What Happens Behind the Orchestra Stage?

Kimmie Rauscher, Fine Arts Writer

You walk into a performance and you are flooded with the wonderful sound of what we call music. There are four different instruments (violins, violas, cellos, and basses)  all working uniformly to create the sound of a beautiful piece of music. The question is, what really happens behind the scenes in a string orchestra?

In most cases, people tend to believe that orchestra is very strict, boring, expensive and time-consuming. This may be the case for the more professional orchestras where it tends to be only adults involved in the situation. On the other hand, when you are in an orchestra and add students into the equation, you get an entirely different outcome. Students tend to make orchestra their own by forming friendships along the way and bonding with their teachers. The students I spoke to had some special moments that were both crazy and heartfelt.

When choosing electives, students usually want to be in classes with their friends. Students start the process by thinking, “Oh, it looks like my friends are signing up for orchestra. Why don’t I try it too, so we can be together  in a class.” This creates a domino effect when one student chooses an elective and at least three more will follow their lead. Unknowingly, these students have opportunities to find as many friends as they can within their school orchestras.

During my interview with freshmen violinist Amisha Hoque, she talked about how many of her friends are within her own orchestra. She said that each friend is, “very special in their own way.” She went on to talk about other moments involving both her amusing middle school teacher, Ms. Rex, and her many friends in orchestra. She said that Ms. Rex was a really big inspiration to her and always made her day. These moments included such things as buying mementos in which she and her friends could cherish, to very weird incidents during school rehearsals where students go hang out inside of a porta potty. When I asked her to elaborate more, she told me she had too many personal memories that she did not want to share since she wanted to keep those memories to herself.

Another student I spoke with, freshmen cellist Bella Marcello, also told me that she joined the orchestra because of her friends. She explained how she believed orchestra was a “spot to fit in,” since she didn’t do other activities such as sports. She also said that in her middle school they “… were all just one big happy family technically.” One way her school kept many of their precious memories was by creating a book of funny sayings. This book included many funny moments that happened inside the classroom.  In many cases, these moments could be brought up again for a laugh. When Bella was in sixth grade, she hurt her knee and had to walk around school with crutches. She would walk around the school with her instrument (which ironically was broken). Whenever the school police officer would see Bella he would call her “Bella Marcello with the broken cello.”

Now when you think of a school orchestra, you not only think of the students, but there are also the  teachers who teach these students how to play their instruments. I had a conversation with my current strings teacher, Mr. Brian Gencarelli, nicknamed Mr. G, about how he feels around his students and even when he himself is performing in a professional orchestra. Even adults can feel some of the same connections that students feel, but the kinds of connection they make are different. When Mr. G had the pleasure of playing with professional cellist Yo-Yo Ma he said, “That was a very different experience. He is a very humble man and even though he is a better player than anyone else on the planet, he took the time to shake our hands and make us feel like we were ‘on his level.’ I have never experienced that with another soloist.” In this case, it is a once in a lifetime moment, but from what Mr. G told me, we see that people can connect a lot through playing beautiful music, even if they hardly know one another.

When you are physically playing a musical piece, you need to make a connection while up on the stage. It may sound funny, but when you’re on a stage you need the ability to telepathically talk to your section. The point of playing in a section is to make everyone sound like one unified instrument. So when an audience hears an orchestra play, they should be able to hear five separate instruments playing but at a much louder volume.

Each section has their own principal chair which is the best player in the section. The principals are located in the second violins, violas, cellos, and basses. These are the first people you look to along with anyone else in front of you since they are most likely making sure they’re in the correct spot also. Then, when you go to the first violins (since the violins are split into two sections) there is the chair which we call concertmaster/concertmistress (depending on the gender). This person, in most cases, is the best player in the orchestra and is the second on a musician’s list to look at when checking in on their part. Finally, there is the conductor; this is the person who everyone sees waving the baton.

As a matter of fact, this is not the only thing a conductor does. Mr. G himself even told me about this in his interview when he stated, “Contrary to popular belief, we actually study our scores and must know the piece better than the musicians on stage.” By the conductor being able to learn the music backwards and forwards they have the ability to both control their emotions and the musicality of the piece. This makes it easy for the musicians to look up as the baton is counting them off. Sometimes the conductor will also cue the section so they know exactly when to come in when it is their turn to join in the music.

Next time you enter the world of music, make sure to watch the people on the stage while they are playing to see the connections. You’ll be able to see the people moving like dancers with one another to create the musical piece for the audience’s pleasure. If you decide to join the orchestra, there maybe some surprises that you may experience when making these new connections.