Nov. 3, 2008
One night at a music party long ago, two friends placed tune after tune on my music stand, watching me as I sight-read the music. I had never seen the tunes before, but I had learned through years of orchestra playing to read music on sight, so I could play most tunes note-perfect if not with the best bowing or tone, which always require practice. A potter at a festival this October compared my playing from the printed page to typing.
Learning to play music from the page requires associating, on string instruments, certain fingers on certain strings with specific notes, and, as with most things, the more you practice the better you become. I learned to play violin in the school orchestra system, learning from the start to play from the page and progressing to school orchestra and the Canton Youth Symphony. But I have loved traditional music all my life, and early on I figured out how to play tunes by ear, which means figuring out what fingers to use by hearing the intervals.
I’m thankful that I can learn tunes both ways. I know classically trained players who are completely mystified by the idea of playing by ear, who are at a complete loss without a piece of sheet music in front of them, and I know folk musicians who can’t read music at all and others who can read but must struggle for hours to learn a tune from the page.
Those who can’t read at all must learn from the playing of others, made more convenient if less social by recorded music. Whether learning by ear or from the page, players must listen to those already immersed in the tradition because traditional music performance depends on the player’s interpretation of the notes rather than the notes on the printed page. For example, much traditional music and even popular music “swing” the notes, accenting and lengthening the first of every two notes. The printed music is written as even notes, but the page is meant as a guide, not a precise transcription. That can confound classical players, so accustomed are they to composers indicating every nuance of the music on the page. It hasn’t always been that way. Classical music in the Baroque era was closer to folk music in performance and philosophy, and players were expected to understand interpretation just as folk players understand it to this day.
Classical players, on the other hand, handle a myriad of tasks simultaneously. They spend years learning their instruments, studying performance, practicing what to some are tedious exercises learning to sight-read, learning to determine the correct fingerings for a wide range of music, and playing in ensembles. During rehearsals and concerts they communicate through body language and penciled instructions with their stand partners and section members, watch the conductor, listen to parts played by other sections, and, in music featuring instrumental soloists or singers, follow the soloists, who often perform rubato, a varying of the tempo for emotional effect. Orchestra performance is a good example of the mind’s ability to handle many tasks at once. Besides all that, they must play in funereal outfits that restrict free movement of the arms when it’s most needed under stage lights generating equatorial temperatures.
I played in orchestras, suffocating in tenebrific tuxes, for years, but at the same time I played guitar for fun and wanted to learn traditional fiddle. When I found Celtic music I quit the orchestra, and I began practicing like never before, wishing I had practiced that much in my youth. I have often thought that string players in school should be exposed to a broad range of music rather than just classical music. Not all kids like classical music, and I suspect that more would stay with string instruments if they played music more to their liking, but string teachers are classical musicians and teach what they know.
I felt that way for years, but recently I’ve come to appreciate my orchestra training. I can sight-read to the amazement of folk musicians and play well in groups thanks to years of intensive lessons, practicing, and long, tiring orchestra rehearsals that taught me how to play in an ensemble. The Canton Youth Symphony made me aware of the complex interaction of many parts and instruments in classical music.
Learning to play classical music is akin to studying Latin as a basis for a better understanding of the English language. The discipline and dedication required to obtain even a minimal competency opens worlds to the person willing to invest the time and energy. I embrace my training — but I still run from tuxes.