When I teach violin lessons, I love getting to the point where I no longer have to correct a student’s finger placement because they are out of tune, or remind them to bend their thumb on their bow hand to maintain proper posture and control. In short, when I no longer have to focus on facilitation, we can delve into musicality. Excellence begins to emerge. A song suddenly becomes personal.
The same thing applies to ensemble playing. In fact, I realized something about my previous post. The songs I posted are NOT my favorite classical pieces! Not one of them is on my playlist on my phone. In fact, I didn’t even watch the entire video for any of them after the post was published (with perhaps one exception). Why? Because it just wasn't the same. I wasn’t there for those concerts. They weren’t MY people performing.
There’s something amazing that happens when you personally rehearse live music over and over with the same group of people—something that you don’t get from watching a recording. As part of an orchestra, you feel the musical elements together. You try to spread a unique message with your rendition of it. You feel unity (more on this in a moment).
So why did I choose those compositions? I WAS there when I learned these pieces. I was involved. They have value in my memory.
It’s not about the notes on the page. It’s about being there, experiencing everything as if for the first time. It’s feeling the rumble of the timpani crescendoing. It’s smelling the rosin dust as you prepare to lay into the frog on that initial explosive bow stroke. It’s knowing what comes next before the audience does, and getting ready to milk that gorgeous, unexpected melody for all it’s worth. (Show biz.) It’s feeling the electricity in the air when, as concertmaster, you’re about to get your six-note solo. It’s glancing over to your secret crush in the other instrument section and noticing they’re enjoying their impressive passage of sixteenth notes just like you are. It’s noticing the conductor getting expressive during a particularly challenging portion of music for the ensemble: a portion that crashed and burned the week prior, but now sounds pretty good!
It’s about repetition. Here’s a strange, compelling concept: repetition can actually be meaningful! Classical musicians will embark on a journey and “wrestle” with a difficult piece of music. Making improvement after drilling a short section or after multiple grueling rehearsals is relieving. In the orchestra I currently direct, there’s a platitude on the wall in big red letters that reminds the students they can do hard things . . . and have fun at the same time!
There will always be something special to me about Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, because it took my high school orchestra an entire school year to get it to the point where we were ready to give a decent performance. I didn’t just learn the music backwards and forwards. I learned to count—not just all the measures of rest before I came in, but count on those around me. We were making something memorable.
And there’s something else . . .
For those into spiritual matters, I would argue that classical music is a spiritual matter. The Bible says we are all part of one body, and one part is not more important than the other. Could you imagine living life with only two fingers or no nose? Or no tongue? Every person is important to the whole. Including in a symphony! The Savior said, “If ye are not one, ye are not mine.” I would submit that being in a symphony where everyone is there for the selfsame purpose—namely, honoring the inspired music that came before—has a profound way of unifying the musicians. Especially when the quality of playing is excellent.
Some of the groups I’ve played in have been top notch. Players have dedicated their lives to their craft. When all the players have mastered the facilitation on their instrument, they can start to throw their emotions into it. They’re no longer playing notes. They start to feel the music . . . and they feel it together.
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