Everyone knows that music is a sensitive thing, but what isn’t so commonly known is how sensitive it is both from a expressive standpoint and a practical standpoint. You must have your eyes and ears wide open at all times – if you blink, you might miss a crucial cue, or an unexpectedly quick acceleration. This weekend I’m playing in my first opera in five years, and this production is serving as a reminder that playing in a pit – especially an opera pit – is one of the most challenging musical things to do, even in something as apparently easy as Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. There are hundreds of little details to attend to, idiomatic tempo changes that aren’t written in the score, the need to be able to see at least five or six people all at once, and prioritize which ones are the most important in a constantly shifting balance of power.
The easiest form of music to play by far is, of course, pops music – this is not a potshot at the music itself, but only a recognition of the fact that pop tunes tend to be pretty straightforward. As long as the conductor (or drummer) can give you a solid count off, you can bury your head in the score and not miss a beat ninety-nine times out of one hundred (not that this is advisable). Nearly everything is written into the sheet music, and there are almost no tempo variances to be worried about at all.
Up next in the hierarchy of difficulties are string and chamber orchestras. While the music may be plenty nuanced, my role as an orchestral musician is still very straightforward – stick with my stand partner, stick with my section, and stick with my principal player. Which priority gets the most attention shifts depending on the passage. Playing within the collective sound of the other violists is my default position, but what if my stand partner and I playing different lines? Then I stick with her, play a duet, and count on that duet merging with all the other duetting violists. Is it a big viola soli passage? Follow every nuanced cue that the principal gives.
Chamber music is interesting in that it is both easy and difficult to play. It’s easy in that when you’re only playing with three or four other players, figuring out who to listen to and blend with is a relatively simple matter. Counterbalancing that, though, is the fact that with such a small group, the music can become incredibly nuanced, and your margin for error shrinks to zero. This is one of primary reasons why musicians tend to adore chamber music so. Aside from the generally egalitarian approach to musical decision making, you feel “hands on” in a chamber music setting in a way that a big ensemble of forty to sixty people simply doesn’t allow. For many musicians, chamber music is the ultimate high risk high reward endeavor.
Symphony orchestras compound the challenges of chamber orchestras by adding an extra twenty to forty players. In addition to all of the above named challenges, you have the added difficulty of needing to use your ears to know with whom you’re playing at all times. Is that A-flat being played by anyone else? Maybe you should bring it out. You play differently when your line mirrors the bassoon than if it mirrors the flute. If the clarinet is playing with the violins, it might do better to watch the concertmaster than the conductor, but he has to know that he’s playing with the violins to be able to make that call.
Lastly, and of greatest difficulty, is pit orchestra playing. The conductor takes greater importance here than in anywhere else in the profession – because of course the singers and instrumentalists cannot see each other. This jumbles the priorities of whom to pay attention to, and when. Then there’s the fact that the singers have to make their lines understandable to the audience, which naturally results in musical phrases taking turns that they otherwise might not. If you don’t watch the conductor, you might go crashing through a vital word. However, watching the conductor alone isn’t enough; we have the words themselves to contend with too. Take the word “spitfire,” for example – if the violas enter on this word, we’re supposed to enter on the vowel – “it” – not the “sp” sound, which means that we have to guess where the singer will make that transition – but still watch the conductor as he tries to coordinate all this, and still pay attention to stand partner and section as we all try to play cohesively. Put it all together, and operas are amongst the toughest things to play.
Still, playing in this opera pit has been a blast. While it is some of the most challenging music making out there, it is also a joy to be playing such nuanced styles. It makes me feel really alive in a way that other forms of music making rarely reach. The Syracuse Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus will go on stage on Friday October 24th, and Sunday October 26th. Come see it!