Friday, March 24, 2006

Hippocratic Oath for string players

'First, do no harm' - it's a simple principle, yet it has guided many a physician towards a humble and respectful practice of the healing art. Well, we string players need simple guiding principles too, and Vienna Philharmonic violist Hans Peter Ochsenhofer offered one in a master class this afternoon: "First, change no bowings," we might say.

Or at the very least, think very carefully before changing those bowings. We would never rewrite a great composer's notes, and yet we frequently disregard their phrasing and articulation instructions, adding bow changes at will. Brahms would often tie together long phrases beneath a single slur - taken at a slow tempo or a loud dynamic, such markings might seem nearly impossible. However, Herr Ochsenhofer pointed out, Brahms was actually a very smart guy, and "pretty musical" too. Those phrase and bowing markings can guide our tempo and dynamic choices, providing a fuller understanding of the composer's intentions.

The problems arise when we treat bowing decisions independently from other factors, taking them out of musical context. Herr Ochsenhofer mimicked a wild-west gunslinger, making fun of the 'shoot first, ask questions later' approach to bowings. We bass players are probably more guilty of this than most, choosing based on technical convenience and comfort rather than musical context. The result is to obscure that context, garble the phrasing, and homogenize the effect - basically to make everything boring. Where a bowing doesn't seem to work in the composer's marking, Ochsenhofer suggested to "work your butt off" to figure out that original intention first, before changing anything. Only with that kind of understanding can we change the bowings and still keep the essential character.

I was very impressed by Hans Peter Ochsenhofer, and not just his fealty to the musical text - he seemed to exemplify the kind of spirited, committed, and joyful orchestral musician that we all hope to become. And he still talks about learning and developing musically as his highest priorities. As much as an orchestral string player must learn how to compromise - like in a marriage, there will always be tensions, disagreements, differences, he said - we need to work hard to maintain our own unique musical identity. We need to be able to wake up in the morning, look ourselves in the mirror, and recognize, "Aha, there is that little musician I know." If we can keep that in focus, hopefully we will not only do no harm, but perhaps do a bit of good.

3 comments:

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

john has been telling me a lot of things that mr. O has illuminated- and he sounds like a wonderful man. i was unaware he had a masterclass until after the fact, which is a pity since it sounds like he had many good things to say, and provides an insight into the minds of Old World musicians. i think that the idea of retaining one's own healthy musicality, regardless of the situation or people you are near, is something that we musicians should really aspire to- if at the very least to to avoid the pitfall of the "bitter musician." But of course it is much more than simply that; playing music- and showing it to others- can be such a magical way of living, that it could very well change one's life, for all healthy and beneficial reasons. Perhaps if anything it gets us outside of our little "excerpt" boxes and back to the way we felt when we decided to go into this business after all.

Joe said...

I am an advocate of bowing things as they come, or at least trying to over-compensate bowings so that every damn measure has to begin with a downbow, even if the composer intended otherwise. I watch my section commit this sin every week. As bassists, I know we're in the minority here...

Naomi said...

Once again, Hella, you've read my mind. I've often thought of the Hippocratic Oath as something orchestra players should have to commit to before they join a section, let alone determine bowings. Anyways, you bass players have an excuse, with a really short bow and all. Speaking of which, too bad there's no prohibition against practing Ein Heldenleaven on Passover.