We continue our interview with Blair Milton, an outstanding editor at Ovation Press and an accomplished musician, violinist, and professor at Northwestern University.
In this second and final part of our interview, Mr. Milton shares with us his personal and professional experiences as an orchestral musician and some valuable practicing strategies.
String Visions: Orchestra etiquette and diplomacy are topics that are widely discussed in the musical community. Are there any aspects of orchestra etiquette that particularly stand out to you, as a violinist in the Chicago Symphony?
Milton: I am fortunate to have the most wonderful colleagues in the CSO, so issues of this nature really don’t arise. However, in general there are a couple of common sense topics that I would consider essential for new members of any orchestra to consider. If you have taken out music prior to the first rehearsal to practice, make sure that you show up to rehearsal early enough that the music is available for your stand partner to review.
Don’t write personal fingerings in the part. It is inconsiderate and distracting to other players. If you need fingerings, write them in a practice copy and learn them so you don’t need them in performances.
Your goal as a member of a section is to contribute to the overall sound, rather than to make an individual statement. Orchestra is not the place for solo playing. Learn to blend with your section, both in color and dynamic and note length.
To hone your craft as a truly great orchestral musician, your eyes should always be on the conductor and on your section leader. Make sure you are using exactly the same bow stroke as he or she is using and that your bow changes occur at exactly the same instant as theirs do. The farther back in the section you sit the more challenging this can be, but following your section leader’s bowings will ensure a wonderful ensemble from the whole group.
Nothing should be routine about rehearsals and concerts. Treat every rehearsal and concert as an opportunity to play more beautifully than you did the day before.
String Visions: You have worked with many incredible musicians and conductors thus far within your career. What are some of your most enjoyable and/or memorable moments as an orchestral musician?
Milton: There have been and continue to be, many thrilling moments playing in a great orchestra. Each great conductor and each soloist can leave a lasting impression and memory with the musicians in an orchestra. Such experiences give you the chance to learn something new every day. Conductors like George Solti, Claudio Abbado, Rafael Kubelik, Carlo Maria Giulini all brought unique viewpoints about the structure and sound of the music they were conducting. The willingness to approach each day as an opportunity to learn somthing new keeps the experience fresh and exciting. In more recent times, playing Mozart piano concerti–with Barenboim both playing and conducting–was thrilling. Riccardo Muti is bringing tremendous energy and his very thorough knowledge of music and musicians to Chicago, eliciting a warm and vibrant sound from the orchestra.
String Visions: Do you find it important on a personal level to play in recitals and chamber ensembles outside of the orchestra?
Milton: Orchestral playing often makes tremendous demands–both technical and musical–on a player. From a musical creativity standpoint, though, it explores only a part of the range of what we do. It is vital to play chamber music and solo repertoire to keep individual musical expression and creativity fresh. Playing chamber music also provides the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues in a more personal way.
String Visions: A lot of orchestral musicians play for many hours a day, between various rehearsals and practice. Could you talk about strategies that you have found to be useful?
Milton: It is paramount that we stay in shape-–not always automatic, despite playing long hours each day. Identify the left and right hand issues that need constant vigilance. Revisit on a regular basis whatever violin exercises/scales and other technical routines you need, to keep yourself from taking technical shortcuts in orchestra. Arrive early to rehearsals to practice so that you never start a rehearsal cold. In addition, set aside time each day to practice calmly for good intonation. This will improve your playing and permit you to play without discomfort throughout your career.
String Visions: Time spent away from the instrument is just as important as time spent with the instrument. What are some tips you would give to a musician that make time away from the instrument most effective? What precautions do you take to avoid playing injuries?
Milton: Playing an instrument is similar to a sport: it involves rigorous muscle activity in very specific movement patterns. Hours of daily playing can be tremendously fatiguing, and playing when muscles are tired can lead to injury. It is important to maintain structural health. Exercise regularly to keep your body symmetrical, balanced, and limber. For violinists this means ensuring the back, shoulder, and core muscles remain strong to maintain good posture. Stretch the chest, biceps, forearms, and neck after each rehearsal or concert, and schedule regular massages.
String Visions: Learning a lot of new music in a short period of time can be a daunting task. Do you have any advice for younger players that have just joined a major orchestra? What are ways to most efficiently use valuable practice time in the midst of a heavy rehearsal schedule?
Milton: During the first few years in an orchestra, a player faces a great deal of unfamiliar repertoire that must all be learned with short lead time. Players should expect to devote a lot of time to preparation for as long as it takes to become proficient. The process does become easier after a while, after you become familiar with more and more of the core repertoire. The key is to learn how to pinpoint the tough spots in a new work, so that you master them first. Then there will be time to go on to the less challenging spots. If you don’t have time for absolutely everything, the only places you may have skipped will be the least difficult.
String Visions: Many musicians rely on sports psychology and other performance-based mental methods to prepare themselves for performances and auditions. Do you have a particular ritual or mental technique that you use?
Milton: It is important to convince yourself not to let unfamiliar or potentially stressful conditions spiral out of control. It is imperative to have a shut-off valve to prevent the escalation of anxiety. I think this can be prepared for in advance by anticipating and visualizing the surroundings of a performance or audition. I have used marathon running both for recreation and for reducing stress in performance situations. The lower my resting pulse became after a few years of running, the calmer I found myself on stage. While marathons aren’t for everyone, some form of aerobic exercise would probably be a healthy component in any performer’s life.