A Close-Up Look at Music from the Other Side

We Have All Enjoyed Concerts from the Audience. What’s It Like from the Stage?

Today, a short break from politics and social issues. You’re welcome.

Music in Life, and in Asheville

As I have noted in an earlier posting some years ago, I have a pretty eclectic music taste. I like a lot of different types of music. Were you to look at the play list on my phone, you would find everything from classical symphonies, to jazz, to mountain music, to Gregorian chants, to classic rock – and about everything in between.

But the sweet spot for me has always been classical symphonic music.

Which brings me to the place we now call home, Asheville NC. Local readers know all this, but for those of you unfortunate enough to not live here, Asheville is, in many ways, about as good as it gets. For many of us here, the good life we enjoy has four pillars.

One is natural beauty. We live in the midst of the Great Smoky Mountains. I am gob-smacked every day by the beauty I see everywhere. Happily, people here do not take this for granted. We are all grateful – and protective of that beauty.

Another pillar is Asheville’s well-deserved reputation as a foodie/beverage mecca. A community this small should not have so many great places to eat and drink, but it does. James Beard award winners and similar food luminaries are almost a common sight here.

A third pillar is the mix that makes up the population. We have bunches of retirees, artists, buskers, startup businesspeople, and more. No one group seems to dominate – everyone brings something to offer. It’s a nice mix.

And the fourth pillar is the arts, led in the view of most of us by music, and the crown jewel therein is our Asheville Symphony Orchestra. On a scale of 1-10, we rate our symphony about 15.

A Unique Opportunity

We make most symphony performances, including smaller and more informal performances and are members of the Symphony Guild. So, we always attend the annual fund raiser every year.

The last such event included a silent auction and that included something very different. It offered the opportunity to attend a rehearsal of the symphony, seated with the orchestra on stage. I bid on that one and was delighted to learn I won that opportunity.

Why bid on this? For more reasons than one might expect. Certainly, the opportunity to see what the performance looks and sounds like from that onstage perspective was appealing. But two other factors called out to me.

One factor was my curiosity about the rituals and processes the orchestra goes through in practice.I often go to baseball games early to watch teams and players go through a similar “warm up.”

It is interesting to watch individual and team rituals pregame, and to observe how players choose to get into the right frame of mind and body to excel.

I had a hunch it might be the same for an orchestra; here was a chance to find out if that was the case.

The other factor was the opportunity to see how the orchestra used its time and energy in preparation, and to see the mix of leadership and teamwork that would produce the upcoming performance.

I was an Army officer for many years and so have a deep appreciation of this mix of vital human traits. How would such things play out in an orchestra?

On Stage

Off to rehearsal I went. I chose, with the counsel of the Executive Director and the Orchestra Manager, to attend rehearsal for the first concert of the year, being performed in a new location.

Lots of challenges in all that – new season, a complex program, a new temporary location.

I was warmly greeted by everyone I spoke with and was provided an excellent spot on stage (in front of the horns, next to the woodwinds, behind the strings).

The Executive Director, Operations Manager, and Music Director/Conductor, as well as the musicians around me, all made me feel most welcome. The musicians engaged with me in most interesting conversations during the occasional short break.

So, What Did I Learn?

A lot! A symphony orchestra is a complex, nuanced entity. A full scale performance is demanding in so many ways. Following are observations I noted, in no particular order of importance, grouped by function, as best as I understood them.

Before the Music Started

It was interesting to see everyone we usually see formally dressed in various forms of casual dress. I understand the final rehearsal is full dress, but in this one, lots of t-shirts, jeans, etc. But don’t be fooled by that! No one there was casual about the work to be accomplished this night.

It was not a surprise but still striking how crowded it seemed on stage. A lot of people, instruments, and equipment fit into a fairly small space. I was impressed that throughout the whole night, no one tripped over anything. Happily, that included me.

As people arrived and began setting up, it was interesting to see how people used that time. The leaders were everywhere, engaging each other and members of the orchestra.

The Orchestra Manager seemed to be everywhere, checking on and checking in on everything; she made sure the mundane and administrative did not interfere with the art being created this night.

One light moment came about as the session began. Apparently, being able to take a restroom break duing intermission can be a challenge for the musicians. Not much time, so many patrons already in line.

The Manager announced this new venue came with 60 restrooms, with almost 400 stations! Everyone could find relief. This was met by a full round of laughter and applause by the musicians. Practical stuff counts.

The Music Director/Conductor kibbitzed with the Concert Master, the Manager, and several musicians, over a wide range of ideas and topics for this night’s focus. He was friendly, engaging, and already clearly in charge.

No doubt some of the leadership engagement was functional, but I expect some of that was also human bonding and team reinforcement as well.

Musicians used the warmup time in an interesting mix. Some hunkered down with their sheet music and instruments, working their areas of focus. Others took some of this time to talk with their compatriots.

Getting one’s “head in the game” is a very personal process, with each doing what worked best for them. It was not unlike the pregame in a ballpark.

I noted the orchestra has a healthy mix of male and female, as well as a broad spread of ages. I have no idea if that is typical, but it struck me as healthy.

Ethnic and racial representation was a bit thin (representative of this area), but they are working on it purposefully. The featured soloist was a young black man who brought sounds from a cello I have never heard.

Sitting there among the musicians, I regretted not being able to read music (someone had offered to share a copy of the sheet music with me). It occurs to me that in the age of the internet, I had no excuse for this lack of ability. Perhaps I had not pursued this in the past out of fear that some of the magic would seem lost if I understood more of the process. Or maybe I have just been lazy.

Anyway, this is now on my To Do List. A new world awaits me. Speaking of sheet music, I was surprised that many, if not all, brought pencils to make notes on the sheet music as the night progressed. Attention to detail pays off.

Different Types of Practice/Rehearsals

One of the interesting things I learned was about the types of rehearsal. Often there is an initial session, essentially a walk-through of the entire concert. Then there is what I called the focus rehearsal, like the one I was attending. It was a most interesting process.

The conductor selects several parts of the various pieces to be played and works with the appropriate musicians on those pieces. It was a night of short efforts, followed by commentary, playing it again, etc.

We were there for a pretty long night, yet never was an entire piece played all the way through. It was a long night of fine-tuning and attention to the many smaller elements of the overall concert.

All of this would be followed the next night by a dress rehearsal, a complete walk through of the entire concert. And of course, all of this was preceded by individual musicians studying the music and practicing themselves before rehearsals.

Roles of the Conductor

Where to begin? The conductor decides what will be practiced on a given night. He also sets the tone for the rehearsal and the concert. His level of intensity, physical movements, expressions, choice of words all shape what comes forth. Sometimes his energy was focused on the entire orchestra, other times on one section or one musician.

One of the things we often miss as patrons is seeing the facial expressions and specific movements a conductor may choose to move the performance to the level it can be. The subtleties of movement and expression count and they have an effect.

For this rehearsal, he began with an overview and walk through of the pace, tone, and components of each part of the concert, as well as how best to use the venue in which they will perform.

Accomplishing all this requires some creative verbiage. For example, he spoke of a gentle shift in performing a given segment, “something not much more than the raising of an eyebrow” or “let these fall like raindrops, not like nails.”

More than once he referred to one group of instruments “saying something,” with another group “replying.”Once he noted a place where the brass should come in loudly and boldly. Once they started playing, he pointed to the brass and said, “Frighten me!”  Message received.

In considering pace, he once reflected on a long section, at the end of which wind and brass players would need to take a breath – their companions needed to be ready to step in with their portion of the music.

In short, an unimaginable mix of components, content, and risk are to be handled. I noted the Concert Master (someone I always thought of as the First Violin) also spoke up periodically to help the musicians understand what was needed.

 The Elements of Success

Leadership, teamwork, personal excellence (that is, art and mechanics, joined together by skill) appear to me the combination that makes it all work. Performers dedicated to individual excellence but equally committed to the whole team succeeding is a thing of beauty to behold.

Much of what makes for a great concert and a great orchestra is hidden in layers of subtlety, but their absence would be painfully obvious. There is not much middle ground here – the effort either succeeds or fails, depending on everyone pulling their weight.

The Actual Concert

 At last, Saturday night arrives. Time to see the final results of all this effort. We arrived at the same time as many members of the orchestra. It was great fun to recognize and greet each other, and to see them so finely dressed!

This was the opening concert for the season in the new temporary venue. Not only that, but the program was also very complex and challenging. It consisted of music from Beethoven, Elgar, and Brahms (as always, they had me at Beethoven). To say they knocked it out of the park would be an understatement.

People were delighted. And I kept thinking how little most of them knew about making this happen, having not had the privilege of watching all this come together in rehearsal.  That opportunity made the night all the more special.

Some Closing Thoughts

In looking back on this experience, I was surprised to find the Latin phrase so important in US history come to mind: E Pluribus Unum – out of one, many. So it is with an orchestra, including so many people we never see or hear who make it all happen.

This really is orchestration at a very high level. It is about equal parts art and the mechanics of hands and breath. In some ways, it seems like choreography. It some ways it resembles the poetry of higher math.

How fortunate we are to have this in our lives, as performers or as recipients.

Bill Clontz

If you find this blog worthy of your time and curiosity, I invite you to do three things:

(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here. If you wish to share COMMENTS anonymously, make the last word in your comment “PRIVATE.” I will assure your privacy via anonymity.

(2) Share the word about this post with friends and colleagues. Share a link in your emails and social media posts (https://agentsofreason.com).

(3) You are welcome to share this post with anyone. It is easy to pass on via email, of course, but also on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Reddit; simply click on the links for these services at the end of this article.

Let’s grow our circle.

3 replies to A Close-Up Look at Music from the Other Side

  1. Wow and thanks for taking us behind the scenes with your words Bill!

  2. Good job, Bill. I began my musical instrument journey in the 4th grade and except for time off to raise kids, it has continued through this last summer. Musicians long ago quit labeling people except for how well they play and the personal experience of “making music” with them. Making music is a very personal group experience that extends beyond playing the notes and requires including your feelings and is guided by the conductor. The great conductors are able to transmit to the group what they want to have happen and to be able to get the desired result without pissing the musicians off….. they are a very rare breed. Like you, I have an extremely wide range of music tastes. However, I find that anything live beats most anything recorded. Here’s a link to a young Bluegrass group doing a John Denver song, enjoy. https://youtu.be/q9lCqKkLqNg?list=RDPVuNLdsD4Xw

    • Great commentary. And thanks for sharing the link! Good stuff.

Your Turn to Comment