String We Now Of Christmas

I love writing for strings. Looooooove it. One of my favorite things to do. I love hearing the meshing tones in my head, transposing them to paper, I love closing my eyes and physically mimicking the execution of the passages, to get a feel for bowings and fingerings, checking for potential errors or hidden difficulties that can be smoothed over. I love the range and flexibility of the instruments, the contrast between the dark brooding of the viola and the sonorous projection of a cello across the same range of notes, the athleticism that a good 1st violinist can execute.

I love everything about writing for strings, right up until the moment I hand the printed to parts to actual players, and the bitching begins.

String players are an onerous breed. There is an attitude, a vibe that permeates the culture of string players that makes them, almost uniformly, unpleasant to work with. I think it stems from the fact that they all, deep down, want to play nothing but chamber music for knowledgeable and adoring impresarios at outdoor amphitheaters under the evening stars of Tuscany. They harbor barely repressed violent urges toward you for having the audacity to offer them money to play anything else, and every gig they take reminds them that their career has not yet reached such fabulous heights that they can afford to turn you down.

As a result, when you had a string player a piece of music to play, they wear a look as if you had handed them a page covered with warm spit. They will condescend to play this hackneyed drivel you’ve given them, but they will make sure everyone involved knows that they deserve better.

Here’s the difference: if you hand a guitar player a piece of paper, and it has 95% of what they need in order to play the tune, they’ll figure out the rest and jump into the song, delivering their musical best. They’ll do the same if you hand them a Starbucks receipt with hand-scribbled chords on the back. If what they tried wasn’t what you wanted, they’ll gladly try something else on the next pass. If you did something silly, like writing in a whammy bar part for any guitar built after 1992, they’ll cheerfully try to get the same affect using string bends. If something is musically awkward, they might offer up 2 or 3 alternates, and cheerfully suggest them to you in rehearsal. If you don’t like any of them, they’ll go back to playing the original part.

In short, the guitarist recognizes that you, the arranger, are not a guitarist, and don’t understand the instrument like they do. When your chart asks them to do something, they understand that it will take some interpretation by the actual musician in order to produce a musical effect. They recognize that the printed chart is a map to the music, not the music itself, and that maps vary in their quality and accuracy. They understand that it is the responsibility of the player to find the destination – they’re not some DARPA experiment in robot navigation, they are intelligent and resourceful explorers within the musical terrain. The same is true of wind players, percussionists, pianists, trumpets, tubas, jug-bands, and castrato soloists.

This is not an excuse for poor writing or sloppy notation; it is absolutely the responsibility of the arranger and orchestrator to develop strong musical ideas, and ink out for the musician clear indications in how to execute them. But even the best arrangers, the best orchestrators, rely on the musicality of the performer to find the appropriate interpretation of an imperfect system of written indication.

On the other hand, if you place a piece of paper in front of a string player, and it has 95% of what they need in order to play the tune, you will spend the first 45 minutes of the rehearsal listening to them bitch about the last 5%. If you give them an awkward bowing, rather than trying to figure out what you might be trying to indicate by asking for it, and then figuring out how to deliver that musical effect in a different way, they will bitch that the bowing is awkward. If you do something musically non-standard, like writing the cello in unison with the 1st violin on a counter-melody against the singer, with 2nd violin and viola in harmony beneath the line, they will assume that you bribed your way past Theory 1 instead of learning decent part writing. There will, on no occasion, be any assumption on the part of the string players that they are being asked to apply their own musical instinct to the part, to locate the music to which the printed score is the guide. They are just here killing time until they get the call to fly to Tuscany, at which point they will cheerfully invest all of there passion and creativity into every performance. Your music, on the other hand, will get nothing of the sort.

So, on Christmas Eve-Eve, the Sunday before Christmas, I had a singularly wonderful experience. We booked a string quartet at our church, contracted by my Teaching Assistant, Alex Wen, who continues to use every opportunity to exceed everyone’s expectations. They started unpacking their instruments, they tuned up, ran some scales. Finally, the moment came, I handed them the parts I had written, and held my breath.

They were brilliant. Fantastic. Warm, funny, musically adventurous, willing to embrace the songs. The 1st violin, Gene Wei, was perhaps the best on that instrument that I’ve ever worked with – he was aggressive in his interpretation, which infected the entire quartet. When notation that was unclear, he quickly made decisions for the ensemble, he corrected problems with intonation and voicing between the parts. he improvised lead passages where appropriate, and followed my leading from the piano with decisiveness. In short, he seemed to possess that sort of spirit that seems all too lacking in string players: he recognized that the arranger (me!) was relying on the expertise of the string players to translate my written guide into actual music, and to do it with passion and conviction.

We blew through some arrangements of Christmas Carols for the congregational singing, and then the moment of truth. I had written an original song, “That Night, They Dreamed”, and arranged it for piano and string quartet. The piece asked for some particular things of the players, and I knew that the notation wasn’t as well-prepared as it could have been (the piece having just come into the world 48 hours earlier). If the typical string player vibe-throwing was going to infect the group, it would be here.

Instead, it ranked as one of the must satisfying musical experiences of my life. They responded, beautifully, to the ink. They interpreted musically. Gene, n 1st violin, improvised a passionate and sparkling (and in tune!) cadenza, and led the group through the rubato phrasing in perfect lockstep with my vocal leading.

If any of you are looking for strings in the LA area, and you’re tired of the attitude and vibe-throwing, email me, and I’ll hook you up. I have the phone numbers of 4 who get it.

21 thoughts on “String We Now Of Christmas

  1. Daniel Semsen

    Interesting. For the whole first 2/3 of this entry I was planning on contradicting you with a pleasant string experience I had myself recently…but then, alas, the last 1/3 made my point already. Well…blast…I’ll still share…but before I do, let me say that I have experienced the type of string players you’re talking about–but only at APU, with APU students…a long time ago…

    Last Easter I got the $$ to hire a decent size string group (9 players) to play with my rhythm section. It took me a while to find anyone, and most of the people I called were already booked. I had gotten a list of players from a friend of mine that comes up here from San Diego to play on movie soundtracks all the time. I finally found one dude that was available, and in my exasperation, I asked him to contract the rest of the players (I don’t think he was bummed about earning a little extra cash).

    He found the most professional, amazing sounding group of string players that I’ve ever worked with. These dudes were straight out of Burbank and Santa Monica. (One of them even had to cancel at the last minute because they got called to a film score session.) These were crazy-freaking-good players that were playing MY GIG!! They arrived a good 30 minutes before the call time, flipped through the music (a Clydesdale musical–need I say more), and played the hell out of it. It was by far the best string experience I’ve ever had.

    IMHO-the attitude of the player is one of the main differences between the egotistical amateur, and the experienced professional.

  2. Doug

    For the first eight paragraphs I was thinking “I guess we are not having strings next Christmas.”
    I certainly hope all “our” players read to the end of Mike’s post so that we can plan on something moving for Good Friday that requires a capable and amiable string quartet.
    “That Night, They Dreamed” was wonderful on December 23. I am amazed at the talent that was demonstrated here that morning.

  3. michael lee Post author

    Daniel, 90% of my experience has been with those caliber players, film score pros from around the corner here in Burbank. I find that kind of onerous attitude all to prevalent among those pros.

  4. Stick

    I was telling Mike the other day when he was telling me this story that the “attitude” comes across even in Polish. I was in Warsaw frantically writing arrangements for the 13 piece ensemble that was coming the next morning for 5 pop/rock tunes. And I was IMing Mike across the world having him help me with bowings and phrasing and stuff that I rarely have to think about when faking strings on the computer. Anyhoo, clearly my charts weren’t 1st class, but still that “look” was priceless.

    At least in Poland, that 13 piece ensemble was something like $1200 for 5 tunes in 4 hours. No, not per person… total. Including the contractor. Crazy.

  5. Harmonic Miner

    Strings are just so hard to play well that people who get good have spent so much time alone in practice rooms that they don’t know how to relate to normal human beings, with, uh, lives. Occasionally they talk to other string players in the hallway outside the practice rooms.

    A few manage to remain psychologically normal, and actually seem to like music.

    It helps if you laugh at their jokes… if you can tell that they ARE jokes.

    It really is about loving the music more than you love your station in life, whatever you think it is.

    Cherish the moment, my friend…. they’re all too rare.

  6. Chris Hahn

    at least you gave them music! 2 weeks ago, I was recording with a cellist in a vocal studio, and I literally sung her parts for her while we were there. Sing part, play it. Got it? Play it with the track. Got it? OK, track that one, and then I sing her next part and repeat. That’s what you get when you let the drummer run the recording session. :-)

  7. Pingback: Strings » The Upward Way Press

  8. Moses

    I’m surprised how much you like guitarists, considering you’re always making fun of my playing… :)

    oh, forgive me. i’m a METAL guitarist… \m/

  9. Melody

    I will be keeping this post in mind tomorrow morning as I judge jr. Hi and HS cellos for the county honor orchestra. I think I’ll choose the ones with the best attitudes. Some of those little buggers get really vain. By keeping the prima donnas out I will be doing a favor for the composer/directors of tomorrow. You can thank me later.

  10. Chris Cox

    Dude. Preach. PRREEEEAAAACCCHHH! I’ve arranged quite a bit for string quartet, and each time my youthful exuberance is promptly squelched by the aforementioned “vibe”. Bitches is wack. I’m emailing you for these phone numbers.

  11. harmonicminer

    Thank you NOW.

    But another possibility… instead of not selecting good players with bad attitudes, let them know you’re selecting them but DON’T appreciate their attitudes, and someone is going to be watching them….

    It never hurts to increase a string player’s paranoia.

  12. Melody

    So the cello auditions are done. They made us do blind auditions. This is hard because when they all sound pretty much the same you can’t remember small details to refer back to, like you know, the one with green jeans. Interestingly, two of the jr. high players had much better tone quality than any of the high school people. I kept waiting for somebody to come in an wow me, but no luck. Oh well, maybe I can plan to be out of town for next years’ auditions.

  13. Chad

    I just have to say that I’ve had nothing but good references over the years from Dave Takahashi’s group of contacts. All of our experiences, and I know that Dave got some good work and gigs with not only me and our church (as I always pay guest players well) but also some recording and touring dates with Shelley (Tumes) on her gigs.

    I think one thing that helped me avoid scorn (at least to my face) was that I didn’t bother trying to get articulations in there. I put really basic charts in front of them (I mean… they had notes and staffs and… well you know… accidentals and all) and then I would basically make the same speech.

    “So… you guys figure out how to make this sound cool. The notes are cool, I know that, but I need you to mark up your own charts as we rehearse, cool?”

    That’s worked for me… anyways.

  14. Daniel Semsen

    Dave Takahashi is the bomb. In ’02 he was the president of UCO or something, and he made T-shirts for all of the instrumentalists that said only…

    “…and orchestra”

    I love that dude.

  15. Eric

    Gosh, after reading the first part of the post, I really felt a need to jump to the defense of my string-player wife, but then she is a viola da gambist, so nobody would really care anyway…

  16. michael lee Post author

    [quote comment="140641"] she is a viola da gambist[/quote]

    I thought we rounded them all up and shot them during the great “Archaic Instrument Pogrom of 1974″

  17. Eric

    [quote comment="140646"][quote comment="140641"] she is a viola da gambist[/quote]

    I thought we rounded them all up and shot them during the great “Archaic Instrument Pogrom of 1974″[/quote]

    Aha! Apparently several dozen escaped and are now living secret lives among us disguised as…ordinary string players. I think there’s a colony in Vermont somewhere.

  18. harmonicminer

    I know what it’s like to be related to a famous explorer.

    Do you speak Portuguese?

  19. Eric

    [quote comment="140667"]I know what it’s like to be related to a famous explorer.[/quote]

    You’re thinking of Vasco da Gama. My wife is distantly realted to Vasco da Gamba, the pioneering leg surgeon.

    [quote]Do you speak Portuguese?[/quote]

    No, não uma palavra.

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