Music without hats

Last week’s Alliance Symphony concert at Silver Park marked my return to orchestral playing after 24 years’ absence. It was a welcome return to music I enjoy playing.
I played in the Tuscarawas Philharmonic from 1982 to 1991 and quit when traditional Celtic music took hold of my musical life, declaring that never again would I play in an orchestra. Besides preferring Celtic to classical, I could wear hats while playing. I applied myself almost exclusively to Irish and Scottish music for 10 years, and in 1999, after a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, I began searching for printed sources of 18th-century traditional music I had heard on CDs acquired at CW. I began an intense study of the style of the 1700s, learning that traditional dance music and classical music often overlapped in the 18th century, and I began fusing Baroque style with Celtic tunes.
So note by note, bow by bow, classical music has re-entered my playing, and as I practiced with the Alliance Symphony last week I pondered the many tasks I was managing during rehearsal: reading the music on the page that told me where to place the fingers of my left hand on the violin fingerboard and how to move the bow, dynamics (the level of volume), and other musical nuances; watching the section head and players to my left as I learned proper bow direction for each piece; watching the conductor for directions regarding starting and stopping and interpretation of the music; and staying aware of other instruments and how my part meshed with the whole. I had no stand partner, so when our second violin part occasionally was divided into two parts, noted by the term “divisi,” I played both those parts when possible. This kind of playing is the result of years of training in my youth — on the violin, in the methods of playing in an ensemble, and in styles of music. Musicians have been multitasking for centuries.
Now consider that every person in the orchestra has engaged in that type of training — learning the instrument, learning to read music, learning to play in ensembles and learning to play in concerts. For every musician, concerts require individual practice time and time devoted to attending rehearsals and concerts. And in the case of the Alliance Symphony most of the musicians provide that time free of charge, willing to practice and play for the joy of playing with a group, an experience a musician can’t replicate at home alone. Those musicians relegate authority to the conductor, accepting through unspoken agreement that he or she is the boss, that they must do what he says while he stands on the podium and molds a gaggle of disparate musicians into a cohesive company performing a presentable piece of music.
This is a challenge I need. Celtic music demands from me proficiency in certain playing techniques but has allowed me to get lazy in others. That became clear when I tried to practice a Ralph Vaughn Williams piece for church and found my classical technique inadequate. I bowed out of that performance, but rather than throwing up my bow in frustration, I began intensive practicing, and I am pleased with my progress while knowing I have much yet to accomplish. Performing pushes a player to practice, and so for me the time is right to return to classical music. Now if only conductor Eric Benjamin would let me wear hats during concerts.

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