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Rebecca Darnall

Orchestral Research PART 2A: Interviews with violinists on topics of orchestral playing

November 5, 2012 at 6:03 PM

Dear friends,

Here's another part of my research! It is not yet complete, as I have other violinists who are still responding to this interview. As the interviews come in, I will add them to this blog. I believe this is extremely helpful for violinists wishing to pursue the orchestral career, and hopefully will encourage other violinists to seek out advice from others who have experience in the field.

The interview entails seven questions, though two of them are related to my process of research, so I will leave those out.

The five questions in the interviews are:

1) If a violinist does not have the opportunity to study with a professional violinist with an orchestral background and wants to become an orchestral violinist, what advice would you give them?

2) What are your top five pieces of audition advice you would give to violinists?

3) What are your top five pieces of orchestral playing advice you would give to developing orchestral violinists?

4) What are your top five pieces of advice for new concertmasters?

5) What is your view on the future of the orchestra?

INTERVIEW 1 with Stacey Wetzel, violinist of the LA Philharmonic:
1) Any serious student of the violin with ambitions to play professionally in an orchestra needs to, first and foremost, find and study with the best possible teacher. Learning the craft from one who is absolutely qualified to teach it is 80% of the process. Whether or not he or she has an orchestral background is not critical or relevant at this point. Studying to perfect the art of violin playing is.
2) 1 - Listen to as much diverse orchestral repertoire as possible - with scores, if they can be obtained - and imagine what it’s like to be playing in the section; then, attend as many LIVE orchestra concerts as possible, observing all sections of the orchestra and their conductors; finally, download excerpts and play along with your ipod (or Cds) to mimic the experience of actually playing in the orchestra.
2 - Learn from the audition process, whether the outcome is positive or negative. Go back, review and record the whole experience and be constructive and honest about changes or adjustments that need to be made - then go right back to the drawing board and get ready for the next audition!
3 - Do at least 3 mock auditions one month to two weeks before the actual audition. Identical or similar comments, observations or suggestions by 2 or more people serve should serve as a common denominator - they should be considered and listened to.
4 - Four practical tips for the audition process:
- before, during and after you play,relax your knees, breathe deeply and remember to smile and loosen your jaw; you’re probably behind a screen!
- If nerves grip you, focus on your breathing!
- have tunnel vision - do not be aware of the other competitors; you can’t do their best - they can’t do your best.
5 ALWAYS remember how much you LOVE playing the violin!
3) 1 - The best audition preparation for me was continually preparing for recitals and competitions
2 - Learn to embrace a wide category of musical genre (classical, romantic, impressionistic, contemporary, et.), regardless of your preference; you’ll be that much more rounded and marketable
3 - Keep standard excerpts in your fingers and use as warm-up exercises
4 - Be flexible and forgiving, especially with conductors - you will live longer!
5 - Always remember, the orchestra experience is a collaborative experience; if you don’t enjoy blending and matching your sound and technique, this may not be the field you should pursue.
4) 1 - Always remember what it was like to sit in the middle or back of the section, if you ever did!
2 - You are not just leading your section; you are an advocate for the entire string section and a moral compass for the entire orchestra; consequently, you should be aware of and protective of our needs at all times.
3 - Make sure all the bowings are in at the first rehearsal and DO NOT change bowings at the dress rehearsal, unless it is absolutely necessary!
4 - While the section may be counting vigilantly, we are still counting on YOU to come in correctly and to clarify any fuzzy entrances created by a less than decipherable downbeat from the podium - that’s why you get paid the big bucks!
5 - Listen to and compliment both 1st and 2nd violin sections regularly; it builds confidence and moral and gives you the best support team you could ever ask for!
5) There is still nothing to replace the experience of listening to a live orchestra, but with technology advancing so rapidly, our art form must keep up with and meet all these changes in a very relevant way. That being said, keeping classical music alive still relies on EARLY exposure, continues with good programs at the elementary level and must constantly be nurtured by a unified and well-informed community.
INTERVIEW 2 with Denise Dillenbeck, former concertmaster of orchestras across the US and England; former violinist of orchestras such as Philadelphia and Oregon Symphony; studied with Jorja Fleezanis:
1.) There are things you can do to get to work on your skills if your goal is eventual orchestral playing, but if you really want to succeed you actually need to plan a route in life that does allow you to study with an orchestra player at some point along the way. There is simply no other way to really get the knowledge and facility of technique required specifically by orchestral playing than by receiving it first hand from someone who knows it. And they will give you feedback on how you are doing, if you’re getting it, which is invaluable. This is more important than any other step you can possibly take, so I can’t stress it enough. Whether it’s a summer camp, or a college experience, or simply moving to a city where you can work some job while you practice and take lessons, this needs to happen if you are serious about your goal.

Prior to or in addition to studying with an orchestral player, though, you can go to as many concerts as possible, watch live performances recorded on places like youtube, scower youtube for other resources (there are lots of videos of people playing excerpts, for instance), find as many online tools as you can—masterclass videos,, etc. Begin to build your orchestra part library, purchasing or copying violin parts from the repertoire as you are able. See if you can get/share fingerings and bowings with anyone you possibly can—the more information you have, the more informed your technical choices can be. Educate yourself about the styles of different composers; what kind of vibrato/articulation/phrasing is appropriate for Schumann, but not for Mahler, or Mozart, etc.

2) *Prepare thoroughly and solidly. That goes a long way toward deflating nervousness; if you know the pieces backwards and forwards, and can play them upside down and in your sleep, then you don’t have to worry about weak spots where nerves can sabotage you in performance.

*Know the score. As much as possible, listen to works with the score in front of you, not just your own part. Make sure you can sing whatever is happening in the music that is important at any moment, not just your own line. Knowing your place in the big picture of the music will change how you play your own particular line or excerpt.

*Play as much as you can. You need experience, so play in every orchestra setting you get a chance to, even if the group doesn’t feel like the perfect match for you—you are learning repertoire and ensemble skills.

*Play as much as you can—same goes for mock auditions. Play your concerti and excerpts every chance you get for everyone you can get to listen to you. Play in different locations, so your nervous system doesn’t get too comfortable with just one setting. Play for wind players, pianists, singers, string players—and take feedback from everyone. Not everyone knows how to play the violin, but most everyone knows whether something simply “sounds good” or not.

*Know your convictions. When you play for an audition committee, you have to completely believe in the interpretation you give them of each musical excerpt. This means getting as much information from as many sources as you can, and then digesting it all until you come away with your own individual idea about the music. Commit to it, and play from that musical passionate commitment, rather than from any feeling of “this is how my teacher says to do it” or “I hope they like this”.

3) *Practice scales. Every day. When we play in groups a lot, we don’t hear ourselves as clearly. So we need to take extra care with our individual practice time that we are cleaning the gears and keeping the machine pristine, so to speak.

*Get obsessed with your bow. The most highly sophisticated orchestral playing comes from the abilty to have a variety of color and articulation with control and ease in the RIGHT hand.

*Listen to as much music as you can. Get scores to listen with as often as you can too, but listening is key. You are learning a language, and there’s nothing like immersion to make it click.

*Sightread a lot. In a full-time orchestra, you’ll often be doing more than one challenging program every week—that’s a ton of music to be cycling through, and when you’re young that can be especially challenging and tiring. Your body and brain begin to pick up really fast on patterns and ways of reading as you sightread more. Plus a lot of auditions will have a sightreading component, and there’s no way for that to get easy besides just doing it every day.

*Know what the great orchestras are, and what makes them great. What is the difference between the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, for example—how do they sound? What conductors over their histories made an impact on the development of the big orchestras, and contributed to why they sound the way they do?

4) *Again, listen and watch as much as you can. Watch videos of concerts, and see how the cm leads; compare how they play orchestral solos differently.

*Find out what all the famous cm solos are in the rep. Buy, beg or borrow them. Listen to them with scores and parts. Practice them.

*Identify places where you see leadership you feel is effective. It doesn’t have to be in music—anywhere you see it work, figure out what you like about it, and why it seems to rally the troops.

*To quote author Eric Booth, 80% of what you do is who you are. In the end, we have to know all the notes, etc., but it’s not really about that—it’s about what music means to you and how you want to share it with your colleagues and audiences. Knowledge of music that comes from love of music has great impact, and the same is true with leadership.

*Again, know the score. As cm, you don’t just do bowings or tell your section when they’re not together! Your job is to embody the music in a way that is compelling for the whole orchestra to see, and to dialogue with every member of the orchestra to some extent when the group plays. Know the clarinet part, so you can react to it when you play the 1st violin line, and the orchestra will see it and also respond.

5) It’s a powerful art form, so I think it is unlikely that it will every truly die out. But I am sad for the way it is losing relevance in our culture. If we want it to remain vital, we need to all become educators to some extent, to be able to talk and demonstrate to the larger world whenever we can about why this musical ensemble can be such an amazing experience. We need to engage with our communities in new ways if we expect them to engage with us. (El Sistema in Venezuela is the absolute master of this.)
INTERVIEW 3 with Jason Bell, associate concertmaster of Spokane Symphony and graduate of Cincinnati Conservatory; former violinist of orchestras across the US:

1) Learning the trade of playing violin in an orchestra will at some point require the assistance of learning from a professional. Going to school for music does not guarantee a job, nor does getting a job require a degree. While it is true from time to time you will encounter a composer who has no formal training, an artist who cannot read music, a musician who is self taught, these are the exceptions and not the rule. If a student is serious about obtaining a job in performance, they will at some point in their life become friends with someone who can mentor them in the art of professional musicianship. It takes a lot of sacrifice and along with alienating your friends and family to sit in the practice room and become what you aspire to be. Isaac Stern was told at one point that his playing was "just not good enough". Itzhak Perlman was told to get an orchestra job because "no one would pay to hear a soloist sit while playing". We all have to start somewhere, learn to take constructive criticism and make conscious decisions that lay a clear path to our end goal.

2) - Practice
- Listen to recordings
- Listen to yourself
- Play for other people
- Repeat

3) - Don't be a hero. You know when you're right and when the leader is not. Pick your battles carefully.
- Come prepared, especially if you are a title chair. And that does not mean just your own solos
- Avoid gossip at work. Save it for the bar.
- Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your colleagues. It is entirely possible they are unable to play offbeats or count correctly, no matter how much they practice. They also may know the score better than you do.
- Do not warm up on solos, excerpts or other repertoire at full volume. Scales, exercises, and the repertoire you're being paid to play at a medium volume are the only acceptable sounds.

4)- Learn the score
- Respect the elders of the orchestral tribe
- Be open to other people's ideas, turn them down respectfully if you have to.
- Have a sense of humor and good work ethic.
- Don't buy an expensive car. Show people you care about your position/opportunity and invest in your artistry.

5) The orchestra as a unit will survive - somehow. Orchestras have always been under financial stress and it will take innovation to keep it moving forward as a business model. Community orchestras will also thrive because as people age they want to explore new and exciting areas of life.
INTERVIEW 4 with Erich Lear; violist and friend of Jorja Fleezanis; has played in orchestras all across the US:

1) Ask for help from the teacher you have in contacting orchestral violinists – especially concertmasters – about workshops, master classes, and opportunities to take at least one lesson from more than one concertmaster. This will involve travel, but the cost will be worth it.

2) a) emphasize rhythm, dynamics, intonation, and note accuracy; b) take tempi you can play well and let them ask for faster tempi (these will be your second try then so nerves will play a lesser role); c) whenever possible play from complete parts not from excerpt books and also, if possible, from parts that reflect the orchestra for which you audition (using their bowings will make it more likely that you play their interpretation); d) speak only if asked to speak (you will often be behind a curtain); e) tune before going on, but retune quietly before you play (hall conditions are usually different warm-up rooms, and loud tuning is not professional), and recheck how tight your bow is (again due to differences between warm-up rooms and the hall or audition room).

3) a) listen to yourself and adjust quickly (if you know it is wrong, change it quickly); b) be sure that dynamic differences are followed and audible to the listeners; c) stay on the string or close to it unless the style clearly calls for playing off the string; d) avoid rushing at all times, fill every beat; e) play to resonance of your instrument and focus vibrato on the pitch you wish to project (discussions of whether vibrato is above, around, or below the pitch are not pertinent in an audition – project the pitch you want to hear).

4) a) be prepared – never go to a rehearsal without having a set of fingerings (where these are critical) and bowings and whenever possible have these copied in all other first violin section parts and communicated to the principals of the other string sections; b) listen to more than one version of any solo passages as part of your preparation of concertmaster solos; c) respect the players in the section, encourage them to route questions through you (direct questions to the conductor are not good form); d) when possible participate actively in seating order of the section; e) determine early your approach to blending with the section or leading through a bigger sound and clear this with the conductor.

5) Since music is a more varied enterprise, the orchestra will also be more varied in size, repertoire focus, role in the community (is there more than one orchestra for ballet, opera, concert music, theatre, etc.?), and community outreach. The members of the orchestra are ambassadors and will help the orchestra survive and flourish the more they reach into the community. Income to be earned is certainly connected to a community’s sense of its orchestra’s contributions. Make a list of all the entities who have employed small to large orchestras in the area – these are your constituency.
INTERVIEW 5 with Mateusz Wolski; concertmaster of Spokane Symphony; has played with orchestras such as New York Philharmonic (this interview was done via phone, so my apologies if it sounds a little broken up~I'm not a professional like Laurie is :D) ):

1) I would say that the best thing to do would be to spend a lot of time studying scores and recordings. Because when you are playing in the orchestra, the dos and donts are logical. Blending is important, so understanding the music is best by playing along with recordings to simulate playing in the orchestra.

2)-most important is having fantastic rhythm…use the metronome! Everything else changes, but rhythm is constant.
-have beauty of sound on small notes. Every note must shine. There is a big jump between those that pay attention to every note, and those that don’t.
-once one is familiar with music, the gestures are important (phrasing). Where is the music going? It must have ebb and flow. Know where to lean into a gesture or where it is propelling us.
-sell yourself. Practice performing under pressure to keep yourself from crumbling. Do mock auditions. Give yourself deadlines.
-Try to have a backup plan for audition….give yourself something else to work on so you don’t focus on just one thing. Don’t treat it like life or death. Give a recital, another audition, etc.

3)-every group of people has it’s own dynamic. Tread carefully. Honor the long time members. Be quiet and mind your place. Ask for feedback.
-have true work ethic. If you are being observed, tread carefully. BE PREPARED! Prepare like you would for Cleveland and Philadelphia. If it’s not at that level, you aren’t prepared. No matter what level of the orchestra is.
-Be punctual. Be too early rather than too late. Be at least a half hour early.
-Don’t get caught off guard by unusual concerts (timing, etc). Look for any irregularities in the schedule. Be friends with someone to double-check the schedule.
-pay attention to dress code for performances. Be conservative. Avoid perfume.

4)-understand the dynamic of the orchestra. You are the go-between. Be gentle and decisive when you make decisions.
-be careful when you pick your battles with bowings. Do few bowing changes as possible.
-should demand quality from sections. Be honest and have integrity to the music
- Get to know the people you work with well. Show that you care about them and their wellbeing.
-trust yourself and be confident. Watch other concertmasters.

5) The orchestra is very sophisticated type of entertainment. And there will always be people who will want that kind of entertainment. Like good cuisine. Orchestras need to not lose their identity. People need to see how to appreciate it.
INTERVIEW 6 with Philip Baldwin, former professor at various schools in the Pacific Northwest such as Eastern Washington University, current professor at Whitworth University; former violinist of symphonies such as Spokane Symphony:

1) I would suggest that they purchase the William Preucil CD called “Orchestral Excerpts for Violin” published by Summit Records and available on Amazon. Then, I suggest purchasing all the orchestral parts recorded on the CD and begin learning the passages most commonly requested by orchestra audition committees. (Parts can be purchased through Luck’s and Kalmus, the International Music Excerpt books edited by Gingold; downloaded at IMSLP; or purchased at This can be determined in a number of ways, but is a good starting place. Then start practicing and listening!!!

2) • Practice your excerpts with at least as much care as your solo.
• Study recordings for style, tempo, bow strokes, sound, and nuance; have good fingerings and bowings!!!
• Watch the many masterclasses available for free at
• Play for conductors, your friends, teachers, and local symphony musicians
• Take as many auditions as you can afford

3) • Be sure you really want to play in an orchestra—it’s not a “fall-back” for people who don’t know what else to do with their skill. It takes tremendous dedication and perseverance to win a job and then you have to have the constitution to withstand the rigors of such a life.
• Play with as many conductors and groups as possible to learn the repertoire
• Keep an open mind and a forgiving nature.
• Study the scores, not just your own part. Listen continuously to the great recordings and the great works.
• Study with the best teachers you can find.

4) • Become proficient at sight-reading
• Become excellent at memorizing your music so you can look at the conductor, other section leaders, and hear the group behind you.
• Build your confidence through skill and learn to be a good communicator
• Play chamber music every chance you get
• Build relationships with conductors and your fellow musicians. You won’t be respected if you are not respectful.

5) It’s going to be hard to sustain charitable funding for orchestras in the future. I think there will always be a need for the orchestra within society, but orchestras will probably have to change their attitudes toward popular music and alternative styles.
INTERVIEW 7 with our very own Laurie Niles!!! Thank you Laurie! "A professional symphony violinist and former newspaper journalist who interviews top violin performers and pedagogues, as well as reports on her experience in violin music and education." :)

1) It's important to study with someone with a high level of expertise, whether you wish to be an orchestral violinist or a soloist. I think that if you wish to be an orchestral violinist and your teacher is not a professional violinist or a violinist with university-level training in music, you will eventually have to find a teacher who has more expertise. The teacher doesn't necessarily have to be currently playing in an orchestra, but the teacher should be familiar with the repertoire and how to play at a professional level.

2) 1. Practice and prepare the orchestral excerpts as much as you practice the repertoire. That is, to an extremely high level of perfection!
2. Start preparing early, and be ready a full month in advance, as if the audition were tomorrow.
3. Listen to the orchestral excerpts and know well what they sound like in context.
4. Don't listen to anyone else in the warm up room before the audition, just keep playing! Know there will be a lot of other great players there and plan to ignore that.
5. Keep yourself in good physical and mental health

3) 1. Count every rest (This is by far the best advice, believe it or not. Get into this habit very early on and you will be valued greatly)
2. Be prepared for rehearsal, but not afraid to sight read.
3. Don't talk during rehearsal unless it is necessary and related to the task at hand.
4. Have a good attitude toward your stand partner and fellow musicians, approach this like a mutual effort, not a competition
5. Keep practice copies of the music you use (which have fingerings, bowings, etc.) Just file them away. This helps for future auditions, or if you have a last-minute gig call and they can't give you the music in advance.

4) 1. Be kind to your colleagues, but authoritative
2. Have the bowings ready as far in advance as possible for your fellow section leaders
3. Work on having a good relationship with the music director and administrators
4. Know that you will be called upon to do some public appearances on behalf of the orchestra, and be okay with that. You are an ambassador to the community and have to embrace that role along with the other responsibilities
5. Be very prepared for the first rehearsal

5) The more students we teach, the better orchestras will fare in the future. Classical music is fascinating and stands the test of time -- it's not like other forms of music that can feel overplayed. Given musical education, people discover the worth in this. I have great faith in classical music, it's up to us, though, to allow new generations of people to understand and appreciate the long-lasting benefits it can bring to their lives.
INTERVIEW 8 with Libby Poole-Presley, assistant concertmaster of Yakima Symphony Orchestra, violinist with various orchestras in Seattle:

1) To use whatever resources they can: recordings, youtube,, books, playing in community orchestras...
2) a) To know the music so well "you can play it in your sleep" b) to play for other people c) to record yourself d) to study the music with someone who has won auditions e) ?
3) a) be thoroughly prepared (notes, rhythm, style, tempo) b) watch the conductor c) watch the section leader d) inside players, be a good page turner (no sense in having BOTH players drop out) e) ?
4) a) get to know your section and the whole orchestra b) treat everyone respectfully c) be available to questions about the repertoire d) try to make positive statements instead of negative ones e) ?
(I seem to have only 4 answers for everything! So much for top 5!)

From Simon Streuff
Posted on November 7, 2012 at 12:30 AM
worth the words in Gold!
From Corwin Slack
Posted on November 7, 2012 at 7:58 AM
No 5 of Denise Dillenbeck is very poignant. I despair for the future of orchestras. They won't disappear but they will struggle and the players will have to do a lot of adapting. Here in Houston things started downhill when the symphony balked at playing the opera. They now have that many more weeks to fill their season and competition for much the same audience. The opera season is nine weeks a year. That isn't trivial. It was a tragic miscalculation.

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