Do you enjoy playing in orchestras? Why?

March 25, 2013 at 08:15 PM · I have been a part of a youth symphony for the past two years, and have really enjoyed it. But recently, I've been thinking about where I'm headed with the violin.

My conductor (who also conducts a college symphony) is starting a college prep program for high schoolers to play in his college symphony, and he selected a few (three) violin students from my symphony to invite to join the program. I was one of them.

I think I should take this opportunity if symphony performing is really the direction I'm headed.

Basically, I'm wondering what other violinists think about their experiences performing in professional orchestras. Do you enjoy it overall? Has it helped you to grow as a musician? How about personally? Do you like the music you play? Do you have time for other things in life, or does violin take up all your time? Do you have to work other jobs in order to have a sufficient income? How many concerts does your symphony perform every year?

Are there any non-symphony performers out there? What do you do with the violin? Do you enjoy it?

One other thing: I'm at the point where I'll need to decide soon whether or not I want to go to college right after I graduate high school, or wait a little while, or not go to college at all. Do you feel like going through college really helped you achieve your music goals?

Replies (44)

March 25, 2013 at 08:19 PM · I love playing in the symphony more than I love anything else in life besides my family and Peets Coffee!

March 25, 2013 at 09:00 PM · I suppose that if I said I hated playing in orchestras that would not be entirely true. There were apects that were good. Such as comradeship, mixing with wood wind and brass players.

The downside was most conductors who were rubbish, and bashing through lots of repertoir - sometimes with the red light on, or in concerts, TV and radio broadcasts and the like.

I suppose I liked 25% of it, but disliked the remaining 75%.

The other thing is, that playing in orchestras can and does often mess up your playing. we learn to get by with bad habits, like rushing through the bow, doing daft bowings, and having to tune to others who are often off key.

So now I would avoid orchestras like the plague - and manage to avoid doing friends favours when they want me to play in their orchestras. I can usually find an excuse, but don't tell 'em I said that ...

March 25, 2013 at 11:10 PM · I enjoy playing in orchestras and always have since my early teens. I was fortunate then in having a cello teacher who was in the BBC Concert Orchestra back in the days when it was based in Bristol, and he indirectly taught me a lot about orchestral playing.

Just over three years ago I was able to fulfil a lifetime ambition of playing violin in an orchestra by transferring from cello to violin. It turns out I now find myself playing violin in four amateur orchestras, one of which operates on the surprisingly effective policy of three rehearsals per concert (we're performing Elgar 1 and the Barber VC in three weeks time in Bristol's St George's Hall - an acoustic to die for).

I read and understand (with sympathy!) Peter's comments on his life as a professional, and have for quite some time stopped regretting not having gone down the professional road as a cellist when I left school, as I wanted to then. Amateur and professional orchestras are different in many ways but have common aims and purposes in their complementary roles in making music for society.

March 26, 2013 at 12:47 AM · I am not a professional player, so please take my opinions with a grain of salt.....

It all depends on the quality of orchestra and, as any other workplace, the overall culture of the institution.

If the quality is average or low, the group will tend pull you down. This is particularly true for community orchestras.

A lot will depend on the music director and the conductor. Again, like in any other group a leadership can make your life miserable or inspire you to grow as a person and a musician.

Musically, in a big group you have almost no part in decision making and a lots of the decisions are coming from the conductor.

Personally I prefer smaler groups and chamber music where I can be more creative and engage in democratic discussion about music, repertoire and other aspects.

March 26, 2013 at 01:09 AM · I am an amateur and just joined a small ensemble. I enjoy that I have joined because I can be around other musicians and learn from them. It also has help me to be more disciplined in practicing and to be aware of timing. Plus it gets me out of my comfort zone and teaching me that it is okay to make mistakes-yes even in front of others.

March 26, 2013 at 01:30 AM · Another amateur here. I played in orchestra as a child - I was the concertmaster (or Leader as we call it in England) - and orchestra was a Very Big Thing in Leicestershire at the time. But overall I HATED it. Not for Peter's reasons but because it was full of pressure and competetiveness and snooty. Thus, I was rather reluctant to start orchestra again after picking the violin up in 2008. I have though - the reasons were to expand my repertoire, to work on playing in an ensemble and to meet people. I was invited to join a mid level community orchestra but selected one that was low key and very supportive. On the whole that has worked out very well - I've been invited to joing small ensembles, I've learned a lot about orchestra playing from my co-players, the conductor and also particularly from our concertmaster who is a fine violinist and musician and also very knowledgeable. But don't tell him I said so. By the way, our orchestra has improved by leaps in just the short period that I've seen it - if this keeps up in another couple of years it really could start make a local impact.

That said, I really prefer media where individual voices can be heard - the less instruments the better (read solo!). Still, the plusses of the orchestra - the sense of being valued will probably keep bringing me back.

Amateur orchestras probably have a very different ambiance than professional ones though - the fact is anyone can walk away, not so easy when your mortgage depends on it...

March 26, 2013 at 01:59 AM · This may provide you some insight:

March 26, 2013 at 02:02 AM · i like playing in the orchestra. I'm playing in first violin section in one orchestra and second violin section in another orchestra, both in different cities.

violin takes up my time, but still have time for other things.

i've learned, and still I'm learning so much from orchestra.

March 26, 2013 at 02:35 AM · Whatever you decide to do, I would strongly recommend that you pursue higher education. The number of jobs that are available to people who only have a high school degree, these days, and that pay a living wage, is quite limited.

Even if you decide to become a musician, you'll still need a resume -- much of which will be built up by continued formal training after high school, whether in a conservatory or not.

March 26, 2013 at 08:50 AM · Playing in an orchestra is the main reason I play the violin at all. I think if I couldn't play in an orchestra, I'd probably stop playing altogether.

I have always felt that there is a tension between the needs of solo playing and the needs of orchestral playing, and this tension probably played a role in my not pursuing music professionally. I am really not much as a soloist, and I have only started to enjoy solo playing, even a little bit, in my 40's, but even when I was younger people told me I was a good section player.

It probably also has to do with repertoire--much of my favorite music is symphonies, overtures, big choral oratorios, and other music written for many instruments/voices. I rarely listen to solo pieces--especially concertos--for fun. It also seems to be one of the few situations left in the world where you are one of many working toward a common goal.

But it is true that it depends on the orchestra. As an adult I seem to have found a good community group that I enjoy, and while everybody there has their quirks (me included), it's almost more like a church or a family where you go and put all that aside for a couple of hours while you pursue the common goal of making music. Last year we got a couple of new players from another, more serious, local orchestra after that orchestra ran out of money and folded. I was talking to one of them in more depth at our last rehearsal. She said that while their concerts were better than ours, playing-wise, she was in that group for 3 years and never even knew most of the other players' names! Every week they came to rehearsal, played their part, and left. When she said that, I remembered that I had also been in groups like that sometimes--I had just blocked out the bad memories.

March 26, 2013 at 08:51 AM · Just to enlarge on my comments a bit, I did actually work in lots of different areas of orchestral playing, mainly because I got bored after a year or two in any one type of orchestra. I started in a symphony orchestra - learning all the repertoir on the job - for about 27 months.

I managed also to avoid orchestra quite a bit when I was studying at music college in London. In four years of study I managed to do only about one and a half years in the student orchestras - and then only because it was pointed out that I needed some orchestral experience, not that music college orchestras are much good at preparing players.

After my symphony job I was fed up so I moved into light music in small broadcasting orchestras - some short lived full time contract work and this indispersed with free lancing in similar bands, symphony orchestras, and opera and ballet work. I did a certain amount of touring and also stints working in London, doing all sorts of things. (It also kept me away from my wife, which was a good thing ...)

I then ended up as a short term measure in an opera orchestra - and stayed for seven years - the longest job I had managed. I really liked this job the best, probably because of the people, but also because I mixed with singers, carpenters, stage hands, wardrobe and scene making departments etc., and I liked the atmosphere of the theatre, and the real sense of occasion. It was more like a big family.

Then I moved back to London and continued free lancing for about 5 years and as I was by then fed up with it I retired and did other things. Had short periods of free lance work since then but it always palls after a few weeks and I go back to other things.

So I can't say that orchestral work in its various forms always managed to hold my attention - I was not orchestrally ambitious - and I just made a living doing it, along with some teaching from time to time.

If I were starting again as a young player I don't know if I would do it again, especially under the conditions and general conditions and situations that orchestras find themselves in these days. It might be that the fun has gone out of it, and as a friend said recently, playing with a big sound is frowned upon (I was surprised at that comment) and that orchestras were only for women these days! (He said that, not me, and he is under 40 - also he's a conductor as well, so he might be a bit strange ...)(Hope he's not reading this ...)

March 26, 2013 at 08:18 PM · In elementary school, I wanted to become a professional symphony player -- especially after hearing a professional orchestra play at my school.

I enjoyed playing in orchestras during high school. Then, starting in my late teens, while working on my performance degree, I played a couple of seasons with the CSO's training school.

I wouldn't have wanted to miss this experience. But by age 20, I began to feel that orchestra playing was at odds with my individualistic, free-spirited nature. At 21, I told the administration that I didn't want to continue this activity any longer. I resigned my chair and haven't done any orchestral playing from that day to this.

I don't regret the decision. Each year, it seems that I find new reasons to be grateful I decided not to continue on this career path. A number of things made me turn against it: 1) evening hours; 2) decibel levels of modern symphonic playing; 3) being in close quarters with 90-100 other players session after session.

I like much better doing solo material and small chamber music. I found my niche there.

March 27, 2013 at 12:17 AM · I love playing in an orchestra. I have been so fortunate to be a part of so many great works of art. An orchestra is a living thing and one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Just do it.

March 27, 2013 at 12:35 AM · Like Peter, I had a varied orchestral career, but much more limited. My happiest time was in a small broadcast orchestra - 6 1sts and a mic on each desk. Scary! But we all got on well, and worked well as a team. It was a very happy time - and if the orchestra was still going, I'd probably still be there. Unfortunately, it was closed down and I found i wasn't enjoying life as much as I felt I should, so I left. In orchestral playing, you'll mix with some of the nicest people you could ever meet - and some you wouldn't dare turn your back on. Luckily, the latter are in a minority.

I think part of it is the adrenalin rush - you're aiming at a concert, and when it's gone, it's gone. In a normal job, what you don't get done today is waiting for you tomorrow, and quite often the paperwork is as important as actually doing the job. I can still remember some great performances from 40 years back - when you almost crawl off stage physically and mentally knackered. Somehow my current job in IT doesn't quite reach those heights.

March 27, 2013 at 01:45 PM · Somehow my current job in IT doesn't quite reach those heights.

Bet it pays better. Good to have a career that support hobbies that you really enjoy.

Back to topic...

Another amateur sounding in here: I really enjoy the orchestra I'm in. The previous one, I was there to get my chops back, after a 30-year hiatus. I stuck with the previous one, even though the situation was not great for me. Still, there was a lot to enjoy.

My current orchestra is a dream. Even Peter would like our conductor. :-) I have been sitting front stand in the 2nd section since I started, and now am playing 1st. I'm finding it (overall) easier for me than the 2nd section: I can recognize the piece when I practice. My wife now comes into the music room, to say the name of the piece -- a welcome change, after she's only heard oompahs and upbeats for a while.

An orchestra is a social environment. You can make friends and working acquaintances, in a musical context. But if you REALLY want social, join a choir. :-)

In any job situation, you will have politics, backbiting, and people who step on your head, as they use you as a rung in their ladder to promotion. So you can decide if you want to have that stuff in your music or in another career: it's up to what you can tolerate.

The advantage to having music as an avocation is that if it stops being fun in one group, you can take a powder and get in with a fun bunch. You will run into the occasional grouch/social climber/jerk, but you have way more control of the dynamic than if that group dynamic puts food on your table.

In any event, you will always have your music. "No, no, they can't can't that away from me..."

March 27, 2013 at 10:59 PM · John, yes it does pay better. The pay levels in our local full-time pro orchestra are shocking and most of them HAVE to teach etc. just to boost the income. Luckily, most of them are super musicians and lovely people, and add so much to the community.

I'm lucky in work - I'm in a great team who help each other and there's no-one trying to step on people for advancement. We're all techies, not climbers. And luckily, our manager sees his job as helping us to do our job. Works both ways - he trusts us and we trust him. But I DO realise that we're lucky!

March 28, 2013 at 12:46 AM · I second what Peter Charles has written. I could see maybe playing in a good, part-time orchestra might be fun (though at this point, I'm still enjoying the break, which might well last a lifetime.)

After a decade-plus in the full-time orchestra business, my wife and I were quite ready to move on. At the end, I wrote an article of my impressions, for anyone who is interested:

March 28, 2013 at 08:09 AM · Thanks for the link Scott - an interesting read.

I LOVE the term semi-conductor. Yes, that covers most of them!

March 28, 2013 at 12:01 PM · However, most electronic semi-conductors are very useful, as opposed to orchestral semi-conductors ...

March 28, 2013 at 03:04 PM · I think orchestral playing is an excellent way to grow as a violinist, musically and technically, but you must prepare your parts as if you would have to play them solo, with the same level of detail, technical accuracy, and good sound. Just rattling off your part under the cover of anonymity of the greater group is probably a waste of time, if not for the great fun to play in a group of people who like to play violin.

March 28, 2013 at 04:16 PM · Jean, there's a danger with that. In one of my orchestras, we had a girl who was very conscientious and practiced all the parts until she could REALLY play them. Unfortunately, when she was in the section she played them exactly as she'd practiced them, which didn't fit with the rest of the section. None of us were sorry when she left - especially the leader!

March 28, 2013 at 04:25 PM · I would agree with Malcolm here. You have to learn to be an ensemble player, which very few amateurs and even some professionals ever are.

"I think orchestral playing is an excellent way to grow as a violinist, musically and technically"

I think orchestral playing is the best way to ruin your technique - unless you spend a lot of hours undoing the damage.

A quartet leader said once, that owing to have to supplement her living with some orchestral dates - it always took 2 or 3 days of practise to undo the harm done.

March 28, 2013 at 06:40 PM · Isn't that a bit of a generalization Peter? What little I know of orchestra or its violinists I get the impression that some aspects of solostic technique truly suffer but other aspects of violin playing may be improved. I think (good) orchestra players have to be good at three things: intonation, rhythm and sight-reading and they excell at all three. What suffers - well I hope you can tell me that - but again, my impression is musicallity, fingering, perfection of the piece (one can always hide) tone etc.

March 28, 2013 at 07:13 PM · "Isn't that a bit of a generalization Peter? What little I know of orchestra or its violinists I get the impression that some aspects of solostic technique truly suffer but other aspects of violin playing may be improved. I think (good) orchestra players have to be good at three things: intonation, rhythm and sight-reading and they excell at all three. What suffers - well I hope you can tell me that - but again, my impression is musicallity, fingering, perfection of the piece (one can always hide) tone etc."

If you had been a professional orchestral player you would realise that these things are not generalisations. But I think from the amateur perspective it may be difficult to understand.

You are right that orchestral players have to be good at sightreading. Rhythm, well the jury is out on that one! Intonation, no, it's generally not good, in the string sections. It gets covered. Need I say more?

Musicality, perfection of the piece, tone - well I can't comment - (I'm shaking with laughter actually).

Fingering? I don't know what you are talking about, generally people do their own fingering unless a certain passage has needed a unified fingering and the section(s) have agreed to it. Bowing, well that reminds me of the joke ... what's the similarity between an orchestral leader and a terrorist? They both wreck bowings. Get it?

But I don't think I (and the others that agree with me) will ever convince you - because you see professional orchestral playing through rose tinted spectacles.

March 28, 2013 at 08:23 PM · "Intonation ... In the string sections. It gets covered."

In amateur orchestras with, shall we say, a broad range of ability (probably a bell curve skewed to the left), it "gets covered" by selecting performance pieces with prominent roles for brass, woodwind and percussion. This may also explain why an amateur string orchestra that gives regular concerts tends to consist of older, more experienced players with reasonably solid intonation and tone.

I think I lost my rose-tinted spectacles when my cello teacher told me tales of his life as a professional musician, and later when I occasionally played alongside professionals in charity concerts. I finally gave up searching for those spectacles when the conductor of one of my orchestras, a composer of movie and TV music and so gets to conduct one of the London Five for his compositions, told us that it often took a few minutes at the start of a rehearsal to persuade the musicians of said orchestra to wake up and think about playing in tune.

March 28, 2013 at 09:52 PM · Peter, what do you mean by practicing to undo the damage? Probably you mean that in a professional orchestra you have not enough time to really prepare the parts well enough, so that you do hours of sloppy playing which then has to be unlearnt?

March 28, 2013 at 11:15 PM · It's better in a chamber orchestra, but in a full symphony orchestra, it can be hard to hear yourself. Bad habits creep in (too much pressing in the left hand and bow arm, sloppy shifts, bad intonation etc.) It's hard to counteract that through private practice with a full service week.

I do miss the post-concert receptions though ;)

March 28, 2013 at 11:17 PM · Some time ago I read an article in the Strad by a cellist who did a busy three-month concert tour in Europe (concertos, recitals, and broadcasting), and at the end he felt his technique had deteriorated so much ("dirty" was the word I think he used) that it took him a few weeks to get back to standard. I can't remember his name, but I don't think it was British.

Perhaps this is a common problem with busy professionals, both soloists and symphony players, but amateurs, with their smaller work load, should never get into this situation.

March 28, 2013 at 11:19 PM ·

March 28, 2013 at 11:19 PM ·

March 29, 2013 at 02:36 AM · Peter, if the professional musicians in symphony orchestras are really that bad then why give the conductor such a hard time?

The really weird thing is that the combination usually sounds pretty darn good!

March 29, 2013 at 06:40 AM · I guess I'm beginning to understand some of what Peter and other pros are talking about. I just joined a community orchestra about 6 weeks ago. We have already performed together once, which was actually quite good. We are largely made up of country folk of ages from young students to retirees, but everyone there can manage to play well enough to sound reasonable.

Whilst they have been friendly to me, and helpful, I do have some things still to get used to. Having a stand partner annoys me because if their bowing is different to mine it puts me off, and I feel cramped and unable to get a full bow going without wondering if their ear or ribs are about to receive a giant poke. Also, my eyesight isn't the greatest even with glasses so if the page I need to read is in front of the partner, I can't read it very well. Sitting and playing is uncomfortable. My ability to count has deserted me on occasion, as the parts of others puts me off from time to time. As for tempo, well I guess my idea of Andante and those of the conductor are worlds apart. And speaking of bowing, sure I am experiencing some rushed sloppy moves that my teacher wouldn't allow, and some others which are requested by the conductor but I suspect aren't technically correct. But hey, I intend to work these things out as I go.

One important piece of advice given to me by my teacher years ago was, wherever you go, make sure you take your technique with you. Never desert what you have learned because it is the whole basis of good music. I hope I can manage this.

March 29, 2013 at 08:27 AM · Some good points from Freida and Millie.

Elise - you seem to be off target a lot. Surprising for a scientist!

Generally conductors don't have a hard time - and I don't think I said symphony musicians are very bad, just that the job messes them up quite a bit. A lot of the moaning about conductors goes in in private and in the pub, and I was always quite modest about my complaints. I could occasionally be heard murmering into my pint of beer in the pub after a bad concert, I think that generally the woodwind and brass players were much more critical, but again conductors often were unaware of people's feelings.

I realised very early on after leaving music college that playing in orchestras had a down side, in that very few conductors were much good, but we had to bite the bullet and just get on with it, and make up for their problems, so most playing was carried out aurally, in other words, you listened to other sections and ignored the conductor if they were not that good. So a good concert was still possible.

When a really good conductor appeared on the scene - we counted our lucky stars and enjoyed the music making until we were unfortunately back to usual situation. I think players also felt annoyed, often because the conductor got 10 - 50 times more money for the concert than the average player and the conductor only needed to do one or two days work a week - whereas the orchestra had to work 6 or 7 days.

March 29, 2013 at 09:08 AM · Let me tell you an interesting story about a conductor, if I may. I tell this because I think it sums up the main problem with conductors.

I will use no names, but I saw a while back on UK TV a programme about a famous Russian conductor who had been persuaded to give a televised master class using about 4 or 5 fully trained "promising" young student conductors. The orchestra was a very good ensemble which he conducted regularly.

The students were all very good at talking and lecturing the orchestra on how to play the works they were doing. Not so good at getting results though.

One particularly verbal and obnoxious student was waffling away, so the famous conductor who I will call X from now on, came down and said to him that the orchestra knew more about the music than he probably ever would - so stop talking - we are not impressed.

X then conducted the opening 50 or so bars of the piece (I think it was by Scriabin) - stopped the orchestra, asked for the beginning again, stopped and repeated once more. X then said "if I can't show them what I want in three attempts and have to tell them, then I have totally failed."

One thing that orchestras hate is a verbose conductor. Basically players don't want to hear endless tales of how the conductor knows more than anyone else about X composer, because he has carried out extensive research, or slept with the composer's wife.

Often, the conductors who talk a lot, and rehearse in a certain way, go into show off mode at the concert and conduct in a world of their own, with an eye on impressing the audience. Some even resort to acrobatics and attempt to break the record for the highest jumping conductor in the Guiness Book of Records.

I saw and heard a conductor waffling on TV the other day, and then in an excerpt from a concert he conducted I witnessed him conducting contrary motion down around his knees (I've seen similar gestures in London Zoo in the monkey house) ...

The orchestra was in fact quite a good one, the Vienna Phil ...

March 29, 2013 at 11:02 AM · Peter, yes, I am a scientist and my job is just that - to observe whats there and make predictions from it and then test them to see if those predictions are true. I read what you wrote, I made a prediction from it - and my test to see if its true is to simply point it out - giving you a chance to accept, deny or clarify.

You responded by contradicting my conclusion and providing more data, clarifying your previous statements - in a most reasonable way may I add.

Please don't shoot the messenger..

March 29, 2013 at 11:16 AM · I can't - I've run out of ammunition. Especially after just shooting myself in the foot ...

Going to be away for a while soon now - so you can be free of my target practise.

March 29, 2013 at 01:26 PM · Some years ago British TV ran a series in which someone would be trained over a relatively short period of time in an occupation or craft they knew nothing about to a level where they could give a convincing demonstration of their new skills to innocent members of the public and unsuspecting professionals.

The choice for one episode was the leader of a rock band. The brief was to teach him orchestral conducting to the level where he would be able to take part in a competition for young conductors, conducting a professional symphony orchestra in public.

This young man knew nothing about classical music and could not read music. However, his strengths were a deep understanding of rhythm and the beat, which is what you would expect of an experienced rock musician, and he already had the confidence for performing in public.

He was put under the wing of a professional conductor for a few months, practically living with him and his family. It was tough work for teacher and pupil, with many ups and downs and periods of near despair for both of them, but good progress was made overall. In the later stages he got to practice with a college orchestra.

The day of the competition approached and in preparation our victim received a haircut, shave and so forth, and was fitted out in a penguin suit. In the competition he conducted very convincingly and confidently from memory, doing all the right things that amateur conductors are liable to forget, such as getting eye contact with an orchestral soloist before their entry, and not during or after. The jury, audience, and the orchestra did not know the identities of the competitors, although some members of the orchestra apparently had their suspicions that one competitor was not quite what he seemed.

The outcome of the competition was that our man came either first or second (I don't remember which after this lapse of time). One member of the jury was amusingly not at all amused by the deception when it was shockingly revealed that one of the top two competitors was actually a rock musician.

Our rock musician returned to his life in the rock band.

March 29, 2013 at 02:39 PM · I think that, when you're in high school, pretty much any playing experience is worth having regardless of what you envision yourself doing musically in the future. Being a strong orchestral player and knowing the rep. is super helpful along the way.

That being said, orchestral playing has never really been my jam, I much prefer chamber music and that is largely how I make my living. I prefer to have a voice in choosing the rep. I play and some freedom in the interpretation of it. I like the people in my ensemble and we work well together.

In my experience, orchestral (section) dynamics can be annoying and sometimes stressful. I've been largely lucky in that most of the conductors I've worked under for a sustained period of time have been competent, but there are some bad ones out there and it is frustrating when it happens. Unclear stick technique, not great at articulating what they want, poor rehearsal technique, etc. Dealing with it is part of orchestral playing, and being able to deal is also a good skill to have :)

I will say, when doing sub gigs or ringer gigs, plopping down to practice and typically having 3/5 of the repertoire for any given concert under my fingers (cause I've played it before) is awesome.

The majority of musicians (soloists, tenured orchestral players, chamber musicians, etc) make their living doing a number of things; chamber, orchestral, conducting, teaching, coaching, solo recitals, etc. By all means, find your niche and hone your skills. However, I'd encourage you to be cautious of limiting yourself to that niche. In my opinion, defining one's playing in that way greatly reduces the chances of one being able to make a good living as a musician.

EDIT; P.S. Go to whatever college has a teacher you think you work well with and you want to study with. Do not go into crazy debt paying for it. Use whatever connections you make there to help you along the way.

March 29, 2013 at 02:53 PM · Very true, Amber.

Trevor. I think the person who was training them to be conductors is a friend of mine, if I have the right TV programme. He was (still is?) a violinist. But he caught the conducting bug ... and never found a cure ...

March 29, 2013 at 04:51 PM · I very much enjoy orchestral playing. I was in a community orchestra was doing nine sets a year, which is a pretty relentless pace for most community orchestras. I was also doing pit orchestra for community theater, which typically has weekly rehearsals leading up to the performance, and then generally multiple performances each week during the run. I would also take the occasional gig (often involving just a single rehearsal plus concert).

I agree that conductors are very much a mixed bag, at whatever level.

I think that orchestral playing can indeed damage your playing, as several of the professionals have pointed out. I don't think that's really true at the youth level, though, where there's a fairly high chance that you're going to be imperfect anyway.

I will note that top-notch youth orchestras can have an outstanding sound, because everyone is still at the stage where they're practicing the music, trying to get it nigh-perfect (and have the chops to manage to do so), and is paying careful attention, as opposed to being folks just trying to get through the work day.

You might well be surprised at how much better even a not-very-good orchestra plays under a better conductor. (In my current community orchestra, you can hear an audible difference when our conductor and the assistant conductors trade off at the podium mid-piece -- everything gets nearly instantly better with our regular conductor on the podium.)

March 29, 2013 at 07:07 PM · Lydia - yes, you've got it! A good conductor can make the orchestra sound better. The best show you what they want and give you the confidence to play. Unfortunately, they're rare!

One of my orchestras, we had a regular stream of duff guest conductors - and finally realised what was causing it. They all had their own orchestras - didn't matter how good or bad. So it was seemingly a nice arrangement with our (not very good) resident conductor - you book me for your orchestra, and I'll book you for mine.

And Peter's hit the nail on the head - conductors don't get a hard time unless they're REALLY bad. Most of the annoyance is released muttering into a pint after the session.

April 1, 2013 at 11:25 PM · These musicians do enjoy!


April 2, 2013 at 01:13 AM · "Lydia - yes, you've got it! A good conductor can make the orchestra sound better. The best show you what they want and give you the confidence to play. Unfortunately, they're rare!"

Agree with that! I've been to a repertoire where the conductor worked very very chaotic, and the orchestra sounded as chaotic as her way of conducting (yes, the conductor was a woman). I never attend it again.

April 2, 2013 at 04:00 AM · To answer the original questions:

I've played in professional orchestras for my entire career. I enjoy orchestral playing; I always did, even as a student. Every job has its drawbacks and music is no exception, but when we are playing great music at a high level in front of two thousand people, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.

My orchestra has had its financial ups and downs, and I do a lot of teaching (private and university), both to supplement my income and because I enjoy teaching. I also do a fair amount of outside playing.

That being said, I generally discourage my students from pursuing a career as a performer. The jobs are few, the competition is stiff, and the financial stability is elusive. But if you think you want to try for it, the first thing you should do is get an honest opinion from your teacher, conductor, or other knowledgeable professional whom you trust, about whether or not you have the potential. The level of playing required just to get into music school is unbelievably high, and if you don't have it, better to know now before you invest years and many thousands of dollars chasing something that is not in your future.

If you have reason to believe that you can realistically aspire to a career as a performer, you need to get into the very best music school that you can. Not only is it essential to study with a good teacher, it's also important to be surrounded by students who are better than you. If you're the star as a freshman, you're in the wrong place.

Part of my job is vetting resumes and listening to auditions when we have an opening, and unless you have at the very least studied for some time with a well-known teacher, but preferably have a degree or two from reputable music schools, you aren't likely to be invited to the audition in the first place.

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