This evening I will be performing Debussy’s “La Mer” with the Indiana University Symphony Orchestra. Over the course of preparing this work, I have learned a great deal about performing an orchestral standard versus just learning the excerpt in the practice room. I have known and prepared the “La Mer” excerpts many times, but over the last two weeks have had the great fortune to prepare and play it with a live ensemble. To a seasoned professional, these points may seem like common sense, but to a student it was a very interesting and educational experience.

The first, and probably most important concept, involves differing artistic interpretations. That is, you and the conductor think about your part differently. The conductor is always right. Period. You’ve studied the part, the score, and several recordings before making your artistic decisions. Doesn’t matter. You’ve studied the excerpt with several different instructors and gleaned vast amounts of knowledge from each of them. Doesn’t matter. The conductor is a violinist, and you’re a percussionist. Doesn’t matter. It all boils down to creating the sound that the conductor wants to hear, regardless of your preconceived notions about the part. That is every orchestral player’s job. I think that many of us think that we understand this, but it isn’t until a conductor has turned your ideas on their head that you truly understand the importance of this lesson.

I have also learned a great deal about applying everything we study in the practice room to a live orchestra. You can learn to play the Porgy and Bess Xylophone excerpt perfectly at quarter-note equals 132, but what if your conductor wants to take it at 118? What if the ensemble has shaky time? Or the conductor has you switch to a different pair of mallets, that rebound a bit differently? What if the instrument in the performance space different than those in the practice room? All of these elements are variable when playing with a live ensemble, and all of them can be different every time you play an excerpt. Are you flexible enough to make these changes? Have you developed your listening and adapting skills as well as your chops? These are very important considerations as you prepare in the practice room. You must not only be prepared to play the excerpt, but to listen, adapt, and make music out of the notes on the page.

What stories do you have about “bringing orchestral excerpts our of the practice room?” Do you have any insight to share with the community? Discuss it in the comments.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on September 26, 2010 by Shane Griffin.


The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by John Lemieux on

Dave Gerhart

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