Learning within a community orchestra
A thread about whether orchestra helps or hinders progression (LINK
) made me think of this question:
Adults playing in community orchestras: Do you intend for it to be a learning experience? Do you want the conductor or section leader to be trying to make you better? Or do you want to just come and make music and be sociable, pretty casually? Does it matter to you if you get better over time? If the orchestra gets better over time?
What if getting better pushes your technical abilities? Do you want your section leader to explain and demonstrate the desired techniques? Or do you find it demeaning to be taught as part of a group? Does the identity of the teacher matter -- for instance, if it's the conductor vs. a principal, if it's a pro vs. an amateur, if the pro is primarily a teacher rather than a performer, if it's an outside coach conducting an orchestral master-class?
In the orchestra I play in people are just expected to know what to do with minimal prompting. I have never had a technique described or shown to me, but sometimes helpful pieces of advice from my principal or stand partner. 'Just a small wrist movement is all you need' is usually the extent of it.
I played in a local community orchestra for two years, in year two and three of my beginner “restarter” journey. I learned an enormous amount about ensemble playing directly from the experience itself, but felt I wanted more specific direction from the Music Director on how to be a more effective orchestral player. Some of the others in my section more accomplished than myself offered suggestions and advice as memorable “teachable moments” but often wished there was a culture that encouraged more mutual learning - even possibly doing section rehearsals in which we could discuss technical issues.
I used to hold the view that playing in the orchestra may take away time from “real practice” that would move me forward as a violinist. Playing in a community orchestra ( in a relatively exposed position) in the last two months has changed that.
One of each. I play in two orchestras, one of which is mostly fun and social and just playing, and the other is a real learning experience by design (because it's a student orchestra).
When I was young I played in a youth orchestra and in student orchestras. I enjoyed it a lot and I also learned a lot, especially in the student orchestra.
Orchestral playing for me has always been about learning, although never in a technical sense. Sight-reading, the complex of skills that contribute towards ensemble playing and (last but absolutely most) the music itself is plenty to be going on with. Rehearsal time has never been enough to address technical issues also.
On this subject, I wish there was more emphasis on community *chamber orchestras* rather than so many community *symphonies*. I think the brass + woodwinds causes too many problems in general. Especially when it comes to choosing repertoire; I've noticed that a lot of community orchestras directors choose the music based on what the brass section is capable of, rather than what the strings are capable of.
Re: brass... The other reason I left the community orchestra I referred to in the other thread was that at least 40 minutes of every rehearsal turned into a low brass sectional. The low brass players were the weakest links. But the director chose music that heavily emphasized the brass anyway, mostly because the brass players wouldn't stop talking whenever they weren't playing, and because some of them had huge egos and would get annoyed whenever they didn't have prominent parts. (And he didn't want to kick them out because he didn't think he could replace them.)
I addressed some of these issues at least obliquely in my recent blog, Playing Principal Viola: Baptism by Fire and Fantasy. https://www.violinist.com/blog/ravena/201810/27490/
My expectations for a community orchestra have changed over the years. For a long time, my main goal was to improve my individual playing ability, because orchestra rehearsals
Erik, the way we deal with different needs of strings and winds/brass is to have two rehearsals for strings per week: one among ourselves, another one with everyone else.
My own community orchestra is what I would classify as casual. The winds/brass are a mix of amateurs and music teachers/professors, but strings are pretty much all amateurs. The conductor has a steady (and successful) drive towards improvement, and strings are substantially better now than when I joined five years ago. (I'd like to think that as the concertmaster for the past two and a half seasons, I also have something to do with that.)
I learned the most from our conductor, mostly in terms of what is going on in the music, logic for phrases, who to listen to and a bunch of other stuff. Bowing and fingering is such an individual thing that I can't imagine learning much from getting someone else's bowings or fingerings. I trust my teacher on those, but I end up adapting some fingerings for myself when my teacher's suggestions don't work.
One of the key points of orchestral bowing is that it's
In principle, the conductor’s “logic for phrases” should be reflected in the bowing and fingering provided by the CM for the entire section. Playing in an orchestra means that is the pecking order we need to follow. In practice, I learn quite a bit from our CM.
My experience with a community orchestra was a while ago. It was a multi-generational orchestra that was run by the local professionals and teachers for their students. We had both chamber and full orchestra segments. It was about both learning and having fun. I played with them for about 15 years till a high-travel job took away the ability to be at rehearsals.
What Karen said. You can use the music as etudes and you learn a great deal about music you normally might not play or listen closely to. You can also get involved in chamber groups through the orch. Although I play violin in the orch, I do viola in a chamber group with a clarinetist and a pianist who are in the orch.
In the student orchestra where I play viola, the director occasionally divides bowings through a section. (It's a string chamber orchestra.) So for example he'll ask half of the first violins to change bows to get more sound, and the other half not to change bows to maintain more sostenuto. It's a bit contrary to the idea of everyone's bow moving in lock step, but it's a clever concept. He's clearly after a certain sound, and he's willing to be unconventional to get it. I've learned so much playing in that orchestra. The director is a first-rate violinist and he demonstrates all the time.
Oh, one interesting thing I notice: out of nine orchestra directors I've had over the years, only one has been primarily a string player. The current director of my current semi-pro/elite community orchestra is a violist; the others have been six horn players, one pianist, and one oboist, with only one having any string experience at all (one of the horn players played violin at lower intermediate level). Is this a common pattern or just a strange coincidence?
When the distinguished lady conductor of one of my old orchestras was forced by the funding local council to retire on account of her age it was the first horn who elbowed his way onto the rostrum. I can understand that string players tend to be more reticent. I wonder if conductorial ambition correlates with the peak noise level of the instrument?
In a very recent v.com poll, I was surprised (and a little dismayed) that a vast majority of those voting only play alone. A friend of mine said that a musician alone is only half a musician.
So I play in a good, but not quite semi-pro, amateur orchestra. Maybe 1/2 of the wind and 1/3 of the strings have music degrees/diplomas (or at least studied towards them) and/or teach music
Paul, that's actually not unconventional at all (having half change, half sustain). You'll also see that sometimes spread across sections -- i.e. first violins change, seconds sustain, etc. It's a good trick. :-)
In my orch, the two current conductors are a bassoonist and a clarinetist. The previous conductor played various instruments and was a second violinist for a year before becoming conductor. One real different concert featured him conducting Handel's Messiah and playing theorbo on the podium.
I try to lead mainly by example in our shabby but enthousiastic community orchestra. We occasionally do sectionals where I try to give some tips, which people do appreciate, although they feel very uncomfortable doing finger extensions or crawling position changes which I do all the time and which I find very useful. In the book "Orchestral Violnists Companion" such fingerings are very common so I know I am not trying to make them do something silly. I also try to let them do a practice method from Simon Fischer where you practice, say, a passage in sixth position by playing it an octave lower in the much more familiar third position, which yields exactly the same fingerings. When I recommend this most people react as if that is a waste of time. Like Lydia anticipated I think I can confirm that most violinists are not really looking for a "group lesson" when doing orchestra rehearsals, even sectionals. So I have been backing off since a year or so. Yet I feel my suggestions are generally appreciated, but the most effective is to simply lead by example. For example last rehearsal during the break several people came to me because they wanted to know how I had been playing a tricky accompaniment pattern. Also, some time ago I told people that when playing high up the string, I think we were playing a high B on the E-string, you have to play closer to the bridge to keep the sound clear. Two players reacted positively and said their teacher had never told them that :-)
Basically it is this: What one learns by orchestra (or chamber music) playing can't be learned in violin lessons. And the stuff you learn in lessons can't be taught in the context of rehearsals. More than hints and tips from more experienced players (and conductors if they have a background in string playing) can't be expected. Quite a bit of the stuff from violin lessons isn't even all that important to orchestra playing.
I'd call the learning that takes place within the Orchestra for me as more like learning by osmosis. Playing within the Orchestra helps me with rhythms and stylistic bowing simply by listening to, following and watching the better players. The difficult parts are taking the place of studies in my practise routine, and exposed the technical weaknesses that are holding my progress, which leads to more targeted / focused efforts to address those issues, which may not have been otherwise.
I've moved around a lot, and I've always found a group of some sort to play with. I love community orchestras when they're reasonably good, and the music selection is interesting. If I see Finlandia on the docket, Imma pass on that one.