Orchestra 101: Playing Extra! Part III: At the Gig

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Parts I and II of this short series looked at preparation before the day of the gig and the timeframe right before the first service. Finally we now get on stage for that first service. There are a lot of elements to consider and sort out almost simultaneously. With that in mind, here is a list of some things to think about in alphabetical order.

Counting. Everyone is wired differently. Personally, I have to count very carefully. You don’t want to mess up due to rest counting errors.

Fitting in and matching of volume. This falls in the general category of not sticking out. Stay inside the sounds around you, matching as well as you can.

Hearing and deciding who to listen to. Part of the challenge of fitting in is hearing across the stage. Halls vary a lot and a hall that is new or unfamiliar to you can throw everything off. You may find that even though they may only be a few feet away it may be a challenge to clearly hear the clarinet and flute, for example.

Intonation. This topic has several possible parts but for our purposes the main one would be brass section intonation compared to woodwind section intonation. It is very likely they will not be in the same place and you, as a horn player, really may have to move things around depending on who you are playing with. And, of course, never key on the strings for intonation. If you are in doubt and down in a section, key in on the first horn and on the principal woodwinds.

Looking up. Looking at the conductor can be a real challenge if the orchestra has a delayed beat. The orchestra will be used to the groove but what you see visually is ahead of what you hear people doing. It may help to not look up much at all. Of course, the conductor wants you to look up but if it causes you to mess up things you can’t always watch easily at first. But be aware that professional groups often have a bit different groove than student groups.

Never turn around and look at anything. Ever. I could digress into a story or two but in short do your job and don’t concern yourself with anyone else to the extent you look at them when they make a mistake. It will be considered to be more professional and will pay off longer term.

Rhythm and timing. As hinted at already, every orchestra has a groove. Regular players in the group are totally used to it. In my own case there was a way I got really used to playing in Nashville and that is my default to this day. It is a groove where you play more on top of the beat than in other places I have played. Which is not to detract from other places at all, but in those places I very much have to turn my ears way up! Really listen and focus on feeling it the same way the regulars feel it. It is a nice challenge.

Things you miss. Lightly mark or make a mental note on everything you miss and make an effort to over practice those things before the next service. Don’t miss anything twice.

Water. And I don’t mean drink enough of it. Draining the water in your horn is a hidden danger of the early professional gigs, especially if you are playing assistant which is a likely first gig. The first horn is already out of their zone because they don’t have their normal assistant; instead, they have you. You hope to make a good impression. Read the suggestions in my article on playing assistant horn but here is one more suggestion not in that article. Be aware of when you dump your water out that it is not disrupting in any way to the first horn. Especially if they have touchy, soloistic things to play you should not be moving around. Of course this also goes for amateur and school ensembles, but in a pro situation it is even more critical as they may never hire you again.

As a final thought, as hinted at in part II, respect is earned over time. Don’t expect the regular players will be friendly or that helpful even. They have their own agendas and lives. Just do your job and let it speak for itself.

That all sounds intense!

It may be at first. You have to have your A game on the first time or you may never be called again. Emulate the habits of the best players you are in contact with in the group. Many of whom you will find to be impressive players to be sure, with great reading skills and the ability to play very consistently no matter what the work. Good luck!

Return to Part I of Playing Extra!

Continue in Orchestra 101 Series

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