After Rehearsals: Orchestra Blog, Part 1

1st Rehearsal (09/12/16)
There are many wonderful, often bittersweet, aspects to first rehearsals, especially when you have come to accept that this is your last first rehearsal. There’s the gentle tap on the shoulder that leads to a soul-filling hug, the shuffling of the papers to discover the repertoire, and the first orchestra-laugh induced by your conductor.

One would think that the appropriate way to start the first reading of a piece is carefully. And so it comes as the best surprise, every year, when the first notes we sound are lively, almost up to tempo, and admittedly out of tune. It is the most delightful of journeys; relishing in the long melodies, basking in the uncertainty of the next chord, skipping a bar to catch up to the authority of the conductor’s baton.

I hope that through these blog entries, I will be able to explore the beauty and appreciation of music, the relationship musicians develop through being an orchestral entity, the pursuit of piecing together musical sections to form one complete sound, and whatever other lines of thought that could come to mind.

Many of my dear friends from previous years have not come back this year. They will be greatly missed, their presence never forgotten. Their absence has reminded me of the essence of Youth Orchestra: a dynamic form of expression that is temperamental and connecting. Memories involving music are very hard to dissolve, and I think all of us, wherever we are in the world, can attest to that.

2nd Rehearsal (09/18/16)
The last hours of summer are cast on the grass of my front lawn, green, vibrant, very much alive. Today we had a rehearsal at Centennial Hall, as they needed an orchestra to put their new acoustic system to test. Before that, however, I met with Natalia at Forth, on McDermot. I had tea, she had coffee (though she certainly regretted that decision an hour later). Afterward, we made our way to the rooftop of a nearby parkade. There, I pulled out my instrument and heard the music resonate through the sky and into the urban landscape. Natalia captured some moments in film, with love and dedication.

Rehearsal passed by quickly, as usual. My favourite moment was the short-lived silence after the last chord of the piece that would reverberate everywhere then nowhere. We had pizza and drinks once rehearsal wrapped-up, which lead to dynamic conversations on teaching and modern diets.

When everybody left the room, Natalia began set up setting up the recording devices that would capture Sam’s rendition of a Bach cello suite. I looked between them, Sam on the chair, Natalia and her headphones, and saw the height of the room and the vastness of the air. I laid down where I was, and listened.

Music leaves one saturated and fatigued. The beauty shared between two musicians and the beauty shared between fifty-eight musicians opens a chest in the soul that laughs at the scarcity of our time. It is true- the sun has vanished on the grass.

3rd Rehearsal (09/19/16)
It’s only the 3rd rehearsal (2nd at MBCI), and I already feel the habits setting in. Supper. Drive. Violin out of car. Violin out of case. Tune. Play. Every moment in orchestra is so incredibly dynamic and fun, yet with the habits setting in, time races us.

Today we learned we are going to play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.2 in its entirety! I’ve never come close to playing a complete symphony, and having the opportunity to do so during my last year of orchestra is chance handing me a gift. Well, handing us all a gift.

There needs to be more time for music and for conversations. Alas, Monday night is not infinite and realistically, our attention span isn’t either. For now, it will be practicing until next Monday, until old music becomes anew again.

4th Rehearsal (09/26/16)
Tonight’s rehearsal has been the first of the season where I feel that the work has truly started. We mostly tackled Carnival by Dvorak, and at a certain point, I think we all thought that a break would never come. When it did, we all somehow mutually decided that it would be 5 minutes longer, but I think that shall be a reoccurring pattern.

One always leaves orchestra with more work than they came in with, and that is certainly the only way it should be done. One needs to pay more attention to dynamics, be more sensitive to intonation, dedicate more attention to rhythm and tempo. And of course, one must always be prepared to laugh their heart out, make a silly mistake, and get terribly, hilariously lost in the music.

Reminiscing about orchestra always feels so distant… The becoming darkness of Monday evenings, the conversations laced with fatigue from the school day. Yet the music could not be more vibrant. And the mind becomes so too. Perhaps for only a moment, but that is enough.

5th Rehearsal (10/03/16)
I don’t remember the last time the weather has been so mild and warm and tangibly sweet in October. I just checked the weather for tomorrow, and it will be rain all day. Today must have been the final ode to summer. Very well.

I must also mention that I’m admittedly sick. Congested nose, scratchy throat, a will to cough out every other minute; the classics. Safe to say, I didn’t come into rehearsals with the best of mentalities, but music is one of the rare mediums that seems to handle a low spirit very well. Today we had sectionals, and us strings had the luck of being assigned the small room upstairs with the slanted ceiling and two pianos that take up half of the space. It was, however, a very productive two hours, with our main focus being agreeing on mutual bowings and fingerings. (So, productive but tedious). Gwen Hoebig was such lovely help to us, showcasing us time and time again how to hit the right notes at the right time. She had the knack, however, of picking on Peter (one of her students), but I’ll leave that amusing story for him to tell.

For the last half hour of rehearsal, we congregated back in the main rehearsal room to run through Dvorak’s Carnival. By then, I was running mostly on intuition rather than pure energetic focus, but come that last page, some hiding nugget of concentration came bursting in my mind and with the sound of the last chord, I immediately wanted to tackle the ending again. Music sometimes makes me want to question the law of conservation of energy.

I talked a lot about myself in this entry. Perhaps it is a side effect of being sick (admit it, there’s a tiny part of you that wants to be pitied whenever ill). But that would just be an excuse, I talk about myself because it’s easier and I possess an ego. Next rehearsal, I will notice, listen to, and spread gratitude to my peers. Goodnight for now.

6th Rehearsal (10/17/16)
I am afraid I did not stand by the promise I made last week. Tonight, I had such bad stomach cramps that I mostly just wanted to double over to relieve the stress of the pain. When you’re in pain (at least, the sort of pain I was in), sound seems to be at once further away and closer to the ear. One is aware of the sound and its sheer loudness and spontaneity, but one cannot grasp it or… make sense of it. It is there and loud and bold, yet it is messy and a little obnoxious.

Art can be the most beautiful or ridiculous of realities. And with my condition I was in today, I often found myself leaning towards the second declaration. Where finesse of art is (grotesquely) paired with the vulnerabilities of the human condition. When one is in pain, when one is famished, when one is exhausted, what serves the practice of art? At that point, the human is stripped to its core conscience: survival. Yes, I know this is an outrageous comparison to my temporary stomach pain, but during rehearsal today, I experienced times when I truly didn’t care what I was creating and only played for the sake of respecting orders.

The sad irony is that there are physical limitations to the creation of art. Yes, the most abstract of concepts need a reasonable physical ease to be developed. You likely wouldn’t be able to explore too deeply the meaning of being a human while experiencing a terrible fever. Once you pull yourself out of the illness, then you will be able to, but surely not during your terrible spell.

I just came across this quote, however, by filmmaker Orson Welles:

“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations”

He, I believe, was talking in more of financial and materialistic terms, but I do wonder if it can be applied to physical limitations created by any form of suffering? Perhaps, the loud raucous of strings and winds I was being fed while in pain held an essence of truth in it? Perhaps, under my “survival” conscience, I was listening to music in an alternative pure form? If this is a legitimate exploration, then I am fascinated. I must go for now, but I will be back soon.

7th Rehearsal (10/24/16)
Distractions. Interruptions. Whatever you choose to call it, that nagging, dragging string in your mind that gathers a large part of your conscious mind and squeezes some essence out of it. It is as undeniable as it is frustrating.

There is this general admiration of a player so virtuous he or she is completely immersed in the music, transcending the momentous physicality of the present. To achieve that, however, one must make inferior any current distractions. The constant coughing in the audience. The player in the back that always taps his foot. Now these are easy enough. But what about the oppression of given expectations? The faces you so desire but cannot meet an eye to?

Distractions themselves are deeply personal for each different person, but its raw effect certainly seems like a universal theme. One might adopt a tweaked persona to attempt to keep blind from the distractions. One might withdraw from the crowd, or crash right into it. One will have difficulty reaching into the immaterial and stay trapped in the time-set, material world.

Distractions will always be there. Immersing in art could be the closest we have to transcend them. And yet immersing in art could be the manner in which we notice our distractions the most intensely. It is a struggle, but a very privileged one to have.

8th Rehearsal (10/31/16)
Rehearsal on Halloween was a quiet one – many of the musicians (especially in the brass) were either gone to band camp or a band trip. In addition, we were missing our sole percussionist for the first half hour, so the music seemed especially thin. However, as our hands and mouths warmed up, and our confidence pocked out of the unfamiliar shell, the music we created developed fullness and vibrancy. We rehearsed Brahms’ fifth and sixth Hungarian Dances, some selections from Tchaikovsky’s the Nutcracker, Dvorak’s Carnival, as well as a Mozart Hallelujah sung by our own oboist, Monica!

The rehearsal went by swiftly, and for the last twenty minutes we ate cupcakes provided by one of the musician’s family. I got the chance to decently converse with some of my peers, an opportunity that rarely arises when breaks during rehearsals are usually around ten minutes.

Driving back, one the guys I carpool with declared that all classical music makes him sad. Major or minor, epic or quiet. He seemed especially reminiscent of the dark winter flurries that surround our rehearsals during the deepest and earliest months of the year. Perhaps for him, partly, there is an underlying correlation between the tone of classical music and the darkness of rehearsal time. Though rehearsals almost never make me sad, some (like today’s) are so quiet and fleeting that the thought of it shies away like a lost memory, hidden in patches of the mind rendered foggy like breath on cold glass.

9th Rehearsal (11/07/16)
There is not much to write of today. Often, all it takes is a small grasp on a split moment to write paragraphs on paragraphs of prose or verse. Even if you have time overlapping over one another with eagerness, if there is no placed consciousness, then it is hard to write of the experiences.

What I will say, though, is that it is exciting piecing the music together, playing it with more and more continuity with each coming rehearsal.

Dan (our conductor) made the brass play the ending of Tchaikovsky 2 on their own, and the sound they produced was outstanding. Enough to wrap you in a sea of harmony, enough to pierce through the sheets of security we barricades ourselves with.

10th Rehearsal (11/14/16)
The number 10 seems like a definite number. Though 9 rehearsals feels not like an achievement worth celebrating, 10 rehearsals certainly does feel like one. And I don’t know who to give credit to, but I believe someone was considerate of my writer’s desire to find symbolic value in happy coincidences, because on the 10th rehearsal, almost everything seemed to fall into place.

So yes, on the 10th rehearsal, we practiced through our usual repertoire. However, the air was a new air. We were playing through longer sections at a time. We were more in tune in tricky sections. We came in, many times, at the right time! And when we tackled the endings of both Carnival and Tchaikovsky’s final movement of Symphony No.2, boy did we sound the best we’ve ever sounded. There seemed to be a collective agreement. A collective agreement to push forward, relish in the notes, play with individual and shared awareness.

It is difficult for me to describe these moments well, partly because I am fatigued but mostly because the energy lies in a potential spontaneity of the time that is unreachable as soon as it happens. All I can write really, is of my experience as past entity, but what is lacking is the lost, indefinite context of its present. Truly, every moment is not like the other. It would be a shame to ever repeat time.

11th Rehearsal (11/21/16)
If we spent every waking hour of our time as fully as the time spent during these orchestra rehearsals, I can’t begin to imagine how different modernized, privileged societies would function. Of course, take a few hours of your day eating, drinking, doing toilet business, yawning, stretching, pausing, and don’t ever forget to laugh. But I’m just thinking of all those fifteen, half hour, two hour increments we all lose senselessly indulging in our social media feeds, and it’s hard not to become upset. Upset about the lost time that could have been spent doing something with more significance.

Life is undeniably short; time will never bow down to our feet.

In English class we have been talking endlessly about the importance of art. Art in a world of reason. Art in a world of automation. Art in a world of habits. The uncertainty, the excitement, the life that is drawn through every stroke of music, painting, poetry can never be repeated, because better yet, it can be built on.

Tonight, I watched as our conductor, Dan, waved his baton in the beat of one, two, three, four. Time seemed to move so sweetly. We were all connected, our identities giving way to the budding seeds of music.

12th Rehearsal (11/28/16)
Fresh off our Winkler Tour (which deserves a post on itself), we spent our last rehearsal before the Holiday Concert running over the pieces in our repertoire. A particularly funny moment was when Dan asked us first violins to play a certain passage in Hungarian Dance No.6, and somebody kept on tying a note that was supposed to be detached. After at least 5 trials, and lots of laughs, Dan finally discovered the culprit was Pete, his son. (It seems like Pete is often more guilty than innocent).

This must be, in more than one sense, the halfway point. I turned back today to face Natalia and Hannah, who are both in their last season of orchestra as well, to express my incredulity over the passage of time. We could not all help to agree that orchestra has been such a big part of our life, but is a part that we cannot hold on to forever.

Recently, I have been thinking of the implications of privilege. And certainly, being able to play violin, being able to play in an orchestra, has been two of the biggest privileges I have been gifted. To whom do I owe this well of gratitude? To whom can I turn to say, thank you? Of course, thank you to my parents and musician peers and teachers and conductors. Thank you to luck. Thank you to opportunity.

Yet gratitude doesn’t seem enough. In fact, nothing I do can pay back my privilege. Privilege doesn’t choose, it is. And so I will always attempt to honour this privilege, but never will I attempt to entrap it in my hand.

13th Rehearsal (12/12/16)
Now fresh off our Holiday Concert (which went superbly), we spent our last rehearsal before winter break at Vincent Massey Collegiate (the room in MBCI was booked). We read through the theme to Magnificent Seven, the first three movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.2, and Brahms’ Academic Overture! Discovering, exploring music for the first time is so gratifying. Potential is a beautiful thing.

Afterwards, we had a holiday potluck complete with dip in a bread bowl, chicken wings, noodles, and homemade brownies! And of course, all the classics like veggies, fruits, chips, and cookies. It was a great way to cap off a fantastic first half of the season. A cello in a case might have been knocked down accidentally, but thankfully no one (human or object) was hurt in the process.

Special congratulations to Katherine for winning the senior division of the annual Scholarship Competition, Sam for clinching second, and Micah for securing third!

And just like that, the first half of orchestra season has come to a close. I have opened my eyes to observe and closed my eyes to listen, but still I have not noticed, not absorbed, enough. It’s interesting to look back and see how I have reflected more on the effect of music, rather than the music itself. That is definitely something I can work on exploring. How and why does combining strings, winds and brass make for such a cohesive sound? To what extent do we listen to other instruments and not just our own? How is the realm of rhythm and momentum bridged? Why are some melodies just so pleasant to listen to? We’ll see how I handle the music theory behind some of these questions, but at least I’ve got a few weeks to learn some of the technicalities. For now, a happy holiday to all of you!


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