Last year I had the opportunity to play an opera with a student playing second to me. And I was surprised and impressed. I see this student every week in lessons, and I think I know his problems and his playing. But in this opera pit, IN CONTEXT, he was a far different oboist. The style and musicianship were exactly right. He was environmentally sound and fit in with everything that was going on. He didn't need to be nudged for entrances, or reminded to listen around him. The intonation was perfect and the oboe playing irreproachable. I forgot for long periods that I was working with a student, and enjoyed playing as I would with other professionals.
When I spoke with him in his lesson about this, he absolutely confirmed it. He felt the most comfortable in ensembles, where he could use the musical style and energy from his surroundings instead of generating it himself. He didn't see himself as a solo oboist, but as an orchestral musician. And that is also the way I saw him.
Unfortunately, I had to give him a lecture. The problem with assigning yourself that role is that you can't GET an orchestral job these days without being a soloist. The audition process does not take into account the ease with which you can fit into a group. It does not take into account your musical savvy and ability to match your surroundings.
No, you have to go in and wow the committee in your ten minutes on stage. It has to be perfect oboe playing first, or you will be eliminated immediately. You have to have something to say in each unaccompanied solo or you will be eliminated in the second round. And you have to have the whole package when it counts in the finals to win the job. Not because you have to be a big-league soloist day to day in your second oboe position, but because you have to be more impressive than the other 40-70 players who also want it.
Similarly, when I play with a great orchestra, as I did a few weeks ago in Milwaukee, I feel myself rise to the level of my surroundings. I become more conscious of the placement of my attacks and releases, and more careful about the sound I produce. Any mistake is audible when everyone else is spot on.
I don't want this misunderstood. I never just ignore these things in my other orchestras. It is always important to place my notes precisely with the entrances of my colleagues, and to strive to be awesome. BUT when a few members of the orchestra may not be thinking about the same factors, and when we really don't have enough rehearsal time to address every issue, it can only be so precise. If I slightly miss the perfect placement of an entrance and get away with it regularly, my standards can begin to erode.
After a short time in this superb context, I feel myself to be a tighter, more focused, player with a higher level of concentration. My next task is to hold onto that feeling and that polish, and use them in the future - to raise the amount of excellence at work in the world.