I recently came across an interesting article on The Strad (an online magazine for string players) that mirrors some things that as a trombonist (particularly a trombonist who plays a lot of jazz) I guess I just assumed was a pretty typical approach to performing those awkward lines that composer/arrangers sometimes write for us. Faking it – the great unmentionable of orchestral playing discusses the idea of “Faking, smudging, flying, putting the orchestral pedal down.”
In these economically parlous times, only a handful of the major orchestras in any country attack new compositions on a regular basis, with faking mentioned as necessary in anything from ten to almost ninety per cent of some modern works. One player commented that while music by some modern composers presented no problem, with others it was ‘a case of keeping in the right bar and hoping the trumpets drown you out’. There is also a widespread – if erroneous – belief that Tchaikovsky wrote ‘for effect’, and one well-known first violinist admitted that he aimed to land only about a quarter of the high passages, max.
While McVeigh is writing from the standpoint of professional orchestral string players, I find it interesting that this seems to be something that not many string players are taught early on. My first trombone teacher called the idea of faking challenging passages “streamlining” when I asked him about playing unison bebop lines with trumpet players and saxophonists. He pointed out that if I concentrated on nailing what I was capable of and ghosting the rest that my sound would slot in just under the trumpet/saxophone and sound just fine. The key, he taught me, was to do this confidently and perfectly in time. Gradually, as my technique got better, I found that I needed to ghost less and could play more.
Even in solo playing I’ve discovered that ghosting notes works quite well. There are some Carl Fontana solos I transcribed where I discovered the aural impression of what lines he was playing were much more complex than the licks he actually played. Again, the key is that he played those lines perfectly in time and emphasized the important notes while ghosting notes around them. The ear will lock into the underlying harmony and logic of the melodic line and fill in the gaps much more effectively than you might think.
McVeigh concludes her article with 10 recommendations for faking lines in an orchestra string section. Much of what she suggests are specific to string players, such as maintaining the same bowing as the rest of your section. Other points make for great advice for any musician, such as keeping good posture and ensuring that the downbeats of any rhythmically complex line are on time.
How often do you find yourself “faking” difficult passages? Do you feel as if you’re “cheating” or do you think it’s an important part of performing music? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.