Faking it – Really?

Early in my playing career, I had a slightly jarring experience. I was playing with a particular professional orchestra for the first time, and the program was quite difficult. One work in particular was very nasty; it’s probably one of the fifteen most technically challenging works that I’ve ever performed. I remember that there was one page in particular that just seemed absurd at first. As I was working out the problems on the page – designing fingerings, figuring out where I would shift, etc – I ran the metronome just to see how fast it was supposed to go. My reaction?

An actor’s depiction of my face upon hearing the metronome.

This is impossible. It can’t actually be possible. However, this was my first show with this orchestra, and I hadn’t yet been granted tenure. I wanted to leave no doubt, that I was up to the task of playing with this orchestra. I practiced slowly. I practiced quickly. I switched up my routines to keep myself off balance. I tried only practicing the shifts. I tried every trick in the book, and finally, after four or five days of hard work, I was able to consistently nail it.

This leads me to the jarring part of this story. I went to my rehearsal, proud of the work that I had done and ready to show my new orchestra that I was cut from the same cloth as the rest of these fine professionals. This is a fully professional orchestra – with a union steward and everything – and one of my first audition wins! At the end of one of the rehearsals of this particular work, my stand partner (who had been with the orchestra for 30+ years) turned to me, and said this.

“Wow, you really do play all the notes, don’t you?”

Wait, is there a cap on the number of notes we need to play??!

This leads me to the article which was recently reposted in The Strad – about faking in professional orchestras. To which I respond: really? My old teacher, Peter Slowik, once told me that if you can’t play something, it’s for one of three reasons – either it’s impossible, you haven’t practiced long enough, or you haven’t practiced smart enough. The article in The Strad, which I suggest you read, lists several reasons why faking happens. They’re good reasons, but I’m not convinced that faking is really necessary, for the most part. Now, don’t get me wrong here – I’m not getting on my high horse and saying that if you can’t play it, than you shouldn’t be in the business. Sometimes there just isn’t time to learn all of the music. Also, one doesn’t have to hear all of the notes to play the music well, especially with a very fast run – you don’t play the notes, you play the scale, and if the scale is fast enough, sometimes one or two notes get lost in the shuffle. But for wholesale faking to have become an institutional practice (and on some of our most popular repertoire, I might add), it needs to be asked of some of these musicians – where does the line fall between admitting that something is impossible, and just not putting forth the effort?

What’s the big deal, you might ask? If no one hears those ridiculous string runs in Wagner over the brass, why bother?

  1. It undercuts our authority as cultural leaders. Whenever some new column gets posted by a journalist about how “I played bassoon in high school, and I could totally do what they do. What makes these musicians think that they’re worth $40,000?” the woofing inevitably starts from professional musicians about how highly trained we are, and how much time and effort goes into learning how to make great music. Faking makes a mockery of those claims. Moreover, if we claim – as musicians often do – that what we do is important to society even though we don’t produce food, or shelter, we need to act like what we do matters. That means always doing our best and practicing the hell out of our music – even when we feel that the odds of success are long.
  2. Don’t pee in my soup. As a teacher once told an old friend of mine, “a great orchestral sound is like a delicious soup, and if you pee in my soup, it takes a lot of fantastic tasting soup to drown out your pee.” We may tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter because nobody hears us in our mediocrity. But the fact is that there’s a delicious soup being made here. I remember being in rehearsal with Leonard Slatkin once, when he stopped the whole ensemble because he heard something funny. After a brief investigation, it was discovered that one of the suspended cymbals – yes a cymbal – was producing a high D-flat overtone, while the rest of the orchestra was playing a D. It’s science – when two musical bodies share a frequency, their volume output doubles. When we tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter, the only ones we’re fooling are ourselves, and it does a disservice to ourselves, and our fellow musicians who are playing their butts off.
  3. We can do amazing things. I still remember the first time that I ever heard the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra perform live. I can assure you that there was no faking going on that evening, and the difference was astounding. Any ensemble can generate a big wall of sound. It takes dedicated musicianship to have all fifty or so string players rip off one of those characteristic Strauss runs in unison, and the effect is overwhelming. When musicians strive for amazing, instead of “let’s just hope that the trumpets drown us out,” the results behave accordingly.

Yes. Music is hard. Some of it is pretty close to impossible. But incredible things can happen when we reach for the (supposedly) impossible. Let’s shoot for that. And just in case you think Don Juan requires faking, here’s Martin Stegner of the Berlin Philharmonic, to throw down the gauntlet!


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