Joining Orchestra Makes Students Progress Slower?
It's 3:30 AM and I can't seem to sleep, so I thought I'd post this idea that I've been pondering for some time now.
In general, I have observed that if an already-motivated student joins a youth orchestra (or community orchestra in the case of adults), their progress immediately slows down and never seems to recover to the level that it was before.
I attribute this to the fact that instead of their 30 minutes per day going into improving skills in a linearly progressive way, they end up spending most of that time just learning new repertoire. And although this constant influx of repertoire may help them to become more efficient at recognizing a variety of notes and playing with others, it doesn't really help them improve in a general sense. Their tone doesn't get better, and neither does their intonation, projection, or bow control. Sometimes they actually go backwards in these areas.
I also think a lot of this has to do with the utter chaos that exists in low level youth orchestras and community orchestras, where the repertoire is always harder than the students can effectively manage in the time they are allotted to learn it before the concert, and the wide skill range of the players makes it difficult to choose music that will challenge everyone.
Now, if a student doubles their practice so they can dedicate 50% of their time to continue progressing in a linear way while also having the time allotted to learn new repertoire, I think this problem would be mostly alleviated. But even with that said, I believe many students would be better off just spending that extra time improving their own skills, if their goal is to become good as quickly as possible.
I see youth orchestras mainly as a means of keeping a student engaged and motivated, as well as a way of connecting their instrument with a social group. But less so as a means of actually improving.
What do you guys think? Have you noticed students whose rates of progress actually improved after they joined a youth orchestra (or community orchestra)? Or has it generally been more a way for them to just have fun and learn to connect socially, at the cost of their overall rate of improvement?
Depends how good the orchestra is - if it's better than the student, then it will be an inspirational environment.
As a parent I've sometimes had this as a theoretical concern, but in reality what I have observed is that the great majority of the learning comes in the two hours each week over a three month period they spend in rehearsals. Only for a few weeks are they having to put in additional time on the tougher sections, although the time demand is higher for a section leader and for some repertoire (e.g. Mahler 1 last year).
As a fellow teacher, I've seen it work both ways. For some kids Youth Orchestra can be extremely motivating since they are with kids who are also more serious about violin and if the program is good (multi-level auditioned program, music not too difficult, etc.) they are motivated to improve and move up seats, orchestras, etc, and suddenly start practicing twice as much and they improve at twice the pace they were before.
I most likely would have stalled at beginner level without orchestras, because I was self-teaching for years before YouTube existed (due to the mistaken belief that no teacher would accept me because of my age), and if I didn't get pointers from other people in orchestras I played in, I wouldn't have had any real feedback at all. Until 2013, all the orchestras I'd been in were well above my level at the time I played in them. Orchestras get 100% of the credit for pushing me to the point where I'm playing top-tier viola repertoire. They slow me down in learning solo rep now, but I've been getting technical advancements out of playing in orchestras right up until this year.
If your goal is to become a world-class violin soloist, then it is certainly true that playing in a student orchestra does not contribute to that goal - at least not yet. But even then a time will come when you will want to be able to just sit down in front of a sheet of music and be able to play it perfectly. Orchestral playing will build this skill.
I would challenge your premise head on, Erik.
My experience is exactly the opposite. Students in orchestra tend to be more motivated to practice more and play better than students for whom solitary practice and weekly lessons are the sum total of their violin activity.
I think orchestra was only a positive for me as a kid, but I spent next to zero time practicing orchestra music. The rehearsals were mostly enough to get the notes, other than some tricky bits, where a moderate amount of woodshedding was necessary. Most pit orchestra music is sight-readable, and the handful of difficult, exposed bits in most shows don't take that long to practice.
If the challenging passages in the orchestra part could replace the "pieces" in the student's violin education, and the teacher expects them to work on them and bring them to perfection (as much as that exists) then it would be a win-win situation wouldn't it? after all playing in an orchestra is the end goal for 99% of all violin students? (I am talking about the "hobby" type of violin students here.)
I think orchestra is a positive influence for students- making friends, being part of a community, learning to be an orchestral player (which is different from solo skills), getting an extra couple of hours of practice in a week. That being said, I always encourage students to audition for the youth orchestra below their current skill level rather than at or above. The ones who reach to the highest orchestra they can get to end up sitting in the back of the section not knowing what the heck is going on. And I absolutely will not go over orchestra music in lessons aside from the occasional tricky passage.
It depends on the situation. I have one young student who recently quit his youth orchestra to focus on his basic technique. I thought it was a great idea. I've seen many students who get music that is above them in their orchestra. Then we have lesson after lesson struggling through music they shouldn't be concerned with and will likely struggle with no matter what. It can be quite tedious because I have to coach them through every bar and give them every fingering, and it takes away from working on their lesson material.
This has been on my mind on and off too since last year because within my studio I have a beginning orchestra as an extension of the Suzuki group. The handful of book 4-6 players are also in youth orchestras, so up to 3 times per year we spend 2-3 weeks on their excerpts (general audition and 2 seating auditions), almost to the exclusion of their general repertoire, and also scattered weeks when they need help on specific spots. I would say their overall practice habits are the driving factor. Youth orchestra may have given a slight boost in motivation but didn't change the amount/quality of work they were putting into lesson material before vs. after joining. (However, if motivation were to decline as they age, then at least youth orchestra made up for the shortfall.)
Along the lines of what Mary Ellen, Jean, Scott, and Julie said:
I sort of agree, at least in my own case. The music programmed for my community orchestra is at the top of my ability, assuming TONS of practice, and hence, all I really have time for is practicing orchestra music. I've stopped playing etudes and exercises, let alone the Bach A Minor, and spent the entirety my last lesson getting help from my teacher on fingerings and also the weird rhythms in one piece. And it seems to me that I'm not going to EVER be able to play all the 16th notes in the Moldau in time for the concert, which is somewhat depressing. But this is only my experience.
There's a prof at my conservatory who doesn't allow their students to join extra orchestras because they believe it creates bad technical habits. I think there's something to this theory if you're still fixing huge problems in your technique, but personally the pros outweigh the cons and as Mary Ellen said it's hugely motivational to be around your peers every week.
Lots of good input and examples all around. I read all responses, but don't currently have the time to respond to them.
My experience is exactly the opposite. I started playing as an adult, a complete musical novice. After one year I joined an orchestra designed for (mostly) new or intermediate players. It has been great - very motivating. I don't think practice is zero sum - yes, I am now trying to learn the orchestral repertoire, but my total practice time has increased. I can't think of a single bad thing to say about it.
As an adult learner, joining a community orchestra has challenged me in many ways. The practice time needed has indeed made it more difficult to concentrate on technique. On the other hand, the repertoire exposes my deficiencies with left/right hand technique, which leads to focused exercises and studies. I would say the overall result is significant progress in some areas, and slow progress on others, which I ended up neglecting. I'm now refocusing more on the neglected areas, revisiting some fundamentals and trying to maintain a better balance between technique and new repertoire, keeping in mind that the reason I am learning violin is to play music not just scales and studies.
I pretty quickly started hating orchestra after the novelty of it wore off. I started prioritizing learning orchestral parts less, and quickly learned how to hide within my section. I found youth chamber music programs, summer programs ( not orchestra camp of course !), writing music for myself to perform, writing music for my chamber music groups to perform, entering competitions, and organizing my own recitals in cheaply obtained venues and promoting it way more inspirational. If orchestra had been the only option around for me, I probably would have quit pretty fast.
I recently joined a community orchestra as the stand partner/page turner of the concertmaster. I am in my late 40’s and the last orchestra I was in was a youth orchestra.
Erik, I think chamber music AND orchestra are both valuable, and are different skills. It's easier to learn orchestral playing in a larger group where you're less exposed. Chamber music is a skill that comes after you have basic ensemble skills and more confident technique, I think. Chamber music is in part harder than solo playing because you have to have the skill to carry an individual part while functioning as part of a whole.
I feel it's important not to spread ourselves too thin. I'm not a teacher; but if I were, I'd make sure my students had mastered the basics and had some skill in sight-reading and position-playing before starting orchestra.
Reading through the thread got me thinking about two related issues.
It is interesting to see how much everyone works(ed) on orchestra parts with their teacher. I did this a lot in my first few years, but then, for some reason, it got to the point where I would only work on orchestral music with them if I had absolutely zero idea how to approach a passage, some kind of notation question I couldn’t find the answer to by just listening or using the internet ( both of these became really rare ), or if I was working on audition excerpts.
Here's the thing, David: The orchestral repertoire is hard. Period. You will not find standard symphonic repertoire that's not difficult for strings. Unlike chamber music, which was often composed with amateurs in mind, orchestral repertoire has always been for professionals.
All valid points, Lydia. And you couldn't be more right about the brass being used as a cover up for the overly-difficult string runs.
30 minutes is too short a lesson for anyone but little kids who can't concentrate for more than 30, honestly. Even an hour isn't long enough for advanced students. 90 minutes is a more natural lesson length though it's not as common (you might see more advanced students doing twice-a-week lessons).
Erik, I see my teacher once a week for an hour. We approach orchestral repertoire in the same way as solo repertoire.
Childhood today isn't what it was when I was young. As a volunteer with a Youth Orchestra I get to see both those who benefit and those who don't.
The key difference between David and Erik's students, I think, is that David is an adult amateur already playing at a pretty high technical level -- a technical level that should allow him to generally play the kind of rep played in community orchestras, if he works at it. As material for technical study, it's no worse and in some contexts may be better than solo repertoire.
Lydia: "---30 minutes is too short a lesson for anyone but little kids who can't concentrate for more than 30, honestly. Even an hour isn't long enough for advanced students. 90 minutes is a more natural lesson length though it's not as common (you might see more advanced students doing twice-a-week lessons).---"
Interesting... my opinion has been that it's best to play in an orchestra a little above your level, where the music requires significant practice time.
Re: Erik's comment on the local community orchestras, this area is rather strange. I was principal violist in one of the orchestras Erik was talking about (one of his students was in my section) and I eventually quit because I felt that style of rehearsal was wasting my time. I recently saw one of Lydia's archived posts about tiers of community orchestras, in which she divided them into elite, serious, and casual. The problem with this area is that we have multiple elite community orchestras where Bruch level is a minimum, and multiple low-level casual orchestras where half of the musicians are beginners, but only one relatively-new orchestra that might be categorized as serious or upper-level casual. There isn't a real progression of orchestras, there's just an enormous gap.
As a student I think it comes down to 2 aspects:
I had to cut corners in my playing in an orchestra, and it ended up holding me back. Long rehearsals and just trying to survive some of the hard passage work meant I slopped through stuff. I had to quit to go work at a lot of basic technique, and I'm glad I did. But others situations may be different, and coming in with a more solid technique may mean that not only can you hang better, but that it builds on your technique rather than diminishes it. I just didn't have time to adequately practice the orchestra material and build my technique up.
I wish v.com has a way to link specific posts within a thread, but this is the referenced thread:
Not improving at lightning speed isn't "holding you back." Music can be about learning to play with others. It can be about socializing. It can be about leadership if he leads the section. It can also inspire others to working well. Lots of opportunities out there, you just have to see it.
Where orchestral playing can "hold us back" is in the matter of the quality of our playing: we spend most of the time not really hearing ourselves.