Sorry — I don’t do orchestra

Pursuing my childhood dream of becoming a professional symphony player, I decided to major in music performance. During the first year of the degree program, one of my teachers, an excellent mentor, urged me to audition for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the training school of its parent organization, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I joined this group — first for the summer session; and then, in September, just into my second year as a music major, I auditioned for the regular season. I won the audition and got a seat in this ensemble.

The full orchestra rehearsed twice a week. Then, on Saturday afternoons, the CSO’s principal players coached us in section rehearsals. It was an honor to be part of this group and a great experience to work directly with these first-rate professionals. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the experience. The training and discipline involved have carried over well into other areas of my life.

Yet, for me, several negatives combined to work against this orchestral venture: 1) long evening hours for rehearsal and performance; 2) lack of individual freedom and creativity; 3) the high decibel levels of some modern symphonic repertoire. In the tidal waves of sound, I could hardly hear myself think — or hear myself play. For anyone going into this occupation, I recommend earplugs.

Experience often helps us sort out who and what we are — and what we’re not. Regarding the three negatives I just listed, my first year with Civic made clear to me three things: 1) I’m not a night person. 2) I am strongly individualistic and don’t care for big groups. 3) I hate loud noise. That’s what some modern orchestral music, e.g., post-1910 repertoire, is to me — noise. And if you’re a professional symphony player, you’re going to have to play some pieces you just don’t like the sound of.

Did I really want to fill my days and hours with this kind of music-making? I had to admit to myself that I didn’t. By the start of my second season in Civic, I felt that I had outgrown this activity. I was wasting my time. I didn’t want this line of work. But others did. So why not step aside and let one of them have a shot at it?

I signed myself out of the next two rehearsals to give management time to call a substitute from the list of associate members. I then handed in my membership certificate and informed the administration that I didn’t want to continue.

I had no qualms about abandoning my chair in mid-season. First, I already had the required semester hours in orchestra. Second, I knew management would have no trouble finding a replacement for me — there was always an in-depth waiting list of hopeful players.

Stepping aside took a big load off my shoulders. Now I could spend more time on solo and small-chamber repertoire — which I now realized I cared most for as a player. In ensemble playing, I prefer small groups, four or five players — one person to a part.

Today I enjoy music-making far better as a serious amateur than I did as an aspiring professional. As the years pass, I keep finding new reasons to be grateful I abandoned the idea of a musical career and, in fact, never entered the music business at all. If you asked me which of my career decisions I am most pleased with, I would answer, without hesitation: THIS ONE.

2017-12-02, JH - Mazas - 1

Me, December 2017, reviewing studies by the late pedagogue Jacques Féréol Mazas. I trace most of my musical influences to six western and eastern European areas — Italy, Austria, Germany, France, Poland, Russia.

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