Either live or on TV, we have all seen the concentrated face of an Olympic sprinter waiting for the start gun to sound or a downhill skier waiting at the top of the slope for the gate to open. They wait silently and without movement. But what about orchestral musicians? What’s it like for them in the hours and minutes before we see them on stage? Join us backstage.
A lone musician stands between the first and second rows of the concert hall with his back to the world. The concert starts in 90 minutes, while the sound check is only minutes away. He is in a world of his own, in deep concentration. Maybe he is worrying about a difficult passage in the music he is about to play and is repeating the same notes again and again in his mind. The seats in the hall around him are empty and waiting for the audience to arrive.
However, on the stage behind him and in the rooms to either side of the stage, there is a hive of activity. There are chairs waiting to be adjusted and music stands that need to be put in the right place, not to mention his colleagues who are no doubt feeling pretty much the same as him. You can hear the strangest sounds coming from all directions. Some musicians are eating and some are sitting silently staring blankly into the air. Some are chatting with their loved ones on their mobile phones or using their mobiles to search for Pokémons on the stage, while others are pacing restlessly around. Some are walking around carrying their instruments even though they are not playing them. You could be excused for thinking they are holding onto them so they don’t forget to take them when they go on stage.
The cacophony of sound of an orchestra playing at the same time, but independently of each other, in the final few minutes before the concert pitch sounds is nothing compared to the unbelievable mix of tones just before the orchestra comes on stage. The sound of 60 or 70 musicians playing tones, trills, runs and scales on their own instruments is so terrible that it’s fascinating.
There is a myth that it’s pleasant, elegant and glamourous backstage and that musicians dine on fancy food just before going on stage. That’s not actually the case. In fact, the musicians’ waiting room may often be perceived as impractical, cluttered and disorderly. A full symphony orchestra comprises of many musicians so the allotted space must be divided modestly. Some waiting rooms are barren and charmless, while others are normally used for something completely different. They are seldom enticing places. When the Arctic Philharmonic played in Oulu, for instance, the musicians went straight from the bus and into the musicians’ lounge to wait. On this occasion the changing room was a sort of canteen with a row of sinks in the middle and very few chairs. Ketchup dispensers and violin cases stood side by side. This is quite normal and it was anything but spectacular. There was not a single red carpet or champagne glass in sight. Perhaps a fruit platter, if the concert organiser remembered to order one.
Concentration and contemplativeness silently fills the air. In situations like this you don’t speak to one another. Or perhaps the complete opposite? Chatter and loud laughter can be heard coming from a group in the corner. Some people’s pants are not straight, while others are still working on their makeup. There are instruments to get ready and neck muscles to soften up.
The musicians follow their own routines, ceremonies and habits. Every musician has their own personal ritual. Everyone knows what will happen all too soon: they will file on stage and find their places.
Then it’s time. On they go, instruments in hand. The conductor enters the stage. The concert is underway.