Ask Jason

June 28, 2020

Welcome. Thanks for joining us! As you can see, this week we are not coming to you from the multi-million-dollar Ask Jason studios as usual. Instead we are meeting by Zoom because we have a very special guest. We’re very lucky to have with us today our concertmaster, Brenda Anna, to help us answer a question from Eric who writes “Why is the concertmaster responsible for tuning the orchestra and what else does the concertmaster do?”

JASON: Welcome our concertmaster, Brenda Anna! Brenda, it’s great to see you. How long have you been concertmaster with the orchestra?

BRENDA: It’s been about 27 years now.

JASON: That’s fantastic. So before we get into the role of the concertmaster, how are you doing? How is your family doing? I know you are a musical family and of course we are not able to perform right now, so how are things going?

BRENDA: It’s going okay. My husband teaches guitar online via Zoom. I have a few students online also via Zoom. We’re doing all right.

JASON: I’m glad. I know in terms of the concertmaster’s duties you have—and I think it is probably like “actor” now, we tend to refer to people as a concertmaster whether they are male or female—you tend to have responsibilities before the first rehearsal even happens, and then responsibilities during rehearsals, then you have a role in the concerts, and then a role between concerts. Let’s start with before the concerts, what kind of things are you doing to get yourself and to get the orchestra prepared for the first rehearsal?

BRENDA: Probably the main thing is preparing my own part and seeing how it fits in with the other parts of the orchestra. I study the score. I study my individual part, and I try to, of course get all the notes, play things well. And I figure out the bowings, how to best move, use the bow, to get the kind of sound that the conductor wants.

JASON: Yes, you are in charge of helping coordinate everyone’s bowings and that’s not arbitrary. So why should the bowings all be coordinated?

BRENDA: Well, for a couple of reasons. It looks great and I think mostly people in the audience are looking at the orchestra and they like to see those bows moving at the same time. But that’s not always practical for the kind of sound we want. Sometimes we use what we call “staggered” bowings, so that not everybody is changing at the same time, because what’s most important is really the kind of sound you hear. So sometimes we change the bowings to make that happen too, and then of course it’s important to be able to get the right articulation, so whether you want it short or long, or “off the string” with a bounced bow, or if you want it long and legato (smooth), then we take those things into account.

JASON: Yeah, so partly it is marking which direction they will go and what part of the bow, but when you are trying to get 60 different string players who all have different opinions about how the music should go, getting them unified, that becomes your job, which you are very good at! Then, during rehearsal, what are some of the things that the concertmaster is expected to do when we’re rehearsing.

BRENDA: Well, of course we talk about the articulations, the bowings, the kind of mood that we are going to be trying to set and to try and get the kind of unified sound like you mentioned, because it is really important that we not just be 18 individuals [in the First Violins] playing the part. We need to sound like a single unit, like we are one violin in a way, a violin section, so we are always working to get that section sound, and we also want to unify it between all the strings, so it is not just the first violins, but the seconds, violas, cellos, and basses as well.

JASON: Now we’re in a little different situation because we don’t have a ton of guest conductors. I think with a lot of orchestras the concertmaster is partly translating the kind of image. The conductor says I want it to sound like this and the concertmaster translates that into physical things they can do to make that sound. Even though I’ve been working with the orchestra a long time, you are very good at that.

And I will say that in some orchestras there is a hierarchy that only the principals are allowed to ask questions. It’s like if I’m in the cello section—I mean we don’t do this in the Columbia Orchestra because we’re not that picky—I have to ask the principal to ask a question. You’re very good because sometimes if I say something poorly or unclearly, you’ll ask a question and (I think) it’s not because you need to know the answer, but you’re trying to make me say it better, or just that you notice that people didn’t really catch it, so you ask a question just so I reiterate it, so thank you for that.

BRENDA: (chuckles)

JASON: And you physically have to do things to keep the string players together, right?

BRENDA: Yes, absolutely. Of course everybody should be watching the conductor, and that’s a given, but just in order to get all these people to play together I need to make motions sometimes, this kind of thing (motioning). Sometimes I’ll actually turn a little to the section to make sure, so I feel connected to them. I’m the leader but that doesn’t mean that I need to be the loudest (chuckling). I need to blend as much as they do.

JASON: And frequently the concertmaster is the most demonstrative, because even in the violas and cellos, I’m watching you more, I can’t really even see the principal cello that well because the instrument is down there, but you are sitting across and you can hold your instrument up, so a lot of times you are translating even the time elements, which is great.

BRENDA: Yeah.

JASON: Tell us about the concerts. What do you do in the concert?

BRENDA: Well, we tune up the orchestra and it’s kind of an interesting thing, you know I always feel a little funny sometimes. When I walk out on the stage, I’m the last person to go out and I think some people in the audience aren’t aware that I’m actually supposed to be doing that, and it’s not that I’m late (chuckling).

JASON: Well, interesting, because in a way, you are the ambassador. The conductor comes out and takes a bow but when you take a bow you are taking it for you but also for the orchestra. European orchestras, a lot of them the whole orchestra walks out at once and everybody applauds. Instead, we’re just sitting there, and when you come out the applause is both for you but you are also the orchestra’s representative I guess.

BRENDA: Right, exactly, exactly.

JASON: Now why are you in charge of tuning?

BRENDA: Well it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it! I need to be able to listen to the oboe. First I need to discern that the “A” that’s being given is the “A” that we want to take. You know an oboe can be a kind of fickle instrument depending on their reed and the weather and things like that so we need to make sure that that’s the right “A”—it takes time for the pitch to settle a little bit. So when I listen to the oboe give the “A,” then I hear it settle, and then I let everybody know “yes, it’s time to tune.”

JASON: And you’re very good because if you sense that they’re not really in tune… I mean the fourth horn player and the tuba player are on opposite ends of the stage, so if you hear that they are not really the same, you’re very good about getting them to keep going until they’ve got it right, which is very important. The tuning is very important.

So tell us a little bit about in between concerts, you have another role in the community. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BRENDA: Oh yes. We want to reach out to our community, let them know we are there, and we are there for them. We do all kinds of things, we play for senior citizen communities, we play for schools, we do all kinds of outreach to let people know that they are the reason that we’re in existence.

JASON: Yes, and we can’t always bring the full orchestra out into the community, so you’ve been really great about being a good advocate for going out and performing in smaller venues. Right now we’re very excited because we’re starting a partnership with the Horizon Foundation to bring a small group, including yourself, into nursing homes and senior living centers, where people can’t get out to come to our concerts, so we are really very grateful for your being involved in that.

Thank you very much for taking the time to do this. I hate to pull you away from the beach. I’ll let you get back into your bathing suit. [Brenda was using a beach Zoom background.]

BRENDA: (chuckling)

JASON: I hope that has been interesting to everybody. Thank you very much for joining us and we’ll see you next time. Keep the questions coming.

BRENDA: Thank you!

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