Alderley Edge Symphony Orchestra
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Violins
 


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Amy Cusick (principal second violin) has been playing the violin and piano for over 30 years, having achieved grade 8 ABRSM on both instruments. Music has always been an important part of her life: at one time she was in six orchestras and has performed in such venues as the Royal Albert Hall and the Festival Hall. However, she now has a young daughter so her hobby time is limited and she currently plays in only two orchestras.

She has been a member of the Alderley Edge Orchestra since 2011, originally in the first violinmusical, especially Beethoven and Dvorak - in fact, anything with a good melody!

Amy is a primary school and music teacher, and has been teaching for 14 years. She thoroughly enjoys working with young children and, as a new mum herself, watching them progress and develop.

There are no words more likely to bring colour to the cheeks of the Second Violins than the phrase 'playing second fiddle', with its implication that their role is somehow inferior or subordinate to that of the Firsts. But there is no doubting that their parts are often (though not always) less demanding than those of the First Violins and certainly involve fewer excursions to the higher reaches of the fingerboard.
 
The pleasure for most Second Violins comes not from 'playing the tune' - a privilege which undeniably usually falls to the Firsts - but from supplying, in the company of the violas, cellos and basses, those vital harmonies which can transform even the most banal of musical themes into pieces of music with real light and shade. There is also the fascination of observing the different ways in which composers approach this task: the delicate counterpoint of Bach, the embroidery of Mendelssohn, the even-handedness of Dvorak (who, as an orchestral player himself, always went to great pains to share out the tunes), the hammered-out semi-quavers of Beethoven; and so on.
 
On the concert platform, the Second Violins are usually located alongside the Firsts, and this is the arrangement favoured by The Alderley Edge Orchestra in the interests of achieving a good ensemble. An alternative layout, whereby the Seconds are located to the right of the conductor as a mirror image of the Firsts, has its adherents although it is less common today than it used to be. In fact, such an arrangement can occasionally make better musical sense, especially in passages (for example, the famous opening bars of the finale of Tchaikovsky's Symphonie Pathétique) where a composer has clearly written antiphonal parts with such physical separation in mind and which lose much of their impact in the more conventional string layout.
 
Being accustomed to playing a supportive role in the orchestra, it is not surprising that the Second Violins of The Alderley Edge Orchestra are, without exception, very kind and supportive individuals. This statement is, of course, entirely unconnected with the fact that the writer of these notes is drawn from their ranks.
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Shahla Armitage (leader) was born in Baghdad and started playing the violin at an early age. She studied violin and piano under Russian tutors at the Music and Ballet School and later through a scholarship at the Mendelssohn Hochschule in Leipzig (now The University of Music and Theatre ‘Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’ Leipzig). After graduation she joined the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and had many appearances with the Orchestra. Shahla has performed in many countries in the Middle East, Russia and Eastern Europe. Moving to Jordan she joined the Orchestra of the National Music Conservatoire (now Amman Symphony Orchestra) and at the same time established herself as a respected and sought after Violin and Piano tutor.

Since settling in the UK in 1997 she has played with a number of local orchestras including Wilmslow and Stockport Symphony Orchestras, the Vale Royal String Orchestra, Lancashire Chamber Orchestra and Sale Chamber Orchestra, performing many concerts and giving a number of recitals. She has established a school of private Violin and Piano students and teaches Violin and Piano at local schools. In 2007 Shahla established an annual tutored music event which has proved very popular and has grown year by year. She leads the Chordiale String Quartet which has given a number of charitable performances and other events. Shahla has a teaching Diploma from the Music and Ballet School and is a Licentiate of Trinity College London.

The strings form the core of the symphony orchestra. Between them, the violins, violas, cellos and double basses have a total compass of some six octaves and have a range of expression unmatched by any other orchestral instrument.

There are many ways in which a string can be bowed in order to achieve a particular musical effect. These include playing close to the bridge ('sul ponticello') which produces a harsh, wiry sound; and playing over the fingerboard ('sul tasto') which produces a more ethereal tone. Bowings can be long or short, and both on the string and off, the latter ('spiccato') producing extremely short notes in detached style. Occasionally, as in the Witches' Sabbath in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, a composer will require players to use the wooden part of their bows rather than the hair ('col legno'); and Rossini goes one step further in his Il Signor Bruschino by requiring players to use their bows as percussion instruments by tapping their music stands.

The use of up-bows or down-bows is another matter of vital concern to the string player, and is often the subject of considerable debate at rehearsal. Whilst many passages can be bowed 'as they come', there are inevitable musical phrases for which the bowing is a question of interpretation and therefore a source of potential dispute. In hired sets of parts, these passages are reliably identified by heavily pencilled (and often contradictory) bowing marks leading, in extreme cases, to holes in the paper where an eraser has been used once too often. A good conductor and leader always ensure that such contentious bowings are sorted out at an early stage rather than running the risk of wasting valuable rehearsal time.

Bowings are not always left to the discretion of players and conductors: composers and publishers' editors often have their own ideas (sometimes erroneous) on the bowings they believe to be necessary to achieve the desired musical effect. A notable example is the Finale of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 ('Little Russian') in which the composer calls for no fewer than 52 successive high-speed quaver down-bows - a searching test of string ensemble.

The ways in which the strings are fingered also have a profound bearing on the nature and quality of the note produced. The shaking of the left hand which produces the distinctive 'vibrato' effect is an important part of a string player's technique; but on occasion, players are required to produce a remote glassy sound by touching the string with extreme lightness to produce harmonics.

Another way in which a distinctive effect can be produced is by the use of mutes. At one time, these were small stand-alone devices made of wood or metal which could be lightly clamped to the bridge as required, thereby producing a much quieter, softer sound. They also had an alarming inclination to go missing when required, or fall embarrassingly to the floor with a resounding tinkle during pianissimo passages; as a result, most players today prefer to use contrivances which locate permanently on the strings near the tailpiece and which can be quickly and safely brought into play at the appropriate moment.

A characteristic of the strings shared only with the harp, piano and organ is the ability to play more than one note at a time, achieved by stopping and bowing a number of strings simultaneously. Double or triple stopping of chords is a common requirement, but the concave shape of the modern bow (developed by the great Parisian maker Fran çois Tourte (1747-1835) makes it possible to achieve quadruple stopping only by spreading the chord to some degree. In an orchestral context, multiple stopping is normally only required over individual chords where a composer is seeking a particularly rich harmony; for extended passages, players are more than happy to share the notes between themselves on an agreed basis (playing 'divisi').