Rely on the Professionals

Inspired by the symphony, I joined a beginning adult string orchestra. I thought it would be easy and boring. Boy-oh-boy was I wrong, quickly learning that playing in an orchestra is a task much more complex and daunting than I had ever imagined.

Let’s start with the music stand. I had a brand new one to unfold on my first day, and managed to turn it into a four-dimensional object. The conductor waited patiently while my stand partner resurrected the thing. Meanwhile I found a place for my case, got out my viola and bow, put on the shoulder rest, collected music to place on the stand, found my glasses, adjusted my seat, checked my tuning. None of this being automatic, I have to think through each step, taking twice as long as everyone else.

Oh good! We were sight-reading a new piece. Wait, what’s this? Alto clef? Where is middle-C? Of course I should know this, but that was in the privacy of my practice room where I could stop and go as I pleased. Ok, found it. And my first note of the piece is? And which string is it on? Remember, it’s a viola, not a violin. Wait, they’re on the third measure already . . . It wasn’t supposed to go this way.

About 10-minutes in, I’ve located middle-C on the staff, and the piece’s open-string notes. I remember that the rest of the spaces use a 2-finger and figure out which ones are high-2 and which are low-2. The viola part is mostly half notes in stepwise fashion, so finally I’m able to join in. Luckily, my partner is more adept than I and has been playing all along, so something has been emerging from the viola section.

We stop to go over a section, practicing ending a phrase together. “Watch me,” the conductor says. “Watch me,” she says again. After a few more repetitions I realize this exercise is for my benefit. Uh oh: Watch The Conductor, as well as the music. Of course I know this in theory. In practice it is a whole other bailiwick.

So I have to read my music, keeping alto clef straight from treble clef, watch the conductor, find the pitches, bow with my partner, keep time, blend with the ensemble, listen to my section, and to the cellos. And sound good, too? My head is about to explode.

Never in my entire life have I done anything as difficult as this. I feel inept, uncoordinated, incompetent. Two-thirds of the way through rehearsal the notes are swimming on the page, my fingers and bow can’t find the same string. I’m done. But I can’t be. There is still twenty minutes of rehearsal left and somehow I must keep up.

Attending symphony concerts, listening to smooth, lucid music, it all looks so easy. But it is not. And as much as I might wish to make such music myself, the amount of training and practice necessary to produce it is beyond the opportunities and time available to me. When a musicophile cannot make the music that she wants to hear, what is she to do? Rely on the professionals. Continue attending and enjoying concerts. Support the local music community. Appreciate what we have in Salt Lake. Take advantage of it. It is special.

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