“Everyone can learn from everybody,” Wegher said. “Everybody feeds off each other, everybody pushes each other. No matter who comes out on top, you know they’re going to be the best because they’ve been pushed.”
Brandon Wegher is a running back for the University of Iowa football team, but his words made me wonder: how can musicians use this kind of healthy collaboration to make them (and the “team”) better. And: in what ways is their situation different from ours, and what ways could we find to emulate their interaction so as to harvest more of this kind of positive team collaboration.
Although we spend a lot of time alone in a practice room developing instrumental skills, we all are part of ensembles as well: band, orchestra, chamber music, horn choir, brass choir. There is always opportunity there to use that “team” situation to listen, adjust, make note of deficiencies and work on them later. In that respect, low horns have more possibilities, because, as the saying goes, the first horn has to be a soloist; second horn has to be a musician. There are some dangers in the usual large ensemble situation. If the conductor doesn’t know how to rehearse effectively, players get bored and unless they are very disciplined, this lack of focus/attention translates into sloppy section playing. If one or more players in a section has a bad attitude (doesn’t like the conductor, the music, the player he’s sitting next to, had a bad day, etc.) and lets this affect a professional attitude, the whole section can be dragged down. Another difficult situation is when players are not matched to their roles. Each part in a horn section has a distinct role – 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, assistant, and if the player from arrogance or ignorance doesn’t or won’t fulfill that role, it can be ugly and uncomfortable (this is aside from being able to play the part). There’s not much worse situation for a first horn who has a second horn who lets it be known that he thinks he should really be playing first and who refuses to “be a musician” and match the first in rhythm, dynamics, intonation, etc. I am blessed with currently playing in an orchestra with a dream team – where any one of them could play any of the parts, but who all fully accept and carry out their individual roles. It makes the job easy, fun, and something to look forward to. But I have also spent too much time (any time at all is too much) in the other situation where players did not accept and carry out their roles, and believe me, it’s the stuff of ulcers, therapy, and visions of joining the Foreign Legion. I suspect that this happens less in professional situations than at the college level. It’s hearsay, but I have heard stories about the deadly competition that reigns at some very prestigious music institutions that will remain unnamed here. One grad of one of these (now in her thirties) told me of some direct sabotage by other players and that she is still recovering from the effects of this kind of unhealthy competition.
The football team has a little different situation: they have several players for each position, and at any point in a game or season, the best player gets to play. Orchestras or bands theoretically pick the best player, but only once – at the audition. Once in, players just have to keep doing a good job to keep the position. So it will remain speculation what it would be like to be in an ensemble where whether you played a concert depended on which four of, say, the eight of you were the top players.
What else could we do to have more healthy collaboration? That’s topic that is worthy of investigation by all of us; there are many answers, and different solutions for different people. There are a couple of ideas that come to mind, however:
•When someone in the section plays an outstanding solo, give them some subtle positive feedback – foot shuffle or extension, that sort of thing. Don’t overdo it, however, or you will devalue the compliment.
•Play duets – often. It’s collaboration of the best kind. You are alternately both soloist and musician, and spur each other on. It’s a great way to tackle technique that might get too little attention otherwise: transposition, sight-reading, low/high range playing, different styles. Think up new ways to challenge each other. Play a classical style duet on natural horns (or hold down first valve on your double and play it all in Eb horn using hand horn technique). Play a bass line or ostinato and have the other player improvise in a key that needs attention (F#, Db, etc.), then switch. Play the Amsden duets at maximum tempo, no stopping for the wounded. Always have a duet book or two in your case, play whenever you can. If you don’t have any/many yet, borrow some from your teacher or a colleague. And put in an order for some from King or Hickey’s.
•Player/Coach. Get a partner and play solos, etudes, orchestral excerpts for each other. Be an extra ear for the other player and 1) help them isolate areas that need improving and 2) help them come up with solutions (plural) to make those improvements.
Working with people can make significant positive difference in all of our musical lives and development. It pays to look for collaborative opportunities whenever and wherever we can.