Saturday, April 16, 2005

beans in a pod

Shelling the first broad beans, stroking the downy sleeping bag from which they plop from an ordered line into the chaos of a blue bowl, seeing the sunlight reflected in their pale green faces, I got to thinking about sections; cello sections.

Playing in a section is never easy, and it gets harder.

We study for years at a conservatoire trying to find our voice. If this fails, as it did in my case, and we are still a nervous wreck even contemplating playing in front of an audience we go to university as mature students to do a doctorate in voice-finding and, having found it, we then celebrate it by doing a course in Voice-Movement -Therapy. Here we learn to follow our impulses, improvise, be free and in the moment. Our voice has become full, honest, flexible and connected to all our chakras. We love being on stage, in a pit, wherever, so long as we can sing our hearts out. We are running courses called 'The Dance of Sound', helping people to find optimum self-expression through their musical and physical gesture. It is all going terribly well.

Then, if we are lucky, we get to play in a section; we get to be a bean in a pod.

When she was young, insecure and searching for her voice, this bean was a 'good bean' and happy hiding in a warm pod. Now she is more confident she is still under the impression that she feels happy - shining now - in the verdant velvet of a good section.... but apparently she is struggling to get out.

- Or so it seemed to a conductor with whom she recently worked:

Bean, in this case, was indeed not inspired but, since it is her job to do so, she did not take her eyes off the young conductor. However, her gestures, in attempt to maintain a sense of commitment, despite lack of inspiration from the podium, were getting far too big for the pod and her disappointment probably showed in her face. Other bean colleagues cope in different ways: One by turning its chair away from the conductor and keeping its eyes on the music; another by trying to correct the conductor; another by emphasizing rather than trying to lighten the breathless heavy dirge of the baton.....All these coping mechanisms contribute to the sound of the section but which one is more visible?

Muggins Bean of course. And in this case she was told that on the next tour she could not play the continuo part because she had been a bad bean.

On a long tour we are none of us angels and, after twenty five years in the profession, having worked with many of the great conductors and instrumentalists, we are often disappointed; disappointed that after all this we should, if we are to be good section players, really curb our hard won gestures, lower our voices, hide our hearts under our sleeves and bow down to someone who is young and inexperienced, or someone who is there because they are someone else's brother, because they are Russian or good at fund-raising......

There are times, and I am lucky to have had many of them, when a conductor breathes life into the lung of the orchestra and we become one organism - all voices fused, egos overridden, and differences harmonized. Then he or she is truly conducting the energy from the composer, with all spirits, bodies, batons, cellos and drums as equal instruments in that conduction. This experience, for me, is akin to prayer.

It is my belief that everyone has to be present and in good voice for this to happen, and that humility (not false modesty which is just another ego trip) is the key. The first person to show this humility should, I believe, be the conductor. If he is inexperienced, arrogant or insecure this cannot happen and beans with a tendency to broaden might (though they shouldn't) get out of control. That, in turn, is a conductor's nightmare.

As I write, it is pelting down in Provence and a toad is croaking in full voice. Go for it, I say!


Blogger Kimberly said...

Oh, Ruth, what marvelous writing. I'm sorry to hear that all is not well in your pod. I want to respond in more detail, and more thoughtfully, but the sun has just come out here, and I need to go be phototropic for a while. I'll be back.

12:12 AM  
Anonymous caroline morphess said...


My head plays music whilst you write, and you do know that, if you ever condsidered a second career then you couldn't go too wrong with photography.

11:52 AM  
Blogger granny p said...

This is what you get for commenting on my site - which I guess I'll put you on, as soon as I can bear to fiddle with template again. Love this - bean and cello both. Broad bean my favourite veggie, cello favourite sound. Know exactly what you mean about the beans when you shell them. Know only about conductors by report from a cellist friend. But am passionate enough about music to have some idea what you're talking about. Never quite know how people manage to shoehorn themself into a section like that. Bit like asking someone to write in tempo with others. I couldn't do it. Don't know about anyone else...

2:58 PM  

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