Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Each wind, brass and percussion player in an orchestra almost always plays a part that is his or hers alone. The string players, in contrast, are part of a choir, playing the same music as a section, which may be divided into two or more subsets. Consequently, only the string players share a music stand, and the music that is on it, with a colleague. These “stand partners,” like it or not, find themselves thrown together as people and as musicians.

There is a traditional division of labor on each stand, a hierarchy of two. If there are two different parts in the music for the section, the “outside” player, that is to say, the player closest to the audience, will play the higher part. The “inside” player is responsible for turning pages. Page turning is an acquired skill. Turn too soon, and your partner may miss a few notes at the end of the page. Too late, and the notes on the next page aren’t visible in time. A good page turner may have to stop playing at the end of a page, sacrificing a few notes of his or her own playing to make sure that the stand partner doesn’t miss any notes. In many orchestras (such as the Chicago Symphony, in which I play viola), the musicians rotate seating, slowly moving up and down the section over the course of several weeks. Consequently, everybody except the principal players will frequently find themselves turning pages for everybody else.

When stand partners don’t get along, life can be miserable. There are inevitably negotiations about where to place the stand and the music. Nearsighted musicians (and after years of squinting at old, often poorly printed manuscripts, almost all musicians are nearsighted) need the music close at hand, but have to accommodate their partner. The stage is often crowded, and it is not always easy to come up with a configuration on the stand where both partners have room to play. Then there is the issue of sightlines; if somebody tall is directly in front, more negotiations may ensue. Both stand partners may need to move left or right to afford an unobstructed view of the conductor. Diplomacy is vital, as you will be sitting together again and again in the course of your careers. If these issues are not settled peaceably, they may result in an exhausting feud that goes on for years.

There is a famous story about two cellists who were sharing a stand when the Chicago Symphony was performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London many years ago. It is relevant to the story to mention that one was male and one female.  The exact issue has been lost in the mists of time, but they were furious at each other, clearly not for the first time, and they were not making much of an effort to hide it. At intermission, a member of the audience came up to the stage and attracted the attention of another musician. “Terribly sorry to trouble you, but we have made a wager — could you tell me if those two cellists are married?” (They were not.)

Other issues need to be negotiated as well. Some musicians feel the need to write a lot of information into the part — fingerings, instructions from the conductor, reminders about sharps and flats, and so forth. Other musicians find all this to be visual clutter, distracting them from the information on the page they actually need.  And it is hard to find any two musicians who will want instructions written in exactly the same way. Stand partners often ask permission before they mark up the part.

Not all markings are of an instructive nature.  There are a few talented artists among us, and brilliantly caustic cartoonists. Sir Georg Solti took an unusually muscular approach to Debussy’s transcendent impressionist masterpiece, Afternoon of a Faun. One of my colleagues drew a cartoon in the music showing a very convincing likeness of Sir Georg glowering at a dented Mercedes sedan. One nice detail that I recall is that the car had personalized license plates: “SIR G.” The corpse of a young deer was draped over its hood. This same violist once drew an elaborate genre sketch of a Ku Klux Klan rally to adorn the scherzo of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which is subtitled “Merry Gathering of the Country Folk.”

Unless the music is unusually transparent, the only string players you really may hear as individuals are your stand partner and yourself. In fact, on occasion there can be an acoustic quirk whereby you hear your stand partner’s playing more clearly than you hear your own. If you play a passage particularly well, often your stand partner is the only person who knows it. And if you miscount, or play a wrong note, or play something dreadfully out of tune, your shameful little secret is entrusted to your stand partner. The best stand partners are supportive and not judgmental.

Sometimes, you perform just for your stand partner, an audience of one. You may use a flashy fingering for no particular reason, just to amuse each other. The next time the same passage comes along, your partner may emulate you, if only to let you know that your little flight of virtuosity did not go unnoticed. Sometimes only one of you is playing; the composer may stipulate that only half the section should play a passage. Perhaps you softly put an expressive flourish on the music — the more simple the line, the greater the comic potential in this. Etiquette usually requires that your stand partner acknowledge your artistry with subtle applause, typically a discreet little shuffle of shoes on the stage or a judicious tap of the bow on the music.

Good stand partners are very sensitive to each other’s playing. You strive to be exactly in tune with each other, and to play rhythmically together. But still, you each have your own musical styles. If you are both attentive, you find yourselves in a wordless conversation about how the music should go — what sound color works best for this passage, how should it be phrased?

You can learn a lot from stand partners; they may have a different and more imaginative way to shape the music. Sometimes a passage that has always been a problem for you is suddenly playable when you use a fingering your stand partner came up with. On good nights, you play beautifully together. If my stand partner is someone with whom I share a musical accord, I particularly enjoy passages in which we play different lines in harmony. We are at once blending together in our own little duet and contributing to the whole orchestral texture.

A listener arriving early to a concert may observe stand partners practicing together. It is one thing to work out a difficult passage on your own. But if the two of you can play it together, with good ensemble and intonation, you approach it with far more confidence at the concert. If the passage you worked out goes well that night, you have shared a secret little victory. One of my all-time favorite stand partners was a gentleman named Richard Ferrin, who passed away a couple of years ago, shortly after retiring from the Chicago Symphony. He had an incredible sound, passionate and alive. He came up with exuberant virtuoso fingerings that mortals such as myself emulated at our peril. And he had a wonderful off-center sense of humor without a trace of malice. Perhaps my most cherished memory of him dates from my first year with the orchestra. I was not yet officially a member; in fact, I would be required to win a second audition later that season before I was offered a contract. It was a stressful year for me. We were playing Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony one night.  There is a wonderful moment in the second movement that features the viola section playing a gorgeous melody in two-part harmony. When we got to this passage at the concert, I saw that Ferrin had written above the music, in his unmistakable handwriting, “I LOVE YOU, MAX!”

Shortly after he retired, the orchestra was performing Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances.” Apparently, Ferrin had played off the same part I was using, perhaps decades earlier. In a sense, we were stand partners that night, over the remove of many years. When we got to the big tune that was appropriated for the musical “Kismet” (“Take my hand, I’m a Stranger in Paradise”), I saw a message in Ferrin’s handwriting: “Take my hand — I’m stranger in Paradise!” By removing one little word, and turning “stranger” into an adjective, he had transformed a rather mawkish sentiment into something quite intriguing. Even without his physical presence, I still had the pleasure of his companionship that night.

That, in the end, is the gift that the best stand partners have to offer: companionship.  It may seem strange, but to play in an orchestra can at times be a lonely endeavor. You are sharing the stage with scores of colleagues, but you can’t really talk to each other most of the time. A sympathetic stand partner can be a lifeline. Even without a word being exchanged, you enjoy a deeply human interaction.

Composer-arranger-instructor Max Raimi has been a member of the CSO’s viola section since 1984.

PHOTO: The CSO’s viola and cello sections: String players share a music stand, and sheet music, with a stand partner. | Todd Rosenberg Photography