Practicing Really Hard Orchestra Music

June 21, 2014 at 05:18 PM · I am in a summer orchestra that is playing much harder music than I am used to in my regular orchestra. This is a good thing overall. I will stretch myself and get out of my comfort zone. I love all this music, it's amazing to listen to. I also can imagine, in the possibly distant future, how good it will feel to play along with the orchestra, confidently and well.

But right now I'm feeling a little swamped. The program is the following:

Smetana's Ma Vlast (The Moldau)

Lizst "Mazeppa" Tone Poem

Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D

I had never heard of the Lizst before. I didn't even really know he wrote orchestral music, I had thought of him primarily as a piano composer.

In any case, I got lost way too many times during the first rehearsal, especially in the Mazeppa.

My art of faking appears to be not very well developed. After taking my rightful place in the way back, I was invited up to the second stand to fill a gap. I kept trying to lean over and look at/listen to the concertmaster and see where the heck he was. This was only moderately helpful.

I want to rise to this challenge, any practicing tips for really, really hard orchestra music?

So far, I am doing the following:

1. Isolating the especially difficult etude-like parts and treating them like actual etudes. Developing fingerings, practicing shifts, checking intonation with the tuner.

2. Practicing a little bit each day and making sure to get enough sleep in between.

3. listening to a recording and following along with my part.

Anything else that you might do?

Realistically, I'm not going to get all the hard parts settled in by the concert, and will need to do some triage. If you have to triage practicing, what criteria do you use to focus in on the things you are going to spend the most time on? Exposure? Difficulty? Beauty?

No matter what, I still think it will be fun.

Replies (22)

June 21, 2014 at 09:59 PM · Not an expert at this style of learning, but here's what has helped for me...

Print out an IMSLP score that you can mark up to your heart's content. Use markers, pencils, pens, colored pencils, whatever helps.

Download a copy of the full score from IMSLP and read along with it a few times. Use the arrow keys to get from page to page instead of scrolling; otherwise it's hard to focus your eyes in time on what's happening. Get a feel for the whole piece. If you're anything like me, you'll start hearing things that you hadn't consciously noticed before. This can help keep you from getting lost.

Notice what places you get lost in, then look for "signposts" in the other instruments (entrances, duets, call and responses between different sections, entrances with yours, etc...especially take note of the bass and percussion; if you always know what's going on in the basses and percussion, it's harder to get lost, because even if you can't see what they're doing, you can usually FEEL them, and they cut through a lot of texture!). Write those signposts in your printed out IMSLP score. Other important aspects to look out for: when your section solos, or just plays with one other section, or is playing something similar rhythmically but is NOT in synch with another section (like fugue passages).

Know where you can fake and why. Some tricky places are very exposed and need a lot of work. Other times you can slip in under the brass and just look busy. More than once I've spent ages on a particular part and then realized at the rehearsal (after I've invested a lot of energy) that nobody is going to hear me there anyway, and I really ought to have spent more time on the exposed parts.

Listen to the pieces constantly, and do NOT listen to just one recording.

Put a star in the margins when you come across a line you know will need work. Add up the stars then divide by the number of practice sessions you'll have, and you'll have a general idea of how many lines you'll have to get under your fingers before the next rehearsal, or the performance. Not all lines are equally difficult, of course, but it can be a helpful general guideline.

Download a MIDI of the piece, open it in Finale Notepad, and delete all the other instruments. Tada, you have a MIDI version of your part. Or delete everybody but the strings. Keep that on hand if you learn well by listening and then imitating.

I hope what helped me can help you, too! Have fun!!

June 21, 2014 at 10:04 PM · Oh! And I also have to advertise my hometown band. If you're going to buy a recording of Sibelius 2, may I suggest Osmo Vanska and the Minnesota Orchestra? Or at least Osmo (I think his Lahti recordings are on Youtube). Reason being Osmo's Sibelius performances bring out the details (helpful) and the general structure (also helpful). He doesn't make it a sloshy Romantic mush. It's always very crisp and neat and Scandinavian, and regardless of if you like your Sibelius in that understated style or not, it's an excellent style to listen to while learning his music.

June 21, 2014 at 11:08 PM · You didn't know Lizst was an orchestral composer? Fortunately I found this out at a young age in the Edinburgh Rehearsal Orchestra, when we did the Liszt Faust Symphony (which I still regard as an absolute masterpiece).

His violin parts are certainly not easy to play, though perhaps a little easier than his piano parts!

June 22, 2014 at 12:51 AM · For orchestral and chamber music, the number one rule is keep the rhythm, keep the tempo, and keep going. So for this, practice with a metronome religiously. Listen to recorded music while reading the score (or your part) until you really understand the piece.

After that, when you can't play a measure, passage, or whatever, sing it and jump back in when you can, even in practice. I've pulled this trick a number of time on pieces that are incredibly difficult. An added benefit is that my singing got better. :)

June 22, 2014 at 01:09 AM · In addition to Mendy's excellent advice, attend all rehearsals and use them to identify the spots you need to work on.

Also, keep in mind that playing in orchestra is a team effort, so part of the responsibility to bring sub-groups, groups and the whole orchestra together lies on your leaders (section leader, concert-master and conductor). You have already noticed that looking at and following your section lead is helpful; your partner can also be a source of immediate support.

Lastly, listening with whole score in front of you and following your and other parts is a great time saver; playing in the orchestra often means a lots of listening and knowing who plays what and when - sometimes you support others, sometimes they support you and the real skill is to utilize this. Lastly, nobody can expect to be 100% "wired" all the time. Having "islands" of mental rests (while playing) and weathering the storms is something to be learned.

p.s. it is a great feeling to be part of something bigger than yourself and to use one of the best seats in the concert hall!

June 22, 2014 at 05:41 PM · if you're really lost, try to just track the first beat of each measure in the harder sections. Progress to the first note of each beat, especially where there are lots of 16th notes. After you're oriented, then you can fill in the blanks with more targeted rehearsal.

June 22, 2014 at 09:04 PM · To all the above I would add actually conducting the difficult parts while you sing them. This can be very helpful, since you'll eventually be following a conductor and it tends to solidify the divisions of the beats in a physical way. Good luck! I bet the concertmaster appreciates your attention, as many of them are used to being ignored!

June 22, 2014 at 10:55 PM · Don't panic too much about the Smetana. You'd be amazed at the amount of faking that goes on in very good orchestras in that piece. I think the List could be similar - and awful lot of notes that nobody will hear under heavy brass.

The Sibelius is different - marvellous to play and everything DOES show.

A little story told years back by an Austrian conductor who used to be a violinist. His teacher was in the Vienna Phil - and he got booked as a dep. Totally lost, there was his teacher playing away furiously on the desk in front. He leaned forward and whispered "Where are we". Back came the answer "Haven't a clue"

June 23, 2014 at 02:03 AM · Heh. I remember seeing that program for the summer season. Almost thought about joining this year but not enough time. Looked like an interesting mix, albeit kinda tough on the ears at time. ;P

June 23, 2014 at 04:09 AM · You want to make sure that you keep the rhythm and the harmonic structure. You can get away with not playing all the notes as long as the chord is right, but if you play a note that's sour to the harmony, it's much more likely to be heard.

June 23, 2014 at 04:54 PM · Karen -- you have received lots of good advice. I would only add to start out playing them slowly. For fast passages of 16th notes, play them with rhythms. Finally, figure out the places where you are most exposed, and concentrate on them. If the brass is drowning you out somewhere in the piece, you can probably not worry so much and fake that. Remember that the fast and difficult places will not necessarily be the places where you are most exposed. When I did the 4th movement of Tchaik #4 with the Baltimore Symphony's Rusty Musicians program, that's how my teacher and I figured out where to concentrate. Good luck!

June 23, 2014 at 05:27 PM · Even for seasoned professionals, music is always popping up which we don't have time to perfect. And often, for very difficult works, it may take several concert cycles to really feel comfortable with a work.

When you have limited time, I would strongly that you figure out what you MUST practice. That is, passages for which you or your section will stick out and be noticed. If, for example, you have trouble with a chromatic passage in a densely scored Strauss work, don't kill yourself trying to get every note. It's a waste of time.

But for, say, rehearsal 9 in the first movement of Shostakovich 5, do spend much time because it is easily heard.

The vast amount and difficulty of orchestral music demands good time management. And as Steve Staryk says, a little "Honorable faking" is ok.

June 23, 2014 at 11:20 PM · Hi Karen,

In this kind of situations where I have to learn very fast passages in short amount of time, I usually go to very basic practice routines.

1. I get out the metronome and play at a speed, where I can play everything rhythmically, but also that I am not totally in my comfort zone.

2. I speed up with various tactics depending on the situation. One very good tactic with motronome practice is, to go two steps ahead and one step back: for example you play 100 bpm go to 110 bpm and go back to 105 bpm then to 115 bpm and "back" to 110. This is a very safe way to get to top speed without loosing too much quality.

3. Repetition is key, so to get your mind fresh and to challenge both mind and fingers you can alternate the rythms and accentuations (you can turn off your metronome here, but it won't harm to keep it on), making accent on every downstroke or every fourth or third note. You can be very creative here. Go back to original context and check for development and weaknesses.

4. I play through in semi fast tempo with metronome: getting everything as a whole is very important and often forgotten, people think its a waste of time to practice slow and play everything. But at a certain point it is a good utility to clean everything and get rhythm straight and movements economical. I even count the long pauses here sometimes.

If you want to develope speed, wich you doesn't have yet, you should always go to your maximum at every practice session at least one time, but the more different tempi you cover over a practice session, the better.

A friend of mine once told me, that she is always happy when there are black parts in the music, 64ths and so on... because its very straightforward to practice. I wouldn't say mindless, but the repetition makes things automatic. When you can play it at full speed while reading the newspaper, then you are ready to play in orchestra while watching the cunductor ;)

As I said before, the motronome helps you also to learn to adjust your tempo to a source outside of your own (maybe a-)rhythmical feeling, wich is very important in ensemble and orchestra playing.

I personally only like to rehearse when I am prepared to the maximum possible extend, sometimes there is very little time, but you can stretch the time with slow practice ;)

June 24, 2014 at 04:14 PM · So much amazing advice as been given, so all I have is practice slow. Practice so slow it's aggravating. With this slow practice your fingers can learn where to be placed. Gradually speed up, but even if you don't speed it up until the actual rehearsal, practice really slow; slow as molasses slow. If you don't already practice slow, the first you do, it won't be slow enough. Go at half tempo or even slower for everything. Be aware of shifts by practicing them really slow. (Have you gotten the point of go slow yet?)

I hope you have a lot of fun. Don't forget to breathe, especially when it gets really tough.


June 25, 2014 at 02:06 AM · In the Siblius - the scherzo. Practice counting the rests along with the notes. Not one of those pieces where you can check out at all when there are rests IMO.

(edit) - especially if you have the 2nd violin part

Enjoy the program though - that is some great music to play.

June 26, 2014 at 09:31 PM · Lots of good advice presented here, and which I'm going to need bearing in mind the programme one of my orchestras has for the coming season starting in September and going through to the middle of 2015 - half a dozen concerts in which we're performing all seven of the Sibelius symphonies, plus his violin concerto, plus all BeethovenĀ“s piano concertos, plus a few odds and ends.

The conductor has emailed us to advise that, although we can doubtless blag our way happily through Beethoven and the like, faking it just won't work with Sibelius, so meticulous attention to detail is demanded of one and all.

Oh, and just three rehearsals for each concert. Wish me a nice day!

June 27, 2014 at 12:24 AM · I wish you a nice day Trevor! :D

June 27, 2014 at 12:51 AM · Karen,

How was your second rehearsal?


June 29, 2014 at 09:24 PM · How was my second rehearsal? A little better than my first. I did something else that I didn't mention previously: I enlarged the music from 8.5 X 11 to 11 X 17. (Music had been distributed as a downloadable pdf). Then at least I could see all those little notes and accidentals and ledger lines, even if they are still going by too fast. I had a new stand partner, who appreciated the enlarged music too.

One thing I noticed when I am playing with stronger players is that a phenomenon of being carried along with the music starts to come into play. Like drafting off the leader in a bike race, maybe. In my home orchestra, which is a volunteer community group with other adult starters and returners, I'm the concertmaster. I sit up right under the conductor, and I hear mostly myself and my stand partner. I'm expected to lead the section and I take the responsibility seriously. If I don't come in right, or if I do too much faking, I will cause at least a minor mess. But here, surrounded by players who are all better than I am, there have been times when I just rise to their level and my fingers are moving in sync with theirs. It's pretty cool, actually.

June 29, 2014 at 11:31 PM · Karen - Glad to hear the second rehearsal went better. I have also had the experience of playing better with better players. It is certainly encouraging and energizing. I hope the rehearsals get better and better for you.

June 30, 2014 at 02:04 AM · I found it useful to read the tough parts through in the subway or over a sandwich while mentally fingering and bowing. It helped solve the eye recognition aspect of playing difficult stuff with too little practice or rehearsal time.

July 26, 2014 at 06:10 PM · This is probably incredibly late for your purposes, but I recommend really hammering out the second to last page of the Smetana, which you've probably already done. This is one of the hardest passages in orchestral rep, depending on the tempo, of course. This is a piece that you will have handed to you many times over your career, so make sure you have a solid fingering, photocopy it, and keep it in your archives. There is nothing more frustrating than figuring out an awesome fingering, and being handed the same piece in 8 months and not being able to remember it. Also, you should practice it slowly 25 times for every one time you play it up to tempo. Make sure your shifts are incredibly solid, and the rest will come along.

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