Orchestra and ensemble pose as a threat to Individuality?

December 11, 2008 at 05:47 AM ·

I am currently playing in a school orchestra and it seems to me that orchestra music in itself has direct conflict in solo violin performance works. Should i drop ouut of orchestra for my musical sake?

Replies (35)

December 11, 2008 at 06:20 AM ·

That's lunacy.

First of all, it's hard to "do what Heifetz did" (or any other artist did for that matter) because they are so unique in and of themselves. Just because *he* didn't have to play in an orchestra to figure out how it all worked doesn't mean that's true for anyone else. Very few of us are as awesome as that man. :)

Even as a a soloist, you can't just do whatever you want. With an orchestra accompanying you, your musical line is part of a larger harmonic structure. To avoid ensemble training is to deny yourself an understanding of the "big picture."

Every single student that I've "forced" to study chamber music and/or play in orchestras has emerged a more competent, thorough, and sensitive musician!

December 11, 2008 at 02:06 PM ·

Playing in an orchestra comes with many challenges.  If you play in orchestra a lot your intonation will be affected in the long run simply because you don't get a good chance to hear yourself in order to fix it.  Eventually you will get frustrated with conductors who have a completely different idea about the music than you do.  I can't count how many times I've sat in an orchestra and thought to myself "why is he/she taking this so slow?" or "why are we playing this Vivaldi concerto like it's a Mahler symphony?"

In the end I believe that the benefits of playing in an ensemble outweigh the challenges and frustrations.  Many musicians do not want to be like Heifetz in the sense that they don't want to constantly be in the spotlight and would rather play an integral part in something that's bigger than them.  They key however is finding a balance of musical pursuits.  If you are going to play in ensembles make sure you keep up your solo work whether you are to perform it or not - otherwise your technique and intonation will suffer.

December 11, 2008 at 04:30 PM ·

What Marina said.  At this point, you may have no idea  what your future holds.  Will you be a significant soloist or an orch/ensemble player or something else?  So you want to get as much of the various types of experience as you can because they help you with different skills.  I have a recording of Heifetz playing some chamber music.  It is not the best recording of those pieces (piano trios by Beethoven and Schubert) I have heard, even though it features three musicians, Heifetz, Feuermann and Rubinstein, who were arguably the greatest soloists on their instruments in the 20th century.  Stern, whose recordings of those pieces are better, IMHO, was a superior chamber musician with the Stern/Rose/Istomin trio even though neither he nor his mates approached Heifetz's or his mates' soloist skills.  You can end up with too much individuality.

The other thing worth considering, is that, good as you are, if you decide ultimately to make a living as a musician, you will more likely do so as a member of an ensemble rather than as a soloist.  This is another reason for not neglecting these skills. 

December 11, 2008 at 03:36 PM ·

You must color in the lines, but the depth of color is up to you.  Part of the excitement I find in orchestra is in trying to outdo myself every time: if Beethoven wants pianissimo, I must play the softest, most spine-tingling pianissimo anyone ever heard!

Orchestra, in my opinion, is the fast track to learning many techniques that you may want to use in your solo playing as well, even if somewhat modified.  More importantly, though, it is the fast track to learning style.  A good conductor wants to be able to say the fewest possible words and have an immediate response from you.  If you can do it, it says a great deal about your skill and versatility as a player.

Finally, don't knock one of the most powerful artistic media known to man.  It's an experience in and of itself that you are not likely to get anywhere else.  Just to feel a massive crescendo rising up through the floor, through your chair, and into your chest!  Or to sense sixty to a hundred people all holding their breath in anticipation.  Scheherazade (whole thing, not just concertmaster excerpts) and Symphonie Fantastique thrilled me, and Mahler symphonies changed my life.  Unfortunately, I do not know of any Rimsky-Korsakoff, Berlioz, or Mahler Violin Concerto!

Be diverse in your listening, too.  I especially recommend opera, in particular Mozart, Puccini and Verdi.  You have no idea how many times I have heard a well-known player or pedagogue giving a masterclass on Paganini tell the student to play like a mezzo-soprano, or a choir of horns.  If you have no experience with these things, it's going to make your life difficult and you will probably not achieve that 'je ne sais quoi' about a really engaging soloist.

December 11, 2008 at 03:59 PM ·

The first thing that struck me about this statement (which I hadn't heard before) was the underlying assumption:  that "expressing your individuality" is of paramount importance in making music. That's an assumption that I would question, and one that I have basically rejected in my own personal musical life.  

I don't reject entirely the concept of expressing individuality through music, only the elevating of it to supreme importance that concern about "threats" implies.  For me, that elevation would mean making music too much about ego and personality, and I find the greatest joy in music when it's not all about me, but about something larger.

December 11, 2008 at 10:49 PM ·


I agree with what Karen said.  If one has reverence for all music in all forms and does ones utmost to be respectful tot he score and the composers intentions then one`s individuality will emerge as a matter of course.  The problem then is that many players lack individuality because they ave negcleted their personal,  intelletcual and spiritual development in countles shopurs of practice that proportioanl;ayy haven@t actually added thta much to their palying.

I also reclal my teahcer at RCM Ken Piper talkign about stdunets negative attitude to the colege orchestras. He said `Poeple who say orchestra is boring -are- boring!`



December 11, 2008 at 11:26 PM ·

Several points:

A. What Heifetz did or said is probably not a good model.. for anything. His was a difficult and enigmatic personality, and I would take whatever he said with 2 grains of salt.

B. I've probably learned as much about music from good conductors as from any of my violin teachers.

C. There are a wealth of technical and musical challenges in orchestral playing that, if mastered, will contribute to a musician's growth in ways that being a soloist never can. 

December 12, 2008 at 06:38 AM ·

I totally understand what Heifetz meant when he said that. 


But for heaven's sake, don't drop out of orchestra!

December 12, 2008 at 07:05 AM ·

Orchestra is one of the most wonderful experiences, don't drop out! 

This bit about intonation suffering is interesting. Certainly I think it can happen, but I think it's less likely to happen in a high-quality ensemble, and it's less likely to happen if one practices, does scales, etc. If you do nothing but orchestra, I can see the possible problem.

But learning to play with people, to follow every indication in the score, to sight-read, it's very enriching, I think.

December 12, 2008 at 04:19 PM ·

I don't have the opportunity to play in an ensemble now but I did in the past and I realized these  things!

The two of them are essential to be a full developed musician (I mean the most possible because very rare are the Heifetzs!)

Heifetz is right about the individuality but I would say that individuality is great when you still respect the intention and purpose the composer gave to his or her piece.

In my opinion

solo performances are essential to develop confidence and take away the ultimate stage fright of being alone (but sorry... in general you are not alone since you play with a pianist that is often a much better musician than you and should be treated as a partner and not just an "accompanist"!)  It is the ultimate way to develop your personnality and sound because you hear more your real tone than when you are in a group.  You can work every single little thing like jeweler because if you don't, it will show...

Group playing is essential for the "tempo" sense and sighreading. Obviously, you permit yourself more mistakes in tempo when you are alone and are not force to sighread! It is also the time to learn the basic of group playing which means not being the one who wants to be heard over everyone.  Very basically, The beauty of the music is when each section knows exactly when it is their turn to show off and when it is their turn to shut up because another section is now in the spotlight!  You have to live as a section and not as an individual.  Group playing is really important to develop your feeling of the "whole" of the music and not just "my little part"!

So here is my opinion about why the two are essential and I just hope to be able to have more time one day to apply these principles to myself (finding another group to play with!).


December 12, 2008 at 05:07 PM ·

 I just realized a flaw in the original poster's thread title: "expressing our individuality"


The art of interpretation in classical music should not, I believe, be concerned with individuality. It must be primarily concerned with bringing the composer's intentions, and the musical style of the composer's time,  to life. The obsession with individuality and self-glorification is best left to pop musicians.

Perhaps the tendency of musicians in our culture to be primarily concerned with their individuality and, by extension, their heroic exploits, makes them more prone to stage fright.


December 12, 2008 at 05:52 PM ·

It is all in the attitude. Playing in orchestra and expressing individuality do not have to be mutually exclusive. Music is music and demands the very best of which you are capable. You just always put all of yourself into it even if one person is up onstage "at the helm" guiding the process.

 Also, at a very basic level, no two hands are the same, no two violins or bows are the same, so something individual, unique to you will come out. However, playing in such a way that audiences would consider your individual sound as something so compelling that  they are attracted to it and desire to hear it more than others' individual sounds is much more illusive. I agree with Karen and Buri that making this a priority is not what the best music making is about. We are at the service of the composer's ideas and very often their ideas are at the service of something greater, beyond themselves. It is true that a composer who copies the style of another composer too closely will likely not be remembered and as highly regarded down in history as a composer who puts forth something more individual. I think it is fair to say that the early Beethoven would not be remembered as well had he not gone on to write those pieces by which he put such a singular stamp on the world of music. This is also true of performing musicians. Regardless of publicity machines and luck, I think it's also fair to say that musicians like Pavarotti, Heifetz, Milstein, Rubinstein, Horowitz,  Casals, Rostropovich,etc. made music in such a way that we found their interpretation, style, musicianship compelling to a very high degree.

    The best one can do, I feel,  is to learn from these great masters, and others not necessarily so famous, and the music that they interpreted, as well as all the other influences that have come in to your own unique life and allow that process of discovery to unfold. Along the way, one's unique voice will come through. To chase after individuality and deliberately try to search for your own voice is an unending quest. The search is more internal than it is external.

 This subject is addressed quite well I think in a video/dvd of Christof Eschenbach  about  Listening to Mahler- A Wayfarer's Journey.


December 12, 2008 at 06:10 PM ·



E PLURIBUS UNUM ...........................................IMHO!

December 12, 2008 at 07:31 PM ·

I know that the actual sociey has associate the word inviduality with the glorification of self exploits but I think that some people think like this and it is sad. But please do not think that everyone who uses this word is like that. One day in a gig, the mom of another student told me what I find unique with the violin is that everyone sounds different and play a same piece so differently and she was right.  The violin is an instrument where you have to create your sound from nothing. There is no such thing as "press a key" Piano have other big challenges though.  For this reason, I think that every violinist has an individuality and I often say the word personnality etc but I do not refer to the selfish sense of the word individuality. I enjoy listening to any violinists even those who have played for one month only!  I am more an advocate of develop your sound the way you like it but put it at the service of the composers ideas. (as I said previously on this discussion)


December 12, 2008 at 07:49 PM ·

If you are as good as Heifetz then you should drop out of orchestra.

There may be other levels of skill that should avoid the school orchestra and there are many other reasons besides suppression of artistic individuality for avoiding school orchestras but they are too complicated for here and no so I will go no further.

December 12, 2008 at 07:58 PM ·

What Corwin said.  If you are quite good (but not Heifetz) your participation in the orch, aside from all the other benefits people have mentioned, can be invaluable to the orch itself and the other violinists.   I know that when Hilary Hahn gives concerts, after her number, she can sometimes be found in the violin 2 section, and I was at a concert where the pianist played the Emperor Concerto before intermission, and, after intermission, showed up in the trumpet section where he was having a good time.

December 12, 2008 at 08:46 PM ·

One thing I know about Heifetz is that his approach to music was....to serve it. So , not just to enhance himself, but the music as a whole.We all know the importance that he gave to accompaniament ,and the fact that he was able to mostly play on the piano the accompaniament of what he played on the violin.Also , he required of his students to know well the accompaniament ( which is , after all, the orchestral part) of their pieces.


Not too often we are trully alone when performing. The humbleness of our profession , of our life, is , I think , that we are the servants of something greater than us: that is the MUSIC itself. And even when you are performing a solo piece, you are still a servant. You are there to honor something that goes far beyond your presence.I think the soloist , and the orchestra member , and the conductor , are nothing else than messangers.


So , my point is : even as a soloist ,it will not be just you out there. The solo and the accompaniament make the music together  . Playing in the orchestra gives you a chance to understand music better , to understand other instruments, to understand harmony better, to expand your knowledge of classical music repertoire ( not just volin ), to sometimes play -thus really learn - the accompaniament of your own pieces... Will it hinder your individuality ? Not if you keep working on your solo repertoire, and keep performing it in public.


I think we all need to play in ensembles sometimes... And orchestra playing is an art...When I saw this Friday the National Symphony playing a Mozart Symphony , I could do nothing but admire the great precision , and the coordination, and the incredible strength that a group of people could have together.


So my conclusion : don't drop out of orchestra . Who knows if you wouldn't regret it later.

Take care,


December 12, 2008 at 10:42 PM ·

*This is coming from a student, who is in orchestra.

You need to stay in orchestra. It won't kill your individuality. There are two complete differences. Your the same as a soloist while being in an orchestra at the same time. And if you play the right way, people will follow your style. For example, we're playing a piece called "Fairies". It's an arrangement of the Sugar Plum suite or whatever by Tchaikovsky. My stand partner and I keep the spacotto clean, and draw out the bow where necessary, watch counting etc. Others follow us even though we're second stand. Not to be mean, but our first stand is incompetent in some ways... It was kind of a free-for-all with the seating chart this term. The other piece we're playing is called "Once upon a December". My stand set an example, and now our section follows it.- So in some ways, people will follow your style.

Orchestra is also a way to get recognized... And is a valuable experience. You need it my friend!!

December 14, 2008 at 05:52 PM ·

If you're playing in orchestras and destined for something better, you will surely be raised out of it on your own merit, it's not for you to decide.  There are some great string soloists who have also had orchestral careers - Primrose and Shumsky for example.  It's also extremely difficult to play well in orchestras - there is lots of extra noise from the brass, awkward tempos as mentioned, if the players around you aren't as good (eg amateur orchestras) you perceive your own playing as bad too.  So quite enough to be working on and room for improvement, if you're going to jack out of it (which people always wanted to do at college too, being 'destined for better things' even htough only a handful would actually get jobs at the end of it) then it's like saying "I'm not going to bother with relationships - it would cramp my style too much."

December 14, 2008 at 06:00 PM ·

Mr. Faina, maybe the word for solo musicians would be:


"E Pluribus Tunum!"


I'll let you guys mull over that.

December 14, 2008 at 08:48 PM ·

Brian, you definitely are the Nut in the family tree! LOL Tunum!!! :^D

December 14, 2008 at 08:53 PM ·

I shall take that as a compliment, Maestro Faina ;)

December 16, 2008 at 05:59 PM ·

If you think about ensemble playing as a conversation, versus a monologue then the issue goes away. Do conversations deprive us of your individuality? I don't think so, but others might disagree with the analogy. A monolouge means you really must have something important to say, don't you think? The main thing seems to be aware and purposeful in whatever you choose to do. Taken a step further, if we converse with people who don't speak as well as we do are these valuable conversations or not? The purpose and intention of a conversation can matter more than if someone next to us has extraordinary skill or not. If everything is a reflection of ourselves, then we become difficult people to please in many situations, orchestra being one of them.

December 16, 2008 at 06:14 PM ·

This analogy doesn't work well because when you play in an orchestra, you must carry your part of the conversation exactly the same way as your stand partner and everyone else in the section.  And of course, a group of people all reciting a sentence will say it very differently than an individual reciting the same line.

December 16, 2008 at 10:22 PM ·


and whereas women tend to seek accord in conversation men strive for dominance.  Thus the sexual makeup of the orchestra becomes problematic.



December 16, 2008 at 11:21 PM ·

But the heigher pitches of women's voices are always heard over the lower pitches of men's voices!  Ha Ha! + dominance=forcing like heck=being tense=horrible sound!

lol! forget about this one, I don't think it!


December 17, 2008 at 12:18 AM ·


do you think women are pressing too much?



December 17, 2008 at 12:42 AM ·

Well I guess I was thinking more of smaller chamber stuff. You are right. The obvious solution is not to play in orchestras if the demands don't match your particular temperment be they dominating or otherwise. Venus Mars et al....Regards.

December 17, 2008 at 01:26 AM ·


no prizes for guessing which section is on Pluto.....



December 17, 2008 at 02:40 AM ·

Well, women may be seeking accord with each other , but nobody said anything about what they are seeking in conversations with men. :)  I believe Venus is in our sky . Haha (...and I believe my violin is a she )

 but lol

December 17, 2008 at 03:14 AM ·

Why drop outta Orchestra??? Doesn't really affect solo performence as much but teaches you more. Right now in my school orchestra it drives me crazy because my entire section still use open E's when the key signature calls for E flats and the 1st stand can't really lead when both don't decide on bowings. Chamber groups I feel more comfortable because your with people who are commited to play. Just stay in orchestra because there are some things that you learn there but not as playing solo.

December 17, 2008 at 09:38 PM ·

Just a fast comment to say that when we think about it a musician should be a musician without considering if it is a man and a women. Of couse mentally, physically their is differences but if you close your eyes and listen to a reknowned women and a reknowned men playing, you will see the same things in the two (an ability produce the "sweet"  and elegant sound and an ability to show more character, confidence or power when they are asked to.) If you ear a violinist of any sex who just plays on one side, then, it is not a complete musician. But, I talk here about very talented musicians and know it is not that evident to be always well balanced! It surely not an easy thing to aquire but think about it...

oups, the subject was brought but it is kind of off topic...

December 17, 2008 at 06:14 PM ·

Regarding conversation amoung a group of individuals speaking on the same page. They make as well as reinforce a body working towards a comon goal. But when one begins a soliliquy ?

December 17, 2008 at 08:28 PM ·

Buri -- Pressing on what?

Orchestra is a totally different experience than solo playing.  If you can, get into a more exclusive orchestra than the typical public school rented instrument orchestra.  Usually there are youth orchestras that cover a relatively large area -- I grew up in Putnam County, NY and drove an hour away every week for rehearsal in the Greater Westchester Youth Symphony.  Most areas have something comparable, I'd guess.

Aim for your All-State orchestra.  Sitting in the way back of the 2nd violin section (I goofed off on practicing the music, so totally blew the seating auditions!) I had the most incredible orchestra experience ever.  It's eye-opening, and ear-opening.

If you're not able to find a youth orchestra in your area, stick with your school orchestra anyway.  Or find a few really good players and form a chamber group.  But don't skip the ensemble playing -- it really is an essential part of your musical education.  Many composers had/have a fabulous "idea" that they put into a composition, but it's terribly difficult technically on the particular instrument s/he wrote it for.  In 1st violin parts and in contemporary compositions, you will have to sweat for your intonation.  The music can be very challenging when studied seriously, and will teach you a good deal of technique and control in all areas of your playing.

And if you can't get into a good youth orchestra or All-State, then you shouldn't be worried about threats to your development as a soloist.  You should be worrying about practicing more! :)

December 18, 2008 at 03:09 AM ·

Stay with the orchestra AND keep up your solo work.  Orchestra (or chamber music) will give you the discipline needed to "play well with others" in tempo, dynamics, intonation, and style.  Playing strictly solo limits your repetoire, and unless you are very strong have some adverse affects in rhythm & tempo (soooo needed when playing with a pianist or a concerto with an orchestra).  At the same time, orchestra can "ruin" your intonation.

Personally, I'm doing all three myself at the moment.  I'm in a community orchestra, play in a quartet, AND work on solo pieces and concertos.  They each have their own set of challeges, and make be a better violist.

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