Some reflections after a few days as a musician

Posted by Marcus Hammarberg on August 30, 2018
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I’ve had the great opportunity to do some extra work in a very different environment this week; I’ve been a musician in a professional orchestra - the awesome Östgöta Blåsarsymfoniker.

It was quite a treat to work in this group and get to play my instrument on a high level. Also, as an amateur, getting paid to play my instrument is … mindboggling.

Being part of this group for a few days made me notice a few rituals and practices that I think we can learn from. I wanted to share a few thoughts on them here.

Below I will list a few practices and rituals that we did. First I had an idea of writing something about how to translate this into practices for my “home” industry, IT. But I decided against that. Because I wanted to give you the opportunity to find ways.

Warming up. Together

The first thing I noticed and was immediately impressed by was that the section I was in (3 trombones plus me on euphonium) had a common warm-up session the first thing we did in the morning.

Super simple stuff. Long notes with very simple articulation in scales. (Not that simple, really, for me as an amateur as we started on E-major but hey - I got through it).

We stood in a circle and played to each other, ensuring that we were in sync, that the articulation of the notes was similar and that the pitch was correct. Furthermore, it gave us all a common start to the working day, like a soft stretch.

We then played another similar exercise and finally played a few very beautiful chorals together. Something like this maybe.

I especially love that last part where we, after being properly warmed up, made some beautiful sounds together. Here we focused on blending our sounds together, give leeway for the different parts roles and giving each other space (musically).

It sounds very sententious but it’s really just what happens when you play music together and listen for each other.

Coming prepared to work

One thing that I found very different from other jobs I had was that I had to put in quite a lot of practice on my part of the pieces before we even started rehearsing as a group.

At first, I thought this had to do with the fact that I wasn’t up to standard. But as I entered the quarters of the orchestra I could hear, even the most brilliant of musicians in the band, practising on their individual parts until they knew it. Some of us had put in many hours because their part was harder to figure out. Others had just to eye over their part and were then ready.

The key here - and what impressed me to notice, was that they had a common sense of how well they needed to know their part. Not once during 10-12 hours rehearsal did we have to go back and play something because someone didn’t play it correct. Instead, we could focus on togetherness, stylistic and musically shape the pieces to a better, more cohesive performance.

It was like the orchestra had a built-in feeling for what good was.

Tuning to the same pitch

Every rehearsal, after each break in the rehearsals and before each concert any serious orchestra tunes to the same pitch. Usually, it’s an oboe that plays a note that everyone, section by section, tunes towards.

It is a small ritual (takes 30 seconds), lead by the concertmaster, ensures that we all play in the same pitch. The reason we do it so often is that instruments get out of tune pretty easy and fast if you don’t play them.

But there are other things at play here as well:

  • We tune our attention - “Now! It’s game time. Time to play. Let’s do it well.” The feeling is similar to walking onto a pitch to play a game of soccer or tennis. It’s game on!
  • We tune (ah, well) into the same place - As the concertmaster looks around the sections, invites them to tune, everyone is seen and noticed. “And now, brass please tune.”
  • We tune to each other - every time I tune I have to listen to the others that have played their note. I might have to change my pitch, ever so slightly, or just feel if I’m in tune or not. It gives us a sense of oneness and team.

Once the tuning is done the concertmaster turns to the conductor and goes:

There. The band is now ready.

We then start to play beautiful music together.

Playing different musical roles

One thing that I had particular enjoyment from was that my part had different roles to play. Sometimes I was acting the bass of the ensemble, ensuring a steadfast ground for the other to play on. Other times I was supporting another voice that was lead and I just gave them more body - you were not supposed to hear me. Yet other times I was the soloist or played a theme and finally, I sometimes was part of a whole group/section that brought a theme forward.

These different roles were changed in a few bars, and everyone around me was supposed to do the same with their parts. When it worked it was a beautiful display of cooperation and listening that created an almost living organism and oneness out of us.

If (and, I’m sad to say, when) I didn’t pick up the role I played I ended up destroying the musical picture. Imagine for example that was supporting the bassoon, but played it as if I was the solo voice. An euphonium can easily overpower a bassoon and drown him out. Then that voice and change in timbre and sound in the music would have been lost and the music would have sound much duller and borning. A failure in performing the music, just because I didn’t understand my role.

Very seldom the music contains descriptions on what role I should take on, but this is rather discovered through playing the piece together.

Summary

A (professional) orchestra is a true team, to be likened to a professional sports team. The goal and purpose of their work are very clear; to make the best music possible. I was in awe with the lengths to which the band went to ensure that this happened. I’m sure that most of them were so much second nature that they didn’t even think about why they did it.

I think it would be very useful for other teams (software, support, management etc.) to see if we can find practices where we:

  • Warm up, together, and ensures good starts for everyone. Maybe we could use a standup for this rather than the usual status reporting? Or we find other practice where we try to come together and do the basic work, basic reasoning, basic thinking in a slow, mindful way?
  • Have, give and take time to come prepared to our work. Maybe we should block off time in our calendar for reading, developing and preparing for the work we do?
  • Tune to the same pitch. Maybe we need time to remind ourselves and each other about the true goal and reason we are here? What are we really trying to accomplish? How can I be more aligned with that in my being here today?
  • Be pronounced and clear with the roles we play. Maybe we should discuss in a retrospective/improvement meeting what roles we take on and how we are trying to support and help the team and organisation reach its goal?

I don’t have anything ready made for these practices, but I have a strong feeling that we, doing developing work in an uncertainty filled world and context, can learn a lot about the simple practices that orchestras are using to ensure that they are being the best version of themselves they can be.



Published by Marcus Hammarberg on Last updated