May 11: Hamburg

Only one more time!

Tonight was our second-to-last Mahler Ninth, and I have to say, after all the prior performances, the Hamburgers had the most relish. It must have been an A-1 performance.

Two Famous Hamburgers

Sorry about that. I just needed to get it out of my system. You’ll have to be tolerant. We’ve been on the road for two weeks and I’m getting a little loopy. Also, I left my eyeglasses in my violin case at the hall and that’s made me grumpy as well.

Speaking of tolerance, the concert began with a ceremony that the musicians were unaware was going to take place, and didn’t even know until afterwards what it was all about because very few of us speak German and, as it turned out, Arabic. It seems that our concert is part of a series in which each performance is preceded by a recent immigrant talking about what freedom means to him or her. Tonight’s speaker was an Iraqi refugee and I’m not sure what he said, but in a way it didn’t matter because it was simply a reminder to me that we can’t take our own freedoms for granted. And we elect our public officials we should always remember not to vote for them out of anger, but out of the greatest wisdom we can muster.

Since tomorrow is the last day of the tour I want to say a few words about teamwork. I’ve written about it on the macro level a bit–the interaction of the musicians with each other and with the conductor, etc. But there’s a lot that goes on on the micro level as well. I’m referring to stand partners in the string section.

For those who don’t know much about orchestras, the strings are divided into Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, Cello, and String Bass. All the musicians within each section play the same part. And for every two players there is one music stand. Hence, stand partners. You might not think there’s much that goes into sitting with another person in the string section, but there are actually a million little things. I just name a few that we have to agree on: the height of the music stand; it’s position between us so that we can both see the music and both see the conductor without twisting ourselves into pretzels; what (if anything) to pencil into the music; how and when to turn pages (I could write a book on this alone, and maybe I will); when to talk about the weather and when not to talk; and being basically supportive of each others musicianship. I could add a bunch of other things to the list, but I’m running out of steam. When added all up, these things can lead to a wonderful professional relationship in which each musician becomes a better musician as a result. Or a toxic one.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 12.22.22 AM

Let me give you a true life example of the latter: a stand partner relationship that went terribly wrong. Two former Boston Symphony members, who have both passed away, sat together for decades. They were both wonderful people and fine musicians. But at some point, one of them apparently said the wrong thing and their relationship started to go sour. For about twenty years they didn’t talk to each other or even look at each other.

When I became chair of the BSO negotiating committee in 1979, one of the things my committee worked very hard to achieve was to establish a system of seating rotation so that approximately every month string players could change their seats and have the opportunity to sit with other musicians within their section. It was made optional so that those who were happy where they sat didn’t have to move.

As soon as our contract was ratified, I was overjoyed to be able to tell one of the unhappy pair of violinists that now he didn’t have to sit next to his stand partner anymore. He told me he had no intention of moving. I asked him what he meant. He said, and this is a quote I’ll never forget: “I’m going to sit next to him until the day he dies.”

Whew! That’s serious stuff. Fortunately, it rarely gets anywhere close to that point, but it gives you an idea of how critical it is to maintain a good relationship between stand partners. And basically the point of this whole blog is to thank my stand partner, Caroline Pliszka, for being the consummate pro not only for this particular tour, but also for all the times we’ve sat together over the past decade. I couldn’t ask for a better stand partner.


Tomorrow will be my last tour blog! After that I’m taking a little vacation before getting back to posting. This is also your last chance to enter the caption contest to win a free book!!! (See the May 7 blog for details) As they say in Austria, “You could be a Wiener!”


6 thoughts on “May 11: Hamburg

  1. wendy foxmyn

    As usual, amusing and edifying. I hope you put your blog into a book. Question: How does the orchestra manage a situation where a musician must have the stand in front of them and cannot see to share a stand? We have several people in our orchestra (sometimes me!) who need to have the stand right in front of them to see the music.

    On Wed, May 11, 2016 at 6:23 PM, GERALD ELIAS – Author and Musician wrote:

    > eliaspattn posted: “Only one more time! Tonight was our second-to-last > Mahler Ninth, and I have to say, after all the prior performances, the > Hamburgers had the most relish. It must have been an A-1 performance. Two > Famous Hamburgers Sorry about that. I just needed to get ” >


    1. eliaspattn Post author

      That’s a multi-level question! If the issue is really one of eyesight, I would recommend they try out magnifying eyeglasses of different powers and determine which will work for them at the right distance. That’s exactly what I do. I have separate glasses for reading books, which are close to me, and music, which is farther away. To have the music stand directly in front of you puts your stand partner at a distinct disadvantage, and not only for being able to see the music. One of the challenges, especially in the back of the section, is to position oneself to be able to see the music AND the conductor without having to twist your body around. Its hard enough to play the violin as it is! There have been times when I’ll be looking at the music and instead of the conductor being in my direct line of vision, it’s the trombone section. This is not good. Another challenge is that if one player is sitting directly in front of the music, and the stand partner needs to lean in in attempting to also see the music, the instruments can get perilously close. Not to mention that even in an orchestra there’s a sense of personal space, which, when violated, can fray ones nerves.
      So my conclusion is that if you have trouble seeing the music, it’s incumbent upon you to find the solution without subjecting your stand partner to physical discomfort and emotional stress. I think in the long run the result will be best for both parties and for the orchestra as a whole.


    2. James

      A colleague’s demand to have the stand right in front of them to see is absolutely unreasonable. It is to force the stand partner into a musically compromising and potentially strain inducing sight line disadvantage. Many players come to the shared stand with a wrong-headed notion of where the sight line has to be for them. They practice with the music directly in front of them and some believe that it should remain this way even when sharing. Many people are not blessed with an awareness of their physical surroundings, or their bodies in space. The notion of a sight line offset will never occur to people who lack this awareness. So it must be taught. In the case of a stand hogging colleague a diagram would be useful to help explain, but I will do my best with words here:

      1. the angle of the stand should be placed at a perpendicular to a line drawn through the center of the stand to the conductor. Often players set the angle of the stand with the riser edge, which may or may not be correct for stand angle. But this can be achieved regardless of the edge of the riser. Although the riser construction in the Musikverein is terrible for achieving a satisfactory angle for those at the edges, as are the ancient and unadjustable stands. It was impossible to place the chairs or stands on that optimal perpendicular. Exceptions always arise, but where there is floor space to do so, do so.
      2. The chairs should also be placed on this perpendicular, each chair being equidistant from the stand both in depth and side to side. An Isosceles triangle is created by these equal distances (although again not always possible given depth of risers, etc). Allowing for the appropriate distance for bow room clearance, each player should have a sight line offset from the edge of the stand of about 8 inches (this measurement is for basses; it will differ for each string section, as the cello, viola and violin players players sit closer to the stands than basses do, altering the offset somewhat).
      3. Determining the equal offset when both players are at the stand can be done by each player pointing the bow at the conductor down the sightline (straight line from the eyes to the conductor). The tip of the bow should should fall exactly the same distance away from the edge of the stand for each player.This is measurable. This will work well with a new young player entering the orchestra, as they just have not had any instruction in stand sharing setup. No one has. It is one of the huge holes in our training. For a reluctant stand partner you can bring a yard stick in and clip it to the stand and show without a doubt how much more stand your partner is taking than the MAD (Mutually Assured Disadvantage) setup protocol dictates for equality. Personnel Manager may need to be brought in to help assure that equality is achieved. But since this is not a well understood concept the PM may need some training, too.
      If your stand partner is claiming that medical vision issues demand that he place the stand directly in front of him, he should first be asked to make an effort to repair the issue. His medical issue could very well create an orthopedic one for you further down the road. You should not be expected to bear the burden. You would be well within your rights to request your own stand in such a situation. Again, you are being asked to carry the burden of discomfort.

      Hope this makes sense and helps.



  2. John

    It has been a great pleasure to be on the tour virtually with you and the BSO. This experience doesn’t make up for the cancelled TMC tour with Bernstein in 1990, but . . .



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