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Don’t Practice Your Orchestra Part – Prepare It!

It was one of those flashback moments.

I was helping a student prepare for her first orchestra experience and suddenly, I was twelve years old, in my teacher’s studio, hearing her tell me some of the very same things.

My teacher was Marilyn Costello, principal harpist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, so obviously she was an expert at orchestral playing. Despite the thorough preparation she gave me, there were parts of my early orchestra experience that no one could have prepared me for.

There was the octogenarian conductor with the thick German accent who addressed me in rehearsal only as “leeetle gerrrrl.” There was the odd feeling of being alone in the middle of this large group, being the only harpist, the only musician without a “section” of colleagues and friends. And there was the strange experience of not playing continuously, of contributing in small, isolated moments, and counting vast numbers of bars of rests.

As I grew to understand my role as an orchestral harpist and yes, even learned to count the rests, I slowly discovered the key factor that makes orchestra playing less stressful and more enjoyable. It was the one my teacher had worked on with me years before, but somehow I hadn’t realized just how important it was. The key is simply this: you must prepare your part for orchestra in a way that is totally different from practicing it.

Consider how we usually practice a solo piece. We learn the notes, rhythm and fingering, then we get it up to tempo. If you have months to prepare an orchestra part, that may work, but rarely will you have that leisurely a time frame.

The most basic fundamental in orchestral playing is to play with everyone else. Playing the right notes is to an extent less important than playing at the right moment and in the same tempo as the rest of the group. This requires a monumental mindset shift from our usual practice method, and more specifically, it means that we need to practice our listening skills just as much as our playing skills.

Orchestral and ensemble playing demands that we listen outside our own harp bubble. What we play truly only matters in the context of the group performance. You could play all the right notes with superb musicality, but if you aren’t playing with the rest of the group, you have detracted from the performance, rather than added.

Yes, of course, you need to learn and play the correct notes, and play them beautifully. But you need to prepare to listen to the players on stage with you and to watch the conductor as you play.

Fortunately, thanks to YouTube and other web services, you can easily prepare yourself to listen outside your own playing. I encourage my students to use recordings in three different ways.

  1. Listen and follow along. This technique is especially valuable when you first get the music, before you even begin to practice the part. Sit with your part and a pencil and try to follow along as you listen to the recording. Try to find the cues that will help you know where you are in the piece. Count along as you listen. You can use several different recordings to get an idea of the tempo of the parts of the piece that you play.

This may be difficult to do the first few times. It can be hard to figure out where the beat is or even where you are. I usually help my students do this in a lesson so they can feel confident working on it at home.

Don’t just listen to the piece for the harp part, however, or you will be missing something important. Listen to the music, all of it. Remember that your harp part is only meaningful as a part of the big picture, so hearing the big picture is essential.

  1. Air play. As you begin to practice the part, it is helpful to listen to the recording and play the “air harp” as you listen. As you listen to the piece, carefully count your measures of rest and then mimic playing when it is your turn. The wonderful benefit about “air playing” is that you won’t play any wrong notes or push any wrong pedals. You can concentrate fully on listening to the music as you play your part.
  2. Play along. This is your dress rehearsal for your orchestra rehearsal. Play your part on the harp as you listen to the recording. It isn’t always easy to hear the recording over your own sound, but this will only help you sharpen your listening skills. If you can play along with the recording, you are completely prepared to play successfully with the orchestra.

One closing thought: remember to enjoy the experience. So few people will ever have the opportunity to sit engulfed in the amazing sound and the intense energy of a symphony orchestra at work. But you have that opportunity. Don’t forget to treasure it.

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