The first week of the festival was really, in my mind, what sets it apart from other festivals. The symphony orchestra was divided into three chamber orchestras, and each orchestra was assigned a piece to learn. I was in the group learning Igor Stravinsky's Danses Concertantes (eventually known as Team Igor). The best of all? Members of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra were there for the first few days to coach us!
This was my first experience with an unconducted chamber orchestra, and it was amazing. Our principals were the "core" members, but it only took one rehearsal before everyone was chiming in with suggestions. We had to learn to manage time as a group, keep an eye on the clock, decide what to rehearse and for how long, and when to move on. I was amazed at the good ideas my colleagues had, and how we were able to work together. One of the tips the Orpheus members gave us was, "Even if you have The World's Best Idea and it's not related to what's going on in the rehearsal at the moment or it has the potential to derail everything that's going on, don't share it. Keep quiet." Sometimes knowing when to keep silent is just as vital a problem-solving technique as suggesting a solution!
Something else we did a lot was to send one or two members of the orchestra out into the hall to listen from the outside. It's always incredible to me to see how different things are when you're playing and when you're observing. We took turns, and we all benefited from our peers' observations.
Those of you who have worked in orchestras, especially school orchestras, are probably familiar with the divisions between the string sections and the winds. The winds can at times be vaguely contemptuous of the strings and see us as just a group of people, not as individuals. The strings can be totally oblivious to anything the winds are doing. (What? The bassoons play there? At the same time I do? Whoa.) This chamber orchestra experience not only forced us to learn each other's names, but it forced the string section to understand what was going on in the wind parts - sometimes it was the only way we could make sure we were in the right place! The winds learned how to watch our bows and we learned how to breathe with them to time cues. This whole process really broke down those barriers and opened our minds!
And finally, one of our biggest challenges: moving when we played. We had to talk to each other and say what kind of motions we needed from each other to develop a group pulse. The winds kept on the strings' cases so we finally at least were always moving in some way to show the beat. For someone who is pretty reserved and self-conscious as a performer at times (like me), moving even the tiniest bit felt like I was some sort of wild person. When I observed from the hall, though, I realized that the massive amounts we thought we were moving were in fact really minimal.
It was an amazing week. I learned so much about being in an ensemble. Playing without a conductor (for me, anyway) gives a greater sense of collaboration, connection, and responsibility. Absolutely amazing.
Photo credit to my friend Sonia Shklarov.