Suzuki level and qualifying for a community orchestra

Edited: August 17, 2018, 3:17 PM · Just looking down the line, what level Suzuki book would an adult learner possibly be adequately trained to join a local community orchestra? (knowing different orchestra standards can be different)

Replies (52)

August 17, 2018, 3:20 PM · Most community orchestras I know about don't even require auditions at all.

Unless you mean one of the orchestras where they actually pay the first couple of chairs in each section.

August 17, 2018, 3:32 PM · David,

Erik is correct about most community orchestras not having auditions. That being said, to actually have some fun playing with a community orchestra you should bring the following:

The ability to tune your own instrument

Able to play the G, D and A major keys in first position and in tune. Familiarity with F and B-flat is a plus.

Read music as well as follow music you are listening to as the orchestra plays. (you will get lost and have to find your place)

Not be too nervous or obsessed - this is all about having fun while making music.

Depending on where you live their might be a branch of the Later Starters Orchestra so that you aren't being blown away by the young children although multi-generational orchestras are a blast as long as you understand that some 7 year olds will play better than you.

Tell us what is in your area and we might be able to offer more assistance.

Edited: August 17, 2018, 3:49 PM · I'm talking about non-paid positions, to make me work.

I'm on the outskirts of the San Francisco Bay Area, East Contra Costa County, and currently work in the Sacramento area during the week. So, I have to worry about practices mid-week. Weekends are open.

I'm just part way through Suzuki Book 1 at the moment, but looking for motivation.

I see different community orchestras around here, most looking for specific instrumentalists at the moment. I figure I should get through Book 2 first, at least, before I venture forth (and also see how my intonation is proceeding). As an intermediate level folk musician (on another instrument), I've always depended on the prospect of public humiliation in making me work harder on my instrument. So, finding low level public prospects has moved me along.

I also can't read up to speed yet. I can decipher, but not totally in real time.

I see an Awesome Orchestra in Oakland, which looks welcoming. It would just be getting there if practices are mid-week.

Thanks for your replies. I'm open to any other information.


August 17, 2018, 3:59 PM · I'll give you a somewhat arbitrary goal which I also give to my adult beginner students who are wondering about community orchestras: You want to get solidly to the middle of Suzuki book 4 before you're not going to feel like a total fool in the orchestra. Even then, you'll still feel out of place until you get your bearings and understand the very different skills that are necessary for playing well in that setting (like being able to realistically fake your bows and nodding your head when someone tells you to change something, despite not understanding what they just said).

It's also typical to salute your conductor and shake the hand of your section leader at the end of each movement, so start working on that now, mentally. That way when the real thing comes up you'll be prepared.

August 17, 2018, 4:10 PM · That is what I needed to hear. Book 4. Arbitrarily. Thank you.
August 17, 2018, 4:26 PM · I agree with Erik on the Suzuki level - Book 4 and being able to sight read at that level to comfortably assume a chair in the 2nd violin section (for yourself and the rest of the orchestra).

Erik is just BS-ing you in his 2nd paragraph!

August 17, 2018, 4:36 PM · I agree with Erik about the goal. Competent Suzuki book 4 level is about right for entry to a non-auditioning orchestra. However, it will be very useful if the teacher is experienced in playing in orchestras or publicly performing in other ensembles (as my teacher was).

Be aware that a pinch of salt is needed for Erik's second paragraph - I have interesting visions if it is taken too literally! In fact, the only time the conductor is formally saluted is by the orchestra standing up when he comes on at the beginning of the concert, or perhaps after a piece and always at the end of the concert - but on those occasions the orchestra is acknowledging the audience's applause.

August 17, 2018, 4:38 PM · I sort of glazed over that 2nd paragraph, imagining the chaos of everyone trying to do that without tripping over musicians and instruments!??
August 17, 2018, 6:06 PM · Shaking the hand of the section leader after every movement is overkill. Bringing a box of really high-quality dark chocolate once a week or so is the preferred tribute.
Edited: August 17, 2018, 6:20 PM · It really depends on what kind of repertoire the orchestra generally plays.

If its a community "pops" type of group that plays easier things and arrangements of famous works you should be fine at Bk 4.

Edited: August 17, 2018, 6:26 PM · Just as a reminder, I said *solid* Suzuki book 4. This can mean different things to different people, but let's just say that it means at that level, you can play at least 90% in tune, hit your shifts accurately 90% of the time, can play up to tempo without significant "dips" in speed throughout, and have a pretty good grasp on soundpoint control to be able to get responsiveness out of short notes and sustenance on long notes.

It also means that you're able to do more than just play the songs in Suzuki well.

Some goals to aim for, as you progress within the Suzuki series: be able to comfortably play all major and minor scales, from G through F#. (that's a total of 24 scales, 12 in major and 12 in minor). If you can do many of these with at least 2 octaves, that's best. This will cover most of the notes patterns you're going to encounter in regular music.

Try to be comfortable not only with scales one note at a time, but also adding slurs to the scales. You should be able to play all of the scales not only with 1-note-per-bow, but also 2, 3, 4, 6, 8.

Get through at least half the Wohlfahrt etudes with some degree of comfort.

Don't forget to rosin and clip your nails!

August 17, 2018, 6:58 PM · Only 90% - back to the sandbox!
Edited: August 19, 2018, 3:45 PM · I think it very much depends on the area and its community orchestras.

Suzuki book 4 would definitely be a minimum for all but ensembles that are specifically for adult beginners. And other than community orchestras that explicitly welcome all comers regardless of playing level, Suzuki book 4 is probably inadequate.

I think in most cases -- certainly around here for any orchestra not specifically for adult learners -- the more likely baseline is Suzuki book 7, around the Bach A minor level. A student at that level should generally play in tune, have a nice tone and vibrato, be able to do the common orchestral bowings (including spiccatto), and be comfortable in the first three positions, with the ability to do fifth position if necessary.

In many community orchestras, even if there's not a formal set audition per se, you'll still be asked to play something so they can get an idea of your playing level.

August 17, 2018, 7:52 PM · Y’all just wait and of these days I’ll surprise you all and play something besides an A pentatonic song. Mark my words.
August 17, 2018, 8:13 PM · Suzuki is probably not a good standard to have in mind for an orchestra, for a couple of different reasons -- the Suzuki principle emphasizes listening, not reading, whereas sight-reading skills will be required in an orchestra, and solo playing allows one to get the rhythm and tempo easily wrong, whereas it becomes a critical skill to get right in ensemble. That said, the Suzuki repertoire is also well-supported in accompaniment such as Smart Music, which can give you good practice in keeping synchronised.
Edited: August 17, 2018, 8:24 PM · In the places I've lived, I've seen three tiers of community orchestras, excluding those specifically for adult beginners: non-auditioned orchestras where the minimum is somewhere around Suzuki Book 4 (these are the majority), non-auditioned or informally auditioned orchestras where the minimum is around Suzuki Book 7, and auditioned orchestras where the minimum standard may be beyond the end of the Suzuki series.

Since you're in the area during the week: Sacramento has the K Street Orchestra, an adult beginners' orchestra where having completed Suzuki Book 2 is probably adequate to play in the second violin section.

August 17, 2018, 8:20 PM · I think J Ray makes an important point.

Pure Suzuki had many advantages for beginners, such as focus on posture and tone/resonance, but for ensemble playing reading is a must. If you're used to playing by ear and can't read effectively playing in an orchestra will be no fun at all.

August 17, 2018, 8:38 PM · There's no doubt that Suzuki is a poor reference point, but that is what OP asked for.
Edited: August 17, 2018, 9:11 PM · Hi David,

If you want to join an ensemble don't wait for your skills to develop to whatever level. Just find a group at your current ability and develop your ensemble skills as you progress.

If you're already in the Suzuki system, you can join a group class immediately, even if it means playing with a bunch of kids.

Nothing will prepare you better for ensemble playing than actual ensemble playing.

P.S. listening is a critical skill for any musician

August 17, 2018, 9:09 PM · Suzuki is what I'm learning on now. All input appreciated though. My teacher plays in an orchestra. It's possible at some point she'll switch me to something else. However, I always knew I needed to start back down at the bottom and get some basics to counter my self-taught corner I'd painted myself into. And even for self-taught, I was very limited. And, my ultimate goal is not to play in an orchestra. For my current band I want to play more blues, cajun, zydeco, and maybe do some irish on the side, not in my band. But I really need to get some chops down, and I figured classical would help that route. And, honestly, wouldn't mind learning to play classical. It's one of the genre's I cycle through in my listening moods.
August 17, 2018, 9:15 PM · I don't think playing classical ensembles will help with other styles.

Edited: August 17, 2018, 10:58 PM · I'll learn my way around the fingerboard and learn the other stuff as adjuncts. Improve intonation, dexterity. I'll have to fill in the other genres on my own. It's just developing range on the fingerboard that I need, and bow control, and tone control. I wanted the ensemble work for discipline, and to push me.
August 17, 2018, 10:30 PM · Hmmmmm I'm not sure I 100% agree with what Jeewon is stating here:

---"If you want to join an ensemble don't wait for your skills to develop to whatever level. Just find a group at your current ability and develop your ensemble skills as you progress."---

I feel that a certain level of foundation needs to be developed before venturing too much into group playing, otherwise you may stifle your ability to improve your technical skills and may be somewhat "stuck" at whatever group level you're playing at. If you're really in Suzuki book 1 currently, I don't feel that you are ready for any sort of group playing.

Of course, if you have the TIME to dedicate to simultaneously improving your technical skills through a linear progression like Suzuki (or otherwise) while also having the time to prepare and be comfortable with your group pieces, then by all means have at it.

But with adult players, I've noticed the limiting factor is always time/energy, rather than actual skill, so that's why I say I disagree with Jeewon in this instance.

It all depends on your time. If you only have 30 minutes a day to practice, you need to be dedicating that to improving your technical skill to a higher level before venturing into group scenarios. Otherwise you'll be so out of your element that you'll end up spending all of your 30 minutes each day just trying to be competent at whatever group piece you're playing, and you will remain stuck at that level. Yes, your listening skills might improve, but you'll be struggling so much with the playing aspect that these auxiliary improvements won't be meaningful or relevant.

I sort of agree with Jeewon in the sentiment regarding other styles not being helped too much by classical. With that said, Suzuki book 1 basically can't even be called "classical." It's a learning tool like anything else, to develop the most rudimentary of playing ability, which of course will be necessary in order to play anything.

August 17, 2018, 10:57 PM · Adults who are doing "Suzuki" are generally not doing the Suzuki Method. It's just that many teachers use the repertoire books for at least the first four books, often in combination with other things, since they're a pretty well curated selection of pieces.

The Suzuki books are often used for a comparative level of repertoire, too, since they're a common reference and contain many of the common pedagogical pieces.

Learning to play in orchestra is a skill unto itself.

Edited: August 17, 2018, 11:02 PM · Yes, I don't think my teacher is a "Suzuki" teacher, but she does use the repertoire books and seems to know what's being called for in the exercises. I had my choice of the O'Conner Method or Suzuki. I picked Suzuki. Even though my background is fiddling. Actually, I already had the book when I went to her.
August 17, 2018, 11:05 PM · And, Erik, I won't be tackling group work for a while. I just needed some sort of carrot on the stick out in front of me. And thanks for all your input.
August 18, 2018, 7:11 AM · David, I'd like to correct what seems to be a little misunderstanding of my post. I don't have any issues with the Suzuki method itself, and am actually a strong proponent of it, especially as it relates to parental involvement and emphasis of music and internalization over formalization such as printed music (not that I have anything against printed music, but like the Suzuki method itself, sometimes the means seem to be mistaken for the goal).

My post wasn't really about Suzuki, but rather about other aspects that one needs to work on for ensemble playing, and I'd like to emphasize again that playing with accompaniment will help.

Music itself is the carrot, and when it's made in an ensemble which works, there's more of it!

August 18, 2018, 10:27 AM · The question is what level music the orchestra in question plays.

I've conducted adult groups that had to stick to simple music. And there are amateur groups that play from the professional repertoire.

So lots of answers given, but based on....what exactly?

August 18, 2018, 11:02 AM · Based on getting in the door and getting some experience.
August 18, 2018, 11:30 AM · It still doesn't narrow things down. You have to tell us what that orchestra is actually playing. Can you get a list of recently performed music? Have they been playing Pirates of the Caribbean? Verklarte Nacht?
August 18, 2018, 12:28 PM · I think David doesn't have any particular group in mind yet. He mentioned Awesome in Oakland, which is a sight-reading group which plays all kinds of things, and as a result string players can simply sign up and show up. I'm guessing that one would still need to be at a minimum of Suzuki book 4 to be able to play the repertoire, which is mostly the standard professional symphonic repertoire supplemented by some film scores and such.
Edited: August 18, 2018, 12:49 PM · It was a general question based on lack of knowledge, and trying to get some of said knowledge. So, I won't be able to answer detailed questions.

I believe I've gotten the general feel for the question I originally asked, and now know I'm a couple of years off from tackling something like this.

Edited: August 19, 2018, 1:06 AM · You're a little far away for this, but if you ever get to the South Bay you could give TACO (the "terrible adult chamber orchestra") a try. It is for adults of all levels, including beginners, and the conductor is terrific.

I've never been there myself, but I do know a couple of people in the Awesome Orchestra and they love it. I think they rehearse on weekends and it's a bit closer to you! The two people I know who play in it are a violist and a cellist, both adult beginners who have been playing for ~5 years.

August 19, 2018, 4:20 AM · I'm down in Fremont on Saturday mornings already. And I have to drive all over creation anyway. For the right situation, it might work. Thank you for your link. Appreciated.
August 19, 2018, 2:59 PM · Having recently joined a community orchestra after returning to playing after 38 years away, here are my 2 cents. :-) Find the orchestra's website and see what they are playing. Get hold of some of the music. Mine posts much of the sheet music online (what is in the public domain), so the orchestra members can access it. I played in a very good youth orchestra back in the day, so I knew I could eventually do it--but I did end up jumping in a little before I was totally ready. :-) But you can gauge easily how close you are by looking at, and trying to play, the repertoire. If it terrifies you, or you can't get anywhere with it, it's too soon. Try again later. :-) Good luck!
Edited: August 19, 2018, 4:44 PM · I was to suggest what Elizabeth said. When I joined my community orchestra, I was more or less at Suzuki level 5. The first piece put in front of me was Beethoven’s second symphony (second violin). I managed this, eventually, with lots of practice over 3 months at which point I could sort of keep up with 80% of it at concert time.

Edit: I should have added, biggest challenge... bow technique.

August 19, 2018, 11:05 PM · The comm orch I play in is non audition. There are only a few players past book 4 suzuki level. And thats fine. I play viola because otherwise they would have at most one violist. Its a fun group. Very supportive and friendly. The problem arises when the director want to play stuff like Sibelius Karelia Suite or Beethoven Egmont Overture.
August 20, 2018, 3:05 PM · In Bristol, UK, where I live, the many adult community/amateur orchestras there operate at different levels. Some require at least ABRSM grade 8 or equivalent, these generally performing at a professional repertoire level. The requirements, and repertoire, of other orchestras are not so exacting, and, as had been suggested, with those orchestras a good acquaintance with Suzuki Book 4 or similar may be all that is needed, in conjunction with the player's determination to gain experience.

With many of the older established orchestras, some sort of formal audition was often the norm in the old days. Today, the practice in many of our community orchestras is for the applicant violinist to be seated alongside the CM for the first half of a rehearsal, being quietly assessed by the CM, the orchestral chairman, and the conductor, and perhaps one or two others such as the second desk. During the coffee break these people confer to decide whether to accept the applicant, and if so, where to place him; such as,
1. We've got to have him in the firsts!
2. A solid player for the seconds.
3. Shows promise, but needs more experience, so what about the back half of the seconds?
4. Erm ... don't we have a vacancy in the violas? ;)

August 20, 2018, 3:40 PM · Ahem. In most places I've lived and most orchestras I've played in, there's been a surplus of good violists and not enough violinists. (Maybe it's location bias?) In community orchestras I've seen, the last-chair violist has often been better than most of the second violins; in one extreme case I played in an orchestra where literally the entire viola section was far above the level of every other string player except the concertmaster.
Edited: August 21, 2018, 5:35 AM · Andrew, of course what I wrote was in jest (never pass up an opportunity for a viola joke!), but it could seriously be interpreted that the player was very much needed in the viola section.

I agree 100% with what you say, and have personally come across similar situations myself. Wasn't there a case in a professional orchestra where someone deep in the viola section applied for, and successfully, the first chair in the seconds - to the discomfiture of several of the violinists?

[Edit added: in one of the orchestras I play in the principal cellist is by far the best string player, apart from the CM.

August 21, 2018, 8:40 AM · One of the "community" orchestras where I am (NYC) told me their players are playing professional level repertoire (as they are professional players). And they are not kidding based on the rep that the orchestra plays. I fear I'll never be able to join a community orchestra near me, at least one that doesn't require an abysmally long subway commute, which is a bummer...

In other words: it DEFINITELY depends on what the orchestra is playing and their expectation of their players.

Edited: September 11, 2018, 7:11 AM · Pamela M, see my post today on the Amateur String Orchestra page*, which has some relevance.


August 22, 2018, 9:06 AM · Trevor - indeed, quite relevant. When I emailed them, they asked what major solo works I had performed, and which ensemble work I had done. I laughed out loud. Very different expectations re: their players vs what I am capable of right now. (I'm finally able to play the first movement of the Lalo, and not at performance tempo yet. This has been a huge learning leap just to get to this place, so I doubt I'll ever qualify to get into these community orchestras with high level players...)
September 10, 2018, 5:46 PM · Trevor's right about the UK.
In our amateur (community) orchestra, we don't have auditions - but people not up to standard would soon feel uncomfortable. Our next concert includes the Magic Flute, Finlandia and the last movement of Beethoven 5.
If you can't sight-read that lot, you'd be out of it. Sort of grade8++ in the 1sts, anyway.
Edited: September 11, 2018, 5:28 AM · MAlcolm is absolutely right. I have only ever found 1 amateur orchestra in my part of the world, Lodon, which auditions players. I went to one rehearsal and din't enjoy it so left it at that and never even got the point of auditioning. I don't think amateur groups should auditon, people who are not up to the required standard inevitably leave of their own accord pretty quickly.

The rep Malcolm lists should be pretty strauightforward for any decent amateur orchestra. I had no difficulty mnaging all of these pieces.

Most orchetsras will say minimum standard is grade 8 but you also need some orchetsral experiance but there is no requirement to have taken an exams. Don't expect to pass grade 8 and then join a decent amateur orchestra and not find it challenging. Most people not up to the required standard tend to leave of their own accord. There are orchestras/ensembles out there for less experianced players where they can build up their ensemble skills and eventually move on to a higher standard orchestra, in the same way the pros do. Players in the world's top orchestras oftenb started out in regional orchetras before getting their big break.

For me the standard is very importnat but not the only thing I look for when joing an orchestra. It has to be an enjoyable experiance with friendly players because as a serious amateur violinist I am not in it for the money but rather to have a good time with like minded people as well as partaking in a hobby I love.

Oh and lastly I want to say how much I hate the fact taht in the amateur orchestra world 1st violins are seen as better tahn 2nds. I am a serial 2nd violinist and the parts I play as just as challenging as the 1st violin parts. Its simply that we get less of the tune and the 1st violin part is more interesting and requires the higher positions more often.

September 11, 2018, 7:37 AM · Some years ago a fairly high-level community orchestra I was in had the policy of only auditioning people they didn't know personally or by reputation, or for section leader posts.

On one occasion, a young man with grade 8 was so auditioned and placed in the back of the seconds. We never saw him again after the second rehearsal, and found out later that his violin playing experience had been limited to his teacher's studio, grade examination rooms, and home practice; no ensemble playing of any sort, size or description. His short sojourn in the orchestra therefore came as no surprise.

September 11, 2018, 7:52 AM · It's useful to hear an audition just so that you can chat with the player alone for a few minutes, learn about their background, and get a sense of their playing strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of whether there's rotating seating or not, it's preferable to pair stand partners that will be mutually reinforcing.

The unfortunate thing about most community orchestras is that there aren't enough players who can handle 1st violin parts, so most of the players who can do so will sit 1st. It's useful to place some stronger players in the 2nd violin section, though.

My previous community orchestra, which tended to do very difficult repertoire, would routinely put two very strong players (rotating them out of the 1st violin section) on the last stand of 2nd violin in especially difficult sets. But it also had plenty of 1st violins to spare.

September 11, 2018, 2:08 PM · Lydia: "there aren't enough players who can handle 1st violin parts"

so on the one hand 1st violin tends to be harder than 2nd violin, but on the other hand it is unfair that 1st violin has a higher status than 2nd violin. I am confused now.

Trevor: "... violin playing experience had been limited to his teacher's studio, grade examination rooms, and home practice"

Where would an amateur get experience with ensemble playing? I heard (here or maybe my teacher?) that quartet playing is harder than orchestra playing. A lower-level orchestra, I suppose.

If the audition didn't disqualify the candidate, does the audition system work?

Edited: September 11, 2018, 4:48 PM · Lower-level orchestra. In mid-sized and larger cities, there is generally a range of community orchestras at different levels, from semi-professional (some even paying all their musicians a little) all the way down to lower intermediate. Some cities even have adult beginners' orchestras.

Unfortunately it's hard to test ensemble playing in an audition. That's why professional orchestras tend to take on newly auditioned musicians for a trial period before making the appointment permanent. I would assume that many auditioned community orchestras do as well, though the auditioned community orchestras I've played in have not done so. The purpose of the audition is to make sure musicians have sufficient technical and musical ability and musicality on their own.

Edited: September 14, 2018, 7:21 PM · I had to audition for an amateur orchestra...

But I think they only wanted to check we were able to play the instrument, and read music sheet.

The audition consisted of a fairly easy piece (around Suzuki 4 in my case), followed by sight reading.

I wrote about my experience here

September 14, 2018, 7:30 PM · Demian--what a great story! I loved it! :-)
September 15, 2018, 7:45 AM · The last time I had to audition for an amateur orchestra was at University. The University ran two orchestras, one by audition. They were so good, the students ran two others - of which I was at the front. The auditions were run by the lecturers, with the pianist being one of them. I had been a member before I had a year out - and was told to re-audition. So I picked the two hardest piano pieces I know. Wieniawski Legende (bassoons in thirds) and an arrangement of Kol Nidrei (the harp part in the middle starts with an octave leap). His exclamations were a joy to listen to!

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