A different perspective from the first row of the symphony

On the weekend of November 10 during the 2007–2008 Seattle Symphony season, the symphony performed both Brahms piano concerti and two of his symphonies in consecutive concerts. My subscription included one of them, and I bought a separate ticket to the other one, and the seat I was given was in the very front row.

You notice all sorts of things when you're in the very front row, things that elude your notice from even the second or third row. When you're that close, you're within an arm's reach of the musicians. I had to look away when the concertmaster bent over to tune the orchestra; otherwise I would've been looking up her dress. During the performance, I could read the music on the first violin's music stand. I could hear the pianist hum to himself. (And for some reason, pianists who hum also hum out of tune. Why is that?) And I could hear the conductor exhale through his teeth. It sounded like he was making quiet "choo choo" noises.

Then again, the "choo choo" noises might have been on purpose. He took the Brahms Fourth Symphony faster than I remember ever hearing it before. For all I know, the train noises were his way to get the orchestra to play faster.

Comments (7)
  1. obuibo says:

    Pure speculation here, but pianists may hum out of tune because they aren’t used to "analog" instruments (instruments without discrete notes, such as the voice.)

    I know my ear was bad when my only instrument was the piano. Playing violin was impossible, because I wasn’t used to hearing pitches "in between" the notes. Someone else tunes the piano, you play a key, and it’s already in tune. I didn’t get better at violin until I started singing. After a few years in choir, I found my violin playing improved dramatically (after leaving the instrument on the shelf for a few years.)

    I just used your rhetorical question as an excuse to post my anecdote; I doubt my experience truly generalizes.

  2. Brecht says:

    Did you find a significant difference in the musical experience itself (aside from the fun things you pick up outside the music).

    In situations where I am extremely close to the performers, the discreteness of the instruments and some of the raw sounds that do not carry very far into the hall (bow hair on strings, valve movement on woodwinds) begin to become as important and interesting as the overall sound of the orchestra.

    [Oh yes, definitely. When you’re that close, you’re not just listening to music; you’re also enjoying a performance, and the short-distance noises (like humming and choo-choo’ing) are a big part of that. -Raymond]
  3. Steven says:

    "And for some reason, pianists who hum also hum out of tune. Why is that?"

    Speaking as an amateur pianist myself, I think this has a lot to do with one’s posture or seating position and concentration. My singing voice is bad even when I’m standing up and making a proper effort, but when I sit down to play the piano it becomes… er… objectionable. Even whistling is more difficult.

    I’m always impressed by people who manage to sing properly whilst playing the piano and I imagine it has taken them a lot of practice to get it right.

  4. "And for some reason, pianists who hum also hum out of tune. Why is that?"

    Speaking as a metal guitarist: to hear what they are humming. When you’re playing by yourself, it’s a fair chance that you can hear the humming too. When there’s horns, oboes, strings, precussion and whatever else the orchestra consists of – they will most likely be playing in perfect key, and drown your humming unless it’s slightly out of tune.

  5. Sean says:

    As a recording engineer, I know very well the various noises that musicians make, and find it both amusing and fascinating.

    My favourite noise is a particular session drummer who grunts uncontrollably, like an ape, during quiet passages. I’ve talked to him about it, and he was completely unaware he was doing it until I played him back the drum overhead mics in isolation!

    His ape impression can even be heard on some albums he’s worked on in some places, where it was better to leave in extraneous noises than to remove the delicate cymbal sustain.

  6. David Brooks says:

    Most conductors make noises if you are up close. Barbirolli and Klemperer’s grunts. Colin Davis’s sharp intakes through his teeth (which he exaggerated once in a not-very-serious performance of Bolero). But the worst I experienced was Eliahu Inbal, who went "bz-bzzzz-bz-bzzzzzzzz-bz" all the way through Leonora 3.

    When you spend consecutive nights at the front of the arena for the BBC Promenade concerts, you get to hear them all.

    On being too close to the orchestra: I hate it because of the resulting imbalance. At SSO’s recent Mahler 8, John Cerminaro (principal horn) was placed where the 2nd violins normally go, bell pointing out, and because of the stage extension I was about 4 rows behind him. Now I know every 1st horn lick in the symphony, solo or not.

  7. Timothy Byrd says:

    I’m in Southern California, and at the Hollywood Bowl, I think of all the crickets as part of the performance. (Though apparently they aren’t quite so noticeable in the boxes, rather than the rush seats I typically get.)

    Jens mentioned being able to hear what they are humming. A couple years ago, I was at a Ren faire* playing at being part of a gypsy troupe. As part of the act for the day we were asked to do a small musical piece with a couple of the girls doing a gypsy-style dance. For music we had a drummer, a flautist, and me playing harp. We rehearsed that morning and all was well, but when the time came for the performance itself, the number of people who came to see forced us to rearrange our seating, and while our audience could see all of us, I was about ten feet away from the other musicians with a good sized shrubbery blocking my view of them.

    Not only could I not see the drummer to keep time, but she was playing softly enough that I could only hear her if I was playing off beat. It was mortifying.

    — T

    (obuibo is my anecdote role model)

    *For people in saner parts of the world, I’ll suggest you look up Renaissance Faires on wikipedia. It’s too strange for me to summarize.  Where else would you have costume police nitpicking the historical accuracy of the participants outfits, and then at the faire itself, have Queen Elizabeth path a visit to a troupe of gypsies?

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