How much do you practice as an ensemble?
How much time do the musicians spend on personal practicing?
Is preparation for the orchestral pieces the only practicing necessary for the individual musicians?
What is that contraption on top of the basses?
Is the piccolo the smallest instrument in the orchestra?
Is the piccolo the highest instrument in the orchestra?
How do string players find the notes on the fingerboard without frets or markings?
Why don't bass players all hold their bows the same way?
How do you know who is going to play what in the percussion section?
Do the musicians own all of the instruments we see on stage or does the orchestra own some?
Is this your full time job?
Do you all come from musical families?
Where do you all go during intermission?
How do you get into an orchestra?
How is an audition run?
Why do violinists and violists get that red mark on the left side of their neck?
Q. How Much Do you Practice as an ensemble?
Our work week is measured in orchestral services, which can consist of a rehearsal or a concert. Most weeks the BSO schedule has eight orchestral "services." This usually breaks down into four rehearsals and as many concerts. The week’s rehearsals normally begin on Tuesday and end Thursday, and then we play our first concert of that week on Thursday evening. Rehearsals are two and a half hours long. The purpose of a rehearsal is to practice playing the music as an ensemble, after our individual parts have been mastered at home. From time to time, we will play more than one program's worth of repertoire in the same week.
Q. How much time do the musicians spend on personal practicing?
Of course, we can't expect to waltz into the first rehearsal Tuesday morning, sit down, and play perfectly together. We must all prepare our parts individually. Depending on the piece, the preparation time can vary greatly. For a standard piece that the orchestra plays frequently, and isn't too difficult, less than an hour of practice time may be required. For a new or difficult piece, several hours may be needed. In music that contains a big solo part for a principal (like the violin solo from Strauss's "Ein Heldenleben," for example,) several days and even weeks might be spent preparing the part. If one of us is going to perform a concerto or a showpiece as a soloist with the orchestra, we might be practicing that piece for several months.
Q. Is preparation for the orchestral pieces the only practicing necessary for the individual musicians?
No. There is daily maintenance (think calisthenics!) required to be in top playing shape at all times. Like athletes, our bodies are finely tuned to be able to respond to the musical directions our brains give them. This conditioning can require anywhere from thirty minutes to a few hours. Most musicians of the BSO rarely take more than one day completely off from our instruments at a time. Repetitive strain injuries, tendonitis, and other overuse problems are common, and we must plan our practice time accordingly so as to prevent these problems.
I remember a stretch from college days where I played the violin every single day for a couple of years. Now I need occasional days off, to let my body recover (and, of course, to keep my tennis muscles in shape!)
Greg Mulligan, violin
Q. What is that contraption on top of the basses?
It is a device often referred to as a "machine" that lowers the pitch of our lowest string from an "E" down to a "C", with keys to play the half-steps in between. Up until the 20th century, the basses would generally double the cello part an octave lower (so they are "double-basses"). With a low "C" the basses can continue the lower octave in line with the cellos, which have "C" as their lowest string. This opens up all kinds of judgment calls about what the composers would have wanted who wrote before the 1890's, when the machine was invented. There are also 5-string basses to provide these notes, also a more modern invention.
I remember my first low "C" almost as fondly as I remember my first kiss! I was fourteen years old, and I had a rehearsal for Brahms' 4th symphony right after I had my "machine" installed on my bass. We started the 3rd movement, and there it was- a glorious, fortissimo, gem of a low "C" just a few bars into the piece. It doesn't get any better than this! Oh, I guess you have to be a bass player...
Bob Barney, Principal Bassist
Q. Is the piccolo the smallest instrument in the orchestra?
Almost - but the triangle and finger cymbals in the percussion section are smaller.
Q. Is the piccolo the highest instrument in the orchestra?
Again, almost - while not played often, the violins can play notes above the range of the piccolo, and their "harmonics" can be much higher.
The word "piccolo" is Italian for "small". And the piccolo is small - only 12 inches long, approximately half the size of the flute, and plays exactly one octave higher. So high, in fact, that most piccolo players wear hearing protection to prevent injury...and so do most of the players sitting near the piccolo.
Q. How do string players find the notes on the fingerboard without frets or markings?
A: The short answer is - with great difficulty! It takes a good ear and years of practice to train the fingers to locate the fingerboard positions strictly by feel. The muscle memory we rely on is similar to that of a pro basketball player who is expected to sink baskets from various distances, game after game - only his accuracy is measured in feet and inches, and ours in millimeters. (Well, maybe feet and inches for bass players)
Regular practice and constant careful listening are required in order to play in tune. It's something of an obsession with us!
Q. Why don't bass players all hold their bows the same way?
A: There are two styles of double bass bow - the French bow which is held with the palm down as with a violin or cello bow, and the German bow which is a descendant of the viola da gamba bow and is held with the palm tilted upwards. Each bow has its particular advantages and challenges. American orchestras usually include players of both types, depending on the bassists' training and preferences, while European bass sections tend to be more uniform, with the French bow prevailing in England, France, the Netherlands and Italy, and German bow in Germany, Austria, Central and Eastern Europe.
Q. How do you know who is going to play what in the percussion section?
A. Although it may look like a free-for-all at times in the percussion section, the action is carefully choreographed. The principal percussionist’s job involves assigning all of the parts as well as making sure that all the parts are covered. Once the parts are assigned each player in the section is responsible for making sure he has all of the instruments required for a given piece of music as well as the appropriate stick. The player then decides the optimum set-up. These details can be crucial to a successful performance.
Q. Do the musicians own all of the instruments we see on stage or does the orchestra own some?
A. The musicians in the orchestra own the individual instruments in the string, wind, and brass section as well as most of the small instruments in the percussion section. The orchestra owns the largest instruments that you see on stage – that includes the pianos and many of the instruments in the percussion section such as Timpani, Bass Drum, Tam-tam, Xylophone, and Chimes. Also, the Orchestra often owns unusual instruments such as
Q. Is this your full time job?
Yes! The Baltimore Symphony is considered one of the “major” symphony orchestras just as the Orioles are a major league sports team. When a player manages to get a position with one of the major orchestras he or she is expected to perform at a level of consistent excellence that requires daily attention. A comparison could be made to an olympic athlete. As such, most of the musicians dedicate themselves solely to their positions with the Baltimore Symphony. However, others find the time to teach at Peabody, Julliard, Towson University, UMBC or other institutions. Still others teach privately, compose music or develop products related to their craft. Most musicians in major orchestras have been honing their skills for a professional career since childhood.
Q. Do You All Come From Musical Families?
A. The answer is yes..and no. The amount of music-making the members of the BSO experienced in their formative years varies widely. As adults, some of the musicians have siblings working as professional musicians and others are the only members of their family who chose this path. All the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony have had someone in their lives that encouraged their passion to express themselves through music, whether that person was a parent,friend, or teacher.
Q. Where do you all go during intermission?
A. Many of the musicians will remain on stage or go back stage to look at a passage that is still to come in the concert or even something that is coming up next week. We also have a break room with coffee, tea, and vending machines where many of the musicians can be found. There are practice rooms if a musician wants to spend a few minutes practicing alone as well as locker rooms for both men and women where folks often congregate. There’s even a ping pong table for those that have more waiting around time such as brass players and percussionists who may only play one or two pieces on the concert.
Q. How do you get into an orchestra?
For a major symphony like the Baltimore Symphony, there is an "audition" process. Usually, an opening is announced in the newspaper of the Musicians' Union, and on websites such as www.musicalchairs.info . People send in resumes, and an audition committee selects the musicians they would like to hear based on them. In some instances, a candidate may be required to send a tape of their playing. Generally, for a major orchestra opening, there would be on average, 150 resumes sent in for 1 position. Out of that number, probably about 75-100 would be invited to take part. The invited musicians would receive a list of excerpts - or selections from various pieces - which make up the audition repertoire. Usually the player is also required to perform a concerto and some solo Bach as well. A musician normally spends an enormous amount of time and money on these auditions. Auditionees are rarely if ever reimbursed for their travel costs.
Q. How is an audition run?
In most cases, the audition takes place over 1-4 days. The candidates that arrive in Baltimore to audition are assigned a preliminary audition time. When they arrive they are assigned a random number. The first several rounds of the audition are be conducted in anonymity – that is the auditionees are separated from the audition committee by a screen and only announced by number.
Over the next 3-4 rounds, the committee hears various selections from the repertoire list. There may also be sight-reading asked of the candidates.
The committee narrows the pool of applicants down to an average of 3 or 4 for the final round. At this point the screen comes down to reveal who is under final consideration for the position. The final candidates may be asked to play in a chamber group with some of the musicians from the orchestra as part of the audition process at this point. In most cases, the player is invited to play with the orchestra for 1 or 2 concert series to gauge their ability to play with the orchestra. Finally in a successful audition, the winner is named and offered a contract, and their probationary period begins. After a period of time, the musician is either granted tenure or the audition process starts over again.
Q. Why do violinists and violists get that red mark on the left side of their neck?
The red mark you see on our necks is basically a callous. Since most of us string players started playing when we were small children, we’ve had a lot of years of the violin tucked under our chin. Some of us use a cloth to shield our skin, but the vibration of the instrument is what causes the red mark. So it happens even when we use a cloth. Some players practice so much that a cyst develops and has to be surgically removed. In music schools across the country, a big red mark on your neck is a badge of honor among violinists. It is a rare fiddler that manages to avoid the telltale “mark of the violinist.”