Reflects on the realities of playing with an orchestra, bow tie and all
love and feeds our souls. This contrasted sharply with my concert last week at the Royal Albert Hall, playing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on a selection of music from the James Bond films.
They are obviously a fabulous orchestra and I was very happy to be doing this gig, but my point is, many of the considerations we have as guitarists on a day-to-day basis go to the back of the queue when it comes to working in orchestras with a classical conductor. Sessions with orchestras are generally booked as three-hour slots, so it’s very common to turn up at a concert like this for a 3pm to 6pm rehearsal, having never seen the music before, and then be on stage for a 7.30pm concert in your dinner jacket and bow tie (with no parking space for your Ferrari or, indeed, anyone to iron your frilly shirt). You need to make sure you’re plugged in and ready to play on the dot, and you need to have had your coffee beforehand as classical orchestras can sight-read anything.
It never ceases to amaze me that session musicians are expected to interpret their guitar parts in the same amount of time. In these rehearsal/concert situations you are lucky if any of the music is played twice before the concert.
Classical conductors usually (and why shouldn’t they) have less knowledge of the different skillset it takes to make a rhythm-section part sound good than it does for a violinist to sight-read their parts (which are usually much more prescriptive and leave less room for interpretation). You are, however, expected to do it within the same time frame. Suddenly, whether your distortion pedal is true bypass or not seems very secondary to just making any sort of correct noise at all at the right time.
Code Of Conduct
For this particular concert we had a fabulous conductor in the shape of Gareth Hudson. But, the first few times I played with orchestras were utterly terrifying. Like most of us, I grew up playing along to Metallica and Iron Maiden records in my bedroom. I don’t recall James Hetfield ever wielding a conductor’s baton, and the first time I was confronted by this phenomenon, I realised very quickly I had absolutely no idea what all the waving of arms meant. I still don’t really, but here’s a tip: whenever you think the conductor is giving you a downbeat, it’s actually about half a second later. Classical musicians tend to have a much more fluid approach to time-keeping than those of us from a rock and pop background, and your job, in this instance, is to surf the fine line between where you think the beat should be as a rhythmsection player and where the orchestral players might hear it.
I’m not suggesting there’s a right or wrong, simply that your job is to be flexible and aware of what is required of you (and not to superimpose your ego and opinions onto the situation). Also, make sure you don’t kill the back desk of the violas with your Marshall stack (Fender Princeton is my orchestral amp of choice) and don’t forget your bow tie. Finally, remember to have yourself a cleansing listen to a nice bit of Napalm Death on the way home.