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Are Some Musicians Better At Being A Soloist Than Playing In An Ensemble?

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Published: April 13, 2014 at 4:52 PM [UTC]

I have always enjoyed listening to orchestral and chamber music. I love the way musicians in chamber groups are able to hold their own when playing their parts as well as communicating (musically) with each other. As a music major, I do not have a choice to play only solo works, only chamber or orchestral music. I have to do it all. The problem for me is that I am not good at performing in an ensemble. I hate playing with other people. It is too distracting. I prefer playing on my own. I feel as though I come alive more when I am playing alone than in a group. My tone sounds different from everyone else's tone. My rhythms do not match. Even my bow feels different, as though it is not a part of me. My instrument feels alien to me and I don't know what to do with it because I am trying to blend with other people. This is not easy for me. I seem to march to the beat of my own drum and when I have to play with other people I seem to loose a big part of my soul as a player. My playing becomes dead and I am not as loud as everyone else. Yet, when I am playing a solo piece, I receive so many compliments from people about my "big" sound and "beautiful, unique tone". It does not matter how hard I try to be as loud and confident as everyone else in orchestra and chamber, I just can't seem to do it. I have read several anecdotes about famous musicians, such as Jacqueline du Pre, and their issues with not measuring up as orchestral or chamber players. This led me to wonder whether if some musicians, no matter how talented they are, are just better as soloists or playing in ensembles. Is that my issue? Does anyone know of famous musicians who were better as soloists or performing in ensembles? I would really like to hear their stories because it will help me with self-esteem issues I am having as a musician. My lack of talent as an ensemble player has caused me to wonder if I should even continue playing.


From Jim Hastings
Posted on April 14, 2014 at 1:35 AM
"My lack of talent as an ensemble player has caused me to wonder if I should even continue playing."

Definitely keep playing. Some personalities are better suited to going solo. Finding one's niche is generally a process of elimination, and it seldom happens overnight. But this is the time, while you're in school, to get the different types of playing experience for comparison. Having x number of semester hours in orchestral and chamber music is a requirement in nearly every music institution. If you're doing a solo piece, knowing firsthand how the orchestral parts interact with the solo part is invaluable.

I've been down this road before you. Take heart -- the things you dislike in the program won't last forever.

Becoming a symphony player was my preadolescent dream -- it's why I took up violin as a kid. I had always loved listening to orchestral music -- started listening before preschool. But by 20 y/o, nearing the end of my degree program, I could see, finally, that I would dislike playing this stuff for a living. No surprise, really, given my free-spirited, individualistic personality.

The main things that put me off: 1) long evening hours; 2) high decibel levels; 3) quirky conductors who fine-tuned wind/brass balances for 10-15 minutes in rehearsal -- and bored the rest of us, or at least me, in the process.

Then, too, in any big group -- in any occupation -- you're bound to have at least a few characters you won't like -- vain princesses, jaded codgers, snarky frat-boy types. I could list more, but I'm sure you get my drift.

I don't hate playing with other people. I love unaccompanied solo material, but I also love small chamber work, where I can clearly hear my own and all other parts -- and where I can be picky about which players I will and will not work with. I eliminated orchestra at 21 y/o -- already had more than the required semester hours.

From Millie Bartlett
Posted on April 14, 2014 at 9:09 AM
Hi Desiree,

It was very interesting to read your post. It delves a little into the 'how' and 'why' we are all musicians of some sort. I have known for some time that I'm definitely an orchestral or chamber group type. And it's probably for the same reasons you like playing solo, funnily enough. I hear my own voice within the group adding richness and depth to the various goings on around me. I like being part of the layers of sound, the push and pull of the tempo and dynamics, but I still recognise my own playing.

The sound of my instrument is not like everyone elses, a little on the loud side perhaps, but somehow it is part of the blend, and a good blend it is, or so we are told. I'm proud to be part of it, but by contrast, if I were asked to do a solo part, I would just die of embarrassment. No soloist Diva here! My teacher tries vainly to change this in me with little luck. In my opinion, I think violinists are largely taught with a view to becoming competent solo players, and it is often a disappointment when this is not achieved or solo positions are so few that by their very nature are limiting in career.

Of course you should keep playing, if you love it. But perhaps it would be healthier for you to ensure that you are good at both soloist and group playing, which would ensure you a musical place somewhere in the world with more chance than if you could only be happy in one aspect. I started playing parts with just one other friend, and that helped me 'feel' where I belong in the music. Perhaps you can find a like minded 'someone' to help ease you into group practice more easily.

Good luck.


From 193.190.2.251
Posted on April 14, 2014 at 10:02 AM
Desiree, perhaps you can turn these observations in a positive goal. You state yourself that you are having trouble playing pieces beautifully in a tempo and rhythm set by the conductor and not by yourself. Rather than looking for past great players who were better as soloists, it is probably more constructive to firmly confront this weakness of yours and work on it consciently. It will make perhaps reveal certain technical deficiencies in bowing, fingering, etc. and in the end working on these will make you a better violinist overall, also contributing to your solo work.
From elise stanley
Posted on April 14, 2014 at 12:36 PM
If you had not written this - I would have. I'm the same: IMO the less instruments the better. I guess I'm destined to work on the Bach S&Ps for the acme of my life!

I'm an adult amateur so our circumstances are very different - mostly because the violin is for me an avocation, and not a career vocation, so I get to choose what I want to invest in. I have a hard time in orchestra with the same feelings a you. However, I have come to love chamber music by playing first violin - at least with the more classical fare (and I know I deserve to be pummeled for this and its totally the wrong attitude but still...) its generally a first violin and a backup band :D


From marjory lange
Posted on April 14, 2014 at 2:35 PM
The other side of the coin...

"Better at" one than the other--most people are...but whether that's a good reason for NOT playing in ensemble is another issue.

I find that putting myself in less challenging situations helps me grow as a player much faster than doing what is comfortable.

Your sound doesn't blend? well, what's wrong with learning new 'colors' of playing? Rhythms don't match? that's telling; there are different styles for playing dotted rhythms, for instance, and learning them all broadens your options for your solo work.

Your solo playing can become even better--more versatile, more varied, richer, if you do challenge yourself in ensemble. Maybe it will never be as satisfying, but then, scales aren't as satisfying as solos, either...just very, very useful.

From Karen Collins
Posted on April 14, 2014 at 6:57 PM
I am the polar opposite - I hate solo playing and love ensemble playing. Not that I love sitting around idle at orchestra rehearsals while other sections learn their parts, but actual *playing* with others makes me very happy.
From 131.247.224.56
Posted on April 14, 2014 at 8:01 PM
Hi Desiree. I'm a music student too, and I know it can be tough sometimes. Orchestra is not for the faint of heart and is stressful for most people. I can relate because of the physical difficulties I experience when I play in a seated position. I have shoulder and postural issues because of childhood abuse/neglect (my spine developed wrong). Both the physical pain and the lack of support I got at home (no violin lessons allowed until adulthood) means I'm not as good as other players in the orchestra, so I often get frustrated too—at myself, at the world, at others, at my conductor, at my violin, at my pain, at my stand partner, at the music, etc.

It is true that solo playing is easier than orchestral playing for many reasons. However, this does not mean that you should give up on playing in ensembles. Who knows what you will end up doing with the violin, so you should try to become as well-rounded as possible while you have all the wonderful resources of a university. Here are a few things I've found were most helpful for my orchestral playing:

1. Relax both shoulders (this helps with bow control).
2. ALWAYS practice with a metronome. It works wonders!
3. When it's not an issue of notes or rhythm, but of phrasing, practice phrase endings. Then practice whole phrases, focusing on the bow (where in the bow, pressure, speed, etc).
4. Before you practice those phrasings with the bow, try them with scales!
5. If you have a nice section leader—or if you don't—ask questions! Either way, this is a compliment to them and they will help you.
6. Focus on the methodical stuff, not interpretation or expression. Orchestra music must be approached differently than solo playing as it's OTHERS who are leading the expressive elements. (With chamber music, the key is IMITATION of expression/interpretation, which you at least have some verbal say in.)
7. Work smarter, not harder.
8. Make friends in your ensemble (this helps with stress).
9. DON'T GIVE UP!

Desiree, I wish you the best of luck in your musical studies. I hope you find the courage to play in ensembles without fearing that you're not good enough. You are good enough. The reason I said "make friends" is because you may be surprised at the difficulties other violinists face. I've found that most everyone has something. You really are not alone. You CAN do this!

From Joyce Lin
Posted on April 15, 2014 at 1:39 AM
I hate listening to my own playing, and it would be a long time, if ever, would I consider myself sounding good, but I love love playing duets, and can shamelessly say that we sound pretty good when my duet partner and I play well. This is definitely a case of 1+1 > 2.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 15, 2014 at 3:11 PM
I think that must be true. I'm just the opposite--much better at playing in a group and blending--and during my education I would get discouraged from the other side, thinking that if I couldn't get better at or more desiring of doing heavy-duty solo work maybe I should just quit. I think that in either case, that's wrong-headed. Music is (or at least should be) big enough for both kinds.

In fact, I did quit for a long time. When I came back to playing, I decided I would only do as much as I was comfortable with. So I did a lot of orchestral work at first, but then I started doing a little solo too and discovered that, while I'm not a "natural" at it, I can get better at it and learn to enjoy it as long as I don't push it too hard or let others' expectations control what I do. Just because everyone says that violinists "should" aspire to play big concertos, doesn't mean I have to listen to those voices or spend my time and effort on something that doesn't nourish my soul at this point in my violin journey.

Maybe you're trying to take on too much or push too hard in your ensemble playing. Take it easier and don't let other people tell you what you have to play or what you "should" be playing at this level. Maybe you should just concentrate on a chamber ensemble at this point and save orchestra for later, or vice-versa.

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on April 15, 2014 at 8:59 PM
On a warm summer evening years ago, I was walking along a back street and came across a fire hall. The firefighters had formed a brass band and were practising outside. Having once played in a brass band, I stopped and listened for a while. In a sudden epiphany I saw the music as a separate entity hovering above the musicians; they weren't so much playing with each other as they were all reaching for that spiritual ideal that music really is.

Perhaps if you thought of ensemble music in that way it might help. It's just like when you're playing solo: you're striving for a musical ideal, it's just that there are more of you, and you're all working together toward that goal. Blending your sounds is part of that work - and when it comes together, it's magic. When two of you get eye contact while playing, it's a form of intimacy - both with each other and with the music - which is found in few places.

Perhaps it might come easier if you try a less formal setting. In addition to classical ensembles and orchestra, I play fiddle in bluegrass jams (which late at night might veer off into blues, folk, Beatles, '40s standards, or even writers like Antonio Carlos Jobim). We'll often surprise ourselves with what we wind up playing - and we forge a bond with each other and with the music that makes life worthwhile. And best of all, I can take all that and pour it back into my classical ensemble playing. It's too much fun to pass up.

Developing the skills to play with others will also help your solo work. Errors in rhythm or intonation that you can get away with in solo playing just won't fly when playing in a group; this will encourage you to improve your technique, which will make you a better solo player.

Try to be one with the music. Your fellow musicians are trying too, and when it works you'll all be in the same place.

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