my take on instrumentalist stereotypes

I was emailing back and forth with a cellist friend recently about some common traits which we each had observed in cellists (more on that later), and it made me think more about the semi-humorous post of yesterday about the different instruments and their players in the orchestra. So, without further ado, my own very biased observations of my fellow instrumentalists.

THE STRINGS

If the orchestra might be thought of as a coral reef teeming with a variety of aquatic life, the strings can be thought of much like a school of variously sized fishes which move in unison in response to either good (compensation) or bad (glares from the conductor) stimuli. According to their size, with some exceptions, the various “fishes” move either with elfin grace and speed or with elephantine lugubriosity. Stringed instruments are frightfully expensive: a good modern violin by an esteemed contemporary maker can start at upwards (and I do mean upwards) of $15,000. A similar modern bow starts at around $3000. The “low-priced” range of instruments extends somewhere around $80,000. Above that, and you’re starting to get really serious. No wonder we complain (and worry for months) about getting our instruments into the overhead bins when we’re forced to travel by air for an audition or concert, eh?! That’s also why a string player will never allow you to “just move” their instrument and case out of the way for them, and why they take great pains to keep the case from getting underfoot at restaurants. A very good, lightweight cello case made of carbon fibre can run upwards of $2000 – 3000. Stringed instruments are very delicate for day-to-day use – they’re a complex working piece of intricate furniture, sensitive to heat, humidity and direct sunlight. The glue is a hide glue, basically just strong enough to keep the pieces of wood that make up the body of the instrument from coming apart, but also weak enough to keep the wood from splitting or fracturing when repairs necessitate removing the top to get into the guts of the instrument. Players often spend years finding just the right combination of instrument and bow that corresponds to their inner conception of their musical voice. We might have insurance, but losing and instrument means losing your voice, a one-of-a-kind expressive extension of one’s self that is ultimately irreplaceable.

The violins make their living playing in the stratosphere. If you’ve ever seen a seeing-eye dog’s ears twitch during a symphony concert (as I’ve done for several years) you know that they’re really up there! I’m sure that the constant high pitch, high volume exposure takes its toll on them. They seem to be easily distracted or startled by sudden noise and movement, which when you’re basically a high-wire act as they are, is entirely to be expected.

The violas like to call themselves the meat of the orchestra sandwich, which basically means that they like to hide under the pieces of bread rather than call too much attention to themselves. Violists have to struggle with an instrument whose range is forced into a sounding body of air which is perhaps 30 percent smaller than the acoustically appropriate volume. This makes for a constant quest for the ideal viola sound (which some would say would be the viola sitting in its case) and the distinct air of the absent-minded professor amongst violists. If you need someone to fix your computer, start with the viola section.

The cellos are an almost schizophrenic bunch. Since they have a comparable body of solo literature to the violin, they have a soloistic impulse almost from the get go. There can often be the element of the mysogenistic cello jock amongst the males, the inverse of which is almost unheard of in the females. On the other hand, they have a great love for the symphonic repertoire and are often very much into the historically informed peformance practice movement. They always seem to make each other birthday cakes, too. They have severe (and sometimes even legitimate) concerns about personal space for themselves and their instruments, which are often met with knowing looks and winks and smiles by the other string players, who wish that they could also just set their instruments on the floor rather than hold them up for several hours at a time.

The double basses are the lumbering leviathans of the orchestral depths. They play instruments that you’d think would be the most expensive in the orchestra, but are surprising bargains compared to similar vintages/makers of the other stringed instruments. This is made up for by their sheer size and bulk. Playing the bass with any degree of virtuosity requires the determination and agility of an athelete or acrobat, which is why so many bassists take the easy route. The bass section is where the first rumblings (pardon the pun) start when break time comes near, and one of their rooms on tour is where the best, most liquor-soaked party is to be found (not to mention the possibility of poker and strippers, not necessarily in that order). Bass players tend to be the philosophers of the orchestra, given that they often have so much free time on their hands.

The harpist is the glamour act of the symphony. Their instrument really is incapable of making an ugly sound, even if they hit the wrong pedals and play some chord in the key of Z-flat during La Mer. They often are musically paired with the flute, which seems a bit unfair, like putting hot fudge on top of dark chocolate ice cream on top of french buttercream on top of a super chocolate brownie. Actually, that doesn’t sound so unfair after all. They never seem to panic except when the conductor calls for a quick return to a spot where they have sixteen pedal changes – their eyes sort of glaze over and you see their feet frantically pushing pedals like a caterpiller Tour de France.

WOODWINDS

If the strings are schools of relatively neutral colored fish, the woodwinds are the smaller groups of brightly colored reef life. The flute is perhaps the most expensive other than the bassoon or contrabassoon, and can be made of silver, gold, platinum, wood, or a combination of any of these. Each type of metal produces a different characteristic timbre. Flutists are called upon to play perhaps more notes in a concert than any other instrument (watch them suffer along with the other woodwinds at the beginning of the Suite No 2 from Daphnis et Chloe by Maurice Ravel). They are often called divas or loners, but they at least have an annual national convention (unlike the violins) and seem to know each other all waaay too well.

The oboists have a unique problem: their instruments wear out after about a decade of use, and they have to regularly remake the sounding portion of their instrument – the reed – (sometimes during the course of a single day if the weather changes rapidly or if they travel to a different climatic zone) using age-old methods that differ only slightly from ancient alchemy. Because they never really know if their reed is going to cause them dreadful humiliation and self-loathing on a regular basis, oboists can be a somewhat neurotic bunch. They do often make up for this with a hard-partying offstage life, and I don’t blame them one little bit. English horn players are much like oboists, but they often have a cloaking device that allows them to maneuver through the tangles of orchestral intrigue like an attack submarine. For some reason, they almost never seem to complain about their reeds.

Clarinetists suffer from the fact that everyone seems to have played a clarinet in their high school or college marching band, and so how difficult can they be anyway? Try playing Petruchka and then get back to them on that one. Clarinetists seem to fall into the same category as the cellos – they’re either a mean jock or a really nice guy (or gal). They don’t quite get the same solo ops that the front row of the woodwinds get, and they don’t seem to really mind, either. They also have a number of variants, like the flutes do, but you basically don’t notice them until they’re gone.

Bassoonists are often referred to as the clowns of the orchestra. Whoever said that hadn’t met the bassoonists that I’ve met in my life so far. It might sound funny, but the bassoon is a bitch to play and sound good on. It seems like bassoonists are always flirting with the underbelly of the music world – they’ll know the next hot band before you get wind of it, they’ll have the latest pirated software, and they’ll always know where the nearest adult video store is located. Think about how much you’d like to hang out with a bunch of professional clowns, and that’s what it’s like with the bassoons.

THE BRASS

Trumpeters are a long-suffering lot. They get called various phallic names, they are accused of having huge egos, and no one wants to sit in front of them. All true – but they also play very demanding instrumental parts. Face it – if they screw up everyone in the tri-county area knows about it instantaneously. Trumpet players are the big sports fans in the orchestra – they’re basically like having the Green Bay Packers Cheeseheads in the back row. Packers and Red Sox and Yankees baseball caps abound in the trumpet section. They have the same passion for cheerleaders, too.

French horn players might be voted “most likely to implode” in the orchestra yearbook. They play a notoriously difficult instrument, but hey, they chose to continue with it to the professional level, so stop blaming the rest of us for that decision, ok? But seriously, the horn is a noble instrument, and has some of the most ravishing lines in the orchestral repertoire (4th movement of Brahms’ First Symphony, slow movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, etc.) and boy do they know it! Playing the higher tessitura of their instrument really is like a tightrope act, and they’re worth all the kvetching they both give and cause.

Trombonists are by and large a mellow bunch. They play instruments that are often meant to be mellow, but are often pushed to the point of being sonic pressure threshold weapons. Violists in the back of their section have often remarked (with loud “what?’s and “huh?’s” and “what did you say?’s?”) to each other that it almost seems like the trombone section has entered a chainsaw sound-alike contest. Trombonists really are the poets of the brass section (ok, except for the bass trombonist) and they often can be found quoting Rilke and listening to the complete art songs of Hugo Wolf. They also know more about metal tubing than most plumbers.

The tubist is an island unto him or herself. They play down in the sonic basement with the double basses, but sit with the brass section. There are so few of them in the major orchestras (only one to an orchestra) that they’re virtually the only member of the orchestra that continues to practice for auditions well into their 50’s. They hold their job for a lifetime, and as a result often adopt the meign of the supreme court justice. They are often erudite and gentle and considerate, but also can belch the alphabet due to their superior lung capacity, and can bench press a small Japanese sedan due to the weight of their instrument.

THE PERCUSSION

Timpanists think that they, and not the conductor, control the orchestra. This is especially frightening because it’s true. A bad timpanist can evoke the phrases “bull in a china shop” or “sneakers in the dryer” as easily as a great one can escape notice for the sheer musicality of her work. Think of it: they’re the most emotionally evocative of percussionists. Who else can evoke nobility like the opening strikes of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, or pagan carnality and ferocity of The Rite of Spring? The rest of the mallet players strain to make themselves seem as musical as possible while still hitting things with sticks. Remember the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Percussionists who do gigs are always the first to show up and the last to leave – they have a whole U-haul of stuff to set up and strike for every rehearsal. I like to think of the principal percussionist as being like the company clerk Radar O’Reilly from M*A*S*H – searching for some rare Tibetan brake drum that he saw in a Berkeley pawn shop five years ago. Pianists suffer from having to play really exposed stuff while being stuffed in the place that is left over once everyone else has a spot to sit onstage. They’re a million miles away, sit right next to the bells of up to eight french horns, and get yelled at because they’re not playing in perfect unison with the inaudible principal bass solo. They are compensated for this by having 3/4ths of the season off at full pay.

4 thoughts on “my take on instrumentalist stereotypes

  1. Mormolyke

    As a violist who very recently switched to the cello, I can testify to something of a culture shock. After attempting to sight-read a particularly impossible section of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances during an orchestra rehearsal, I started laughing at my horrific wrong notes. The cellist looked at me as though I were mad. Growing up in the viola section, I thought chuckling at impossible notes was the typical reaction.

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  2. Charles Noble Post author

    Even in professional circles, it’s not uncommon for a particularly bad gaffe to be met with a “wow, that was impressive” look for a violist stand partner (if not the whole section!). Thanks for reading!

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