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The “Do”s and “Don’t”s of a Professional (Cellist)


Shing Ann Yeh
From the beautiful land of Brevard, I bring you some wisdom.  We recently engaged in an All-Cello Studio class, where the four faculty cellists, including David Premo, Alistar McRae, Felix Wang, and Benjamin Karp, sat down and told us stories about the “do”s and “don’t”s of a professional cellist’s life.  Some shared anecdotes from their own experience, while other times, it was pertinent to tell a horror story of a musician who lost tenure because of a silly error.

This is Dmitri, my cello.

While some of these notes are common sense behaviors, writing them down further impresses them onto my mind, and other notes about fingerings and standpartner etiquette were newly explained.  Without further ado, here are the notes from our studio class:
Gigs
  • Call back immediately (or within 3 hours). Contractors are stressed and want someone who is reliable.
  • Be early (recommended for the first time: half hour). What important thing would you be doing for those 15 minutes that would cause you to lose this job opportunity?
Orchestra
  • Be on time, a.k.a. at least 10 minutes early.
  • Know your part.
  • Don’t be “that person who comes in early.”
  • Don’t be “that person who practices solo rep.”
  • During breaks, just take the break.  Don’t be fiddling around. But if you do decide to practice during the break, do so quietly with only the music on the stand.
  • It’s chamber music.  The greatest orchestras don’t even really need a conductor to be able to play together.
  • Mirror the melody.  Pay attention to the other sections and support them.
  • Let the winds do their job.  Don’t turn around and stare at them while they play their solo; just sit, look ahead, listen and enjoy it.
  • Have very precise rhythm.  Don’t rush.
  • Playing in the back is so much harder than playing in the front.
  • Count during the rests.
  • In terms of personality, basically it is the personality of the principal that is most important. Yes, play with movement if that is naturally your style, but if it seems like you are leading and you are not the principal, it’s is frowned upon.
  • It is more fun to watch an orchestra who is thoroughly engaged.
  • If you have a recommendation to the section, then say so directly, looking the person in the eye. If you speak awkwardly, then your suggestion is uncomfortable for everyone.
  • Use plural pronouns. “We should play together” is much better than an accusatory “You didn’t play the dynamic.” This applies to chamber music as well.
Fingerings and Markings
  • Generally, the outside player writes fingerings on top, inside player below the note.
  • They should be sparing, if at all.  Many major orchestras do not have fingerings in the parts.  Know the part!
  • If written, then write them half as small as you would instinctively (aka, no giant upbow markings).
  • If written, make it neat and specific.
  • Make it deliberate.  No faint markings: make it dark and precise.
  • It’s a learning process… the person in the orchestra who is more seasoned will probably already have a system.
  • Be alert.  Sometimes the principal will decide to change something while the conductor is working with someone else, the second stand will get it, and maybe the third stand might scrawl it in.  Many times the back stands just miss it. Remember it and ask during the next break!
  • Make pianos pianissimo.

Turning pages

  • If you are on the inside part, it is your job to make sure to turn to the next page.  You cannot allow for 2 people on your stand to stop playing.
  • Hold the cello and the bow in your right hand and turn the page with your left hand.  This way (like piano page turning), you don’t get in the way of the person playing.
  • Once you hit the bottom of the page, be alert.
Auditions
  • Read. Author: Don Green. Book: “The Inner Game of Tennis.” Sports psychology books are great.
  • Recreate the audition scene.  It’s all in the brain.
  • Video record yourself.  Set up a tripod with a camcorder.
  • Make a grid of excerpts.  Practice them systematically only 20 minutes.  Sometimes practicing each one for 2 hours will just make it works.
  • Come up with trigger words.  Make yourself think of them each time so that they become habit.
  • Play for other people.  Especially people you respect a lot.  You know you don’t play as well as them, but you want to play for them.
  • Think of auditions as a privilege. You are playing for people who have earned the right to sit behind the screen.
  • Consider auditions as a mini-recital. Don’t play defensively (as in, don’t do this…). Each one has to be musical; instead of thinking about the 100 things not to do, think about the 100 things to do!
  • Generally, auditions are only 6 minutes long.
Principal v. Section auditions
  • There are generally different sets of excerpts.  The principal ones will have more solo parts than the section ones.
  • Principal ones will have to know entire concertos and works.  Section players need a movement of a concerto.
  • Principals will need to demonstrate that they can play the tutti parts with all the associated dynamics as well as play the parts of the solo line so that it will carry to the last seat in the audience.
Chamber music
  • Use plural pronouns.
  • Accusing and blaming specific people is not conducive to a good group dynamic.
  • It’s maybe 60% playing, and 40% group dynamics. So many quartets have great players who cannot give up some personality for the sake of the group.

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