Ensemble Epiphany

October 02, 2011

Yesterday I attended the inaugural Joyful Noise Music and Prairie Family Camp at Camp Wood YMCA, about 70 miles south of Manhattan. The day camp was organized in conjunction with the Symphony in the Flint Hills organization and offered music work shops for people of all experience levels, nature hikes, horseback riding, instrument making, and, at the conclusion of the day, a concert by the Emporia Symphony Orchestra.

From the list of offered music workshops there were two that were most interesting to me, one on string techniques and one on string ensemble.

The string techniques workshop was very good. There were only five participants, three violins, a bass, and myself on cello. We talked about bow weight and bowing arm movements, contrary motion, shifts, and vibrato.

Getting good bow weight isn't simply a matter of pressing down harder, but rather learning to transfer the weight of your arm into the bow. Good posture, a good bow grip, and proper placement of the instrument all factor into transferring weight to the strings. We worked on producing even tone over the length of our bows, from frog to tip.

Your bowing arm is moved largely by the large muscles in your upper back. Your upper arms controls the positioning of your forearm, and the muscles in your forearm are what move your fingers and wrist. We worked on feeling our upper arm move first in bowing, with the rest of the arm and bow trailing behind.

Contrary motion is moving the instrument in the opposite direction as the bow stroke. On cello, for a down-bow, you rock the cello slightly to the left, away from the direction of the bow stroke. Since cellists are seated while playing they can't move their instruments as far as a standing violinist or violist can, therefore you tend to move the cello slowly a little bit while moving the bow faster, so as to use the entire length of bow hair. At first this contrary motion is contrary indeed -- it feels awkward and cumbersome, but after a few minutes of practice it started to feel more normal. It does allow for an easier reach to the A string in some cases, and, since the contact point between the bow and the string stays more in front of you, more centered, it is easier to transfer arm weight to the string for a better tone.

For shifting we talked about using the angle of the elbow to determine where the hand goes. Certainly you need to focus on the finger(s) involved in the shift, but rather than trying to target the finger on the string, think about the elbow and it's shape and let that determine the length of the shift. Also we talked about the idea of visualizing where on your body your hand would be at the endpoints of the shift. If you took the cello away and moved your left hand for the shift where would it be? On the sternum, the abdomen, the upper chest? Certainly as a beginning player I have a better kinetic sense of the relationship between my left hand position and my torso than I so with my hand and cello.

The string ensemble workshop was difficult. Actually it was extremely frustrating. I always go into an ensemble opportunity excited and eager to play with other people, and I always come out frustrated, upset, and humiliated. I simply don't have any appreciable ensemble playing experience, and any group playing exercise beyond something extremely basic, overwhelms me.

Since I started playing only two years ago I never had any school orchestra experience. The average college freshman who plays an instrument in the orchestra or band typically started playing in 6th or 7th grade. They could have as many as six years of organized group playing experience, and probably no less than four years experience. Five days a week, 36-weeks a years, for four years. I, on the other hand, have had four ensemble experiences. Two one-and-a-half day string orchestra experiences, a cello camp comprised of three half-day sessions, and yesterday's 2-hour workshop.

I don't have experience tuning my instrument by ear, I can't hear my own instrument over the sounds of all the other instruments so playing in tune relies solely on proper hand position. I can't sight read music fast enough to keep up. I can play the first note or three and then I miss a note, and next thing you know, I'm a spectator. In the cello camp and string orchestra experiences I was playing with children, all of whom seemed to be able to fly through music they'd never seen before with ease.

Yesterday, after have a miserable time in the ensemble workshop, and wanting to skip the participant's performance opportunity prior to the symphony concert, I had an epiphany and realized why it was so hard for me - sheer lack of experience. Unfortunately, as an adult beginner in a small town, there aren't too many ensemble opportunities open to me, and fewer still that are designed to teach ensemble skills.

My cello teacher does have a youth orchestra made up of 5th through 12th grade students. In the past he and I have talked about my "joining" that orchestra, and now I realize the importance of that experience. It is likely the only way I will gain the experience I am lacking. Grade and high school orchestras are the apprenticeships of the music world.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.