Playing in the orchestra: A student’s perspective

Image courtesy of Vassar College via Vimeo.

On Saturday, Nov. 19, I had the honor of performing as part of the Vassar College Orchestra in our second and final concert of the fall semester. The orchestra’s previous concert had taken place on Saturday, Oct. 9, leading to a speedy turnaround in order to prepare our repertoire following October Break. Despite the difficulty of this task, all members of the ensemble pulled through to put on a great show, which included some of my favorite pieces I’ve played here at Vassar. Although I have written mainly on the experience of music from the perspective of a listener in previous articles, I thought it would be insightful to reflect upon the artform from a performer’s point of view, highlighting the work of the group as a participant myself.

I have been playing trombone since the fourth grade, and I entered Vassar having already played with various wind ensembles and bands. Wanting to try something new, I decided to audition for the orchestra here, of which I have now been playing with for three semesters. This recent concert’s lineup included four pieces, with two having trombone parts for me to play. I was able to spend the first portion of the concert as a half-audience member, listening in from the hallway outside of the Skinner Recital Hall. The strings were the first to take the stage followed by the concertmaster, leading the group in tuning after applause; Director of the Orchestra Eduardo Navega then took the stage to additional applause. “Deux Propos” by 20th-century French composer Henry Fevrier was the chosen work for the strings, a slower piece that highlights the violins in the melody. The performance came to a subdued ending, leading into the introduction of additional members of the orchestra for Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto.” Two flutes, two bassoons and two horns joined the strings to accompany Adjunct Artist in Music Ian Tyson, the featured clarinet soloist. The piece is structured in standard concerto form, consisting of three movements: the first fast, the second slow and the third fast again. Tyson played with a virtuosic ability that grabbed my attention, despite my personal unfamiliarity with his instrument; excellent dynamic contrast and performative interpretation created a nuanced and engaging performance requiring technical precision. Lasting around 30 minutes, the solo functioned as the centerpiece to the concert, requiring a large deal of preparation on part of the orchestra.

After intermission, the full orchestra entered onstage for the next two pieces. I enjoyed my parts for each of these two works, as they struck a nice balance between intrigue and a lower overall level of performance stress. Although I’ve managed to get to the practice room in preparation for the concert, I knew I still had to be 100 percent focused in order to play all of my parts well. We entered onstage again before playing Charles Ives “Postlude in F,” a lesser-known work with romantic tendencies that depart from Ives’ typical association with the American avant-garde. Situated between the two longer pieces on the program, “Postlude” served as a transition for the orchestra, allowing the group to establish their togetherness. The middle section contains a brief melody line played by all three trombones, later followed by a powerful, resonant brass chorale that drives the piece towards a minimal conclusion. A passage of this sort is one that is felt physically by the performer of the piece, leaving you completely devoted to bringing this written-down piece to life. The nuance of this work lies in its interpretation, rather than what is strictly made clear to us in notation; even if the lines often appeared technically easy, I had to exert great effort into my timing and breathing with the rest of the orchestra so as to maintain uniform sound. 

The final piece of our concert was Sibelius’s “En Saga”, It showcases the composer’s late Romantic period style while also hinting at the advent of modernism within particular passages. Although the piece looked simple upon first impression, I quickly realized the amount of lung power and concentration my performance would require in order to achieve a result I could be proud of. “En Saga” ended up being one of my favorite classical works by the time the orchestra had begun to play it in its entirety; as the piece began, I sat in excited anticipation, grinning as the bassoons made their melodic entrance a minute into the piece.The brass section became more and more involved as the piece increased with intensity, focusing on unity in order to stay in tune as a section and time our rhythms cohesively. My part often moved into the upper register of my range, physically tiring me out. The areas towards the end contained key melodic figures, requiring me to push past any fatigue in order to project my sound into the space of the auditorium and reach the back of the crowd. At this point, I had gone through rushes of adrenaline, attempting to keep my composure for important moments in order to continually maximize my breath capacity. After finishing my last section, I noticed my body shaking from a combination of nervous energy, tiredness and excitement from being able to be part of the performance. Although a piece can sound satisfying to me as an audience member, having the chance to play for a group is far more intense, allowing me to hear the performance in the totality of its nuances and details when I am placed at the center of an ensemble. It enables a direct connection to the music itself that makes you feel oriented towards its authorial intent, bringing it alive to others as your instrument rings in harmony with the rest of your fellow performers. As the concert came to an end and we stood for the crowd, I was once again reminded of the joys involved with performance and why I wish to continue being a musician.

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