These days I spend a lot of time thinking, reading and talking about the same things: schools, homes (and their value), country vs city, stay-at-home vs working (mums), career advancement vs work-life balance. I explore these issues mostly with the same sorts of people in the same sorts of environments. This is fine, most of the time, but one of the things that I’m starting to love about playing in an orchestra is that is, once a week, my social interactions become significantly more colourful and varied.
At last week’s rehearsal I was sitting within a foot or so of: a chirpy 20-something trombone player who works in the music industry, lives with his parents and has played in a plethora of ensembles and bands; a sweet, solemn Greek music student, quietly heartbroken about the economic collapse of his homeland; a Swiss banker in his 40s, licking the orchestra’s admin into shape with good-humoured efficiency; a quiet, warm stay-at-home mum to six children, starting to make time for her own interests after 30 years of child-rearing; a male cellist wearing one of a seemingly endless collection of glorious, flamboyant dresses. There are photographers, chemists, lawyers, singers, writers, publicists. I wouldn’t go as far as to say all humanity is there – the vibe is unmistakably middle class – but I can’t think of many other places where you would find so many different ages, nationalities and professions collaborating so enthusiastically. And, having stuck around for a quick pint after last week’s rehearsal, I’m confident it’ll make for some interesting pub trips too.
I’m nearing the end of my first full term of a new orchestra. The concert looms, but that’s another story. On the whole it’s been great, both new and familiar. Some things never change – not practising enough, swearing to yourself at each rehearsal that you’ll never come unprepared again and then still not practising enough, not looking at the conductor as often as you should despite constant reminders – but a few things have definitely moved on. The kit has improved significantly for a start.
Take music stands: I remember spindly, unstable metal affairs that toppled over if you breathed near them, and had fiendish screws that lacerated your fingers. These days stands are lighter and yet more stable, they fold up more easily and slide neatly into compact little bags with handles, the screws are either made of plastic or encased in it (altogether more finger-friendly) and, rather charmingly, they come in all the colours of the rainbow.
The cases have changed too. Anyone who has played their instrument regularly in the past decade or so has, very sensibly, invested in something a bit like this:
(with thanks to Caswells Strings)
i.e. something relatively weather-proof, padded and with a strap that can be slung over your shoulder leaving your hands free (and a handy pouch for music). If you enter ‘viola cases’ into google images these days, you have to scroll down quite far before you come across anything that looks like mine, and scanning the orchestra last week, my case was definitely in a class of its own (not in a good way). A fellow viola reassured me that mine was endearingly retro, but quaintness might have to give way to practicality before long, if only so that I can pick up more than one bag of shopping on my way back from rehearsals.
Until Wednesday night, I had quite mixed feelings towards Mussorgsky‘s A Night on the Bare Mountain (or Night on Bald Mountain?). There was a depressing incident at primary school when a supply teacher asked us to listen to it and write a piece of creative writing based on what it inspired in us. It didn’t stir up anything other than bored feelings in my 8-year-old self, so my essay was pretty dismal and I got called into the headteacher’s office and quizzed about why I’d only written three lines in the hour or so that we’d been given.
Parmigianino's 'Witches' Sabbath'
Later on it was one of my set study pieces for music GCSE. I quite enjoyed the graphic textbook illustrations of nefarious activities at the witches’ sabbath but again, didn’t feel especially moved by it. I’ve heard it countless times since on the radio and sometimes hummed along absent-mindedly but never consciously sought it out to listen to.
Then, on Wednesday night, this term’s orchestra rehearsals began and we had our first crack at it. And it was terrifically exciting – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t ever ‘noticed’ it properly before. I was swept along by the story and had a real sense of the individual roles of each group of instruments in the narrative. As a viola you’re right at the centre of it all, and it’s a lovely place to be.
Playing for and with other people is ultimately what learning an instrument is all about. What’s the point of spending hours practising a piece if you are the only person to hear it? And you really don’t have to have been learning for very long before it’s possible to play in a group.
There are masses of good reasons to join an orchestra or ensemble, but here are the ones that stand out for me:
- It exposes you to music that you might not otherwise play (or listen to).
- You get to know that music inside out – to this day, my favourite pieces of music tend to be ones that I learnt as a teenager for orchestra concerts (or sang as part of a choir) and that now feel like old friends
- It forces you to practise regularly: you’ll want to be able to play your part competently, particularly when the conductor says “there’s something not quite right in the viola section, please could you play that section on your own”. If, as in my orchestra, there are only three of you, there’s really nowhere to hide.
- You’ll meet new people: all orchestras involve a degree of socialising whether it’s over tea and cake during the break or at the pub after rehearsals.
- Then there’s the thrill of performing at the end of it all. I haven’t done that for well over a decade but I’m pretty sure that when the time comes I’ll enjoy it again.
- You can walk around town with your instrument and pretend to be a real musician.
Once you’ve made up your mind, UK Amateur Orchestras is a great place to start (provided you’re in the UK obviously), it lists all manner of non-professional orchestras, bands etc, catering for everyone from beginners to semi-professionals. There are dozens in London alone and, to my great relief, plenty of them don’t audition, you’re just invited to attend a rehearsal and see how you get on. And that is what I did last week, albeit with some trepidation because it’s been a long time, and I wasn’t sure my sight-reading was up to the job. I needn’t have worried, I was not alone in struggling with some of the music… and it was fun and challenging, and everyone was very friendly. So that’s it, there’s a small sub to pay and then I shall officially be a member of an orchestra.