First principals to second fiddles (life in an orchestra that’s not the SFO)

[Note that this article first appeared in the SFO Newsletter for December 2018 (no. 78), available to download here].

The Irish Times ran an interesting piece about the RTE orchestra during November 2018.

Though this is a professional and classical orchestra, there were many humorous references to different players and sections within the “band”.

It well explains the structure of an orchestra, including that of the SFO.

An orchestra has a pyramid structure.

The conductor comes first – at the top of the pyramid – a description with
which we’re sure our own conductor, Blair Parham, would agree.

You then have the leader of the orchestra, the principal first violinist – in the SFO, that’s Bill Cook.

After that, you have the section principals:

  • Second Fiddle (June Nelson);
  • Cello (Rona Porter);
  • Bass (Kirsty MacKinlay);
  • Flute (Sheena Anderson);
  • Accordion (Fred Prise); and
  • not forgetting accompanist, Fiona Brodlie.

Towards the end of the 2018 season, we have welcomed young Catriona Norman as the SFO’s piper and we look forward to her taking the lead in that role during our 2019 season.

We’ve had support from many different pipe bands this last year and their contribution is, of course, crucial in the centrepiece items in our concerts. There are many technical issues involved in pairing a pipe band with a string orchestra not least as regards the pitching/tuning of each ensemble. A continuing headache from that point of view looks to have finally been resolved through the kind assistance and sponsorship of McCallum Bagpipes who have made available to the SFO a number of Bb chanters. This will make a huge difference to the ease of rehearsal and performance of numbers such as The Sleeping Warrior and Highland Cathedral – good news for the SFO, pipe bands and audiences alike!

Rank and file…

Returning to the playing structure of the SFO, in which we had reached the level of section leaders, you then drop to the “rank and file section players”.

If the SFO were an army regiment, these players would hold the rank of private.

As with the RTE orchestra, “It’s a big family, and people look out for each other”.

With the SFO, we might say that percussionists have even fewer notes to play than the bass section (rather than RTE’s oboists, of which the SFO has none). Jamie Mason – double bass player and part-time crash cymbal player – knows the Far Side cartoon “Roger screws up” in which the luckless Roger awaits his big orchestral moment holding just one cymbal. But it’s not happened to Jamie so far (though he did manage to break his bass at the rehearsal in Kirkwall’s Pickaquoy Centre during the Northern Nights tour…).

Getting away with it.

It’s said that, in orchestral terms: “You can get away with a lot at the back.”

In the SFO, the back line is formed by the accordions, the percussion section and the bass section.

In the RTE orchestra, horn players tend to be most vocal about things – “the troublemakers in the orchestra”. In their case, that’s thought to be because they play a very challenging instrument; an instrument that has certain risks attached to it. There’s the danger of hitting a harmonic above or below the one that you want.

Risk management.

The memorable analogy drawn is that, if the RTE horn section were in the army, they would be the bomb disposal team. Presumably, that’s because, through their unintended influence, the performance could suddenly “blow up” at any moment.

The nearest the SFO would have to that would probably be the bagpipes – whether that’s an individual player or a section from a pipe band. In many ways, even a single set of bagpipes can approximate to the volume of the whole SFO.

The bagpipes as the SFO bomb disposal team, indeed…

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