Monday, November 10, 2008

We are the Borg. Resistance is futile.

When I stop to think about it, one of the things that amazes me the most about an orchestra is the ability of the players to play together. The number of musicians on stage varies depending on the piece we are performing. A symphony by Mozart generally requires less players then a symphony by Mahler, for example. Still, there are usually between 50 to 100 musicians on the stage at KSO Masterworks performances. Regardless of the number of musicians on the stage, at some point some of us have to play the same notes at the same time.

To understand why this is truly amazing, it's necessary to understand beats and tempo. Simply put, a beat is an even division of time and tempo is the speed of the beat. A tempo marking of 60 means that every beat is roughly one second long. That's a pretty slow tempo. Many of the fast pieces we play have a tempo two or even three times as fast, and often times we play several notes in one beat. So, if the tempo marking is 120 and everyone is playing 4 notes in one beat, that means that each note takes one eighth of a second. Does your head hurt from the math yet? Mine does. This is crazy enough, but when you consider that when the full string section is playing in unison there are 45 people sitting from one end of the stage to the other all playing the same thing at the same time, it is mind boggling. Yet, somehow we usually manage the impossible. Maestro Richman helps by (among other things) clearly showing the tempo when he conducts. We also watch each other and listen. But, ultimately, there is a bit of a mind meld going on.

I'm hard pressed to think of many other professions that require such unison precision from a large group of people. Ballet comes to mind as do cheerleading and the Rockettes. I think I'll stick with the viola.

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