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Classical 101

Should Orchestras Stop Warming Up Onstage Before Concerts?

Once in a while a thought will surface in the public consciousness that seems to throw the world out of whack. Earlier this week, Edinburgh's The Scotsman ran a story that not-so-subtly calls for orchestras to stop the cacophonous warming-up they do onstage before beginning their concerts. I must admit I'm of two minds about this issue. My years as an orchestral musician pull me in one direction, but my experiences as a concertgoer pull me in another. To remind you what an orchestra warming up sounds like, here's the San Antonio Symphony: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7CIHor-wAg From something that sounds more or less like that, a hush falls on the orchestra and the principal oboist sings out an "A" to which the other players tune their instruments. Here's the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra tuning up before a rehearsal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IwY2Dz15VY Then, in a concert, another silence would descend throughout the hall, this one thick with anticipation until the conductor strides onstage with a charismatic flourish, bows to the audience, spins around to face the orchestra and launches into the music. The aesthete in me likes to think of the sound of an orchestra warming up onstage as the chaos from which emerges the sonic order that is music. It's a formless swirl of sound that, through the magic of human effort (all those years of practice!) and a spirit of cooperation, becomes a work of art. To put it another way, one could see (or hear) the sound of an orchestra warming up as the solid block of marble from which, in the hands of a Michelangelo, emerges a discernible shape. But lest we get lost in the ether, warming up onstage also has its practical advantages. For most musicians, the practice room and the stage are, performatively speaking, light years away, and warming up onstage is a way for a musician to sneak in for herself a little bit of a dress rehearsal, to perform before an (assembling) audience while tricking herself into thinking she isn't really performing. It's a psychological game, really, though admittedly, by the time a musician has won an orchestra gig, she's learned how to handle her nerves. But having the opportunity to drift onstage as the audience is gathering and rehash before an audience a few finger twisters in the evening's music does make for a smooth and slinky crossing of the divide between the private space of practice and the public space of performing. And they don't call it "warming up" for nothing. In certain concert halls, and during certain seasons, traveling from a Tahiti-like backstage to the Arctic openness of the hall can wreak havoc on a musician's body. The skin tightens, the fingers cramp and it all comes frighteningly close to falling hopelessly apart. Still, practicing onstage right before a concert is a bit of an odd tradition. Because vanity lurks somewhere in the hearts of all of us, most folks, I would imagine, would prefer to do their brushing up behind closed doors, not before the crowd that has assembled expressly with the expectation of being dazzled by their brilliance. It's also interesting that this on-stage warming-up seems to be an issue only in the realm of instrumental music; choruses don't do it - and for good reason. If you ever heard the kind of caterwauling singers produce in readying themselves for performance, then you'd thank your lucky stars it isn't included in the price of admission. Still, I can't say I would perfer to hear the lone fourth double bassist from the end of the row saw through the opening of the finale to Beethoven's Ninth, or the English hornist honk through some forlorn melody between nervous scrapes on a troublesome reed. If I go to the movies, must I wade through the dross on the cutting room floor before I get to watch the final edit? So what do you think? Should orchestras stop warming up onstage before their concerts, or would you miss this musical mish-mash? Please write in and let me know. But be warned: classical concerts might never look - or sound - the same again.