orchestra music practice vs. Personal technique development

December 10, 2016 at 07:58 AM · Hi,

I am an adult who picked up violin again after a 22 year break. It has been three years. I have made some significant gain. I joined a community orchestra and has been playing as assistant concert master. I found myself devoting a lot of time to orchestra music. Almost too much. Especially for this upcoming concert, the concert master, a senior in high school, only showed up 4 times in the past three months. I carried a lot of burden of the concert master. Trying even harder to get perfect with my part.

My question is what is a healthy time allotment for orchestra, eg. 50% of total practice time? Thanks!

Replies (43)

December 10, 2016 at 10:20 AM · If we tackle orchestral passages with a view to qualiity as well as mastery, they are worth any number of studies.

However, successfully leading an orchstra does not always allow much refinement, and solos can be disappointing.

December 10, 2016 at 12:47 PM · This is relevant to my interests. I also joined an orchestra and have been playing with them nearly a year now. I personally think that much of my technical development has come from my orchestra music. I am just now playing music of my own that is sometimes harder than the orchestra music.

I'll tell you what though...I always warm up with technical work. Scales and sevcik. Usually half hour or so of that. Then I do orchestra work ( more technical work for me often) and then I do my personal work with pieces I am working on. I finish practice with pieces I am good at...good being a very relative term.

I probably spend less time on orchestra pieces than my other work honestly. As they say a rising tide floats all boats. My work in all my other areas also improves my orchestra work. I have yet to be able to play my second violin music completely but I come closer each concert and the work I can and do play is consistently significantly better each cycle.

I'm certainly nowhere near your level of leading an orchestra but we share a common experience of violin. I played when I was in grade school and picked it up again at nearly 35. It is not easy.

We had a guy in his 40s come in a couple of weeks ago who had been playing about the same amount of time as me. He did not return. I was not surprised as he really struggled and we were sight reading. He told me he had been learning under a guy that teaches more fiddle music and that his teacher said his next step was an orchestra. If you are joining an orchestra as an adult and it is a new experience you have to really want to be part of it. Certainly you can't give orchestra as a sort of homework assignment. That is a good recipe for discouragement imo.


December 10, 2016 at 01:34 PM · Apart from the important social side, orchestral playing entails submission to the collective will and work pattern: very beneficial!

Best of all is the string quartet: a team of soloists..

December 10, 2016 at 02:10 PM · It all depends....

Does your group or orchestra in general inspire you to practice, or drags you down, especially regarding the intonation?

No matter how hard you practice, the outcome will be a product of the whole section's and orchestra's effort. Some people in c.o. never practice ... some conductors push their own agenda (by choosing a repertoire too hard for an average player), some people (as your cm) have a very casual attitude about attendance and commitment ... at the end of the day, all what matters is if you are happy and enjoy making music in that setting.

December 10, 2016 at 05:30 PM · I would say that orchestra is a waste of time that you could use for practicing your violin UNLESS:

(1) You are truly enjoying yourself there, and

(2) The parts are challenging AND there is a culture of quality in the group such that you are not the only one working to get them clean and in tune.

Oh I just realized that's basically what Rocky said. Oops.

December 10, 2016 at 05:48 PM · Thanks for the input. I am very curious of how music students handle this issue. I have etudes, current concerto, and play in a quartet group in addition to the orchestra. I like the conductor. She always demand more musicality. There aren't much socialization in the current orchestra. 1st violin is really weak with no leadership at all. My teacher is ok with taking a break and audition for a better orchestra. Her comments puzzle me. She said that she didn't expect me to spend that much time on orchestra music.

December 10, 2016 at 05:52 PM · This is an adult community orchestra? Why is it led by a high schooler, especially one that doesn't regularly make rehearsals? (As a teenager, I played in an adult community orchestra during the summers, but was seated assistant CM despite being technically a better player than the CM. I'd held numerous youth-symphony CM/P2nd positions previously, but it wouldn't really have been right to seat me as the CM.)

If you're going to do the work, ask for the job -- especially since a high schooler will presumably be graduating and going off to college next year.

December 10, 2016 at 05:59 PM · I struggle with this practice-time dilemma a lot, as I both have CM duties to my community orchestra, as well as a schedule of solo performances, quartet (both for pleasure and with the goal of performance), and stuff for learning purposes.

My priority order is:

1. The stuff for the solo performances has to be practiced to the point where I'm confident it's not going to go off the rails. There's nowhere to hide.

2. Music for orchestra has to be practiced to the point where it's pretty close to 100% there, and anything that I'm faking has to be convincing -- getting the rhythm right and the key structural notes of really fast bits (where not every note will truly be heard in a section anyway, and the sinkhole of time can be vast). Taking the CM role is a responsibility to lead.

3. Music for quartet has to be practiced to 100% of notes by performance-time, but if the initial reading sessions are a bit rough, it's okay.

4. Pedagogical material sadly comes last. But I try to do enough of it that I make progress on whatever it is that the material was trying to teach. Learning more text (i.e., the music) is less important than the technical improvement.

December 10, 2016 at 06:01 PM · I am a little bit off topic now. I think I will miss orchestra. I didn't believe my teacher when she urged me to go. I became so aware of what each section is doing. There is benefit of playing with a professional conductor rather than playing with amateurs alike where we often need a second oinion. I also appreciate when music is challenging and there is a deadline. It pushes me to a different level in a short period of time. Lastly, when I played along a professional concert master at our pop concert in June, I learned tremendously of how he approached the music, bowing, leading...

December 10, 2016 at 06:17 PM · I am going to be really off topic now. @Lydia, I am considering to quit this orchestra, partly because of the CM problem. It is an intergenerational orchestra. I get that, but i found myself providing fingering and bowing and lead majority of the practices. It is kind of weird. The current CM and I have the same teacher. She stopped going to her private lesson as well. I wonder if I should approach the conductor or the board about this. I understand that she is overwhelmed with college applications, but if you are a CM, you should be responsible. If one is not responsible, he/she should quit the position.

December 10, 2016 at 08:06 PM · I decided to quit playing in an orchestra because I found I didn't have enough time for practicing the basics and building my technique.

December 10, 2016 at 08:43 PM · I completely agree with you. Maybe if the absence is a temporary, a formal leave of absence might be granted, but a player who is not on leave should be consistently present. My orchestra wouldn't accept that kind of attendance from a section 2nd violin player, for instance. (Exceptions on attendance are granted for players who are highly prepared and have other known commitments, but they usually sit at the back of the section so their absence doesn't impact a stand partner, etc.)

There's a lot to be said for gaining section-leader experience, though. You experience the orchestra rehearsal in a different way, and it makes you a much better listener.

If I recall our respective technical levels correctly, I suspect that the effort of prepping an orchestra part to a performance level is less for me than it is for you. I might spend a few hours before a set doing bowings for 1st and 2nd violin parts, and sometimes fingerings for tricky 2nd-violin parts (and sometimes 1st violin parts which are hard enough that people will appreciate my working out something that will be more or less OK for everyone who doesn't feel like doing their own fingerings). And then probably two hours at the beginning of the set and another hour towards the end of the set will be sufficient to know the part well. (My community orchestra tends not to have a lot of finger-busters for the strings, fortunately.) So while it's a drain it's not an enormous time-sink for me -- it's worth the trade-off.

If you are spending half your practice time on orchestra music, though, that suggests that you are either trying to work the part to too high a level, or it's a bit too difficult relative to where your current technical level is at. If the latter is the case, I would focus on technical basics, especially left-hand basics, more so than orchestra music, to work your technique up to the point where learning the music isn't such a big effort.

December 10, 2016 at 08:52 PM · Nope. You don't get paid for doing your best. You get paid when your "best" is basically being able to play the music perfectly, with expression -- and you can do it well enough that you can beat out all the other people who want to get paid for being able to play that well.

Community orchestras typically have an implicit or explicit standard for how well they expect you to be able to play. Mine, for instance, expects all players to practice and do their best, even if their best is limited by their technical skill.

December 10, 2016 at 09:10 PM · Fideli, my situation may have been a little different. This was a community orchestra, so I had no obligation other than my wish to do a good job. Some of the stuff we played was tough, and I wanted to play better, but I couldn't bring up my technical level to meet my own expectations and put the time in that I wanted for the orchestra music, so I decided (And I enjoy playing chamber music a lot more) to go back and get a violin teacher and start really building my technique in earnest.

December 10, 2016 at 11:01 PM · What are your reasons for playing in the Community Orchestra? For a large part of my 40 years of playing as late starter I played with a multi-generational community orchestra. My goal was simply to enjoy the experience and it added to my skill set. Personally, I played in the seconds all of the time because I preferred that after trying the firsts for one concert.

I'm impressed that your skills are sufficient to have you seated as assistant CM. Accepting that chair does imply that you are wiling to take on additional responsibilities. My guess is that the orchestra wants a solid backup to the CM who will probably be gone at the end of the school year.

As with all things balance is the key to success (however you define what constitutes a success). Some time for orchestral work and time for skill development that allows you to realize your personal goals. There is no one-size-fits-all formula - whatever works for you is best.

December 11, 2016 at 04:05 AM · Thanks for the great deal of input here. Thanks, Lydia for a very thorough estimation of your time. It will be a great guide. My teacher likes to give out interesting fingerings. I am always curious of what she will do. We have gone way wild with the new world symphony pop version because she wants me to play as a professional player would do. That is why i am spending so much time to practice. The reason I go? My teacher strongly urged me to go in the beginning of the year. She told me the benefits. I have confirmed that most of them are true, which was mentioned in my previous post. In addition, she said I will broaden my repertoire.

December 11, 2016 at 07:31 AM · Fideli S, what is a community orchestra supposed to give an amateur violinist in exchange for their time? Community orchestras are volunteer organizations; any ringers who do get paid are playing to a professional standard. What amateurs are getting out of it should be the joy of playing. Of course, if an amateur isn't having fun, they ought to go do something else with their time.

December 11, 2016 at 07:35 AM · Qing Liu, how many hours a day are you practicing / how many total hours a week are you practicing, and how are you dividing your time between orchestra music, solo repertoire, etudes, and exercises?

December 11, 2016 at 12:32 PM · Lydia, I practice about 3 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. Scales and etudes are the first 30-40 mins, concerto, 1.5 hrs, orchestra 1-1.5 hrs. When I have other performing engagements, quartet or church, I need to take some time from concerto and orchestra practice. The above schedule is very flexible based on performing needs.

December 11, 2016 at 12:34 PM · Fidelity, I haven't heard any community orchestra pays for nonprofessional players to play. Most of the players in community orchestra plays for the love of music.

December 12, 2016 at 04:09 AM · Well, Fideli S, you are obviously not obliged to play in a community orchestra if you don't enjoy it, but normally what the orchestra is "giving" you is the joy of music-making with other people. Personally, I find the experience of professional orchestra gigs to be very different than community orchestras, and that volunteer playing can very much be its own joy.

Qing Liu, 1 to 1.5 hours a day of orchestra music seems like a lot unless there's a constant stream of new and difficult repertoire (say a full 2-hour concert of fully pro-level repertoire every 4 weeks). I do think that's too much, and you should probably work with your teacher to determine a more efficient way to deal with it.

December 12, 2016 at 06:43 PM · Lydia, what would you say is a more reasonable amount for the orchestral stuff--30 minutes a day?

December 12, 2016 at 08:34 PM · Community orchestra is fun if the music is at the right level (you can learn your parts in, say, 4-6 hours of distributed work), if the playing level is not too heterogeneous, and if the people there are interesting.

December 13, 2016 at 03:38 AM · I was working out a time in my head, and arrived at Paul's conclusion. That's about right for the level of repertoire that most community orchestras play. Depending on your set length, the daily amount of practice will change -- i.e. in a 6-week set that works out to be about 1 hour a week. I would probably aim at the higher end of the range, figuring about 1 hour per week for a 6-8 week set is right.

This assumes that your community orchestra isn't doing, say, Don Juan.

December 13, 2016 at 05:39 AM · Even those of us in professional orchestras struggle with this; we want to play better too, and there isn't always enough time when there's lots of music to learn! A while back, Stephen Shipps from the University of Michigan put together an equivalency list of etudes and excerpts, so that by practicing certain excerpts you could cover all the techniques that you would normally cover in etudes. It's a great list, and I'm working on shaping it up into an article in the next week.

December 13, 2016 at 06:56 AM · Nathan, that article sounds fantastic. I'm looking forward to it!

Also, Nathan, is it possible for you to comment more on the extent of preparation in major symphonies like those you've been a member of? Are you all really faking some notes from time to time? If you need to create an alternate account to post about this more stealthily, please don't let anyone discourage you;)

Lydia, if I did the math right that works out to 12 minutes a day, or let's round up and say 25 minutes every other day so you can practice something else in that slot on the other days. That seems reasonable to learn acceptably well a lot of stuff that's not Don Juan or the trickier Mozart symphonies.

Maybe next year I'll join a community orchestra again, as 25 minutes every other day won't detract from my own technical work to a noticeable degree.

December 13, 2016 at 07:32 AM · Nate I would also be really really interested in that list. I googled [shipps etude excerpts] but that does not seem to find it.

December 13, 2016 at 01:59 PM · Your community orchestra can do Don Juan ... but then you need players who can learn that (and the rest of the program) within the same time constraint. For other community orchestras middle-school arrangements of X-mas tunes will be more appropriate. The orx will fail if they expect their committed players to divert ALL of their practice time. Or even half. That counts rehearsal time.

December 13, 2016 at 02:27 PM · I'll join the clamor for Nathan to share the article! I'd love to see that list. It's a nice to be reminded that virtually every violinist agrees there is never enough time to be a good violinist. :)

December 13, 2016 at 02:52 PM · I think Nate should be allowed to publish his article normally and then we can all read it. His publisher probably doesn't want him revealing any more than he already has on a competing site.

December 13, 2016 at 03:09 PM · Oh, no, I wasn't suggesting he do anything untoward. :) I meant for him to share it through all proper channels!

December 13, 2016 at 06:57 PM · Nate, is Stephen going to publish a book of excepts-étude? That would be cool! I believe Peter Slowik of Oberlin is doing a similar project for viola, only it is excepts from chamber music.

December 13, 2016 at 07:39 PM · Laurie, I hope so, as unless all of the excerpts are in the standard three volume set most people won't have the parts or would have to spend a very large amount of time on IMSLP pulling down the manuscripts.

December 15, 2016 at 12:23 AM · Nathan, I would love to see that list after you compile it. I think there is so much one can improve with orchestra music. I am always in awe watching the professionals doing the same symphony so that I can learn more about the way that they handel the details. In my case, I need to be almost 100% to cover the 1st violin section. I can't achieve that with careful thoughts of bowing, dynamics, tone, etc. in 25 min a day. I do need to ask my teacher's recommendation tomorrow.

December 15, 2016 at 11:13 PM · You also have to suggest fingerings and bowings that anyone can do, not just the most advanced players.

December 16, 2016 at 12:22 AM · Good point, Adrian!

December 16, 2016 at 11:56 PM · In any orchestra, the bowings should HELP you to play the music. Fingerings are more personal - in general, I'd expect a leader to help suggest if asked, but instruction should be limited to "keep this on the G" etc.

December 17, 2016 at 02:22 AM · In my community orchestra, when there seems to only be one decent solution, I often will just write in the fingering to help everyone else out.

I am more likely to finger tricky 2nd violin parts, as our 2nd violinists are much less likely to come up with good solutions on their own. (Our 1sts will generally prefer to do their own fingerings.)

December 17, 2016 at 12:48 PM · I finally had my lesson on Thursday and asked my teacher the balance of orchestra and personal development. She said maybe 25 to 30 min a day. The initial reading might take longer. She said I need to put most of my time on etudes and concertos to build my skills. She also said the circumstances of the Monday concert caused the demand of orchestra music to be so high. For most orchestra practices, I was the only person at the 1st stand.

A side note about Monday's concert. I went in thinking that this is my last concert with this orchestra. The sudden presence of the concert master was a distraction. I often find her trying to follow my bowing to change hers in midway. No leadership. But I had so much fun with Shubert unfinished after intermission. I forgot the existence of the audience and the concert master. Music was so beautiful. I was completely melt in it. Guess what, I picked up next season's music. I will take on the work because it was put on my heart that I need to stay.

December 18, 2016 at 12:57 AM · Just an update to let you know that I have published Stephen Shipps' article from way back in 1992! I'm going to share it here on violinist.com as a blog post as well. It was great to re-read it, and it brought back some awkward teenage memories...

December 18, 2016 at 01:10 AM · And a quick note to Jason's question, in the three orchestras that I've been a full-time member of (Saint Paul Chamber, Chicago and LA), each person's preparation is pretty different. Each player does what he or she needs to be at the first rehearsal feeling like they're on board. It would be dishonest to say that I never fake! :) But I really hate doing it, and I always plan on playing all the notes in the concert.

That might sound funny, but what that means is that I expect to be able to play everything, and in a concert I'm only faking if I get temporarily stuck...or blinded by an audience member's watch...or look up and can't find where I am on the page when I look back down! That certainly is a lot of notes, week after week. It's a full-time commitment for sure.

In Chicago, I got used to showing up for the first rehearsal fully prepared. The others had generally played the repertoire before and I needed to be at their level. Over time less and less of the music was truly new for me, and the preparation got a bit easier.

But in LA, we play so much new music (I think the figure for actual world premieres last season was 14!) and unfamiliar music that there's something just about every week that has to be learned from scratch. This week, for example, is a 2-hour John Adams opera (El Niño) that hasn't been done here in 15 years, long before I got here.

And I should say also that since I sit either 1st or 2nd chair all the time, I feel a responsibility to do my homework. If I don't, what's the incentive for anyone else to give a hoot, so to speak? Personal integrity, of course... but some weeks that's not quite enough, depending on a host of factors. I wish it were all about the music all the time, but we all know that's not how real life works! Therefore we lean on each other to keep each other honest and accountable.

To sum up, I love the question! And playing the notes is not everything, but the best groups combine that with a real musical statement. It's hard to make that statement with lots of technical distractions, as you know!

December 18, 2016 at 03:28 AM · To me the two (orchestral vs personal development) aren't mutually exclusive, but rather the orchestral work exposes my areas of technical weaknesses, and that becomes the focus for my personal development curriculum. So, if I can't play a passage fast enough for e.g., it may be because I have a stiff wrist, or my string crossing technique is weak, whatever it is my teacher and I adjust my learning curriculum to pay particular attention to what is limiting me. I may need a certain etude, or practice the passage in a certain way, or do some other exercise to get me where I need to be, the result inevitably leads to personal development and better preparation to perform the orchestral requirements.

December 18, 2016 at 05:17 AM · Would be happy for you to post it here as well, Nathan!

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