If a violist plays in tune in the forest…..by Roma Duncan

You should sit where I sit at MN Orchestra concerts.  As the piccolo player, I’m close to the center of the stage and I don’t play every passage of every piece which gives me the opportunity to listen to the orchestra from within.  Depending on the string setup, I’ll be hearing members of the second violins, the cellos, and the bass section right next to me.  I love listening to our section players who you won’t be hearing in solo roles but who are performing with as much conviction, musicality, and passion as the musicians you will notice at our concerts.

I remember inviting a friend to a concert where I played second flute years ago.  She really enjoyed the program, but commented that she couldn’t imagine what it was like for me to play a concert in which nobody heard me.  I still remember being really struck by that, and I’ve given it a lot of thought since.  Since I’m the piccolo player now, you will be hearing me every time I’m on stage, but what about all of the section players who you’ll possibly never notice or hear individually?  One of the things I love about the MN Orchestra is the quality and the energy that our section players bring to our sound.  Without dedicated sections from the front to the back of the stage, you get some nice solos over a mediocre accompaniment.  With dedicated and accomplished sections like ours, you get a gorgeous supporting cast that creates the definitive sound of the orchestra.  It takes talent and work, but it also takes a specific attitude and a willingness to subvert individual ego in favor of the group sound and goals. In every single chair onstage, we need a soloist who’s willing not to be a soloist when necessary.

Perhaps the best example of this is the viola section.  The violas are the punch line of many a musical joke, and not the first group that springs to mind when discussing virtuosity and prominence.  They’re also a crucial inner voice of the orchestra.  You’ll probably spend a lot of time not noticing them while they are ably providing the depth, color, and support that set the scene for a transcendent flute solo or soaring violin melody.

There’s no other sound on earth like a great orchestra.  The way the parts and the people function is magical: sometimes blending seamlessly, sometimes hammering out brutal dissonances, and always fitting perfectly together and apart.  It’s a precious thing and I’m so fortunate and grateful to be a part of this great orchestra.

So do we need a dazzling concert master and virtuoso principals?  Of course we do and I’m happy to say that we have them.  We also need a passionate eighth bass player, a fourth trumpet player capable of subtlety and finesse, and an entire section of violists devoted to the often unnoticed and always vital role of producing the center of our sound.  So, if a violist plays in tune in the forest, does it make a sound?  Absolutely! And it’s beautiful.

Roma Duncan, Solo Piccolo
July 2012

2 thoughts on “If a violist plays in tune in the forest…..by Roma Duncan

  1. To Roma Duncan. Excellent article–light hearted, yet so meaningful. You’ve hit the nail on the head: every section and every member of an orchestra is important. To believe it: just listen to a piece with one section missing. It is mostly a tribute to the great composers who designed and constructed works that intrcaely weave every voice and texure into the finished product. And then, your first point….about the oppotunity to sit right in the middle of a great orchestra with all of this magnificent sound and talent surrounding you. It would be my dream to sit right there!…..so close to genius!

  2. Great desciption of what is like to be inside the orchestra. It is truly amazing to hear the depth of talent that surrounds you!
    (an SPCO colleague)

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