The co-ordinated String Quartet

This is quite different to playing in the Symphony Orchestra where a single person, the conductor is in charge. There are other complications in play in the symphony orchestra that don't occur when playing string quartets, but we will come to those later.

So playing in a String Quartet is more than just playing music, it is about understanding the behaviour and the peculiarities of the other players, learning to play and co-ordinate and communicate in a whole host of ways other than just by musical sound. The best quartets have played together for many years. Although it is certainly true that a group of four musicians who have never played together before, can get together and a very presentable string quartet performance, they will not achieve the emotion and subtleties that can be achieved by another quartet where all the members have known each other well for many years and have played together over a period of time.

 So what is there's special about playing in a Symphony Orchestra? There isn't a coordination problem in the same way because you just have to follow the conductor. But here's the first problem, follow the conductor. Even if the conductor is giving a clear beat, that beat may be very clear from somebody positioned in front of the conductor, that can be quite unclear from somebody sitting at the side, in other words the first violin and the cello section in a normal orchestral layout.

 Think about a conductor beating in four four time. The sequence of events are a down beat, a movement of the left, a movement of the right and an upbeat to the starting position. Viewed from the front where most of the woodwind sit and some of the violas and some of the second violins, this is quite an unambiguous. View from the first violins to the conductor's left, this looks like a downbeat, no motion, no motion, an update. The horizontal motions are not clearly visible as they are moving directly towards you and then away from you. The leader of the section and those players in the first 2 or 3 tasks, they can see you conducted baton well enough to discern what the movement is most of the time. But if you were at the back of the violin section or one of the instruments in the brass section that are somewhat to the side, the distance is so great to the conduct, that it can be very difficult to tell what is happening.

 Added to this is the fact that surprising number of even professional conductors are unable to beat time properly, and it can become just a wafting of arms and hands. A good conductor however, in a similar way to the leader of the string quartet, will use body language and body motions to indicate tempo, volume changes and imminent tempo changes. Some conducting styles are more like choreographed dancing than conducting with a baton, and if a conductor is good at this it can often be the clearest way of communicating. Some conductors are a complete waste of time, and it ends up that  the orchestra plays rather like a string quartet,  using primarily audible cues and motion Cues from the leader of the violins and cellos to keep together. It's not good when an orchestra house to do this. Apart from anything else, there is a significant time delay in the sound travelling from one part of the orchestra to another, whereas seeing the baton uses light, which travels hundreds of thousands of times faster, so there is no delay when viewing the baton motions.

 Some conducting seems to me more like telepathy.  One such conductor I can recall playing under was Muir Matheson,  who was for a time conductor of the rank organisation film Orchestra. I seem to recall he was quite short and in rehearsals would sometimes sit on a stack of plastic chairs balancing precariously on top. He didn't seem to have any body language, he hardly wagged his baton, but somehow he communicated absolutely clearly what he wanted. I've never worked out how he did it.

One of the special skills in playing in the Symphony Orchestra is to not stick out in the sound you're making. I've mentioned this earlier in this ramble. So this is a matter of following the leader of the section and those around you. In some ways leading your history is the easiest position, you are more like the leader of the string quartet and don't have other violins playing the same as you that you have to fit in with (they fit to you). You’re fitting in with the other instruments in the orchestra, second violins, the woodwind, that brass etc., but beyond that you can do your own thing. But for the rest of the string section, who are also doing the same as the leader, they are having a fit in with what the leader is playing. They have to observe what is happening and hear what is happening. For the first few desks of players it is more straightforward as they can probably see the leader reasonably well and may be able to hear what they're playing. For other musicians further back in the section it becomes very difficult. They probably can't see the leader well and certainly shouldn't be able to hear them. So they are relying on following the person in front of the person in front of that. So there is an indirect link between what the leader is doing and what the people at the back are doing  which gives great opportunity for error, and makes it much more difficult to play at the back of the section that at the front. Back of the session musicians have to decide what is going wrong and if in doubt not play too loudly. If this happens all the time it gives a weak sound to the section, but the reality is that different players will tend to lose touch with what's going on further on at different times, by virtue of their position, the sound around an etc, so the dipping in and out of players tends to be random and shouldn't be noticeable. This has to be done without anybody in the audience detecting it.

So now you know what it is like to play in a String Quartet, or at least you have a little idea what's involved. Think about this when you are hiring or about to hire a string quartet. Think about this particularly when you get the price of the string quartet. It may seem a lot at first but what you are buying is years and years of practice and effort that have gone into learning to play the instruments and play them together to bring pleasure to you. As compared with  hiring four plumbers, it is cheap.