Miscellany: What I learned from Orchestra

Things I learned in Orchestra. I will eventually group these into logical subsections. Also, I am aware that some of this is in the first person, and some in the second.

  • Hardest lesson (still very much in progress): trust your body and don’t overthink.
  • Harder than I expected: keeping a rhythm while doing the same thing for twenty or more measures in a row (thank you , Saint-Saens and Sibelius)
  • you don’t always have the melody, you have to contribute anyway
  • you don’t have the luxury of not showing up. An orchestra is like a mosaic; every tile needs to be there to get full color (hat tip to Kelli Bertnshaw for that analogy)
  • You have to think in real time and learn how to “jump in” to a passage
  • in rehearsal, you don’t have to play all the notes (but you shouldn’t fake play any notes either)
  • mistakes are bad, but the audience cares less than you think if you make a mistake; you must keep playing.
  • your mistakes are less audible than you think
  • in a fast run, you don’t have to play all the notes. It might not always be possible (Wagner)
  • never be late to rehearsal. I never was, but came close once. It helped me be on time for other things as well.
  • pizzicato has to be perfectly in time. Also, be bold and obvious about it with your body.
  • our bodies communicate
  • finish strong, and together.
  • mistake management!
  • The conductor’s mood will improve when the piece does. Don’t take comments personally. He has to tell you the truth about your playing, because the others depend on you.
  • Don’t be afraid to go for it and make mistakes during rehearsal.
  • after you hear the music, it will make more sense.
  • be very aware of entrances; study the score to know what to listen for to indicate.
  • make sure you really “play the rests”. This is easier if you have the playing instrument’s music in your ear.
  • double flats are aren’t evil, but they can be scary to look at.
  • a beautiful chord makes it all worthwhile
  • of course, you must be in tune, but rhythm and dynamics are also critically important.
  • Be ready for the final note and hit it. Then work backwards.
  • Slow passages with long notes are actually harder. They must be in tune, with right vibrato and dynamics, because you will be heard if you mess up.

Technical Lessons

  • Use third position more, especially if you’re seeing lots of Ab, Bb.
  • Keep my fingers closer to the fingerboard for fast passages
  • Get comfortable with sixth and seventh position as well. Both the G and A (on the A string) are ringing notes. That A became a home base for me.


  • How you act onstage is as important as the music you play
  • your relationship to the audience is formed based on what you do between pieces, how you respect each other and the conductor.
  • in service of this ideal, don’t focus so much on dignity that you come off like a Dour Dudley. You are privileged to be be able to share something beautiful with your audience. Rejoice in it.

A bit down

These pieces are kicking my ass, and I can’t seem to play them at tempo unless I totally ditch intonation. They’re just runs. Maybe I should just quit, after all. It’s just pointless over the hill stuff and I should stop pretending.

Tomorrow’s practice :

  • m.52-92 review
  • m. 122-140 new
  • Rehearsal J-K

One thing I have to say is that this is really forcing me to focus my time. There are 200 measures in this piece and if I take chunks of 20 per day, I should be wrapped up in 10 days, leaving the rest to polish.

RHYTHM and TEMPO must come before pitch. Then pitch,then put it all together.

First Rehearsal


All of this material is published time-delayed so that it appeared after the season ended at the end of the semester at Bloomsburg University.
Rehearsals started in late January, and there were two concerts; one in March and one in late April.

January 28, 6 pm
This post is the first of several posts that chronicles my experiences in a “real” orchestra. Nothing was working except sometimes the rhythm. Maybe ten percent of my notes were right. Got to the wrong place, with no signs, and eventually figured out where the practice room was. It was critically important to get there early, so that community members continued to have a good reputation. Got there at 5:50 only to realize that downbeat was at 6:30, not 6:00.

Here is the program for the March Concert.

  • Wagner, Overture to Die Meistersinger
  • Vivaldi, Guitar Concerto
  • Saint-Saens Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah
  • Debussy, Première Rhapsodie pour Clarinette et Orchèstre

My fingers wouldn’t respond, and my sight reading was awful. Felt like open strings were the only thing I could play!
And the Debussy had a double flat that I had to work out. That’s a subtle piece that needs careful attention to the entrances.

The pace for learning all the pieces is about 6 weeks. I feel that I have about twenty-five spots to work on in order to be “good enough”, which works out to about 4 passages per week. I need to work breadth-first instead of depth-first.

Tuning Forks – Physics Geekery

So, even though I have several different tuners, not counting the ones on my phone, I decided to plunk down about $30 for a pair of A440 tuning forks, each attached to a resonance box. I wanted to see if I could make the forks vibrate sympathetically when I played a perfect A. The forks come in pairs so you can hit one and hear the other vibrate sympathetically. They are available from most scientific supply stores, but you want to get them pitched for music, not the 256 Hz that many kits come with.

Haven’t been totally successful, but my A ear training is getting better.

Quick Practice Log, and Happy 2019 a bit late.

Had a minor injury that kept me away for two days, but some heat and ibuprofen and I’m back on it. No, you don’t care about these minor old people matters, but as this is a blog about the challenges of playing in midlife, it’s somewhat relevant.

It also means I lost the beginning of my thumb position callouses.

My Intonation is rusty and focused today primarily on extended second position for the Humoresque. Lots and lots of target practice. Once I get that D to C shift on the A string, life will be peachy.

I also want to set my goal of paying more attention to my right hand, which is tricky at times because I’m left handed. I always wondered if I would play better with a Charlie Chaplin left handed cello. Unfortunately, those are expensive, and it’s more than a matter of just reversing the strings and moving the soundpost (which is itself not trivial).

Big Parts move the Little Parts

This has been my teacher’s mantra lately and is emphasizing that I get the arm into position early as I get near the third octave of my scales.   The arm should be guiding the fingers instead of the fingers finding the arm.  We are applying this to the C# minor scales. Does anybody know why we do melodic on the way up and natural on the way down, btw?

The scale is coming into focus now, although I’m still working on scales 30 minutes per session.   But I’m glad I’m tackling it instead of avoiding it.

Moving to the Suzuki Piece, Humoresque, I’m trying to use this idea to shift more confidently.

Quick Summary of Today’s Lesson


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Schroeder 27:  Keep working on dynamics markings; once the middle section feels comfortable, it will be done, then I can start thinking of it in much bigger chunks.

Humoresque: Play confidently, remember that forte can be played at a slow tempo. Trust your ears.  Focus on tone and rhythm this week.

Mechanics: Big parts move little parts.  Drive with your arms, not your fingers. Practice the ski lift, particularly on the scales.

Continuing to move through Mooney 4th position sections.  Nothing notable so far.  Sight read a couple of pieces.


When your teacher trusts you with G# melodic minor scale


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I put together a quick theory sheet so that I would remember which notes I was playing as I played them.  I also put the enharmonic Ab scales in as a way of checking myself. Those are on the right hand of each equals sign.  Note that in the descending scale there are no obvious tuning beacons (resonating open strings).  The value in this table was making it up; there are plenty of good graphics files on the scale that can be googled.

G# Major Scale

G# = Ab
A# = Bb
B#=C = C
C# = Db
D# = Eb
E#= F
F## = G
G# = Ab

Melodic Minor

flatten 3d going up, 3d, 6th, 7th going down)


G# =Ab
A# =Bb
B =Cb
C# =Db
D# =Eb
G# =Ab


G# =Ab
A# =Bb
B =Cb
C# =Db
D# =Eb
E =Fb
F# =Gb
G# =Ab


Keep the bow moving


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Had a lesson today focusing – here are the highlights

  1. Try playing scales given only the finger pattern.  This contradicts earlier teaching about always looking the note I’m playing while doing a scale, but it’s worth a try.
  2. Keep a steady tempo and avoid bow hesitations.  There are places where you can nudge the rhythm a bit but avoid awkward pauses.
  3. Focus on dynamics this week; no new material on Humoresque.  Even if the bow stops, the music keeps moving.  Try playing along with my breathing.
  4. Get to Third position accurately and keep a steady hand unit to do it.
  5. The final piece in the third position in Mooney – Etude – got the notes down but be careful of intonation in first three lines.

Right now in my life, I need to keep my projects moving at a steady pace.  Being my own supervisor is hard since there is no clear right answer.