Laurie's Violin School: Do I have to be in my school orchestra?

February 9, 2015, 12:27 PM · "Do I have to be in my school orchestra? I'm way ahead of everyone else and I'm not going to get anything from it."

That could have been me in high school, but it's something I've heard as a teacher, from students and parents, as well.

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Here's the dilemma: When a child begins violin lessons -- or cello lessons or any instrumental lessons -- at a young age, he or she usually gets a pretty big jump start on the kids who do not begin learning the instrument until fourth-grade music class, or junior high, or high school. Then, when a group of kids finally forms at school for orchestra, most of the kids are beginners. They don't progress quickly because learning in a big class tends to be more difficult than learning in a one-on-one, private lesson.

What is a student going to get, from being in orchestra with students who can't play as well as they do?

Maybe another question is in order: What might the student, who has had the benefit of early lessons, give?

This can be a tough sell. It was for me in high school, when I was required to be in my school orchestra in order to participate in the Denver Young Artist Orchestra (which I believe no longer has the requirement). I wanted to take French, or art. I had to use up my elective on orchestra. I was so mad.

I'll confess, I started my four years in high school orchestra with a pretty bad attitude. I eventually came around, at least a little. And wonder of wonders, I learned quite a lot. Technically, everything was easy, so I experimented liberally, playing things in second position one day, fifth position the next, etc. After a while, I occasionally would work with other kids in the orchestra, in a coaching capacity. When I think about it, those were my first "students." As a participant in my school program, I qualified to audition for "All-State Orchestra," a very fun gathering of kids from all around the state, which I did every year. Eventually, we formed a quartet at school with the section leaders, and we played things like "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" for district events. The choir director allowed me into the alto section of the choir, and mysteriously enough, that year he programmed "Fiddler on the Roof," Mozart's "Laudate Dominum" and a number of other pieces that required a violin solo. (I had a feeling I didn't get in for my singing voice!) When I was a senior, they picked "Oliver" as the school musical; it has quite the nice violin solo, which I played from the pit with a good friend who was "Fagan" onstage. I'll probably remember, on my dying day, a friend from the audience who came up to me after "Oliver," so excited about that violin solo. Though to me it seemed like a pretty regular day in the orchestra pit, it was truly revelation to him, that anyone could play such a thing, in person. It was a revelation to me, that my violin could actually connect me to someone I'd known since kindergarten, in such a new way.

So before dismissing the idea of school orchestra or band, I'd ask you to consider it. Consider that you, or your child, might get something in giving something. You might be able to learn to play a leadership role. You might attract more excellence to your school's program, just by being there. You might learn something about teaching. You might learn about that complicated intersection of humility, confidence and competence. You might bring attention to your art, among people who don't even play.

Certainly, don't put yourself in a destructive situation. But if you find some good will among the teachers running your school music program, I'd urge you to support them in the endeavor -- support them with your participation. You might find some opportunities that surprise you.

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Replies

February 9, 2015 at 07:46 PM · The better teachers (by reputation anyway) in Houston forbid their students to play in the school orchestra.

My kids who were moderately talented played but they were given grief for playing without shoulder rests and they were assigned audition materials that were not appropriate for their development (Dont, Rode, Paganini). But they had some fun in the orchestra.

I think that average students will have fun in the orchestra but students who have real prospects (a small 5-age) ought to avoid it.

February 9, 2015 at 09:48 PM · If *one* more of my private students comes back with a school concert set list that includes all pieces by Holst, Vaughan-Williams, and Peter Warlock, with no Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven, I'm going to scream.

February 9, 2015 at 09:59 PM · If *one* more of my private students comes back with a school concert set list that includes all pieces from "Frozen", "Harry Potter" or "Phantom of the Opera", with no Holst, Vaughan-Williams, and Peter Warlock, I'm going to scream.

:)

February 9, 2015 at 10:12 PM · Playing in the school orchestra in middle school and maybe the first year in high school seems OK for fairly advanced students. Beyond that, not so much. A local youth orchestra or a chamber program with good reputation are a far better alternative, w.r.t. music selection, overall skill level, or coach/teacher qualification.

February 9, 2015 at 10:14 PM · With the guidance of one of a most amazing public school orchestra teachers, I took a tour of the string section from the fourth grade through high school. Having started the piano when I was three and cello when I was six, it was fairly easy for the music teacher to give me a new instrument to learn once I appeared to be bored or frustrated.

Of the piano, violin, viola, cello, and string bass, I'd say that the string bass was the most troublesome. It doesn't tune in fifths, there are very few "anchor positions" to orient yourself, and "The Beast" (as the other kids called it) would block the emergency exit on the school bus. The cello at least could sit next to me.

My parents were also very patient, allowing me to have private lessons on any two instruments at any time. There was still time to prepare for competitions and recitals and orchestra was always pretty much an opportunity to practice my sight-reading.

Then there was baseball, and basketball, and... What saints these parents be...

February 9, 2015 at 11:16 PM · Good input in this article. And don't sweat the contemporary stuff (a la "frozen"), these concerts are for kids and their parents, and it makes it fun when they recognize the pieces. As a classically trained musician, I think sometimes we can get a little too 'hoity-toity', forgetting that it's about trying to get more people to enjoy music/orchestras and bring in more audience. If nobody comes to the hear the orchestra, why are we preparing to play in one? let's not get so uppity about it, and try to bring in new ears to learn about the orchestra. There is always time to introduce other pieces to those who want to hear more.

Honestly, I had not liked the super modern stuff from Webern, etc. And I was convinced that all new music must be like that. But I learned about newer symphonic band music b/c my daughter was in band in HS (I grew up a string player) and loved the new pieces they played at state, etc and even in the school band. I have become more open to these newer experiences, realizing that there is so much more than what I grew up with (which I'm certainly not saying is bad, just one type of music). Some of these slower pieces for band are just gorgeous. WHO KNEW?

February 10, 2015 at 12:05 AM · I agree with all the points this blog makes, but I'm surprised and disappointed that it had to be written this way, as if the general impression of high school orchestras from students, parents, and private teachers alike, is negative and dismissive.

Orchestra was the best part of my entire high school experience. It's one of the few classes from high school from which I remember things that I still use, to this day. (I'm not kidding--I'm playing Beethoven's Egmont in a concert two weeks from now, and I am using muscle memory, interpretations, and fingerings that I remember from when I played it in high school).

David Kim, touring soloist and concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was concertmaster of my high school orchestra when he was a senior and I was a sophomore. I got to play the orchestral part of Autumn from the Four Seasons, with him as soloist.

My senior year in high school orchestra I was the stand partner of current international conductor David Handel. He was a violinist back then.

I'm very glad and grateful neither of them thought they were too good for their high school orchestra.

This was not a selective orchestra, it was a normal public high school orchestra in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY. Some of us were in the Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra, as well, but that was in addition to, not instead of, the high school orchestra.

Thirty years later, my daughter's public high school orchestra is going on a tour to Spain next week, an opportunity of a lifetime for many of them. She's in another youth orchestra outside of school, but she thinks high school orchestra is more fun. Overall, orchestra has been very good for her, musically and socially.

It makes me sad to think that this isn't how most people experience high school orchestra.

February 10, 2015 at 02:22 AM · I was originally going to start violin lessons in the public school program but went with a private teacher instead. A number of years elapsed between my first playing and my first orchestra experience in high school. I wasn't at first keen on the idea of joining, but my parents and teacher felt strongly that this was a crucial part of becoming a well-rounded musician.

As I recall, I began as the youngest member of the ensemble and felt like the little kid crashing the big kids' party. Most other players were juniors and seniors. It was bewildering at first; but thanks to the training I'd had up to that point, I got through the initial adjustment quite fast and moved up through the ranks -- actually, it was more like getting pushed upward. Sometimes we don't know what responsibilities we can shoulder till we get a good push. I ended up playing lead violin for several musical shows.

It's no wonder that so many music institutions require x number of semester hours in orchestra. There's a lot to learn about teamwork in this environment that carries over well to other areas of life, musical or not. Although I decided at 21 not to do any more orchestra playing -- largely because of the sometimes long evening hours and, not infrequently, the high decibel levels -- I would not have wanted to miss the learning experience as part of my growing-up years.

For listening, I take in far more orchestral music than any other type. But for ensemble playing, small chamber work is my medium these days -- one player to a part.

February 10, 2015 at 04:01 AM · I would definitely recommend youth orchestra for an advanced student; for any student who can get in, really. But the question is, do you continue to support your school orchestra with your participation, even if it's not top-of-the-line?

A number of my students are fortunate enough to go to schools with strong orchestra programs, but not all school programs are particularly strong or well-supported. Among my students, some are in youth orchestra, one is actually playing violin in his school's jazz band, some play at church, and a number are very much leaders in their public school orchestras. Who is getting the most from those situations? I'm always very happy to see students not only pushing for excellence, but also making their violin-playing part of their own personal community.

February 10, 2015 at 05:28 AM · My youth orchestra, the Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra, had a rule that any member had to be part of his/her school orchestra, end of story. Undoubtedly many of us would not have participated in school orchestras otherwise, and what a great thing this was for the schools! Of course I resented playing my share of movie tunes and bad "arrangements" of Mozart 40th Symphony. But I also got to take a number of solo turns, and my orchestra director, a wonderful teacher and cellist, was astute enough to let me spread my wings a bit with some teaching and even elementary conducting when she needed to work with less than the full group.

All in all, I can honestly say that school orchestra was my first day-in, day-out experience with musical leadership. It's quite a different skill set from practicing and performing, that's for sure!

February 10, 2015 at 05:55 AM · I was an advanced student and it never occurred to me not to play in the high school orchestra. It had a few conservatory-bound students but the rest were early intermediate level. Some of the music was very "easy," but it was still music, which I used as an opportunity to firm up my basic technique and improve my leadership skills.

I think the director makes a big difference. Our director was outstanding and also an excellent string player. He created an environment so that the other students were friendly and supportive. People had opportunities to solo on substantial pieces. It was a lot more pleasant socially than the city youth orchestra, where you had to dodge a lot of competitive rivalries and egos. And the high school orchestra class was a welcome break from my other classes.

February 10, 2015 at 06:16 AM · I direct a youth orchestra and we require that students participate in their school program if one exists.

A once a week meeting with a youth orchestra, no matter how strong, cannot replace the kind of consistency that one develops in playing with an ensemble every day of the week.

February 10, 2015 at 09:52 AM · Be glad you can play in the orchestra. If we want to play in the orchestra we have to travel 100km and are grateful for any opportunity to play with it.

February 10, 2015 at 11:54 AM · I agree. My father and first teacher was Organizing Teacher for the Tottenham, later expanded to Haringey Schools Stringed Instruments Scheme, so it went virtually without saying that I played along with those of "less ability". When I was 8 he adapted my full size violin for use as a viola, and that is what I played in junior school (The one I attended was in a different borough, so not in his patch). At senior school I played in the school orchestra (led by the school violin teacher), but also led the school junior orchestra (Having been awarded a school music scholarship, I was more than pleased to do it). I got to perform the last movement of the Stamitz D-major viola concerto with that junior orchestra and also to conduct the slow movement of the Italian Symphony (No, I am not a good conductor - For a start, my stick and left hand don't co-ordinate very well). So don't despise the opportunities that such activities can bring.

I think teachers underestimate the adaptability of their pupils when they forbid them to play in orchestras or play both violin and viola. Same as a child who grows up with more than one language does not speak any worse for the experience.

February 10, 2015 at 03:18 PM · I think a child should join school orchestra if they're going to learn something there or at least realize true enjoyment. Time is a zero-sum game. As Laurie experienced, orchestra invariably takes time away from something else.

Isn't there plenty of baroque music already in the Suzuki books? My daughter's studio has its own chamber orchestra led by a truly world-class musician (David Ehrlich), and they have played Piazzolla (Four for Tango), Suk (Serenade for Strings), Bach (Brandenburg No. 3), Britten (Simple Symphony) and Bartok (Ten Fairy Tales). David teaches them how to play and understand these pieces at a surprising level of depth and nuance. It's a small group and a student cannot hide being unprepared. As a child (12 years old or so), I joined a local community orchestra because my teacher at the time was concertmaster. I learned a lot, but not nearly as much as my daughter is learning from David.

February 10, 2015 at 08:27 PM · I teach middle and elementary orchestra. The local youth orchestras have the kids get my signature saying they are in the school orchestra, but they are not required to be in the school orchestra, only encouraged. This policy has been good from my perspective, since the students who enjoy my class stay in my class and the students who do not enjoy the class drop. I have not seen a benefit to having students in class who hate being there. And, fortunately, they don't have to be there.

February 10, 2015 at 08:36 PM · My son's school has an orchestra, a freshman orchestra, and tryout-only chamber ensemble. Obviously he plays in only the ensemble. If the orchestra is not up to grade and you have other opportunities, by all means take them and don't do the orchestra! Pretty simple!

February 10, 2015 at 09:09 PM · I was one of those highly gifted youngsters throughout public school. Looking back, I would say that the benefits strayed far outside of whether it did my playing any good. I DID feel that I was helping out....the other players, the conductor, the audience, etc..socially, and, perhaps because the 50's weren't as intense as today, I didn't give it a second thought. Additionally, since kudos can build self-esteem, I think that it's a positive ego issue.

Charles Avsharian CEO, Shar Music Co.

February 10, 2015 at 10:53 PM · There were many days when high school orchestra was what kept me going. We had a brilliant conductor and played "real" music- not arrangements or cut-downs. There were probably 70 - 80 kids in orchestra and an equal number in the choir. Playing in credible performances of the Brahms German Requiem and Dvorak & Sibelius symphonies at that age probably added more to my life than anything else high school had to offer. BTW, this was in Iowa in the 1970's. Anumber of kids who got their start in the public schools went on to have careers in music.

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