First, Do Harm
When I first started playing at the Met, I employed a strategy that we’ll call the Hippocratic Style of Playing: “First, do no harm.” We’re all familiar with the temptation: Keep to the background, play your part, don’t step on anyone’s toes (musically speaking), and hopefully you’ll emerge unscathed at the end. The problem is, when fear of being heard governs your approach, you’re unlikely to contribute to the greater musical product. It doesn’t allow you to listen to your own resonance; it engenders a distrust of your own sense of rhythm and pitch; it gives your colleagues nothing to play off of. Such an inoffensive approach, while unlikely to offend, will assuredly not inspire.
As musicians, we have to be assertive in our playing. To a certain extent, this requires that we abandon our dependence on external validation—on our colleagues’ approval of every last musical decision we make. We need to care just a little less what other people think. It’s our job to come into the orchestra with a strong opinion and present it, unselfconsciously, without worrying about the fact (and it is a fact) that there are people around us who would play it differently.
So, after much hemming and hawing, I played out. I assumed that other people wanted to hear my ideas—and suddenly there was a quality that hadn’t been there before. There was a hum, a preponderance of overtones, an energy to the whole wind sound that hadn’t been there when I had been so focused on not screwing anything up.
Ultimately, I had to lessen my concern about “doing harm.” I didn’t lower my standards—in fact, by refusing to let my insecurity take hold, my intonation, my rhythm, my ensemble skills all improved. I was giving my colleagues something to react to, and I was listening to myself more. My respect for my colleagues has been an absolute constant throughout my time at the Met (really, throughout my time as a musician), and I still care deeply what they think; it just took me a while to consider myself one of them, to assert myself as an equal.