Freeway Philharmonics, Community Orchestras, and Beyond

September 26, 2016 at 05:44 AM · The previous Freeway Philharmonic threads (Part 1 and Part 2) have sprawled into a discussion of community orchestras, semi-pro orchestras, freeway philharmonics, and professional orchestras.

This is effectively part 3 but I'm retitling it because it's gone well beyond audition discussion.

At this continuation point in discussion, questions include:

Who plays in community orchestras and why?

How feasible are certain models for semi-pro orchestras?

What's the process to get into orchestras of various types?

What's the playing level like in various types of orchestras?

Replies (29)

September 26, 2016 at 12:44 PM · Answering Bailey Tincher's question from the previous thread: "But, do most teachers actually have a full time load of students? I think that factor is being overlooked. Yes theoretically it costs $300 to have a professional sub in, but does it really cost the teacher that much or is it really just a side job only impacting her personal time?"

It actually doesn't cost $300 to bring a professional for a rehearsal. It's probably more like $75 plus possibly mileage. Almost certainly a teacher could make more teaching privately during that time.

The better teachers tend to have fairly full schedules. Private teachers always have to decide what a full load is, since they can often slot in more students but that starts to take time away from their family, personal practice time, other musical activities, etc., so the trade-off between income and free time is very explicit.

September 26, 2016 at 01:46 PM · I take issue with Pauls assertion that playing in an orchestra is a waste of time for teachers or better players. Perhaps that is true from a purely selfish or monetary standpoint but then that is just as true for me as it is them. I could certainly make much more teaching private lessons in kickboxing or personal training or designing nutrition programs but I choose to go to orchestra because I love it and the people in it and I think that I will eventually have much to contribute.

The same goes for those teachers. If they choose not to join for personal reasons that is fine but there does exist a strange attitude amongst more than a handful of better string players that they are "too good" for a community orchestra. Also, don't dare suggest they play second violin.

What I find to be fatuous is that they may be much better than your average community orchestra but they clearly, for whatever reason can't make an orchestra better than that, and so they sit back and poopoo the community orchestras instead of joining and raising the level.

I do think if this attitude were not so prevalent that community orchestras would be both better and more numerous. Perhaps even tiered somehow.

A waste of time indeed.


September 26, 2016 at 01:58 PM · Lydia, you asked on the other thread if there are community orchestras that meet twice per week. We have two community orchestras in Blacksburg. The New River Valley Symphony (which requires an audition) meets twice per week for three hours, and the Blacksburg Community Stings (non-audition) meets once per week for two hours. I have played with BCS and could probably audition into NRVS, but I don't have that kind of time.

Note that the NRVS is a hybrid orchestra -- part community, part univeristy. Lots of universities with music programs that are not big enough to populate an entire orchestra solve the problem the same way.

September 26, 2016 at 02:12 PM · Ah, a university orchestra. Yeah, those meet multiple times a week and that is why I did not play in mine when I was a student. :-)

Jessy, that's not what is being said in the context of the thread. April proposed to try to attract non-performing pros into a community orchestra by making it semi-pro and paying those people (educators, primarily). Sarah and I are arguing that if those people wanted to be playing in the community orchestra, they probably would be doing so regardless of whether or not they're being paid, and more broadly, that they might not want to be paid because that turns it from their fun recreation into yet another job.

You are also very wrong about why teachers don't play in community orchestras. Their are plenty of players who could be playing in a better orchestra but don't choose to. They might not love playing in orchestras. They might prefer to use that time to earn more income by teaching. They might prefer to be doing some other for-fun musical activity -- chamber music, composing, playing with their rock band, singing with a chorus, etc. They might prefer to have the night off. They might need to spend the time with their family. And so forth.

In major urban areas, community orchestras are very numerous, and are tiered. The best of them are often just about as good as the local semi-pros. My community orchestra in the Bay Area actually did some commercial recordings. One of the community orchestras in the DC area did, too (they've since gone pro).

September 26, 2016 at 02:19 PM · I also wanted to add that playing in an ensemble below your level can be a very frustrating experience. You're waiting for people to learn the notes and the rhythms so that you can start making music. And even once the music is more or less learned, the players do not necessarily interpret with the style and grace that you would hear from professionals.

We insist kids grit their teeth and bear it when, as was noted in the earlier thread, they're advanced players and the rest of the group is on Suzuki 2 (big schools may have school-orchestra tiering but most do not). We do this so that school orchestra directors continue to support outside youth symphonies and private teachers, since they are a vital feeder for those ecosystems. But it is unreasonable to ask adults to devote their free time in this fashion.

September 26, 2016 at 02:38 PM · I would also add that there are many players who are already playing in better orchestras, just not on a full time basis. There are a million different reasons for that situation too.

I wouldn't expect an Olympic athlete to want to go for a jog with me. I wouldn't even expect someone who'd finished a local mini marathon to want to go for a jog with me. I'm way too slow. It doesn't make them snobs; it means I'm not at their level and that's okay.

September 26, 2016 at 02:54 PM · Jessy, as a private teacher I can answer your question. I don't think I'm too good for a community orchestra (except for a couple), although I do play better than the average player (I do have a Master's degree in viola performance). I do however generally choose not to unless I am being paid, because as Lydia said, I can make more money teaching (often even more than if I am being paid for the community orchestra). It is not a personal choice because I am "too good" but because I need those hours free for students. As a private teacher I generally can only work from about 3:30-8 or 9 pm. Most community orchestras rehearse weekly from about 7-9pm. if you include getting there (at least 1/2 hr.) I have effectively lost 2 1/2 hours of potential income, and as teaching is my primary source of income I simply can't afford that. I find that more public school teachers play in these orchestras, probably because they can, their teaching day is generally over long before community orchestra rehearsals start so they aren't loosing potential income by playing in these orchestras (this is ignoring the fact that some do teach privately, but it is not their primary source of income).

September 26, 2016 at 02:59 PM · For Jessy: Community orchestras tier more or less as follows. You can mix and match a bit across the tiers, but these are fairly good generalizations, I think.

The Elite: An orchestra that prides itself on the high quality of its music-making. Typically has a well-trained conductor, and highly skilled players (some of whom are pros volunteering their time). Might play a lot of sets during the season (so fewer rehearsals per set). Plays the full range of repertoire, including the most challenging works. Has enough budget to do more modern music that might require rental, pay for modern editions of music, etc. Might bring in significant but not world-famous soloists (i.e., Rachel Barton, not Hilary Hahn). Auditioned, possibly relatively rigorously (concerto movement plus excerpts); figure that 1st violinists will be able to manage a good Mendelssohn and quite a few can manage a good Sibelius or Tchaikovsky, and that most 2nd violinists can manage a reasonable Bruch.

The Serious: An orchestra that plays well but does not aim for near-professional quality. Typically has a good (often charismatic) conductor, strong winds and brass, and string sections comprised almost exclusively of good players even if not all of them are very advanced (i.e., they are good enough to play the parts they are given, and they practice reliably). Plays most of the repertoire. Auditioned, though less rigorously (likely two contrasting works, scales, sight-reading); figure 1st violinists are able to manage a good Mendelssohn, and 2nd violinists a good De Beriot 9 (or equivalent). More common to have chamber orchestras than full orchestras in this category, in order to raise the bar on quality of players.

The Casual: An orchestra that provide an enjoyable experience for members, and puts on concerts for friends and family (and whatever of the community they can draw in) -- a "typical" community orchestra. Typically has a good conductor, and may have good winds, brass, and principals (or may use ringers). Players have mixed skill levels, and inconsistent preparation. Repertoire has to be chosen more carefully; some works will be too difficult. Might or might not be auditioned for strings -- audition might be for placement only. A fairly broad spectrum of community orchestras fall into this category, some of them much better than others.

The Emerging: An orchestra that's just getting started. Conductors and players are a mixed bag. Budget and fundraising is unpredictable and still a significant focus. Players might not have solidified their membership yet, leading to inconsistent quality between concerts. Lack of agreed-upon processes can lead to some degree of chaos. Might or might not be auditioned.

The Retirees: An orchestra, often just a string ensemble, designed for adult beginners, returnees, and some intermediate players. Often meets during the daytime and is targeted at retirees looking for gentle encouragement and recreation. Generally not auditioned.

September 26, 2016 at 03:15 PM · I'm afraid I play in a "casual" orchestra :-)

September 26, 2016 at 03:42 PM · "The meaning of life!" That is why some people play in community orchestras or in fact in any group they can enjoy playing in.

I have a friend, who plays the violin (I've known and been playing with him for almost 20 years). He had his 81st birthday earlier this month - slightly less than one year younger than I am.

This is his typical week:

Monday night: Community college orchestra (~ 50 musicians) -I played in this one for 16 years until 4 years ago

Tuesday morning: chamber orchestra (30 musicians) I'm in this one too

Wednesday night: a different community orchestra (~60 musicians - I played one set with this one 17 years ago

Thursday morning: piano trio - I play cello with him in this one

Friday morning: String serenade ensemble (~ 13 players) - I'm in this one too

Saturday or Sunday: String quartet

Although he was an excellent violinist in his youth and was offered some Conservatory scholarships he chose to go into medicine and from the time of his residency until he retired at 60 he did not play. Then he started lessons just before retirement, bought an Enrico Rocca violin, auditioned into the Berkeley Symphony and got back into playing chamber music and one additional community orchestra, and kept going at that level- even when on dialysis - until he lucked into a kidney transplant about 7 years ago.

Obviously, for him playing music holds the meaning of life. I'm obviously not quite as devoted - but then I did not stop playing during my career years, so I don't have 30 lost years to make up.

There are all kinds of reasons why people play in community orchestras, regional orchestras etc.

September 26, 2016 at 03:57 PM · Auditioning:

I've had to go through only two "formal"auditions that I can recall. But I think I've gotten some first chair positions over the decades by less formal means.

But there are more subtle ways to audition. The chamber orchestra that I mentioned in the previous post formed informally almost 5 years ago and finally settled into it's present structure and membership, and seating over a couple of years. Our current concertmaster is clearly the right one for the job, no question about it - and no audition ever held. About one year ago 6 of us were formed into a steering committee (SC) by the groups founder (a horn player). When new people come or ask to come and play with us the committee decides whether to invite them to remain based on either what is known among the SC members about them from past encounters or on how they did when playing with us - a sort of secret audition, rather painless in execution if not in result.

Even my piano trio "membership" is based on previous musical encounters among the three of us.

September 27, 2016 at 06:11 PM · I want to be like Andrew's friend when I grow up!

September 27, 2016 at 07:50 PM · I'm doing my own version of making up for a 25-year musical hiatus. Fiddling in a bluegrass jam Monday night (right after my viola lesson), orchestra on Wednesday, fiddling in our little bluegrass band Thursday, and sometimes 2nd violin in a string quartet Sunday night.

I guess our orchestra would be classified as "casual" on the scale above. But we have our moments. No auditions - we're too short of members to be too picky. If you're in the Vancouver area and have a viola and a pulse, please contact us. (My initiation into the orchestra consisted of being handed a viola and told to learn to play it.)

September 27, 2016 at 07:53 PM · Charlie, if I could afford Vancouver I'd be there in a heartbeat, and I have both a pulse and a viola.

September 28, 2016 at 12:52 PM · Why is everyone so hooked on orchestras? For me it was just a way of earning a living. I had good friends there and the social life was good, but in my late thirties I saw people in their late 50's and early sixties and thought, "I don't want to be doing that at their age."

All this angst about jobs, I couldn't wait to do other things, and life is too short to have to sit under a conductor's nose and put up with a load of B/S.

September 28, 2016 at 02:12 PM · I've loved orchestra playing from the very first time I heard the string ensemble of my Suzuki program and thought, "I want to be part of that." And then I was super excited to join the youth symphony. I have always preferred orchestra playing to either solo or chamber music work, in fact.

I really like the orchestral repertoire, and there's something about being surrounded by sound that I love -- although preferably from a little bit of distance from the brass, ouch. (I'm of the opinion that there may be no better seat in the house than the principal stand of the 2nd violins, where you hear stuff pretty much exactly as the conductor hears it.)

Gigging in my teens -- mostly pick-up orchestras, with the occasional freeway phil subbing -- taught me that I really enjoyed playing at that level, but that I wouldn't want to do it for a living. (And what's awesome money for a teenager is not for an adult.)

I also particularly love pit orchestras and the excitement that goes with live theatre. In a gig you probably don't do more than 12 performances of a show, and at the end of 12, I usually still love the show every single time I see it. (Again, doing it for a living would be a very different matter.)

That said, I think the joy of orchestra playing is very much dependent upon the particular orchestra, the conductor, and the repertoire.

September 28, 2016 at 02:39 PM · "I saw people in their late 50's and early sixties and thought, "I don't want to be doing that at their age.""

You can say that about just about everything, though.

September 28, 2016 at 02:55 PM · I also particularly love pit orchestras and the excitement that goes with live theatre. In a gig you probably don't do more than 12 performances of a show, and at the end of 12, I usually still love the show every single time I see it. (Again, doing it for a living would be a very different matter.)

The one job I thought I would hate and only thought I would last for six months was in an opera orchestra. I lasted for 7 years and it was the longest stay I had in any band. Even so, the Ring Cycle (or should I call it the WRING Cycle) was just a bit too much. But then doing free lance work in London symphony orchestras was definitely not so enjoyable.

September 28, 2016 at 03:55 PM · I agree with everything Lydia said except her comments about pit orchestras, for which my tolerance is limited. I fell in love with orchestral playing as a young student and never fell out of love. I'm in my mid-50s, still love what I do, and certainly don't need anyone's pity.

September 28, 2016 at 04:27 PM · I love pit orchestras! Might be my favorite orchestral playing of all. They are physically uncomfortable, though.

September 28, 2016 at 05:23 PM · Pit orchestra is best in a theater that actually has a decent-sized pit. :-)

Pit orchestra in a lot of university and community theatre is... creatively set-up. There's no actual pit in many of these auditoriums (much less in, say, a church venue), and so the "pit" often gets built into the set in some way. I have had to crawl into more pits than I care to think about. Then again, the pits built into an upper level of the set that you have to get up to via ladder are even worse.

September 29, 2016 at 12:20 AM · All this competition! I'm currently playing mainly with my local community orchestra. We don't audition - what we've found is that people aren't up to playing the repertoire, they don't want to stay. Seating - members make partnerships and we let them keep them. Seems to work.

BTW - I've never prepared any of the major concertos, don't want to and wouldn't want to listen to it if I did. And I remember leading a small string section where we played with mics. There was a youngster there who was working on his Sibelius (much to our annoyance - band room soloist) who just didn't fit and wouldn't do what he was told. One gig he had a mic to himself. Comment from our sound engineer "I see what you mean - I've turned him off"

Give me players who listen and fit, and I'm happy

September 29, 2016 at 02:41 AM · Can't say I have ever had to scale a ladder to get into a "pit." Where do you perform, Lydia, the palaces of St. Petersburg? Because that is the only place I have personally ever seen alcoves for musicians up above (in that case, above the ballrooms...what I wouldn't give to play there!)

September 29, 2016 at 02:58 AM · LOL. Set-builders on small stages sometimes put the pit on the second floor of the set on a multi-level set. It's kind of precarious.

When I was in high school, our school orchestra director played the Fiddler in a production of Fiddler on the Roof where he had to stand on the "roof" of the set. Unfortunately, he was a big guy -- well over 400 pounds. One night, he fell through the "roof". He was incredibly lucky to only be bruised himself, and to not damage his violin or bow.

September 29, 2016 at 12:58 PM · I guess I've been spoiled. My high school had an awesome pit; in fact, the stage would lower down, so we could all set up on top of the stage as usual, make sure the sides were clear and then just wait to be lowered. Then I went to IU, so we would do ballets and operas with full orchestra in the pit, and I also played a few musicals at the Buskirk-Chumley, which is another great venue. The pit playing I have done since then has mostly been pretty decent too. No ladders involved.

September 29, 2016 at 03:37 PM · The venues in which I've done pit for light opera have generally had proper pits, but musicals post-high-school, no such luck!

September 30, 2016 at 04:41 AM · I made spending money in high school playing community theater pit orchestras while my friends were flipping burgers and mowing lawns! I played so many different musicals. We should have a thread on pits!

I also played the piano in a few pit orchestras -- let me tell you, that's a hard job. In one show I had to rehearse and direct the chorus, and I got vocal chord nodules from that. But "Grease" and "The Wiz" were fun shows to play. Our high school orchestra pit was huge, plenty of space for a 9-foot Baldwin *and* a Fender Rhodes.

October 2, 2016 at 05:20 PM · Lydia, et al.,

Why play in a community orchestra? For the same reason that people form any organization - to be with like-minded people and do something you consider worthwhile.

Like Jesse, I'm a late starter (I was about 30 when I started and now almost 70) I played in a community orchestra for most of that time although there was a 12 year hiatus while I was working for Bell Laboratories in a high-travel position. Now that I'm retired I'm doing more volunteering with the local youth orchestra instead of performing. I've even acquired a student who cannot afford private lessons (more on this in an upcoming Pedagogy thread). The best part of the youth orchestra is that there is something for my wife to do as well (we're also the music librarians) which makes it a mutual commitment instead of just me.

I still have dreams of forming a chamber group (The Low Expectations Quartette) to simply play good but not overly challenging literature. However, that dream seems to be always out of reach. On the other hand my student (who is in the Youth Orchestra) is learning how to play duets with me (thanks to Doflein).

In the end it is all about being with like-minded people and having fun with an emphasis on the fun. If it isn't fun then it isn't worth your time, effort and energy.

October 4, 2016 at 04:06 AM · Great discussion, I've learned a lot from hearing everyone's perspective.

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