Breaking Out of Isolation

By Joan DerHovsepian

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As musicians, we can suffer from a kind of self-imposed incarceration. We isolate ourselves and get locked into certain ways of trying to master the orchestral excerpts. The old “favorites” we see on every audition require a commitment of weeks, months, and years (even decades!), devoting ourselves entirely to these succinct passages. With the incredibly high technical standard being met nowadays in orchestral auditions, there is the impression (close to a reality?) that we need to be note-perfect, stroke-perfect. We look inward to the smallest details and spend countless hours alone in the practice room trying to achieve flawlessness. For most of us mere mortals, there is no way to bypass this long and winding road to consistency. It’s how we physically train our bodies to perform difficult feats on cue. It also gives us the time needed to develop our opinions and interpretations in a natural way. Yes, the orchestral excerpts are technically difficult. But I remind the rep students weekly that the solo repertoire they play every day contains harder pyrotechnical demands. The chamber music they are performing asks for highly specialized finesse and subtlety. So let’s not get stuck in a practice rut with the excerpts, working on the same issues and challenges, trying to get things “just right” without a feeling of progress or inspiration. We can free ourselves from these musical bars of isolated orchestral excerpts, separated from the context in which they live. It’s time to break out of isolation. Here’s my plan:

When you learn a piece of chamber music, you don’t just learn the important viola passages, you learn the entire piece.

Thorough study of an orchestral audition list is no different. The audition candidate who covers all their bases will stand out to a committee. Check out the orchestral score. Listen to and learn the entire symphony or tone poem. How does your part fit in with the rest of the strings? The winds? Are you doubled by a flute, trombone, or percussion?  Might another instrumentalist playing a similar part be on your committee, listening for specific qualities in your playing? What is the underlying rhythm for the passage, and what instruments generate it? What is your role and function? Now put your function to practical use. Turn on your favorite recording and play along. I love to do this when learning both traditional chamber music and orchestral works. Step into the excitement of the middle of the orchestra. This could also give you insight into any tendencies or pitfalls that might be lurking within a passage.

Finding parallels between your orchestral excerpts and other pieces by the same composers can help draw conclusions.

For example, finding a natural rhythmic feel to the dotted figures of Brahms’s Haydn Variation VII can be a challenge. One day, while working with a student on this movement, we compared the opening of Variation VII with the opening of the 3rd movement of Brahms’s Quartet, Op. 67 in B-flat major, written just two years after the Haydn Variations. Although the quartet is written in 3/4 time and the Variation in 6/8 with a different character indication, the essence of the two rhythmic figures is the same, falling somewhere between a strictly written rhythm and a double dotted one. Finding an alternate setting for this same rhythmic theme in the viola part can give us another context for its natural rhythmic flow, leading to a more organic understanding when played as an excerpt.

Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56

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Brahms String Quartet No. 3, Op. 67, mvt. 3

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Now, go one step further:

Imagine what role and personality a particular viola excerpt would take on if it were within the environment of a string quartet, perhaps not even played by the viola.

Could our Mozart #35 excerpt from the 1st movement serve as the cello part of a Mozart quartet?  What type of sound and articulation would the cellist from your favorite string quartet use while playing that? How about the high lyrical passage from the 1st mvt. of Shostakovich #5? Would we find more freedom of creativity if we thought of it as the 1st violin part of a Shostakovich string quartet? Can you imagine how their vibrato would be fully incorporated into the musical line as they played in their upper register? Could our excerpt at no. 77 in Ein Heldenleben be the solo horn part of another Strauss horn concerto?!

Imagine you are performing with others and they are counting on you to give clear physical cues.

How would one move, lead, and cue when playing and performing these passages as a principal violist or as the violist of a string quartet? For me, working out a natural way to physically show the important musical features can further shape and define my own interpretation, even when I’m playing alone.

In a string quartet we are the sole violist, entirely responsible for creating character of sound in our part.

When playing within an orchestra section, we have help creating character, and there is the necessity to blend. However, standing behind the audition screen it’s just us. We are alone and fully responsible for conveying the character of not only the viola part, but the entire orchestra—and in only a few short bars!  A common pitfall when performing tutti excerpts is trying too hard to have a blended section sound.  We are not responsible for making more than one violist’s share of the volume. We do need to assume full authority for the character. Showing quality, maturity, and an individual voice is our goal.

We first take care to honor everything we see on the page: the viola part AND the score. Next, we turn our awareness to tradition: knowing what has been done in the past is an integral part of making good decisions. Do a lot of listening. Remember what you first thought and loved about the piece (before you stripped it down to the nuts and bolts). After that, break out into the world of creative ideas. This will help sustain your attention and fuel your sense of discovery through countless practice hours. The excitement of presenting a well thought out interpretation and focusing on new musical goals in “old rep.” is the best way I have found to move on and up from plateaus. A committee may be impressed with a nearly note- and rhythm-perfect excerpt; certainly no easy feat. But that’s not going to excite and move them. And how will that set you apart from the rest of the note-perfect multitude? Show a quality and depth that comes from truly searching in a greater context, from the wide set of experiences you already know. That depth is clearly heard, even behind the isolating audition screen; it is the reason they will fall in love with your playing. So break out of your excerpt isolation! Who’s with me?!

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