The secret life of an orchestra member

16 November 2021

What is involved in being a member of an orchestra, especially here at Welsh National Opera? The members of WNO Orchestra have to feel as much at home on the stage doing a concert performance as they are sitting in the pit for a season of operas. But what does this entail? What routines and processes are followed that we, the audience, are blithely unaware of? We spoke to Róisín Walters, WNO Principal Second Violin, and Lucie Sprague, WNO Principal Oboe to find out some of the secrets that go into being a member of WNO Orchestra.

Something you may have sub-consciously noticed is how the Orchestra cannot see the action going on on-stage when they play at an opera performance. This means that many of them will have never seen our productions, not even during rehearsals, as Róisín puts it: ‘During the rehearsal process there are some quite amusing moments when you are playing some of the most fantastic music ever written and you can hear heavenly voices floating down from above, and then everything is stopped and a voice from somewhere will say something along the lines of “we need to reset, some of the ladies got stuck in the garage”!’

Another intriguing process she explained was what happens when someone breaks a string during a performance: ‘Whoever has broken their string will pass the instrument to the nearest ‘inside player’ which is what we call the member of the desk sitting further from the audience [two players sharing a music stand is called a ‘desk’] and they will swap their instruments. The inside player will then turn to the player directly behind them and they will swap instruments. This continues until the instrument with the broken string has made it to a player as close as possible to the exit of the stage. That player will go out and change the string, retune the instrument and then the swaps happen in reverse until everyone has their own instrument back.’

It turns out that as Principal Oboe, Lucie provides the tuning note for the Orchestra at the beginning of a performance, after the interval, as well as – occasionally – in between pieces too. ‘At WNO I give three individual A notes: one for the woodwind and brass, one for the lower strings and one for the upper strings to tune to. What you might not know is that I use a device called a tuning machine to make sure I give exactly the same pitch A each time. At WNO we tune to A 440hz, whereas in European orchestras they tune to a higher pitch, occasionally up to 443hz.’

One of the most surprising things is that as an oboist she makes her own reeds: ‘This is lengthy process that involves gouging, shaping and scraping pieces of bamboo. Although I make each reed using the same process, I tailor each specific reed to suit the repertoire in each performance.’

Lucie explains how members of the Orchestra arrive at the start of the rehearsal period – whether for an opera or concert – with their individual part already thoroughly prepared. This is so that ‘on our first reading through of new repertoire we can already play the notes. During the rehearsal process, we get into the finer details of the repertoire, breaking things down and slowly piecing things back together again, culminating in a polished performance.’

So now you have a few inside scoops into what goes on before the conductor steps on to the podium. Appreciate it all in person with WNO Orchestra at a Cardiff Classical Concert at St David’s Hall or join us as we head out on tour next again next spring