Rookie Reckoning

While teaching at a brass camp this summer, a colleague implored me as to what advice I would give a young player starting out on their first orchestra job, straight out of school. It is safe to assume that a young player capable of winning an audition already knows how to play in tune, in time, with a great sound and characteristic style. However, what many young players don’t experience prior to starting a job is the crux of this entry. Since a new season is upon us with many folks starting their ‘gig’ for the first time, I thought it apropos to dust off the keyboard and share. Furthermore, considering that I recently wrapped up my 10th season with the Buffalo Philharmonic, and what I would call my 14th year of being a full-time professional, I’m giving myself license to comment!!

A young player coming straight out of school has enjoyed a peer group of their same age in ensembles their whole life. Granted, this may not be 100% of the experience, but the overwhelming majority of their experience is with tenacious, disciplined, “gung-ho” players of the same cohort. Of course, professional ensembles offer a much wider age demographic. For players starting out as professionals, this may be the first time – aside from some professors – that they have collegial interaction with someone outside of their peer group.

Why is this crucial to recognize? It is vital that freshly minted professionals realize their new colleagues are all at different stages of a career. Of course, this is not an excuse for a colleague to be “checked out”, but it is important for rookie colleagues to understand that – for several reasons – those around them are not as “gung-ho” as they themselves may be.

For some, just getting to the retirement threshold is the goal. None of us want to be the dead weight, but the ups and downs of a career, financial planning, and health issues can take away that choice. A senior colleague may be just as savvy and passionate as the new hire, but perhaps a physical ailment or limitation is keeping them from the same standard. And for many, the passion for playing may have already waned. While none of this is excusable by professional standards, it is very real in everyensemble and bound to create great frustration for the rookie colleague.

The new professional must also realize – or quickly will – that colleagues have lives outside of the orchestra. All of us have (or will) experienced a phase where the job defined and consumed us; practice, rehearsals, and concerts were LIFE! But, lives grow complicated and the job becomes a partof what we are, not the entirety. A house, marriage, divorce, kids, financial burdens, aging parents, sickness, etc. are life events that will unfortunately effect our presence, attitude, and performance at work. The sooner a young player accepts this with a sense of empathy, the better their experience and greater their value as a colleague.

By now it sounds like I’m trying to deflate the accomplishment and excitement around winning an audition and achieving gainful employment!! That is not the case at all, but rather to encourage an awareness of — and empathy with – those who may be your colleagues for decades to come. At some point, we are all on the two ends of this path, so it simply makes sense to have an appreciation for those around you.

How does one use this understanding for success? Be patient, know your role, be professional, and know when to express empathy or KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT! As a principal player, assume responsibility to help a struggling colleague. Perhaps offer to lead something another way, or spend some extra time during a break or after rehearsal to figure it out. Don’t make it about them – make it about your teamwork and the section as a whole. Perhaps asking if you can do something differently to make them more comfortable is one way to go, or simply leading with stronger visual cues. Part of the ‘Principal’ title is also nurturing your section, both on-stage and off. Look out for their best interests, and don’t hang them out to dry if you can help it. Some music directors will put the individual shortcomings of a section on the Principal, which is a difficult situation to be in, so learn to use diplomacy.

Personal anecdote: near the start of my career, I was playing Principal in a section with players in the twilight of their career. We were rehearsing Holst’s The Planets, and the chorale in Saturn was presenting a challenge. The soft chops just weren’t happening for my colleagues, and this distracted them from keeping the pulse. After a brief sectional, I decided to conduct each beat with my slide and boost the dynamic a bit. The conductor wasn’t pleased that we played louder (which was communicated to me via the Stink Eye), but seemed to let it go as the notes actually spoke and we were together.I could have abandoned my colleagues to play my musical ideal, but it would have sounded awful, been selfish, and made them feel worse.

As a section player, be a chameleon. Adapt your playing and use your ears. This is often a much more difficult position to be in than a section leader, as you have to be exponentially more flexible and play a supportive role. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘supportive’, however; it can often mean playing strongly and helping to fill in the gaps in playing around you. In particular, it is not uncommon for the 1st player to need a boost in the low range, or to coast a bit in a tutti passage. This is where you can step up your production a bit to help them out. The opposite may go for the lower voice in a section, where they may need some help in the upper register. Of course, this is a possibility of situations you may face, not a sweeping generalization.

In a wind or brass section, you are the only one on your part, so it is crucial you play confidently and be prepared for stylistic adjustments when required. It is your chair now, so play out and fill out the section sound – adjustments can only be made when you give it your all, rather than trying to hide. You may find yourself in a position where someone next to you is intimidated by, or seemingly over-controlling, of your playing. Try not to take it personally, but be amenable and realize that their work situation has also changed with you being the new person! Strive to play as your true self while also making them comfortable and not view you as a threat. Egos are fragile, as we all know, and sometimes it is simply out of your control.

On the flipside, don’t get played for a sucker! Know the part assignments and performance practice of your ensemble. Two examples from personal experience: Bizet’s Farandole soli is written in the Bass Trombone part, but some ensembles have the part switched with the 1st Trombone. If prior practice has been for 1st Trombone to play it, don’t shove it in the Bass Trombonist’s folder! Likewise, if the Bass Trombonist is accustomed to playing it, don’t take it from them. Be aware of the expectation, and try not to make waves — at least until you have tenure!

Second personal anecdote: many years ago I was playing Principal on Mahler 6. Some of you may know that there are 4 trombone parts, but only 3 trombones play the first three movements. The 3rd part is clearly a bass trombone part during the first 3 movements, then the 4th part is obviously the bass trombone part during the final movement. On the first day of rehearsal, the bass trombonist didn’t show up, later stating that, “We weren’t scheduled to rehearsal the fourth movement that day, and bass trombone only plays the 4th movement”. It was a foul-up that I could have avoided had I reviewed part assignments with the section, rather than assuming everyone knew their role. This person was just trying to get a day off, and my naiveté enabled it. Lesson learned, and we both looked like fools.

It would be easy to wax on and on about all the “do’s and don’ts” but for now, you can get the idea. It is important to remember that we are people first, musicians second, and instrumentalists third, so try to keep that in mind. Sometimes you’ll run into a colleague who simply doesn’t want consideration, either in the form of empathy or a relationship at all, and this should also be respected. Just like our families and communities have a variety of personalities, so does the orchestra.

For those rookies out there, congratulations and enjoy your first day on the job! It is a great feeling to be part of something bigger than yourself, and hopefully the magic “T”-word is right around the corner!