Learning within a community orchestra

October 10, 2018, 7:55 PM · 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?

Replies (28)

October 10, 2018, 8:31 PM · 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'm sure if I asked either for more help I would get it, but it's not offered as part of general rehearsal.

I play in the orchestra because I find it enjoyable to play as part of a large ensemble. I recently graduated and played in ensemble most of my time in university and this is a way to keep that going. It's an opportunity to explore new repertoire, try new things, and work as part of a team. It's a chance to see friends I might rarely see otherwise and give me something to look forward to on the weekends.

Orchestras tend to get better over as the feeling of ensemble builds and the conductor's skill builds (depending on previous experience). It may or may not improve through individual players improvements, depending on what their personal trajectories are. I currently take a weekly lesson and am improving as a player, and so my contribution to my section is improving over time, so my section is improving over time. Because we are a mix of retired professionals and competent amateurs, our potential for growth on that axis is limited to the weaker links' (such as myself) continuing improvement and individual practice outside of rehearsal.

October 10, 2018, 9:22 PM · 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 am not currently active in the orchestra, but continue to study diligently with the guidance of my teacher. I think that my basic skills such as vibrato and more refined bowing techniques are now improving faster than when orchestra took a large percentage of available practice time - So I concur with others in the previous thread that the challenges of assimilating lots of orchestra rep can somewhat distract from developing technical skills, Even so, community orchestra experience still should be seen as enormously valuable, and I do miss the social dimension. In the end I believe it’s all about balance.

Edited: October 10, 2018, 10:25 PM · 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.

I now think that if one approaches orchestral rep as if they were required audition excerpts and practice accordingly, one should be able to move forward as both violinist and musician.

The necessary condition, as mentioned by others, is that most of the standard orchestral rep should be more or less within one’s technical capacity. One should also be willing to resolve some issues with ones private teacher and not think of it as a waste of lesson time.

As an adult amateur, the probability of *performing* solo repertoire is close to zero. Playing in an orchestra, if done well, is more rewarding—one is actually working towards a performance.

October 10, 2018, 11:09 PM · 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).
October 11, 2018, 12:11 AM · 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.

Then I played only chamber music for years until I decided to trey a community orchestra. They didn't audition me and just planted me in the first violin (I don't know why; their second section was numerically weak and in part technically extremely challenged; I ought to have been added there). I went to three rehearsals and quit. There was no proper rehearsing, the pieces chosen were hard (Stravinsky firebird among other things) and we just played them through at tempo a couple of times, restarting somewhere whenever things feel apart. The wind and brass sections were good and by and large able to cope. We strings not so much. It was awful and I told them why I left. The conductor genuinely didn't seem to understand what I was talking about. He said that at the end the performances were always quite acceptable. He did not see a reason to change anything.

October 11, 2018, 1:09 AM · 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.

Seven years ago I realised my orchestra wasn't teaching me any more about music so I said goodbye and started to explore the enormous wealth of forgotten chamber music instead. Thank you IMSLP.

October 11, 2018, 1:21 AM · 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.
October 11, 2018, 1:34 AM · 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.)
October 11, 2018, 1:42 AM · 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/

In that orchestra, yes, I am getting better technically because I do what David Zhang said--treat the hard parts like etudes and/or audition rep, and practice technical issues that come up. I also take orchestra music to my teacher and work on it in lessons. My teacher is primarily an orchestral player and she takes these lessons very seriously also--neither of us considers them a waste of time.

Other ways I have gotten better from playing in orchestras include listening to other players, overcoming anxiety, and learning to lead a section. From playing in orchestras I also understand better issues like bowing and bow distribution, "romantic" vs "classical" interpretations of Beethoven and other composers, and Baroque bowing vs modern bowing. And I feel like I get more of a sense of musical history. I learn about composers I might never have heard of otherwise. Case in point, I am playing a Symphony by William Grant Still this concert cycle. It is the first published symphony by an African-American composer. I had never heard of this composer before. The symphony sounds a lot like Gershwin to me, but predates him. I find it interesting to put the piece in context.

I have also been in some more casual, social orchestras and I enjoy those too. I don't see it as an either/or proposition. I usually have fun when I go to rehearsal as long as the people are nice. If the group is unfriendly or snotty then I wouldn't come back, but that's not usually a problem with musicians.

Finally, I agree with what others have said about the value of playing chamber music. But again, it's not either/or, it's both/and. The only place I have ever met compatible people with whom to play chamber music on a consistent basis, has been in orchestra.

Edited: October 11, 2018, 2:04 PM · 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 were my only "lessons" until recently. I took pointers from whoever could offer them, didn't care who.

These days, I play in two orchestras. One is an semi-pro/elite community orchestra, where my main goal is to explore the repertoire and perform at the highest level I can. I'm still learning and getting little bits of advice there, but I rarely ever need someone to teach me the techniques any more; most of what I'm learning is about interpretation. When technical advice comes from the conductor or from section leaders, it's usually in a sectional and usually relates to rarely-used extended techniques -- but we don't have sectionals at all for most sets, and only schedule one when playing an especially difficult program. Like what Michael describes, everyone is typically expected to know what to do with minimal prompting. That said, while my focus is now mainly on ensemble playing and interpretation, it's only been the case since 2015 or 2016; before that my main focus was just getting up to speed in technical ability, and then shifted as my technique caught up with and surpassed others in the section. (When I joined in 2011 I was the weakest link in the viola section and honestly surprised that I even had a regular seat; I had only been hoping to get onto the substitute list when I auditioned. Now I'm filling in as assistant principal violist for the next concert.) I've had a few technical breakthroughs in that time, either through tips from other violists during rehearsals, or from the internet when working on solo repertoire in between sets. But at this stage, my improvements have mostly been refinements rather than breakthroughs: increased agility, more consistent shifts, cleaner articulation, more precise internal metronome. This orchestra is also a decent place to find chamber music partners; for about two years I was part of a monthly reading quintet whose members were all in this orchestra.

My other current orchestra is still an emerging orchestra, created to fill the void in my area between elite orchestras and low-level casual orchestras. (For some years before this orchestra was founded in 2013, there was literally nothing in between for anyone between Vivaldi level and Bruch level.) I'd say it straddles the line between serious and high-level casual. I'm principal violist in this orchestra. Other than principal players who are either auditioned or recruited, the "audition" process is a two-week trial period at the beginning of each concert program. With this orchestra, my goal is partially social, partially to "pay it forward" after learning most of what I know about playing viola from my past orchestras. There's a lot more teaching going on in this orchestra; in fact the conductor seems to see it mainly as a teaching orchestra. They literally held a full-day sectional on Beethoven's 8th several weeks ago with outside coaches for each section, and in regular rehearsals I'm expected to help section players with technique as needed. For me there isn't much to learn from a technical standpoint as I'm ready to perform most of the repertoire after two rehearsals, but the conductor is knowledgeable enough that I still gain something in ensemble playing and interpretation. There's a much larger social element than in my other orchestra, with orchestra parties after the first and last concerts of each season. I think another major reason I'm there is for chamber music; all of the first-desk string players are avid chamber musicians, and in 13 months since first joining the orchestra I've played chamber music with all but one of them at some point or another.

Until March of this year, I was also in a low-level casual orchestra that I played in for a little over four years beginning in 2013. At least for a while it was a learning experience because it was my first time leading a section, but my reason for being there was mostly social. I joined mostly because my girlfriend, an adult restarter violinist, wanted an ensemble to play in. I stayed in the orchestra even after she graduated from law school and got a job out of town, because I still had a close-knit viola section that was also a pub trivia team. (We were also by far the youngest section in the orchestra -- the four violists, all under 40, accounted for the majority of the orchestra members under 60.) Then the entire viola section moved away in summer 2017 except for me, and I quit two concerts later because of the exact problems Erik referenced: they'd take 10 weeks to rehearse for a concert, mostly running the program over and over again except when the rehearsal turned into a brass sectional because the low brass players so often couldn't play their parts. (I only played those last two concerts so that I wouldn't leave them with no violas at all, and left after two violists joined.) In four years, I only needed to spend a total of 15 minutes practicing my parts outside of rehearsals. That orchestra gave me my one solo opportunity, at least: not long after I joined, I introduced myself as the new principal violist by performing the Bruch Romanze with them.

Edited: October 11, 2018, 1:42 PM · 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.

Albrecht, most of us are not pro-level sight readers. I could not get most of the notes in high positions during the first reading. Now, I can play them from memory. Your conductor is right: things do get better.

October 11, 2018, 10:07 AM · 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 feel like I end up having to correct bowing choices frequently -- trying to get the string sections to use the correct part of the bow so that they can get the right stylistic stroke. Sometimes I need to explain how particular articulations are done, because there will be players who simply haven't been taught them. I suspect this frustrates players who just want to do their own thing and/or are struggling with the notes and think of playing the violin as something they primarily do with their left hand.

I also semi-regularly play with a community chamber orchestra here that I'd classify as elite -- it's semi-pro, made up of a lot of freelancers playing for fun. The minimal rehearsals are run-throughs with some nuances, and people come with their parts prepared.

Edited: October 11, 2018, 4:30 PM · 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.

I personally wouldn't be getting my technique from an orchestra setting or the players, and that's not a knock on anyone's playing. But that's just me, and there have been some real beginners that I think could use (and I think would be interested in and receptive to) a bit of coaching.

EDIT: Sorry Lydia, I seem to have misunderstood your original post a bit. I wouldn't get bowing technique tips in general (like I wouldn't probably be influenced in how I choose to do bowings in my non-orchestra stuff), but I would definitely use the bowings that the CM had provided, unless I was in some weird free-bowing orchestra.

I agree with both of your points below.

October 11, 2018, 12:51 PM · One of the key points of orchestral bowing is that it's not an individual thing. The group has to produce a section sound. Some people think it's about the uniformity of look, but it's not -- it's about getting everyone to produce a sound of the same color and with the same articulation.

Fingering is a personal choice, except to the degree that it affects the color of the sound; a section leader may assert that a passage should remain sul G (all on the G string), for instance.

October 11, 2018, 3:20 PM · 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.
October 11, 2018, 3:40 PM · 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.

During my time I was one of the perennial seconds and seated towards the back. I was invited, more than a few times, to move forward in the section but chose to stay toward the back and share a stand with a newcomer who was usually surprised to be sitting as an equal to an adult. Over time I helped a lot getting the young musicians over some hurdles. I would often tell them that when I had my first rehearsal I managed about one measure in 10. All of my stand partners moved forward and then to the firsts. One of them is now the principal conductor of the orchestra in its current incarnation - no longer multi-generational and aimed at building your college resume' with a wicked audition requirement.

There are some other community orchestras in my area but I'm no longer a night person and both rehearsals and performances start around 7:PM ending after 9. Not my preference.

Edited: October 12, 2018, 11:30 AM · 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.

I have been in the same community orch for 19 years. I love it primarily for the people and the interactions with younger people. As a senior citizen who is retired, I do not have opportunities through work anymore to interact with lots of younger folks my kids' age. So that is a big plus about the orch. This article says it all about my orch: https://patch.com/maryland/potomac/nih-community-orchestra-chorus-perfom-annual-holiday-8e40f5c852. Plus, it features a pic of me.

Edited: October 11, 2018, 11:19 PM · 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.
Edited: October 12, 2018, 3:31 AM · 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?

Virtually all of the technical instruction I've gotten in orchestras has come from either section leaders or stand partners.

October 12, 2018, 4:04 AM · 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?
October 12, 2018, 4:20 AM · 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.

As in all the above posts, playing in an orchestra is enriching, and for many folk, fulfilling. Small groups even more so, but in a different way: E.g. a string quartet is a "team of soloists".

October 12, 2018, 7:32 AM · 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

The aim of the orchestra is to perform, not just to be sociable.

But I don't think anyone views it as a learning experience. Our leader coaches us a bit on e.g. which bowstroke to use in some passages, how to make some unusual harmonics sound, who we ought to listen to for ensemble. But that's relatively infrequent. The conductor rarely does at all.

October 12, 2018, 10:28 AM · 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. :-)
October 12, 2018, 11:33 AM · 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.
October 14, 2018, 2:28 PM · 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 :-)
October 15, 2018, 1:48 AM · 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.

However, if you want to be a musician (rather than just a violinist) you need the stuff you learn by ensemble playing.

October 15, 2018, 10:55 AM · 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.
Edited: October 15, 2018, 10:08 PM · 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.

I wish there were more opportunities for individual improvement within the community orchestra system. Masterclasses during breaks, Alexander seminars, etc. that address orchestral skills and proper position would be amazing. In all the community orchestras I've ever played in, it's not a lack of skill that makes the music bad- it's a lack of technical knowledge. Weak section leaders who don't want to rock the boat don't help. *Claps for Lydia- making sure everyone knows how to execute a stroke is super important for ensemble playing.

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