Courtesy of Steven Pisano

October 13, 2021

The Joys of Communal Music Making

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On Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, I walked onto the stage of Bailey Hall with the rest of the Cornell Symphony Orchestra. It was my first real orchestral performance in over a year and a half, so needless to say, I was nervous — very nervous. As I sat down and gazed at the expectant audience, full of proud parents and excited peers, my heart began to race and my palms started sweating. I knew I was prepared — the entire orchestra was — but I still felt an anxious desire to get this over with.

Then, the concert began, and as the dulcet tones of the clarinet solo filled the auditorium, I forgot all of my anxieties. I forgot about how many people were watching us, and the Computer Science prelim that I still had to study for no longer concerned me — there was only music. Once the concert concluded and the audience applauded our efforts, I smiled broadly, knowing that all the work we had accomplished in the past month had ultimately been worth it.

In moments like these, I’m reminded of how thankful I am that music remains such an important part of my life. So why, then, is the joy I feel when performing only so strong when I’m playing in an ensemble? Why can I not extract these same emotions when playing by myself?

Maybe there’s a personal reason for this. I associate solo practice with work — work is challenging, and work is frustrating. My enjoyment of a piece is stifled when I need to correct my bowing, or when my intonation is too flat, or when my dynamics aren’t clear enough, or when I accidentally play in the wrong style. Especially when I’m learning a piece for the first time and have to struggle through a passage full of sixteenth notes and accidentals that I’m sure the composer wrote in just to torture us (no one even pays attention to the violas anyway!), it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture; when I’m trying to parse through a tricky measure all alone inside of a Lincoln Hall practice room, it’s easy to think, “Why am I even playing this? What is it good for?”

Playing in an orchestra helps me answer those discouraged questions. In an ensemble, I can listen to the other instruments and hear how my part fits in; I can feel the other instrumentalists’ energy and harness that excitement to improve my own playing. When I play by myself, when I can only hear my own sound reverberate off of the practice room walls, I miss out on the rest of what the composer had to offer.

Maybe there’s also a social reason for this emotional disconnect. In general, when people gather together to form a community (this could be as small as your friend group or as large as an entire nation), there is a shared sense of camaraderie that arises from having something in common; in the case of a musical ensemble, this commonality is a love for making music. Sharing a passion with a group of people fosters teamwork and friendship as well. All of the orchestra members love spending time together, and even on days when we are tired from classes and studying for exams, we can find a small respite in each other’s company.

I don’t get to experience that feeling of community when I practice by myself. Perhaps that’s why I prefer playing in any kind of ensemble — orchestra, chamber strings, even a string quartet — to just playing on my own. There’s something more fulfilling, I think, about uniting with other musicians to create something beautiful rather than being the main attraction; by acting as an ensemble, you share the responsibility of the performance, but by extension, you also share the music and the experience of creating it.

I don’t think these feelings are solely applicable to communal music ensembles; rather, they’re indicative of a natural human phenomenon: the desire to spend our time with like-minded people and form a community. That’s why so many of us join clubs and professional organizations on campus: we may say it’s only for our resume or our professional development (and that’s probably true for some people), but we all want to feel connected to others who share our interests. So, although this is not a universal example, I believe the joys of communal music making illustrate the desire for companionship within all of us. I’m glad to have discovered such a passionate musical community during my college years, and I’m looking forward to making more music with them in the rest of my time at Cornell.

Dylan McIntyre is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].