Is it okay to use lesson time for orchestra music?

September 21, 2015, 3:19 PM · Is it okay to use lesson time for orchestra music?

The short answer is "yes," but I would add, "not very often." And some teachers might say, "No, never."

orch or etude

First I will explain why I tend to say "yes" to helping a student with orchestra music: I want to support my students' efforts to play in their school or local youth orchestra (or for an adult, it might be a community orchestra). If they need to figure out a fingering for a particularly difficult passage, I can help them work that out. It also gives me a chance to give them some context, "Ah, the 'William Tell Overture' -- did you know that this is from an opera by Rossini? They also used it as a theme for a T.V. show called the 'Lone Ranger,' and you can find Mickey Mouse conducting it on Youtube...." I can get pretty excited about orchestra music, and hopefully the student benefits from the occasional personal story or history lesson.

Certainly, if a student is preparing an audition, I will help them learn their excerpts and check that they're doing them accurately. Even professionals get coachings for auditions!

But as I said before, as a teacher, I don't want to use lesson time for orchestra music very often. A student should be playing in an orchestra at appropriate level, and that means that the student ought to be able to figure out the music on his or her own, most of the time. The occasional challenge is fine, but orchestra shouldn't be so challenging that it requires constant aid from a private teacher. Lessons should be building the student's overall foundation and level of skill, and too many weeks of skipping scales, ├ętudes and solo repertoire can lead to a lack of progress, in terms of that foundation.

Not coincidentally, sometimes a student who has not practiced all week will request to spend the entire lesson working on orchestra music. Your teacher is on to you! Using orchestra music as an avoidance tactic is obviously bad news for progress, as well.

And there are teachers who do not wish students to ever bring orchestra music to the lesson. I understand this, too; again, it's about building the student's foundation in a methodical, uninterrupted way. With that foundation growing ever more solid, the student should be well equipped to manage orchestra music.

What are your thoughts (as either a teacher or student) about covering orchestra music during the lesson? Do you have any preferences about how much that should happen?

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September 21, 2015 at 11:35 PM · I want my students to succeed, so YES! I will work on orchestra music for the first week or two it's given. I would not like to be working on youth orchestra music four or five weeks into the season.

September 21, 2015 at 11:42 PM · Yes. I'll work on orchestra music with my students. However, I won't do it every week and I won't let it interfere with solo repertoire, technique, etc. I agree that students should be placed at an appropriate level in orchestras. I help with difficult passages and give advice on fingerings or difficult rhythms.

September 22, 2015 at 12:28 AM · I say yEs, because well chosen repertoire at the appropriate level should provide some technical challenges even for advanced students. It should primarily stretch the skills of articulation, ensemble playing, dynamics... However, too often repertoire for school groups is not appropriate ( for numerous reasons) and requires students to make skill level jumps. At that point? Unsure.

September 22, 2015 at 12:37 AM · Agree with "on occasion" but disagree slightly that a player with good growing foundations in their solo lesson studies will be well equipped to deal with orchestra music. As a private teacher and a youth orchestra conductor I've often found the attitude that it doesn't matter what the orchestra music is--the student can just hide, or think they're playing it "just fine" when in fact they've been a follower and have no real idea how to count their part and have been very inaccurate in their judgment of how a passage goes, or what in the world is going on around them at any particular moment of the music.

I suppose in theory, if a student is good enough in lessons to be thinking through their studies analytically, that should in turn apply to orchestra, but in reality I think that rarely occurs. I find many good teachable moments in lessons going over styles, composers, techniques, and new ways of listening and thinking about music that the student will never really touch in their regular lesson material. Plus some back-up pointers to how to adjust listening and follow a conductor.

I've seen plenty of solid solo players flounder around in the orchestra ranks, not being of much use to anyone (yet still thinking highly of themselves). So the on-occasion orchestral lesson can be very useful to a student. If it's being abused by a student as lesson-avoidance, they can always be put on the spot for their under-preparation with this portion of their musical responsibilities, too, especially if they aren't using the thinking skills you've taught them :).

September 22, 2015 at 01:00 AM · I think Laurie got it just right. The thing about youth orchestras is that there is typically a range of skill level. So, a part that is at the median skill level may be easily handled by the players in the first couple of stands on their own, but requiring attention from a private teacher for the kids in the last couple of stands.

My daughter plays in a youth orchestra that is within the private music school in which she is enrolled. The group is small enough so there's no hiding or faking. (Well maybe there is, but the professor can tell, he's incredibly good.) The students are actively encouraged to bring the music to their lessons. However, I feel, as many do, that I don't want my daughter's lessons consumed by too much orchestra music. Fortunately she and I are able to figure out nearly everything at home. But, her private teacher is an orchestra violinist, so sometimes we will get advice about fingerings or articulation because these sometimes differ between solo and orchestra playing.

Perhaps tangential to the discussion, but lesson time is one thing, practice time is another. When you are advising a student how to spend practice time, how do orchestra parts figure in?

September 22, 2015 at 01:53 AM · Great article, thanks for sharing! As a private teacher who experienced this "problem" time and time again over the years, I eventually started my own website business called Orchestra Tutor to help students with their orchestra parts. I always stress that this can be a fantastic tool for students to free up their lessons for solos, etudes, scale work, etc, although we really began in hopes of helping those without access to lessons. Check us out at and feel free to pass the word around as we try to grow and help more kids. We cover violin, viola, cello and bass parts in the form of video tutorials and we're in no way, shape or form trying to compete with private lessons, just want to offer a good option for students with better quality than the YouTube videos they find.

September 22, 2015 at 02:29 AM · Preparing students for professional auditions at the highest level requires all of the excerpts from the standard repertory. Coaching is absolutely essential .

September 22, 2015 at 02:35 AM · I will work on it occasionally, especially when new music comes in, but usually only when the student asks and they have specific questions. That shows me they're thinking about what they're doing, taking ownership, not just floating; and also helps me know if there's anything we might need to review.

September 22, 2015 at 03:39 AM · Thank you for this. I have a teen student who has been treating his lessons like a tutoring session for orchestra class. I finally had to flat out say "You need to work on your foundation. This is not a tutoring session. I will help with orchestra music, but you need to have made a good faith effort to learn it on your own." I was a little scared that he or his mom would send me a not-so-nice email after the lesson, but he came back the next week with his etudes, scales, and solo piece well prepared.

September 22, 2015 at 05:34 AM · As a kid, I expected and needed help preparing for orchestra auditions that required excerpts (and in a significant number of youth symphonies this is used as a motivator to learn the works that will be played in the upcoming semester, so not nicely confined to a handful of excerpt lines.

Similarly, as an adult playing auditions, I've wanted help from my teachers. (At least these were confined to excerpts.)

When I was a concertmaster, I would ask my teacher for help with difficult solo passages, also.

Chamber music is an interesting parallel -- it too can be a "distraction" from the main work of learning exercises / etudes / solo repertoire. I've brought chamber music to teachers when I intend to perform it.

Broadly, if your student is going to audition and/or perform in public in a way where what he does will be individually noticed, it probably behooves you as a teacher to ensure that they're going to play their best.

September 22, 2015 at 02:37 PM · Several people have commented about auditions. I definitely think working on audition material is a good use of lesson time. It is a major solo performance, and a major part of a student's musical growth. I don't think working on their current orchestra music is the same priority, *usually*.

September 22, 2015 at 04:28 PM · I agree with Kathryn. For auditions, generally you are playing some of the hardest orchestra material and you want to bring it to a fine level of polish. And I believe sometimes the material is intended to highlight a particular skill such as spiccato. If that is true (which I don't know first hand because I've never auditioned for an orchestra), then this material could be just as valuable to the "foundation" as, say, a Kreutzer or Dont study. So, I would say that bringing an orchestra part to a lesson for advice on a few of the hardest short passages would be useful -- as long as the *standard* for that music is just as high as the student's regular studies and repertoire (I think often the issue is that a lower standard is applied to orchestra parts -- except for audition excerpts.) But just "going through the orchestra folder" without having worked on it first, playing each piece from stem to stern, so that the teacher can point out your rhythm mistakes and re-finger the whole thing, so that you don't embarrass yourself too terribly at your first rehearsal, that's not a good use of lesson time.

September 22, 2015 at 07:48 PM · At my last lesson my viola teacher had a stack of etude books that she was using with her previous student. She has offered them to me if I really wanted them, and would probably want to use them if I was at a more elementary level - but she feels that they're not necessary for someone at my stage of development. She plays in a major orchestra and a prominent string quartet, and has no trouble pulling bits out of an orchestral score and turning them into useful exercises.

Although we'll start off with things like Galamian scale exercises, we'll soon turn to my orchestra material, where I'll get advice on fingering, bowing, and various other technical aspects needed to play it well. I'll bring up parts where I'm having trouble, but often she'll spot something else and turn it into an exercise which helps me develop my general technique. One day I pulled out the score for Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, and before we got to the parts I wanted to focus on, she latched onto the very first note of the first movement, and we spent five minutes correcting my wrist action to properly play that one broken chord (which I still review as an exercise during my practice sessions).

So even though some basic exercises remain essential, I believe that orchestra music has a lot to offer, especially if you have a teacher who can find appropriate parts to work on.

September 25, 2015 at 08:09 PM · I definitely allow my students to bring their orchestra music to their lessons. I feel that in doing so it not only supports their decision to participate in an orchestra but also gives me the opportunity to discuss various composers and reiterate techniques that we've worked into "real-world" experience.

I always save orchestra music for the last thing we do in our lesson. I ask that the students have specific pieces or parts that they need to work so that our time is productive.

I think it is important that the student understands that we will not get to the orchestra music if they are not prepared for their lesson. In other words, if they didn't practice and aren't prepared for their normal lesson materials then we will not get to the orchestra music that week.

It's just a matter of setting boundaries so that students don't try to use orchestra music to replace their practice assignments or try to cover up the fact that they didn't practice what they were supposed to that week. (I tried that once when I was in college and got called out on it. I'm totally onto students if they attempt my own "trick"!)

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