One (Singular Sensation)

by Amy Kauffman, violinist

Earlier this year, our blog featured a riveting account of the MET Orchestra’s audition process - an exciting, high-stakes competition. But what happens after the audition is over, especially if winning means joining one of the string sections? How is playing in a section different from playing as a soloist? How do players learn to perform so well together?

We are sixteen different people (in the first violins) with sixteen different viewpoints, backgrounds, and musical histories. Having won sixteen different auditions, we are put together and asked to sound like one instrument. When we play, we’re watching the conductor and listening intently to the singers and the rest of the orchestra. We’re also watching our section leaders and listening to each other, matching bow strokes, pitch, and volume, and listening to our own sound, constantly gauging it to our section’s collective sound. Balancing all of these factors every moment is part of the challenge involved in playing as beautifully “together” as possible.

Before rehearsal: Caterina Szepes (foreground) smiles as she anticipates brain oscillation coordination with her first violin colleagues.

Before rehearsal: Caterina Szepes (foreground) smiles as she anticipates brain oscillation coordination with her first violin colleagues.

A 2012 study at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute illustrates the amazing connection that musicians can have when they play together. In the study, pairs of instrumentalists played duets as researchers recorded their brain activity. The researchers found that the musicians showed matching neural activity in two specific regions of the brain: those associated with music production and social cognition. Even though the musicians played different musical lines, their brain oscillations were coordinated. Study researcher Johanna Sänger writes, “When people coordinated their own actions, small networks between brain regions are formed. But we also observed similar network properties between the brains of the individual players, especially when mutual coordination is very important; for example at the joint onset of a piece of music.” Having musical synchronicity mapped and quantified this way by scientists is an inspiring confirmation of the power of musical collaboration. Playing music together affects us on an intellectual, emotional, and physiological level.

Our differences as musicians may seem at first like obstacles to performing well together. Our section includes people who have focused on solo playing, or chamber music, or conducting – people who play jazz, or early music, or new music outside of the orchestra. Some of us play instruments made recently, while others’ instruments are hundreds of years old. And we’ve literally come from all over the world to play here. When all of that experience, all of that playing (both inside and outside the orchestra), gets channeled into one collective sound - and when we play off each other and are inspired by each other show after show - the result is a sound that’s richer for all the variety it contains. We are one instrument with many voices.