Classical Music 101: Visually, an orchestra is a lot like a duck gliding across the mill pond

By John Terauds on January 15, 2014

(Mark Stivers illustration.)
(Mark Stivers illustration.)

Some concert presenters looking for new audiences think orchestral concerts don’t pack the visual punch to match the audible experience. So they add a light show or project visuals. We’ve even seen dancers move about the stage during concerts.

But before we jump to multimedia conclusions, it may be worth taking a fresh look at that boring old orchestra. The big picture may be static, but, as is the case with a duck gliding across the mill pond, there’s an awful lot going on underneath.

Violinist Hilary Hahn, one of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Mozart festival guests this week, wrote an excellent piece on what to watch at a concert on her website — based on her childhood experiences. It’s well worth appreciating in full:

Things to Watch in an Orchestra Concert

I went to my first concert when I was five years old. Since then, I’ve spent many hours observing various orchestras and getting to know orchestral musicians, and some visual characteristics catch my attention over and over again. Most of the time, I notice these when I’m watching as an audience member – when I’m onstage, I’m much more absorbed in the music itself, picking up on different types of cues.

If you’re relatively new to classical orchestra concerts, check out this list. It might give you some new ideas of fun things to look for the next time around.

Bowstrokes in the violin and viola sections:
All of these performers move together, thanks to carefully notated bow-direction markings in the music. The bowstrokes are choreographed for consistency of tone and articulation, but of course visual unity is taken into account. This is noticeable especially in fast music, and especially when a note is attacked in unison, making for an army of spear-like sticks cutting the air together.

Where the conductor is looking, and when:
You can tell a lot about the music you’re hearing by watching the conductor’s cues to the orchestra and by trying to figure out why he or she is pointing at certain instruments at certain times. Sometimes conductors gesture early, ahead of time; sometimes they’re right with the music (as a musician in an orchestra, it’s helpful if the conductor gives phrasing indications in advance, so that we know for sure what’s coming next). As far as technique goes, some conductors prefer a precise or mechanical style; others are more vague, choosing to demonstrate the shape of the music rather than its details.

Double-bassists’ left hands:
The bass is such a big instrument that its practitioners are required to move their left hands huge distances over the fingerboard in order to reach the notes. For example: a violinist can play many intervals without changing position; but for those same intervals, a bassist may need to move his or her hand from over his/her head to waist level. It happens very fast – I don’t know how they do it!

Brass players’ eyebrows:
These musicians’ eyebrows are a virtual map to their phrasing structures and tone production. They go through all manners of contortion, depending on the instrument, the expressiveness of a certain phrase, the amount of effort it takes to produce the tone, and the mood of the passage they’re playing. Also, watch for oboists’ and clarinettists’ facial color and muscle tone – when they have to play long sections without taking a breath, their skin turns from red to purple, their veins and eyes start to pop out, and their facial muscles look very strained. I think I’d pass out if I had to perform such a feat.

The gong:
This was my favorite instrument to watch when I was a little kid going to Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts. I’d wait whole symphonies just to hear it struck, to hear the tone well up as if in an exotic temple or royal court. (I read a lot of fairy tales.) Although I became a violinist in the end, I still like to tap any gong I pass in backstage hallways and rehearsal rooms. I even rammed one with my head once, to see what it would sound like. Call me crazy! But don’t tell the percussionists.

Hilary Hahn

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