While reviewing the various installments of Road Warrior Without an Expense Account, This Crazy Business, Basses, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, or any of the other gig stories here on the blog, I couldn’t help but notice that something was missing. Many of these works cover the strange and bizarre things that happen in a section (Louisville audition story), the pain and suffering that goes into either getting a job in this business or schlepping around the entire country on your own dime once you do get a job (or two or three or four, in my case!), but few talk about the real reason that so many people tolerate this unstable and unpredictable lifestyle.
What’s the real reason why we do this kind of work? For me, it is the satisfaction of being a member of a high quality bass section.
Bass section playing is a total blast for me. The subtle nuances involved in getting between six and eight players on the same musical page are an art form all of their own, and developing the musical maturity and expertise needed to really play as a section is truly a lifelong journey.
Unfortunately, far too many students focus on developing proficiency as a soloist, and only after learning a wide array of solo literature do they deign to “lower” themselves to (gasp!) ensemble playing. There is an old (and quite outdated, thankfully) mindset in instrumental education pertaining to solo playing, key points of which are outlined below. Keep in mind that, while I understand the philosophical justification behind each of the following points, I am highly dubious that following these pedagogical pillars will result in a student developing good ensemble skills.
- Solo literature offers the greatest technical challenges to the instrumentalist.
- Solo literature focuses on complete musical thoughts, while ensemble music focuses on fragmented musical thoughts. Focusing on solo music creates a complete musician, while focusing on ensemble music creates a fragmented musician.
- Solo literature develops the widest array of instrumental techniques and builds up physical endurance in the instrumentalist. Ensemble playing is a breeze after working on solo music.
- The highest quality performers pursue a solo career, or a principal chair in an orchestra at the very least. Second-rate performers make up the remainder the ensemble.
These solo-centric pedagogical pillars seem antiquated for any instrument, and especially so for bass. While it is certainly true that violinists in the first half of the 20th century may have turned their noses up at the prospect of a position in the back of the second violins, the overall quality of instrumental craft and employment stability offered by the modern orchestra means that the cream of the classical music crop now routinely compete for section positions in orchestras across the world.
Playing in an ensemble requires a very different skill set than solo playing. I can’t count how many times I have witnessed amazing solo pianists tanking while playing with an ensemble. Any instrumentalist who focuses exclusively on their own solo performance while neglecting ensemble skills is asking for trouble in the long run. After all, the vast majority of music created in any genre consists of at least two performers, so unless you want to strum a guitar in a corner by yourself you’re best advised to focus your energies on ensemble playing.
Orchestra playing is interesting in part because it consists of mini-ensembles within the greater ensemble. Each instrument group is a unique section–the bass section, the violin section, the trombone section, the flute section–ideally with a homogenous (or at least compatible) section sound and approach to musical details like articulation, vibrato, and phrasing. Each of these homogenous sections combine to form a heterogeneous but instrumentally related larger section–the strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion, with each of these larger sections working together to create a unified meta-section sound. These sections then combine to form the complete ensemble, again subtly adjusting their approaches to create a cohesive whole.
Not only do these homogenous sections combine to form meta-sections (which then combine to form a complete ensemble), but each of the smaller sections can also combine with other sections outside of their meta-section parent family. Basses frequently meld with tubas, violins with piccolos, and cellos with bassoons. Each of these new pairings then has to combine with other new pairings and assemble together (like pieces of a puzzle) into a collective musical product.
The combinations are multi-faceted and ever-changing, and this is what really makes ensemble playing fascinating and satisfying. First off, even learning how to speak as a section and not as a bunch of soloists is a humongous challenge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played with a group of bassists who sound like they’ve got chops to spare while warming up, only to discover (to my horror) that they sound like a bunch of caffeineated cats duct taped together when they start playing as a section. These chopsmeisters all too often fall apart in a section, tripping all over themselves musically, steamrolling in on rests and generally ignoring the musical subtleties occurring around them.
A good section player possesses a set of finely honed skills which, while perhaps not as immediately obvious as the above described “flashy” players, actually require more musical awareness and intelligence to execute properly. If a quality solo player resembles a champion sprinter (or other such solo athlete) in many respects, then a quality section player resembles a submarine captain, keeping tabs on countless ever-changing conditions, reacting to subtle changes and anticipating new situations.
Orchestras are teams nested within other teams, and learning how to work together and combine different musical approaches into a cohesive product is a lifelong and endlessly fascinating process. Knowing that I need just 5% more bow for this note in this situation, that I need to reduce my vibrato by 15% when accompanying a particular section, or that I need to move my one centimeter closer to the bridge (for just one bar!) comes with ensemble experience, and this kind of highly refined skill set is, to my mind, even more challenging than developing fingers of fire to play solo literature. Orchestral musicians must have the flexibility to change their execution of any passage on a dime, and the good taste to make these changes in a musical fashion. And section players need those aforementioned “fingers of fire” as well, as any performer familiar with the music of Strauss, Mozart, Stravinsky, Brahms, Bach, Beethoven, and all of our other art music masters can tell you.
Does the audience notice all of these subtle manipulations? Well, let me ask you this: can an audience tell the difference between the Cleveland Orchestra and the Centerville Community Orchestra? You bet your life they can, and it is these subtle ensemble factors that I am describing that make the difference between a good orchestra and a rotten orchestra. Even in less extreme examples, I firmly believe that audiences can hear differences in quality, even if it is not always at a completely conscious level. Even if they can’t pinpoint exactly what they didn’t like about
Orchestral playing requires the complete package. One needs to switch on a dime between the role of soloist, accompanist, section leader, duet partner, and a myriad of other subtle roles, and developing the mental acuity to make these rapid transitions requires years of practice and experience. Having the musical maturity to be able to deal with this torrent of information represents to me the pinnacle of quality musicianship, and it is for this reason that I look up to orchestral players the most.
This multi-dimensional musical awareness that really gets me excited about playing in a section and makes it my favorite kind of musical activity, and like so many other aspects of music performance, it is highly addictive once you start to develop some proficiency in this skill set.
An extremely well-known instrumental pedagogue chastised a colleague of mine several years ago in a lesson after paging through the music that this player had prepared for the occasion.
“You…you are like half musician. No solo, only excerpts. Where is solo? Why no solo?”
I like to think that I’d have fired back some witticism such as “because I like to be employed,” or “because audiences don’t usually come to concerts to hear bass solos”.
In truth, I’d probably have nodded vigorously, agreeing with this criticism like a spineless puppet. “Yes, sir….I am half musician…no solo….so sorry.”
Read the complete series:
- Part 1 – Hard-Wiring the Musical Mind
- Part 2 – Full-Time Loyalty at Part-Time Rates
- Part 3 – Music is Addictive
- Part 4 – Orchestras – A Secret Society of Weirdoes (and I’m one of them!)
- Part 5 – Driving for Dollars – life as a classical music bottom feeder
- Part 6 – Individual Artistic Expression
- Part 7 – The Satisfaction of Section Playing