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.