Life in the opera orchestra with Lee Morgan

Dec 08, 2015

For those of you who are now studying to become classical musicians, I am quite sure it can be stressful sometimes  when people are asking you what you want to do after you finish school. Should you be a soloist? Should you play chamber music? Maybe start your own band or try to play in an opera orchestra? There are many options, but it can be tough to decide which one suits you the best. A good advice can be try learning from the experience of others and try them all. You will know for sure when it feels right. Here at Play with a Pro, we thought it would be useful for music students and also established musicians, to have some insights about life in the opera orchestra. Who knows maybe this is your next step? Surely,  you have heard about Lee Morgan, the principal clarinet in The Royal Danish Opera Orchestra. He is a legend in Scandinavia and his teaching methods have shaped many generations of clarinet players. You can also watch for FREE the video of the full interview here.  

1. Why did you choose the clarinet?

I was singing in the school chorus when I was around 8 years old. I did that for around one year and I loved it. In my public school we had the opportunity to start playing a wind instrument at the age of 9. There was no string opportunity, only wind because bands were very popular. There was nothing special about the clarinet at that point. Initially I wanted to play the trumpet. They gave me the chance to play that first for a couple of weeks and I could barely get a sound out. So, then they gave me a clarinet and it seemed to fit me. I just loved it from the start and it went quickly after that. I have been playing in the opera for the past 28 years and I love the singing aspect of the instrument. I think that’s its identity. It’s the instrument that comes closest to the human voice. It’s interesting because I know the instrument is played with vibrato and when you sing you also sing with vibrato, but there is a purity of the sound which distinguishes the instrument.  

2. How is the life in an opera orchestra?

I think that what’s so interesting to play in an orchestra is that you get to go through all these different styles and there is a theater aspect of it of course. There is a story that you are telling, which is wonderful. You get to be able to play this repertoire, that you would not normally play if you were only playing chamber music for example. All the Verdi, all the Wagner, all the Mozart repertoires. You can never get tired of this. There is always something interesting happening. It gets chaotic sometimes also and that’s what sometimes makes it difficult: singers, directors, lights, orchestra. It’s the most difficult art form, but when you get close to perfection there is nothing like it in the world. There is a frustration in there too, but when it works, it is so incredible. You are part of something bigger than yourself  all the time, and that’s why I am attracted to it.  Before I started playing the clarinet I played a lot of baseball and basketball. Team sports are always appealing to me. I think that’s also important for an orchestral musician to actually enjoy being part of something larger than yourself. Another great part of being in an orchestra is that when you are not playing you can relax and enjoy how beautifully your colleagues are playing... . the support you get is wonderful... it’s the feeling that it’s not about you all the time.  

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3. What are your thoughts on blending in the orchestra, intonation etc?

When you play in the opera orchestra, you are of course accompanying the singers, and in the repertoire itself  there is a choral aspect to it.  Intonation of course...everything has to be in tune, but just as much, the balance is important for the intonation and the blend of the sounds and your function. What helps in an orchestra is having a basic sound concept. We need to play and be heard without being too much in your face. We are not in the spotlight, but you have to beautifully warm up the atmosphere. You need to provide a surrounding sound behind the singers, so you are not covering, you are supporting them. Another wonderful thing is that you can just listen to your colleagues and that will automatically make you play better in tune. Your ears focus 51% on what is going on around you and 49% on what you are bringing. I think that basically when you talk about blending you talk about listening and adjusting.

4. As a teacher, how do you prepare your students for auditions?

Auditions are quite challenging these days. There are so many great players out there. The level is getting higher and higher. There is a lot of pressure for young players for perfection. I have a slightly different approach for each student, because their needs are individual, some have a natural self confidence, but they may need a bit more organization, on the other hand there are players who are very meticulous  and a bit nervous that they are never going to make it and they tend to be very well organized. I think generally you have to organize yourself very well, organize practice, try not to waste your time practicing. Try to vary your practice as much as possible. Mentally speaking, it’s not about us, even at an audition. Your best playing will always come from your direct communication with the music, your inspiration from the music, your are expressing Mozart, you are expressing Verdi… you are in fact expressing the soul of the music. I know it’s difficult, but try to forget yourself, try to use your tools and try to follow your musical path.

Watch for FREE Lee Morgan’s full lesson on La Traviata (the clarinet solo) here . If you have more questions for Lee Morgan, drop us a comment and we can get in touch with him.  


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