April 01,2014


"Tales From Outside The Underbrush" is meant to succeed the monthly series of predecessor essays that were in effect, largely if not exclusively set inside "The Underbrush" of geological exploration and forestry, to a universe outside that specialized environment. This "outside world" is one where life is also lived and experienced, and though most often reflecting a different level of circumstance, is not necessarily suggestive of a higher level of civilized behaviour and experience nor a more intelligent reaction to such by the author; just different and outside the conventional underbrush. Hyperbole will continue to be employed for emphasis or effect, or just to avoid the boredom of straight fact or opinion. Reader reaction and comment is invited and welcomed if delivered in a civilized fashion.

This month's entry continues the tale.


"Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."

William Congreve

"People who don't like classical music just don't listen to it loud enough."

Mark Hahn

"Classical music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune."

Frank Hubbard

As a consequence of a regimen of constant practice over a period of time together with a modicum of abilities and skill, within a year or so I had become such that listening to my violin play required no ear muffs for listeners, and wincing in aural discomfort was in material decline. I started winning musical competitions at school and in other such events in the community outside school. I also became a member of the Willingdon public school orchestra and quickly graduated to a place in the orchestra in the front row of the first violins and just to the inside of the concert master. While to some readers, however few, this achievement might evince admiring acknowledgement, to most the response is more likely to be "so what, who cares buddy!" A word of explanation, in effect a statement of defense, might be in order.

The caste system is a regrettable categorization of the human condition that has been around for several thousand years, and in modern history has been most prevalent by example in India. The caste system is however also present in symphonic orchestras, although unlike the strict forms of human castes that prohibit, or at the very least inhibit positive change, one can graduate from a lower caste to a higher one in an orchestra.

Imagine yourself standing directly under the centre of an arch. Now push that arch so that it lies flat on the ground in a semi-circle, with you in the centre, now standing on the podium as the Supreme Commander, otherwise known as the Conductor, the epitome of the symphonic ranking other than perhaps the director of fund raising. That person brings, or attempts to bring in the money that pays everyone, symphonic orchestras not naturally being a source of profitable revenue like say, the banks, who in their defense, donate minuscule amounts of money to symphonies that represent large amounts of monies to the latter.

Immediately surrounding you and in close proximity are a group of musicians playing instruments with four strings, the latter originally made of animal gut and now in more politically correct fashion from plastic, or metal thread wound around plastic, and from where a specific musical sound is fashioned by scraping a horsehair bow across said strings in hopefully sufficient fashion to produce sounds of accepted musicality. The origins of the violin remains mired in mystery and debate. There is some but not total consensus that its origin stemmed from the Middle East, possibly in the form of the lyre which metamorphosed into the lute and subsequently the violin. It is further surmised that the first of the latter may have been manufactured in Italy in the early 16th century. Conjectural all but there you have it. More important is the fact that the violin is arguably the most dominant if not the most important component of a symphonic orchestra. Violins are also referred to in some quarters, mainly in American "hillbilly" country and the Canadian Maritime provinces as "fiddles", and from which also came the name "fiddleheads." Don't know what is a fiddlehead? Look it up. They're delicious.

Meanwhile, back on the podium and facing the orchestra, on your left side is a group of violinists collectively known as the "first violinists." To your right is a similar group of musicians collectively known as the "second violinists." They are second violinists because they are not "first" and as such, in similarity with the specificities of mathematics, are deemed to be second because they are not good enough to be first. In actual fact that is not wholly true but the intricacies of that apparent contradiction will be duly explored in due time. Between the first and second violinists, in the lower extreme of the archway as it were, are located the violists, who play an instrument slightly larger than a violin, as though the latter were on a fast food diet. Near them are the cellists, sawing away at an instrument built like a very large, obese viola standing on end but sounding like a smooth baritone romancing a beautiful violinist or violist. Finally, in close proximity and the last member of the string section, are the bass players, manhandling an instrument that looked like a cello whose steroids are on steroids.

The further organization of an orchestra sees players sit in pairs where possible, sharing one music stand and one sheet of music. This means one of the pair becomes the official page turner of the music, said player being the one on the inward side of each pair of players. The method by which one advances to ever higher levels of orchestral recognition, at least where in the string sections of the orchestra there is an outside and inside position, might be viewed as a caste system and being in the form of a snake pattern of advancement The caste system really gets into gear in the violin section where the lowliest of players start on the very inside of the last row of the particular string section in which they find themselves; as though they must be hidden from view of the audience. Increased proficiency may see a move to the outside of the inner most pair in the last row, then to the inner position of the next outer pair, and so on, until glory of glories, one has progressed to the outside position in that row. But wait a minute! You are still in the last row of the section, even though you are now visible to the outside world, if that's what you want to call the audience. So now what happens? More proficiency sees you advance to the next to last row………but hold on a minute! You are now back in the interior-most part of that row, and as a page turner again! And so it goes, with time and proficiency seeing you snake your way up the section until maybe you make the first row of the section. As a violinist and starting from scratch, you would have begun your journey in the back row of the second violin section. Having attained the front row of that section you might end up leading the second violins for an indeterminable period, perhaps for the rest of your career! Alternatively, you might advance to the first violin section where, you guessed it, life starts over again in the inner most position of the back row! Theoretically, one might be able to play one's self up to the outside chair of the first row of the first violin section, a position bearing the official title of "concert master" and as such second only in prominence and importance to the conductor. Rarely however is that position achieved as the consequence of the progressions I have described. More often, a concert master has been parachuted in from some other orchestra of higher standing and where he or she might have been a front row player but just below the concert master in position. A particularly important role of the concert master, aside from usually getting to play any solo violin parts that an orchestral composition might possess, is to tune the orchestra before the appearance of the conductor to commence the concert. The multi-sourced sound of "A" is a standard precursor to a conductor's appearance on the podium.

Today, from my observations as an occasional attendee at orchestral concerts, the arrangement described seems to have changed. The first and second violinists are clustered together like synchronized bees on the left with the violists still in the middle and the cellists and bass players on the right. Why the change? Who knows but I suspect that some basic form of the caste system still exists.

My time in the Willingdon public school orchestra saw me advance to the first row position in the first violins just to the inside and beside the concert master. That was the good news. The bad news, being a pre-teen brain dead boy, was the fact that the concert master was, horror of horrors, a girl! The humiliation knew no bounds! It was like having your sister beat you in a foot race, or spit farther than you could!

Somewhere in my early teens I made it to the Montreal Junior Symphony Orchestra as the lowliest of second violin players. By the time the orchestra made it to England on a nation-wide tour I had, as the youngest member of the orchestra, advanced to the outside of the last row in the second violin section. That meant that on TV, I could actually be seen! But I am getting ahead of myself.

To be continued

Copyright © 2014 Ian de W. Semple

Posted by Ian Semple at 10:35


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