A question to which I don't know the answer

Playing an instrument well is really, really hard. Playing together with other people is not much easier.

But playing the dynamics on the page is quite easy. So why do so many people in orchestras do so well at the first two and so badly at the last one?

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • Playing softly, beautifully, with a focused sound, is really really hard, I think. Or maybe it just is for me.

    How many of us play scales/arpeggios/exercises at piano or pianissimo? We get used to playing mezzo-forte and up, and we don’t really memorize how it feels to play softly with a focused sound, so when we’re in a group and can’t hear ourselves, we don’t do it.

    Also, we want to bring out our juicy inner line, or we’re inspired by the direction of the person with the solo line and get a little too enthusiastic and wind up covering instead of supporting.

    Sometimes I get resentful of conductors who tell me it’s still too loud when I’m practically playing air-viola already.

    Mostly, though, I think it’s just that it takes great care and attention to play softly, whereas the mechanics of playing the instrument and coordinating with others can go more on auto-pilot, and often do.

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