I've been having the privilege and honour to perform with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for a while now (especially since returning home in June last year) and other orchestras and groups in the country such the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra (MFO) and the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO). Though I am relatively new to MFO and SLO, I had a serious brush with the SSO (in my previous post) which could have cost me my freelancing engagements with them! So, as promised for this post, I am going to share how not to screw up, whether you'll be playing in an orchestra or in a big band, and to maintain a good relationship with the group your are playing with.
- Get The Parts Early
Unless you get a call the night before (which actually happened to me in February this year for SSO's Charles Dutoit concert that live-streamed Stravinsky's Firebird Suite), you will have plenty of time before the first rehearsal to get your part! Find out the librarian's contact and get in touch, asking for the music to your parts in the concert. If the organisation allows, you can ask for PDF copies - I usually ask for them not only because it saves trees, but also because plain and simply, it is more convenient than making a trip down to their office just to collect it physically. Once you've obtained it, it's time to do our homework!
- Know The Music
After getting your part, or even if you do not have it yet, start listening to the music! Grab your earphones and your music, and start listening to your favourite recordings whilst reading along with the full score (and your part, if you can actually split your eyes and focus). If you are doing a pop/jazz gig, do the same! Unless you own a set of really good speakers and can blast them without disturbing your neighbours, I highly suggest using earphones because you can block out external sound as well as listen to the music wholly without distractions. Keep a ear out for specific instances, like hits in the tune or anything else from time signature changes to tempo changes and so on. For classical music, watch out especially for these changes, seeing and hearing how different orchestras do it so that you don't get a shock in your first rehearsal. The whole idea of this is to not only know when you play, but who you play with. It is to know what role your notes have in relation to the entire group and to find a suitable sound colour to either blend or not, depending on the piece and your preference (but also your leader's). For classical musicians, I'm sure you know of IMSLP, where your can get your full scores there and even your parts, if they in public domain. If not, you might have to use your resources to find the full scores in public libraries. A personal experience: when we performed Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony, there was no full score, and I was pretty sure the librarian will not have a PDF of a 10-movement symphony that spans 90 minutes. Granted, I did not ask because in the event if they did not have it, I would have felt extremely bad for troubling the librarian into scanning the full score! So to find a solution, I asked a friend, who was still in school, to borrow the full score for me just so that I was able to look through it and be prepared. For pop or jazz gigs, you can always transcribe the tunes as a roadmap. The more you know what's happening in the piece, the more familiar and therefore, prepared you become. And I daresay, this is the most crucial and important part in your preparation!
- Be Prepared
Now that you've gotten the parts and have studied the music and score, it's time to put all those into practice! Head to your practice room and go over your part, both with and without a recording. Even though most of the homework should be done by now, you definitely do not want to be sight reading! If you are on mallets, try practicing to the point where you can play without looking at the notes so that you can look at the conductor. I know - it's impossible to hit all the correct notes without looking down, but conductors appreciate and need eye contact! I was on glockenspiel for the Harry Potter concert with the MFO, and it required me to be looking up constantly! The rapid tempo fluctuations in movie music is more demanding from a symphony and I had to work doubly hard for that performance due to many exposed parts. Being prepared also consists of writing in cues - from brass entries to the timpani roll, from a harp gliss to a flute solo. The more cues you write, the more safety nets you have when things go awry, or especially when you get lost!
- Be Early
Punctuality is important wherever you go and is one of the first few things managements take note off. Strive to arrive an hour before the start of the rehearsal, especially if you are a percussionist. And even if you aren't, you can use the time to warm up, play in the hall for a bit (or the studio depending on the gig you have) to get used to the space and sound produced so that you can make adjustments during the rehearsal. Arriving way earlier ahead of time gives you buffer time for emergencies as well - forgetting to bring sticks/mallets/triangles/tambourines or anything small. It also gives you ample time to set up your stuff - sticks and mallets on stick trays, music on the stand, tuning of drums (if need be, especially if you are on bass drum), and also just to help your colleagues set up their stuff. As the famous saying in the Singapore Armed Forces go, "if you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late".
- Ask Questions
Don't be afraid to ask questions, especially if it's your first time! For percussionists, it is important to know where the equipment and gear are, so that you know how and where to put them back after the rehearsal. I was on chimes when we recorded Scriabin's 4th and 5th symphonies a while ago, and the part indicated a "low C" and was written in the bass clef! So I clarified with my principal and associate if I needed to use something else that the orchestra has. Even though they had another set that went to a low F, we decided that the current set of chimes will suffice for the concert and recordings. As mentioned earlier, you need to know the type of sound you are looking for. In my case, I made sure that the section was comfortable with the chimes that I was going to be playing on. That being said, do not keep asking about how you sound or how your playing is! You have been chosen and are there for a reason - they trust you enough to make your decisions, and you play well. You should already sound good by then too! If you are genuinely concerned, maybe ask once but not to the point of annoying your colleagues - they might end up thinking you are incompetent and cannot make musical decisions on your own. And that is something you definitely do not want. There is a fine line between asking someone a question and annoying someone with a question, so trust yourself and your instinct!
There you go, my 5 tips to not get you fired! I believe that the more prepared you are, the more confident you feel, and that translates to better performances and sounding better! But remember, it is always for the music and for the music to sound good - serve the music's purpose first. Everything else is secondary.
Hope you had a great time reading my tips! Do share yours if you have any to add. In the meantime, stay safe and be well.
P.S. Shoutout again to Pantheon Percussion, supported by Percussion Works (P.Works), for welcoming me into the family and for being their first classical artiste! We released an artiste video as I have shared on Facebook. Just to continue the sharing, I employed the above tips before we went into the recording studio as well - making sure I have my part written down and memorised, practicing the material till it was good, and even making a click track to ensure consistency in recordings. As mentioned, the tips aren't specific and exclusive to the type of gig you are doing. Do check them out and the awesome work they've been doing for the local drumming and percussion community!