first tour of the backstage area of the Belding. (I know, I know: I should have asked for this years ago. Mea culpa.) I was shown areas not privvy to you from your seat -- up high and beyond public view. When I asked Ken about the acoustical variable, I got my answer. Now, when the orchestra performs, these long, electronically-driven flaps (think long 'shades') are completely drawn, allowing for a much more vibrant, reverberant sound from the orchestra. I'm convinced that these 'shades' were only partly drawn in earlier years, which would explain why the sound was so dead to my ears. When the Belding is used for, say, a stand-up comedian, who necessarily needs amplification, the shades would come down, to deaden the space. The more acoustically 'dead' a space is, the better it is for amplified sound.

And all these years, I had thought a major reason for the sound difference was due to the different stages in the Belding and Mortensen halls. This is a factor, to be sure, but only partly.

Performing Dvorak's Seventh Symphony in November, it was evident to me how much the orchestra members were enjoying their collective sound.

What's your instrument? Piano? Flute? or do you sing?

For orchestras, our instrument is the space in which we play. And the better the venue is acoustically, the more musically rewarding the experience is for you.