What goes on in the minds of classical musicians

Ati Metwaly, Wednesday 5 Nov 2014

Ahram Online probes minds of classical musicians to understand the many aspects involved in the process of making music

classical musicians
Cairo Symphony Orchestra during one of the concerts (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

For many, attending a classical music concert represents a relaxing point of culmination to a long day. We attend specific concerts for the sake of favourite programmes, orchestras or soloists. As listeners, we re-emerge from these evenings with countless impressions, which last for some time until the daily routine washes them away or another concert satiates our tastes with the new notions.

As recipients of music, we see the final product, the score that has come alive and reached our senses. Musicians are the translators of countless compositions, allowing us to enjoy the experience while stirring many reflections.

However, we rarely think about the process of creating music and hardly give a second thought to the whole lot of feelings, analysis, worries and hopes that preoccupy musicians’ minds during the performance.

"Whenever I go on stage, I feel a dosage of pressure. There is a sense of obligation that we have to deliver a professional and memorable performance to the audience," violinist Osman El-Mahdy explains to Ahram Online.

He adds that while he is aware of the audience bringing their expectations to the concert hall, at the back of his mind he always thinks about that one listener who might be attending this specific music piece for the first time. This creates pressure for him too, especially during solo recitals.

"If this one listener doesn't like the music or my interpretation, they might not return to the concert hall or worse, they might discourage others from attending. This is one of the core issues that occupies my mind right before and throughout the concert," El-Mahdy says, explaining that the underlying pressure to give the best performance possible is always there, regardless of whether he plays a small piece or a large concerto.

The awareness of the audience is equally fundamental for flautist Peter Olah. "When playing a flute concerto, I always think about keeping the audience awake. It is important to me that the listeners enjoy the music."

Olah explains that he might feel increased tension a day prior to the concert, but once on stage it all boils down to thinking about how to render the experience memorable for the audience.

Depending on the musician, the pressure takes different forms and in extreme cases the emotional strain leads to an anxiety that can negatively affect the quality of the performance.

El-Mahdy sees that musicians benefit from a healthy dosage of emotional weight. "The positive results of the pressure are that they lead to an important boost of concentration, something that is essential during any concert. On the other hand, showing up on stage completely relaxed challenges that concentration and might affect the artistic delivery," El-Mahdy clarifies.

In the concerto, the soloist interprets the composition, while in the symphonic work, it is the conductor who sets the vision and communicates it through the many colours and accents.

Olah, who is also first flute at the Cairo Symphony underscores that the musician's focus touches on different elements in a symphonic concert, where concentration may take on different forms. 

As first flute, Olah often plays the role of the woodwind section leader.

When surrounded by 80,100 or even more professional colleagues, the orchestral musician is on constant guard and is concentrating on a number of elements. While playing, the leader also multitasks, he listens and creates relation with other musicians in his section, remains attentive to his own group and follows the conductor's directives.

"The leader's role depends on this combination between vertical and horizontal thinking about music, it joins coordination with control of the technical and artistic elements," he says

The concertmaster (konzertmeister) is considered the second most important figure in the orchestra after the conductor. Sitting to the conductor's left, not only does he lead the string section, but he is also responsible for pre-concert tuning and for keeping the artistic and technical control over the orchestra.

El-Mahdy, who between 1994 and 2005 was concertmaster of the Cairo Opera Orchestra explains that "during the concert, opera or ballet, the concertmaster's mind is set on the conductor and transfers many of his messages to the group and to other leaders."

Olah also reveals another secret of orchestral musicians: counting.

"It may happen that a musician does not have enough time to study the score or he was asked to replace another musician in the last minute. This is where, while building the relations with other instruments, the musician is also obliged to count the bars or music segments to assure correct entry."

Counting is common particularly among the young musicians who have not developed sufficient experience with the orchestra and pieces performed. The frequency of concerts, with each offering new programming, sometimes leaves little time for in-depth preparation.

"The situation is however, different in smaller ensembles. In chamber music, usually all musicians know all the score," underlines El-Mahdy who is also the first violin in the Cairo Opera House String Quartet.

In the quartet, the rehearsals provide a lot of space for direct communication. During the concert, while the musicians have already mastered the piece, they continue to communicate through the eye contact.

In his turn, Olah also plays in chamber ensembles or gives flute recitals, usually accompanied by a pianist. "It is during the rehearsals that we find balance. We often adjust ourselves to one another, hence the concert becomes a culmination of all previous efforts," he clarifies.

Classical musicians' roles might differ depending on the formation they join. However, while directing attention to a variety of details, the core of their musicianship relies on the same artistic pillars. On top of these important factors we find preparation and high concentration both directly reflected in all musical output. At the same time, the musicians remain aware of the audience, hoping to create an imprint in listeners' minds.

Read also: What goes on in the minds of ballet dancers

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