Thursday, October 13, 2011


I've been playing at the university more frequently. I really like playing with that crowd, since the general level is higher than my usual band, and it's a challenge for me. The first time I played there I was terrified. I'm less terrified now, but I still find it very difficult. I devote at least 90% of my attention trying to play in tune, with just a touch left over for everything else.

The most recent few times was a small ensemble set up by a student conductor, working on making an audition tape. We played the Beethoven Wind Octet, Op 103. I found this pretty interesting, since most of my life I've played with other amateur musicians, but under professional conductors, and this was basically reversed. Conductors can indeed make mistakes, and their mistakes affect the sounds that get produced, but their mistakes are different in kind from the type of mistakes that musicians make. An unclear or uncertain movement on the upbeat, and everybody comes in ragged. An unnecessary movement in a rest, and a player comes in. The funny thing about it is, it always seems like the players are at fault, even if the root cause can be traced to the center of the room. And also, it's possible to acclimate to almost any conducting style. In high school, I occasionally played in one community orchestra whose geriatric conductor balanced on a stool, making small vague motions with one of his hands. It was impossible to find a beat, but I was soon clued in that the entire orchestra watched the concertmaster's bow for entrances. And it worked fine, we were all together. This student conductor is much better than that, but there's nevertheless a process of developing a mutual understanding. Also interesting is the aspect of recording. I'm reminded of Doug Yeo's advice to stop immediately, and not waste even a moment continuing recording after an error which wrecks a take. It's the exact opposite of performing, where continuity is king. Here, what matters is the conductor's performance, and not ours, but you'd have to imagine that whoever was listening would care about how the ensemble performed under her baton. One of the takes seemed pretty good to me, but she immediately discounted it, apparently she'd made a face or two after small kaks from the players. With your back to the audience, no big deal, but it's the kind of thing that's easy to see on a video of the conductor. She seemed pretty happy with the last take, and indeed, I think we sounded pretty good. Amazingly enough, rehearsal helps. And we even got paid, if you count free food.

I also got asked to sub at a dress rehearsal with the main group. I really wanted to do it, but unfortunately had a work commitment. With regrets I said no, figuring they'd find someone else or do without. When the time rolled around, the event I was at wrapped up a little early, and I realized that if I rushed, I could show up late to the rehearsal I'd declined. Not sure if I would be needed, or even welcome, I decided to go anyway, just in case. I scurried in maybe 15 minutes late, looking to see if they found somebody else. No, and the conductor waved me in without stopping. I put the horn together, and was a bit surprised to discover a chair and a stand for me with the music on it. Had they not been told I couldn't make it? Were they mad that I was late? Nothing to do but play, but they weren't stopping for me or anything. After looking over the shoulder of the other bassoon player, I tried to guess where they were. Joining in I got a smile from the conductor, so I guess I did something right. And afterward I got invited to play in one of their concerts later in the year, so I'm pretty happy about that.

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