Friday, June 1, 2012

Performance Diary

Recently the community band had a couple of performances, I played Dixieland with a very high level group of players, I did the music for a small country church Sunday service, and my group played for some military veterans the day after Memorial Day.

One thing that strikes me over and over with the community band is just how much the acoustic environment affects our sound. Because we are such a relatively large group, approaching 50 members, the balance of what I hear in the horn section is remarkably different from room to room. I've gotten used to the fact that it's always going to be different from how we sound in rehearsals, but it's still a little unsettling trying to play to a room on the fly.

The other thing about the two venues the band plays in is that one is smaller and people sit closer to the front and to each other than in the other, where the same number of people are scattered throughout a larger auditorium. We always get a better response in the first.

The Dixieland performance was on the front porch of Ambrose (brother of James) Madison's home for a Garden Week afternoon party. I'd played with the trumpet, trombone and drummer before, but had never even met the clarinet, tenor sax and double bass players. I've heard about pros getting together and sight reading for performances, but never done so myself, and was amazed at how well we played. (I had gotten the banjo music a couple of weeks before and the pieces I was unfamiliar with I drilled over and over - so I wasn't sight reading).

At the time of the performance I was completely focused on listening and trying to play as supportively as I could. Only listening to the recording could I fully appreciate just how good the other players were and how nearly every tune settled into a great rhythmic groove. Listening to the CD the first few times induced a sort of delayed flow that I was too busy in the head in the moment to appreciate.

For the church service I played solo horn for prelude and postlude, alto flute while the offering plate was being passed, and led the congregation in hymn singing with the guitar. The church was full of family and friends, and helping people on their spiritual paths with music is something I find deeply rewarding.

The Kenwood Players played for the Ride 2 Recovery for a second year and had a great time. We played well and were very well received. I was also pleased that over time I've gotten more efficient setting up and striking the audio equipment so that it took less than an hour for each and the system worked well.

One thing I noticed at this event as well as the Dixieland event was how at the beginning of brass licks when a player is really laying into a riff, a few audience members will spontaneously yell out something like "Yeahhh" in just the instant after the riff starts, almost like they're making music with us for a moment. I'd love to know exactly what it is that triggers that reaction, as it's such an intense engagement of a listener.


  1. There's a story of how the clarinettist Jack Brymer, principal clarinet of the BBC Symphony orchestra, was taking part in some musical quiz programme on the radio. He was asked to identify a short excerpt played to him, and he couldn't.

    It turned out that the piece was one he had performed a week previously and they were playing a recording he himself had participated in a month or two before.

    All he could say was "It sounds different from where I sit!"

  2. Jonathan -

    What a great story! Glad to hear it's not just my amateur status that set me up for that experience, which I found very weird, though delightfully so. I absolutely had flow sensations when listening to the recording which I did not experience in the moment of playing. The world you pro level players inhabit is a different place, as I think it was the level of playing that allowed it to happen.

  3. I find that playing in an orchestra, where the horns are well off to one side at the back, the balance is completely different from in the audience. From where I set, the cellos can hardly be heard at all. I can hear the violins fine (they are right in front of me) and the woodwind (immediately to my left) and the brass (they can always be heard!), but quite often I can hear very little of the other other horns immediately to my right, their bells point away.

    So for balance within the section, I have to rely on the other horns matching me and on the conductor advising if it's not right. For balance with other sections given the offset position of the horns, I have to just rely on experience to guess the right dynamic.

    I learned a lot about that when I was 1st horn of the University of London Orchestra, more years ago than I care to remember. Part of one of our concerts was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as part of their "Youth Orchestras of the World" series. I thought I had played pretty well, but when I heard the concert broadcast a few weeks later, my solo passages didn't come through nearly as strongly as I had intended they would or thought they had. The tone was really quite weedy and tentative. It was a major lesson in learning that you had to project far more than you imagine is necessary from how you sound to yourself.

    So "two notches too loud" has become a sort of standard for me when I have a solo passage in an orchestra. Likewise, when I have uninteresting accompaniment to play which needs to blend in, "two notches too quiet" is the rule.

    This means that the same written mp dynamic can end up being played at quite radically different volumes depending on whether it is solo or not.

    If all players realised that mp is not necessarily mp all the time, and that the required volume depends on the context, rehearsals would go quicker.

    By context, I mean the acoustic of the hall, the position of the player, and what is going on in the music at any moment: how thick is the orchestration, what is the overall effect the composer is looking for, what is the role of your particular notes within that effect.

    Once the players have that idea, it is then for the conductor to refine the balance from that point on. But the conductor is given a big headstart if solo players play out end everybody else instinctively shuts up by a few degrees.

  4. Jonathan - great comment - Thanks. Our current band director has made that point about dynamic markings having two meanings - one for solo and one for ensemble. Your comment also highlights just how helpful listening to recordings of one's playing can be - rarely sounds like it does when you're playing.

    The thing that really used to get me when I started out playing horn in band was that with the different mix I was hearing in different rooms, instruments I'd been using to find my pitch in relationship to wouldn't be there and what had seemed easy in rehearsals became very tough in performance. These days I'm better at finding pitches, but it still is something of a wakeup call to realize how the different mixes alter my sound environment.

    (Really like your last post over at your place - will comment either there or here once I figure out what I want to say)

  5. You need to work so much harder at pitch on the horn than most other instruments. Because of how closely the harmonics are spaced playing the horn is more like singing than playing any other instrument.

    But when you are singing in a choir, you are generally sharing the line with several people standing beside you and immediately around you, and there is mutual support in pitch-finding. On the horn, you're it, you're a soloist even when you're accompanying. If you miss the note, nobody else is there to play it for you.

    So, what you describe about pitch-finding is entirely to be expected, and it just goes with the territory of being a horn player. You have to be an expert listener to an even greater extent than when playing other instruments.

  6. Well put - I sometimes wonder whether or not I would have taken up the horn had I known just how difficult it is. Having never been in a wind band or known any brass players, I'd never even heard the cliché about how it's the hardest instrument. Fools (and the uninformed) rush in. . .

  7. Ah, but the satisfaction when you get it right is all the greater!

  8. Absolutely! It really does amaze me how much playing the horn has taught me about making music and taken me so much further into the experience.