Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lost In Translation

As I mentioned in a previous post, I joined the Royal Orchestral Society in January.  What I didn't mention is that it seems as though Brits have an entirely different musical vocabulary to us Americans and it's been really throwing me off. 

It started off with basics:  in the US, we refer to the first chair, first stand violinist as the Concertmaster (or Concertmistress, if you're feeling 21st-century like), you know, the violinist who walks onstage before the conductor and leads the tuning when the lights dim.  Here, they call him/her the Leader.  That took some getting used to (especially since I picture a "Leader" to be the leader of a brass band in a parade or something - Concertmaster sounds so much better).  Then, they refer to "stands" as "desks."  Therefore, for the first rehearsal, I was asked to sit "First Desk, Second Violins" (and I have now demoted myself to Second Stand since I clearly lack any sort of leadership skill needed to lead a pack of already-lacking Seconds). 

However, the most confusing aspects of playing in a British symphony orchestra are the terms used for notes and parts of the instrument.  At last night's rehearsal, the conductor stopped the orchestra in the middle of Borodin's Overture to Prince Igor, stuck his hands in his hair in frustration and let out a yell that sounded something like, "GARRGHGHGGHGHGHHHH!!!"  He then looked wildly at the first and second violins (myself included) and said, "DON'T, don't, DON'T, start at the HEEL of the bow, violins, just DON'T DO IT.  You're putting the accent in the WRONG place when you start at the heel."  I could only deduce that he actually meant the frog of the bow, that is, the part closest to the bow-hand.  However, I was resistant to this language, as I dislike the word "heel" and much prefer "frog", since that's the way I learned it.

A few measures later, he violin-tly (ha ha ha - violin-tly - get it? Sorry, nerdy musician joke, I never tire of those.  Like, "Gone Chopin, be Bach in a Minuet.  HA HA HA!!!) shook his head, dropped his hands and let out the "GAGARRRGHGHGHGGHGHGH!!!" sound again.  What now?  "Strings," he said in a near growl.  "Play the crotchet to its full length.  It's no good shortening it."  I stared at the page.  I saw a quarter note, followed by three sets of sixteenths.  What, I thought to myself, in the world, is a crotchet?  A few GARRRGGGGHGHGHGHHs later, I realized he was referring to the quarter note.  I don't understand this British system ... in America, everything is mathematical, it makes sense.  There are four quarter notes in a whole note.  Divide those up and you've got eighth notes.  Then sixteenths, then thirty-seconds.  Here you've got crotchets, quavers, semiquavers and demisemiquavers.  Can you imagine spluttering out "demisemiquaver" to an orchestra?  Now you tell me which system is easier to remember and learn (and yes, this is one instance in which I will declare the superiority of the American way over the British method - it's not different, it's definitely better). 

I'm having second thoughts about teaching violin lessons on the side now.  I'll have to re-learn music theory and even then I'll probably teach the poor children incorrectly.  Jeez.  And I thought music was like love, a universal language.  Humph. 

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