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The Orchestral Dream: Unity vs Individuality

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

You may have noticed from my website, that most of what I do is based around orchestral playing, not solo recitals. Many young musicians spend their time perfecting their solo playing, and hoping to achieve success through doing recitals, concertos and competitions. For me this has never been the goal. Let me explain why.

Orchestral playing is about putting your own experiences into the pot and getting something new and much bigger out of it. It is about meeting new people, being part of a team, working towards an overall goal and seeing the bigger picture; yet it is also about taking responsibility for yourself, being the best individual you can be whilst also being able to adapt and change quickly.

I remember going to Birmingham's Symphony Hall, at the age of about 14, with my parents, to see the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester with Riccardo Chailly. The concert opened with Strauss' Don Juan (see video #1). For those of you who are unfamiliar with the work, it is a tone poem based on the legend of Don Juan whose promiscuity is founded on his desire to find the perfect woman, he ultimately surrenders to melancholy and wills his own death. The piece opens with one of the trickiest passages in the orchestral repertoire; a quickly ascending flourish followed by a series of intertwining phrases before a beautiful melody begins. At this performance, I remember so clearly the precision and uniformity with which the strings played the first bar. It was like a regimented army of bows. All moving at the exact same time, at the exact same speed, in the exact same way. And yet somehow, there was still floods of unique emotion, colour and sparkle coming from each individual player.

In an orchestra of 70+ players, there must be a sense of unanimity in order for the performance to work, but at the same time, it is amazing to see what each person can contribute to the whole as an individual. Maybe one person has the most incredible vibrato, or another has the most considered bow / breath control, another has the most powerful forte, or the most beautiful piano. This special something extra is thing thing that sets the successful ones apart at audition. At audition most orchestras will ask you to perform a solo piece and some excerpts. Sometimes this will be a specific piece that all candidates must play (as a cellist, this is usually the first movement of Haydn's Cello Concerto No.2 in D major), but sometimes you can chose any piece you wish. Then you will be given some orchestral excerpts to play. These are short snippets from larger works and each excerpt poses its own set of specific challenges. There are some excerpts which are more popular than others and come round at nearly every audition for cellists these would include the second movement of Beethoven Symphony No.5 (see video #2), the start of Ein Heldenleben by Strauss and the second movement of Brahms Symphony No. 2 (see video #3). But these excerpts can and do vary, particularly if you are auditioning for an opera, ballet or chamber orchestra in which case you will get excerpts from the repertoire that these orchestras usually play. Although every audition panel is looking for the same crucial attributes from every player in every excerpt, such as good intonation, sense of rhythm, technical control and musicality; I always aim to bring something extra special to each excerpt. For example, in our classic cello excerpt that is Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, whilst we must always maintain good intonation etc, the specific challenge here is a smooth bow control. Although achieving this is commendable, in the highly competitive world of auditions it is crucial to go even beyond this. In most situations I aim to do this by focussing on producing my best sound, and then exploring how I can develop and change the colour of this sound as the musical mood changes, whilst ensuring that I am still following every direction that is on the page. This juxtaposition of the need for unity versus the need for individuality is something that fascinates me about challenge of successful orchestral playing.

Whilst nowadays I enjoy the in depth study of preparing music for auditions, nothing beats the rush of joy that comes from performing on stage surrounded by friends. This is what first drew me to orchestral performance. My very first time playing in an orchestra was as part of my county's junior orchestra. I realised very soon just how much fun this was and decided to audition for the National Children's Orchestra. At NCO-GB we tackled large symphonic repertoire from such a young age and were given opportunities to perform in some of the UK's greatest concert halls (see video #4). I remember during my first week at NCO in the Under 12's Orchestra ringing my Mum and saying how I wished I could play in an orchestra all day every day. My Mum said, "well you can if you're in a professional orchestra". I asked her what I needed to do in order be in such an orchestra, and since then I have never looked back.

Some people call me crazy for having just one goal and one ambition; but I know that I work my best and achieve the most success, when I am fully committed and totally immersed in what I am doing. At school, I was always encouraged by staff and the careers officer to "have a back up plan" and to "keep my options open". But I never did. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew what I needed to do to achieve it. And I'm still doing it. I have always tried to be brave, to try new things and to take the risks. Yes, things don't always work out, set backs and rejections happen, but it's part of life; for me it's important to take the criticism, use it as helpful feedback and carry on working towards the next thing, whether that be a concert or an audition. Life is a rollercoaster, the ups and downs are both part of the ride. I will never stop working to get to where I want to be, and I encourage you all to do the same with your own dreams and aspirations!

*I hope this blog post has provided you with an insight into the orchestral playing experience and also explained why I love it all so much, the ups and the downs. See below for the featured videos!

Video #1 - Strauss Don Juan (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with Karl Bohm, watch from 47:30 for the concert performance or from the start to watch the rehearsal)

Video #2 - Beethoven Symphony No. 5 (masterclass with Ludwig Quandt, Principal Cello of the Berliner Philharmoniker)

Video #3 - Brahms Symphony No. 2 (masterclass with Rebecca Gilliver, Principal Cello of the London Symphony Orchestra, watch from 3:58 for the Brahms or from the beginning for the Rossini)

Video #4 - National Children's Orchestra of Great Britain, Main Orchestra 2012 (Shostakovich Symphony No. 10, fourth movement)

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