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Faking it – the great unmentionable of orchestral playing

Given today's high standards of musicianship, you might think top orchestral string players can play anything, but there are times when the best they can do is give the impression of playing every note as written, as cellist Alice McVeigh discovers

February 21, 2014

One player commented that while music by some modern composers presented no problem, with others it was ‘a case of keeping in the right bar and hoping the trumpets drown you out'

Faking, smudging, flying, putting the orchestral pedal down – there are so many ways to describe not being able to nail every last note. Yet it is, to some degree, the great unmentionable of orchestral playing, as witnessed by the fact that every musician I interviewed preferred not to be quoted by name. Perhaps that’s because we’re professionals. We’re supposed to be able to play anything, at the switching on of a little red light. Yet I can still remember these heartening words from the principal cellist of a major orchestra about the ‘Storm’ from Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony: ‘How do I play it? I don’t play it; I fake it. I never even met anybody who could play it!’

So why is it that, given the extremely high level of orchestral playing worldwide, even the best (occasionally) have to fake? One reason is the amount of rehearsal time available. There’s no doubt that the more prestigious the orchestra, the more rehearsal sessions are allocated per concert and the more likely it is that the said concert may be repeated: all factors making faking largely unnecessary. There are also marked international differences, with orchestras in the Far East and the US generally getting more rehearsal time than orchestras in Europe, especially the UK.

An éminence grise from a top American orchestra observed that for subscription concerts four days’ worth of two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal sessions is usual, yet a string player in Denmark complained, ‘How can every note be correct when we rehearse only four hours a day from Monday to Wednesday, and then on Thursday before the concert? The time is not enough!’ (I did my best to sympathise, but couldn’t help recalling all the times I’d shown up mid-afternoon, dashed through several works I might not have seen for years, and performed them that evening…)

Repertory, of course, also featured in many players’ responses. In these economically parlous times, only a handful of the major orchestras in any country attack new compositions on a regular basis, with faking mentioned as necessary in anything from ten to almost ninety per cent of some modern works. One player commented that while music by some modern composers presented no problem, with others it was ‘a case of keeping in the right bar and hoping the trumpets drown you out’. There is also a widespread – if erroneous – belief that Tchaikovsky wrote ‘for effect’, and one well-known first violinist admitted that he aimed to land only about a quarter of the high passages, max.

Indeed, first violinists, with their concatenation of high notes and riskily exposed passages, seem not only to fake the most but also to be frankest about it. A top London violinist described mass faking admiringly as the orchestral ‘pedal effect’ – comparable to the smudging of the piano’s articulation with the sustaining pedal.

A composer cheered me up a good deal by questioning the desirability of having every single note played at precisely the same time (witness recording engineers adjusting the entrance times of one cello in order to mimic a section). It might be interesting to learn just how precisely some living composers anticipate (as opposed to hope) their exact instructions might be realised by players on the ground (in some cases, on the ground holding their sides with laughter).

Several musicians on several continents mentioned how impossible it is to practise faking without the orchestral sweep around them. Some principal players recommended soaking oneself in the surrounding harmony as essential to good faking, with one UK cellist stressing that skilful faking was integral to the ‘not drawing undue attention to oneself ’ part of being a solid orchestral musician. An American friend swore by years of attention to various studies, while a German violinist (still more impressively) urged the necessity of studying the complete orchestral score, in order to fake with conviction. A few fiddle players complained that Wagner is a doddle compared to the long, exposed bows required in the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. There is also a widespread sense of annoyance that it is so often the way the pieces ‘lie’ on the instrument that causes the difficulty, though it is not deemed acceptable to fake just because you haven’t practised.

Many string players emphasise that good faking is an essential facet of really good sightreading, involving as it does that certain modest recognition that one’s personal genius must be sublimated to the good of the whole. Meanwhile, a player in a famous American orchestra, who cut his finger on an anchovy can and was thus obliged to fake perfectly playable bits of one concert, spoke with humility of realising how marvellous his orchestra sounded without him!

There is no doubt that faking has an ancient and historic pedigree. Hans Richter, who in 1876 conducted the first Bayreuth performance of Wagner’s Ring, was once confronted by a despairing violinist who said, ‘How is a man to play this complicated figuration? What can he do but go a-swishing up and down as best he can?’ To which the Maestro replied, ‘What, indeed? That is precisely what the composer intended!’

 

TEN POINTS FOR FAKERS

[1] Posture is key. There are two possibilities here: either the ‘completely committed’ forward lean, teeth gritted; or else the ‘this-is-no-problem-for-superstars-like-me’ upright pose, along with the slightly superior smile.

[2] Never allow your bow to move in the opposite direction from those of your fellow serfs, even at the cost of missing notes you might otherwise have collared – otherwise it will still (oh horror!) look wrong, which is (God knows why) a much more wicked sin than actually being wrong.

[3] When faking shifts it is important to be located in a plausible position on the fingerboard. Many a reasonably accomplished faker has been undone by failing to swoop upwards (or zip downwards) with adequate speed.

[4] If you manage to miss a shift entirely, vibrate your way back to spotless virtue, while taking almost all the edge off the bow.

[5] In faking passagework, the shape of the run is crucial. Really good fakers (not to mention really good players) are often clocking six or even twelve notes in advance of encountering them.

[6] Aim for the first of every grouping (triplets, quavers, and so on). It’s amazing how often the fiddly notes in between will find themselves if you give them a sporting chance.

[7] If you find yourself in desperate straits, don’t neglect the marvellously effective technique of flashy bows actually OVER the fingerboard. The upshot: lots of seeming conviction resulting in – er – a vague whistling sound.

[8] Never be psyched out into faking something you can actually play simply because everyone around you is faking.

[9] Never catch your conductor’s eye while faking. He (or she) knows that what you’re playing is tricky (otherwise why are you faking it? And otherwise why is he looking?) yet even the dimmest conductor will find it hard to believe that you’ve actually memorised it.

[10]If there is a section that you must fake, then settle yourself as if for a minor concerto. Test your bow hair, check your tuning, adopt an expression of existential resolve and FAKE. Fake with power, fake with panache, fake as if every note you hit (or don’t hit) is a personal victory over fate.And after your episode of fakery (which one trusts is an episode rather than a habitual occurrence), smile in congratulatory vein at your desk partner as if to say, ‘Hey! We made it!’; and blow rosin off your bow, as one who has fought the good fight and is feeling quite reasonably chuffed about it.

 

MOST COMMONLY FAKED WORKS, CITED BY VETERAN ORCHESTRAL PLAYERS:

Barber Violin Concerto (last movement)
‘The only piece I ever played that seems to get worse and worse the more I practise it!’

Gershwin An American in Paris (end)
‘There is a viola passage of octave triplets, the lower note of the octave first, the upper note second, and the lower note again for the third… No way will my bow arm work that fast!’

Hindemith Mathis der Maler
‘One of those pieces that, when you see it on the schedule, the heart just sinks’

Mahler Symphonies nos.7 & 9
‘I put my recurrent shoulder pains down to practising Mahler’s Seventh’

Piston Symphony no.4
‘Displays a really lamentable disregard for the eternal verities of exactly how string playing works’

Richard Strauss Don Juan and other pieces
‘As hard to play as most solo concertos – in context, harder!’

Stravinsky The Rite of Spring
‘Love to hear it – hate to play it’

Wagner (‘Magic Fire Music’ in Die Walküre especially)
‘Sadistic violin writing’

John Williams Superman, Star Wars
‘Lies appallingly badly for strings’

This article was first published in The Strad, June 2006. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase back issues click here.

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