Visit Meridian Arts Ensemble's site

Back to Essays

What’s It Like to Play in the Meridian Arts Ensemble?
Daniel Grabois

The Meridian Arts Ensemble was founded in 1987, and I joined in early 1989. So the current season (2008-09) is my twentieth with the group.
For most of that time, Jon Nelson, Ben Herrington, Ray Stewart, and John Ferrari have been in the group. Brian McWhorter has been a member
for around seven years. [note from 2016: Tim Leopold replaced Brian McWhorter in 2010]

1. Musical communication
It is often said that music is a language, and I suppose that is true. Certainly, music has the ability to communicate emotion, and indeed to change
the emotions of the listener (listen to the opening of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. You don’t simply register that Bach is describing the nobility of
our humanity through the music, you actually feel noble and proud yourself). But there is a language of chamber music playing that is totally separate
from the music, yet totally bound to the music. This is the physical language in a chamber group, and it is very similar to the body language used
by a conductor.

We are, let’s face it, a visual species. We are much more comfortable when we see things than when we don’t. We don’t like the dark, or the fog, or
getting our eyes dilated, or anything that limits the scope of our vision.

Music is to a great degree an auditory art, but I want to get you to see the visual side of chamber music. Watch a string quartet, and you will see the
players move all over the place. Why are they doing this? Are they so full of emotion that they simply can’t contain themselves? No – if that were
the case, they would not be able to play in tune. Are they putting on a show, so they look like they are “real musicians”? There may be something to
that… But mostly, they are communicating with each other. I want to take you inside that communication.

2. Conductors and what they do
Think about the last orchestra concert you went to. The conductor strode onto the stage with just a small baton in his or her hand, waved the stick
around while the orchestra played its heart out, then took most of the credit for the performance. Did he or she earn the credit? What does the
conductor do?

First, the basics. The conductor moves the baton in a pattern that corresponds to the number of beats per measure in the music. Our western classical
music is “metrical,” which means that there is a regular pulse, with one beat being stronger than the others. A waltz is in 3/4 time, for example. This
is musical notation-speak, and it means that there are 3 beats to each measure (a measure is also interchangeably called a bar), and a particular note
value called the quarter note is the pulse. Three quarter notes in every bar. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is in 2/4 time (two
beats to the bar, and the quarter note gets the beat), but the quarter note is REALLY fast (dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaah: by the time you get to the daaaaaaah,
you’re in the second bar. The piece actually starts with a “rest” (or silence) of one eighth note, or half a quarter note value: rest-dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaah).
Happy Birthday is also in 3/4 time, but it starts on the third beat (happy-BIRTH-day-to-YOU). “Birth” comes on the strong beat, and “you” comes
on the strong beat of the second bar. The word “happy” is called a pick-up – it comes before the first strong beat (called a downbeat).

Conductors use a conventional set of gestures to get groups of people to start a piece together, end it together, and keep it together all the while. In c
lassical music, nobody shouts out “Ah one and ah two.” It is done silently, with gesture. To conduct “Happy Birthday,” you need to know the pattern
the baton has to travel in in 3/4 time (it’s basically a right triangle, if you remember your geometry), and you need to know how to make your musicians
start on the third beat (the pickup, for the word “happy”). To conduct Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, you need to know how to conduct one beat to a bar
(the quarter beat goes by so fast you can’t do it in two). You have to know how to get the orchestra to start on the second eighth note of the measure
(remember, the piece starts with an eighth rest). You need to know how to conduct a fermata (that’s music talk for a held note): on dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaah,
the long note is a fermata – the beat stops and the note is held. Then you need to get the orchestra to go dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaah a second time, ending with
another fermata. Then you need to get them to do it a third time, and you’re off and running. Beethoven’s Fifth is one of the more difficult pieces to start for
a conductor, and every conducting student practices it a lot.

Other nuts-and-bolts tasks for the conductor:
Ritardando (the music slows down)
Accelerando (the music speeds up)
Crescendo (the music gets louder)
Diminuendo (the music gets quieter)
Piu mosso (the music gets suddenly faster)

The conductor is supposed to show all this stuff, and a good one will, and you, playing in the violin section, will do those things exactly as the rest of the
orchestra does them, because the conductor has not just shown you what to do, but compelled you in some subtle and non-coercive way to play that way.
I am trying to describe here the mystery of playing under a good conductor. The relationship between an orchestra member and a conductor is like a good
pitcher/catcher relationship. On the one hand, the catcher calls which pitch to make and the pitcher throws the ball, but in a deeper way, when the stars line
up, the catcher’s mitt draws the ball in, and the pitcher’s throw draws the catcher’s mitt in.

Is this hard to do in baseball? Yes. Is it hard to be a good conductor? Yes. While learning the beat patterns is easy, learning to compel your orchestra to play
a certain way, while making them feel that that is exactly how they wanted to play, is an extremely rare skill.

3. Why am I talking about conductors?
We need visual signals to play music. In chamber music, there is no conductor, and there is often no leader. Every member of a chamber group is the conductor
AND a follower. Every group evolves its own body language as a result of the members of the group rehearsing endlessly, with a crazily overdeveloped
perfectionism. Some of that body language derives from the beat patterns that conductors use. The baton always goes up on the last beat of every bar and
down on the first beat (the downbeat, right? And the last beat is, happily enough, called the upbeat). Chamber musicians use these same gestures – why
reinvent the wheel? We have body language for getting faster and slower and louder and softer.

But we are not just showing each other how to play. We are compelling each other to play in a particular way, sometimes that we have agreed on in advance
and sometimes that just happens. Instead of one person leading and everyone else following, we all participate in the leadership role. Ultimately, nobody
follows – everyone leads. This, I think, is why musicians love to play chamber music.

Next time you are watching a chamber ensemble play, watch their gestures. When they cut off (stop playing) together, watch the gestures they made. There
are many ways to cut off a note: the note hits a brick wall and stops, or it resounds in the room, or it tapers gently out, or it stops cleanly but with no
aggression, or with a lot of aggression, and so on. Who decides? We do! And we often don’t even have to talk about it. We show each other. If there is
disagreement, we talk.

4. So, what is it like to play in the Meridian Arts Ensemble?
It is really easy. We know each others’ gestures so well that we often can use a gestural shorthand, communicating with little nods and dips. We play extremely
hard music, but we are able to keep it together and figure out how we want it to sound. We frequently disagree with each other, but we are able to work out
our differences. But, most excitingly for me, there is a constant physical communication that binds the six of us together and makes it easy to play. And really fun.

Back to Essays

Back home