What It’s Like to Play in an Orchestra

by Agnes Lingat
April 2021

I often wondered what it feels like being a part of an orchestra. How do they do it? How do they play in perfect unison as a group? How do players know when to come in and play their parts? How do the musicians know when to follow the conductor? These are some questions I used to asked and wondered when I watch an orchestra play.

It has been thirteen years since I joined the Castro Valley Orchestra as part of the violin section. In that span of time I now know the answers to all these questions. You know how sometimes you feel certain emotions when you listen to a piece of music? Imagine the feeling when you actually play a great musical piece with a group of musicians and reproduce the same sound great composers weaved into music notes. It’s very fulfilling. It takes hours and hours of rehearsals to learn and master the pieces. You need to practice (and I mean a lot of practice) and know your part well. You need to know how to connect and blend with the other musicians. It’s not like a solo performance where you only concentrate on your own playing. You need to pay close attention to all the details and the technicalities of the musical piece, the notes, tempo, dynamics, measures, time signatures, intonation, and of course glancing at the conductor every now and then. There are times when you may skip a note or two playing the piece and you pray it won’t be too noticeable. This is where the other instruments playing come in handy. Luckily, they are loud enough to cover the mistake.

Being in an orchestra gives you sense of accomplishment on your musical talent and ability. You’ve invested time and money to learn a musical instrument that gives you joy when playing it. For years and years you may have played solo or with just a small group of people. In an orchestra you’ll learn how to play with a wider group of people. it gives you a different perspective on how good music should really sound with the combination of different instruments. It’s a collaboration to produce beautiful music together.

The highlight of the orchestra is the actual concert. This is the moment of truth. This is not like the rehearsals. This is the time when you really have to play your best and try not to make mistakes. You feel mixed emotions. The audience eyes and ears will be on the stage. You feel the pressure and anticipate their reactions. Will they like it or will they be disappointed? The conductor raises his baton and the orchestra starts playing. Everything else is blocked except your focus on your playing and the orchestra. You can only hope when the music is done you’ll hear the loud applause from the audience and when it happens it’s the most satisfying feeling. All the hard work and long rehearsals pay off.

Dvorak in the time of COVID

by Doris Marx

As I stood in Prague's City Cemetery gazing on the tomb of composer, Antonin Dvorak, I felt I had made a pilgrimage to honor my favorite composer. Viewing his likeness on the tomb, I was in awe of the musician who brought me such joy and comfort hearing his music. Now we are in the middle of an isolating, depressing period of indeterminate length and have to shelter at home. What better way to pass the time, temporarily forget what is going on outside, and enfold myself in soaring melodies?

Along with Smetana, Dvorak developed a Czech musical vocabulary. He was widely sought after as conductor and was a disciplined maestro conveying to his musicians exactly what he wanted.  He was deeply patriotic and intensely influenced by the music of his country. Many of his works are about places and fairy tales. The contemporary hit, "The Little Mermaid," has similarities to his operatic fairy tale, "Russalka, " a tale of the doomed love between a sea creature and a human. There are too many compositions for me to describe and it would take a lifetime to examine all the symphonies, concertos, songs, chamberworks, choral pieces and religious works he completed. I especially appreciate his violin concerto and the haunting cello concerto, especially its soaring conclusion of hope and expectation. A lesser known piano concerto is not as often performed.

Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, the last one, "From the New World," is famous throughout the world as a musical impression of what he saw during his three years traveling around America. One hears spirituals, and Native American rhythms as well as the noisy din of busy cities and the wistful loneliness of the great American prairie. Having gotten a taste of his style, it is time to explore his other symphonies, each one unique and full of beautiful melodies and chances for all the instruments to shine in solo and combination passages. Other great symphonic works are his tributes to his homeland like the "Slavonic Dances," full of lively folk melodies, the Carnival Overture" and the tone poem, "In Nature's Realm."

How different our musical world would have been if due to poverty, Dvorak had been forced to take over his father's butchering business instead gaining an education to hone his musical gifts, find powerful mentors and friends like Brahms who nurtured his talent and introduced him to his publisher, and be able to travel in Europe, England and America to gain new insights and impressions to color his music.

His music is life-affirming and  soothing in uncertain times like these. Even though you have been dead for 117 years, this is my Valentine's Day note of appreciation, dear sir.