Leaving orchestra (sad)

October 29, 2018, 1:16 PM · I feel really torn about this decision, because I have loved many aspects of being in the community orchestra I joined last June. When I took the violin back up in April (after 38 years off!), I had hoped to be able eventually to get back to where I was in high school, but my improvement seems to have plateaued, and at this point I feel that I am putting in an absurd amount of practice and lesson time with insufficient returns. I am not playing well enough to really keep up with the pieces programmed. Certainly I played at best 50% of the notes in the Moldau on our recent concert-—having to fake it through most of a piece I love is just disheartening, and it is not what I wanted for my return to the violin. :-( I actually spent last week working out cheating methods for it, when it became clear that no amount of practicing was going to enable me to play 4 straight pages of fast 16th notes up to tempo! And that's no fun.

I really enjoyed the August chamber concert, and was able to get a better handle on that music (with a LOT of practice), but I feel that I am too often scrambling to catch up no matter what I do.

In addition, the conductor has very ambitious (read: utterly unrealistic) programming goals for the future, so I guess I don’t see things improving for me. I feel that I need to spend my limited time with the violin playing pieces with which I can have some success.

My teacher was thrilled to hear this--for the last 2 mos I have pretty much been unable to work on anything else but orchestra music, and spend our lessons on stuff I really have no hope of playing at tempo. Going back now to the Bach A minor and the Double, in the hopes of someday being able to play the latter with my good friend who was a professional musician (we grew up together and played together through HS).

I will miss it, but it just isn't fun not being able to keep up. This orchestra goes through strings players like water, so let's just say it's not just me. I wish the conductor would program more achievable stuff--there is plenty of real repertoire that is well within our grasp--but last I heard she was considering the Candide overture and Appalachian Spring for next year, and those are two pieces I just refuse to butcher!

I wish there were other options for ensemble playing around here, but there aren't. The other community orchestras are all full of local professionals. :(

Replies (38)

October 29, 2018, 1:20 PM · There is life after community orchestra. Find a small group of like-minded musicians and start your own baroque group. If music does not bring joy, what is the point?
October 29, 2018, 2:12 PM · It seems to me that your conductor and orchestra committee should be asking themselves why are they losing and having to replace so many violinists. That is not good; you need continuity in orchestras, and particularly in the community sort. With a high proportion of amateurs there there should be a policy of helping the less experienced to progress. The choice of programmes should also match the broad spectrum of ability within the orchestra.

Your experience is not all bad - you have learnt something about the important skill of faking it, and your sight reading is probably improving, even if you don't realise it. In amateur orchestras faking goes on at many levels in the string sections, and the audience is generally completely unaware of what's happening, thanks to brass, woodwind and percussion!

For instance, there are many fast passages in the orchestral repertoire where only a few can play all of the notes accurately and in time. In such situations, if you are not yet one of those few the important thing is to start and finish at the right places and in time, and look busy in between.

Here is an example that we have in one of my orchestras - in the "storm" movement of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony there is a ff section where the violins have to make fast double octave leaps across the strings with a scrap of fast awkward arpeggio in the middle of each leap (I'm sure Beethoven was improvising this at the piano!), and a lot of sound from brass and woodwind overlaying it. Our conductor saw it was technical problem for many and asked us to ignore the arpeggio bits and just play the top and bottom loudly and in time. It worked.

A good option for you is forget about orchestra for a while and to work hard in lessons to consolidate your technique in various areas to the level where you don't have to think about it. Then return to the orchestra, where you'll hopefully find that it is far less stressful and you can now play at least 99% of the notes in the Moldau up to speed in the right order!

October 29, 2018, 2:57 PM · I do understand about the necessity of faking it sometimes, and don't expect to be totally awesome. But faking it too much just takes the joy out of it for me, especially since I was first chair seconds of my (very good) youth orchestra years ago, so I know what really playing the music is like.

I did leave open the option of returning later, if I feel I can handle it. But given the current programming plans, I don't see that happening. Perhaps the conductor will realize what's going on. Our concertmaster (my good friend--I got her the gig) is leaving as well out of frustration with the situation. She made me feel better about it all--that it's not my fault and that I'm far from the only one.

October 29, 2018, 3:00 PM · Sounds like the community orchestras that I complain about.
October 29, 2018, 3:47 PM · Though the Candide overture is a perfect example of repertoire that can work for many community orchestras with strong winds/brass and weak strings. The strings can scramble through the work and it will still sound okay. (I think this one in particular is still fun even if you have to fake some of it.)

Ditto Appalachian Spring, which I played back when I was a teenager in a community orchestra with great winds/brass and mediocre strings.

However, there still has to be a certain minimum standard to string players in those situations. A competent Bach A minor is probably the minimum expected of second violinists, in order to tackle that repertoire at all.

October 29, 2018, 5:28 PM · I see what you mean about unrealistic.
I was in a rehearse/record orchestra (read minimal rehearsal) and Candide was one of the few pieces I felt I needed to practise when I knew it was coming up.
And you wouldn't be alone in faking Vltava.
But there are many other pieces you could/should be programming first. I can see why you (and the Concertmaster) chose to leave.
The Concertmaster SHOULD be involved in programming for any community orchestra.
Edited: October 29, 2018, 7:37 PM · Seriously, Lydia? LOL. Most professional violinists I know blanche when App Spring is mentioned. It is high, fast, and needs to sound completely clear, like glass. Candide is also very fast. These are both pieces I know (intellectually) very well, and Bernstein was a very important part of my life, so no--there is no way I could enjoy faking that piece.

I'm sure everyone's tolerance for faking it is different. It just makes me miserable.

Edited: October 29, 2018, 7:57 PM · Your frustration is quite understandable. After a 38yrs hiatus jumping into the Orchestra after only 2 months was perhaps somewhat ambitious given your expectations of 38 years past. That said 50% on first concert is OK but the orchestral practice requirement will certainly chew up a lot of your time. It's more a matter of priorities for you at this time. I was quite happy with 50% at my first orchestral concert and it continually improved after that in spite of increasingly challenging repertoire. The orchestral practice certainly makes it more challenging to work on techniques, but then I ask myself why am I learning violin as an adult if not to play? You don't need to fake it on fast tempo, just play the notes on the beat and ignore the rest. Some of our weaker players even go as far as highlighting the keynotes so they can focus on that alone.
October 29, 2018, 8:06 PM · This was the third concert. I joined back in June and did the July and Aug. concerts. And then the Oct. one. I kept hoping I would get more of my chops back, but things seem to have plateaued. My reaction time seems to slower than when I played before and I guess I have a little stiffness in my hands. I may go back. I just feel unhappy doing it right now. I don't like the feeling of always scrambling.
October 29, 2018, 9:16 PM · I'm not questioning your decision -- given your stated level of current technique, playing in a community orchestra doing tougher repertoire doesn't really make sense.
October 29, 2018, 9:42 PM · You didn't say where you're located, but you implied there are several community orchestras in your area. That sounds like an area that is ripe for another one -- at your level. In other words, I agree with Rocky.
Edited: October 30, 2018, 9:11 PM · I am quite surprised to learn people are actually faking at the rate of 50% or more. Isn’t it a bit unfair to those who play every note?
October 30, 2018, 2:58 AM · David, in some of these orchestras, *no one* is playing 100% of the notes.
Edited: October 30, 2018, 3:16 AM · Today's community orchestras are playing repertoire that yesterday's professionals would have found demanding. Whereas the world seems to be full of woodwind and brass players who can cope with this, amateur string players capable of playing all the notes (in the right order) are in relatively short supply. As seen from the stalls, it is often the case that even those who can play all the notes appear unconfident and tentative. I'd rather see an enthusiastic faker (who nevertheless keeps good time and the proper dynamics) than an immaculate mouse.
Edited: October 30, 2018, 6:15 AM · Elizabeth, have you considered chamber music? With another violin, a viola, and a cello, you might work on early Mozart and Haydn string quartets, which are accessible, enjoyable, and manageable. Moreover, you will likely notice a significant improvement in your technique and ensemble skills. You could then work on the more puzzling passages in the quartets with your teacher.
October 30, 2018, 7:22 AM · Elizabeth would it have been an option to use the orchestra material as the main teaching material with your violin teacher, so replacing etudes and pieces? I think a teacher could use this material as a basic for teaching technique, sound, bowing, etc. I've often wondered whether such an arrangment could be workable. You would kill two birds with one stone (although as an avid birdwatcher I am not that fond of that saying ;-)
October 30, 2018, 9:40 AM · Lydia -- you said "I'm not questioning your decision -- given your stated level of current technique, playing in a community orchestra doing tougher repertoire doesn't really make sense."

Well, according to the conductor, I am just picky and I should be OK with faking it sometimes b/c most everyone else is. This is nonsensical to me. Why program stuff you KNOW your personnel are not able to play?? There are several "community" orchestras here made up primarily of professionals, so this orchestra COULD fill a valuable niche, but the programming is running people off. If everyone who couldn't play most of the stuff that is programmed quit, there would be no orchestra at all. As it is, there are at most 4 firsts, 4 seconds (including me, so now 3, I guess), and 3 violas. A lot of cellos, inexplicably. So programming difficult stuff is not doing the roster any favors.

October 30, 2018, 9:43 AM · Re: my teacher--yes, that's what we did for a while. But it wasn't very rewarding for me.

I like the idea of chamber music and maybe eventually I will feel confident enough for that. This has kind of eroded what confidence I had. My friend, who I conned into being concertmaster (and who is leaving as well from frustration with the situation) is very VERY good, but since she's no longer playing professionally she MIGHT be convinced to play with me if I can round up a violist and a cellist. I need to work on my confidence first, though.

October 30, 2018, 11:03 AM · Someone really should write a comic novel about community orchestras. Most of the ones I've known could be characterised as fine in principle, hopelessly inadequate in practice. The communities they serve can be hugely indifferent to their presence, audiences scarcely outnumbering players. Their composition owes far more to whoever should walk in the door than to the requirements of the music. The best-tempered conductors are those who seem completely oblivious to what they hear, maintaining a blissful smile in spite of the enveloping cacophony. Their tendency to live in the world of their imagination means no concessions will ever be made to the technical limitations of their players. In order to enjoy the experience at all it's essential for the likes of us to abandon our finer sensibilities and simply muck in.
Edited: October 30, 2018, 2:45 PM · Elizabeth, I think there are different degrees of faking.

Sometimes when we talk about "faking", we're talking about missing a handful of notes in the most difficult passages, often when the strings have a giant pile of notes underneath the brass. (Even pros will sometimes fake in those contexts, especially if they have a lot of programs to learn in a short period of time and there's just not enough time to woodshed tough but low-value passages.)

Sometimes when we talk about faking, we're talking about missing most of the notes in moderately difficult to extremely difficult passages -- generally fast passages, often buried in the texture. Faking of this sort might include mostly just playing the structural notes in the passage. This is a common syndrome in community orchestra second violin sections -- you might find that only the principal or a handful of players are hitting most of the notes. But these players are still playing the rest of the work -- maybe they miss a few notes here or there, but they are not routinely faking.

Sometimes when we talk about faking, we're talking about the player for whom a significant percentage of the music is simply over their head. They spend a good chunk of the time lost, or are really struggling to get the routine passages, and are pretty much doomed on the difficult parts.

Some community orchestras that welcome all players are okay with this third type of player, especially if there are enough good players to drown them out, and/or they are desperate for string players. But unless a player specifically feels they want to get ensemble experience and loves orchestra, I don't think that the third type of faking serves either the player or the orchestra well.

50% faking definitely qualifies as the third category, and just from your commentary about where you are in terms of personal repertoire, it's clear that a community orchestra that plays professional repertoire is an overly large stretch for you. I second the recommendation to work on your technique and perhaps chamber music for a while.

(By the way, I haven't played 2nd violin on Vltava, but I remember playing 1st violin for it in a college orchestra, when I was in tip-top technical shape, and I think I faked good chunks of it for the first few rehearsals. It's hard.)

October 30, 2018, 2:56 PM · I'm not really sure where I am in terms of personal repertoire. I haven't had a chance to work on it much b/c of the orchestra music. Back when I was in HS I played the Bach A minor, Bach double, one of the Mozart concerti, etc. I would have been able to handle this music fine back then, I think. I am not getting my "chops" back as well as I had hoped though--not sure if that's finger stiffness (which I have) or reaction time, or what. But I'm not. So yes, for SOME of the music I am in the 3rd category. For much of it, I am not--I am playing most of it, with extra effort being put in on difficult passages and still not getting all of it (category 2).

But as I said, most of the strings, from what I can tell, are in the second and often the third category. That's why I guess I feel that the solution is not to just keep on trucking and make people feel like crap for not being able to play everything. I would think the solution would be to program more music that more people can play WELL so we would sound good and morale would be high. But hey, that's just me.

October 30, 2018, 7:48 PM · You can play, and you can practice. Often one feeds the other. But in real life, it is often hard to do both at once.
October 30, 2018, 8:17 PM · It takes quite a bit of time to re-build facility, and it needs to be done consciously, if you want that to occur efficiently. When I was returning to playing in my late 20s, about 40 minutes of my practice time went to pure technique -- mostly Schradieck, Sevcik, Casorti, and Fischer "Basics", along with some Kreutzer -- for quite some time. If you're being distracted by orchestra music and other repertoire, and aren't getting enough time in on the violinistic equivalent of running and lifting weights, it will take some time to rebuild facility. (I know for myself, returning to playing again in my 40s, I simply don't put in enough practice time to really regain full facility.)

Community orchestra governance is an interesting topic. Some community orchestras are relatively heavily conductor-controlled and the season programming comes entirely from the conductor. Others have more player input. (Mine, for instance, decides repertoire partially based on vote, and its board of directors, which has a heavy player component, also gets a say.) Conductors vary in their ambition and in how well that matches to player ability, too. (But a conductor who picks music that is too hard, and then chastises the players for not being able to play it, is a jerk!)

October 30, 2018, 8:25 PM · Continuing from Stephen's comment, over the years I've heard it said by community orchestra conductors that orchestra rehearsals are not occasions for private practice. Unfortunately, in some orchestras this excellent dictum is only too often honoured in the breach rather than the observance.
Edited: October 30, 2018, 9:28 PM · Re: "As it is, there are at most 4 firsts, 4 seconds (including me, so now 3, I guess), and 3 violas."

With a low number of players as such, it certainly makes it more demanding for everyone. With a 8 or 9 players section, if only half can carry their weight it makes is relatively easy to have a few side liners that "wing it" most of the time. If you are one amongst 3 or 4, it sure stands out.

October 30, 2018, 9:51 PM · I am a member of a community orchestra in Melbourne that is specifically designed for beginners and returnees. I had been playing for for 4 months when I joined, and was made welcome. As arguably still the weakest player, it is understood that I can’t play everything, so I’m still in that terrible third group.
But for us it’s emphasised that it’s about our enjoyment. The better string players ( and huge number of cellists) and wind section do carry the rest of us, but the repertoire is selected to make us sound better than we are, and it’s been a great experience.
I assume the conductor has been approached about the issues. Is this why the other players left?
Can you get a new conductor?
October 30, 2018, 9:51 PM · I am a member of a community orchestra in Melbourne that is specifically designed for beginners and returnees. I had been playing for for 4 months when I joined, and was made welcome. As arguably still the weakest player, it is understood that I can’t play everything, so I’m still in that terrible third group.
But for us it’s emphasised that it’s about our enjoyment. The better string players ( and huge number of cellists) and wind section do carry the rest of us, but the repertoire is selected to make us sound better than we are, and it’s been a great experience.
I assume the conductor has been approached about the issues. Is this why the other players left?
Can you get a new conductor?
October 30, 2018, 9:58 PM · Have you tried a chamber group? I'm in a student chamber ensemble and it's very rewarding. If people are more of less at the same level, it can be a lot of fun.
October 30, 2018, 11:41 PM · That story happens too often; a community orchestra programming pieces that are not appropriate for the size of the string section or the skill level of the people in the viola and second violin section. some will get discouraged and leave, which is contrary to one of purposes of having community/amateur orchestras; to provide playing opportunity for lesser skilled players. Two causes; the conductor is not a string player and doesn't appreciate the difficulty of the parts. 2- The conductor is a music education specialist who prefers to "challenge" the the students. That piece mentioned, Moldau, is a perfect example. The brass section blasts away with block chords while the strings struggle with those arpeggios. One of our local amateur orchestras has scheduled Prokovief Classical Symphony --insane.
Edited: October 30, 2018, 11:58 PM · I'd guess conductors who are not string players are a big part of it. For some reason, it seems like string players rarely become community orchestra conductors, at least in my experience.

I just performed under my 10th community orchestra conductor when I played as a ringer in an orchestra that was new to me last weekend. They have been: six horn players, one flautist, one oboist, one pianist, and one violist. Of all the non-string-players, only one had ever played strings at even an intermediate learner level when I played for them. At least two of the horn players, both conducting low-level casual community orchestras, have had the annoying habit of assuming pieces were easy for the strings because the brass parts were easy.

(On the other hand, in the mid-level community orchestra I joined earlier this year as principal violist, I've heard one of the other section leaders grumble that it's basically the concertmaster's private orchestra and she dictates about half of the programming to the conductor. I haven't been around long enough to know how true that is.)

October 31, 2018, 3:28 AM · One of the better community orchestras I played in made a speciality of faking, or rather sight-reaading. Every rehearsal (two per week, one for symphony the other chamber orchestra) had a different program of works from the standard repertoire. Players with soloistic or particularly difficult and exposed parts got advanced warning and the chance to do a little practice beforehand, but most of us just turned up and played. The object was to train the better student players in the kind of conditions they might expect to face as freelance jobbing professionals (whether this actually helped any of them I have no idea). Other players were retired professionals who liked to keep their hand in, but the majority of the strings were amateurs of all degrees of competence. One old chap used to arrive late with his violin wrapped in paper; he sat on a desk of his own at the back of the seconds and proceeded to play a random selection of the notes on the page in a sort of Viennese tea-shop style
Edited: October 31, 2018, 4:06 AM · Think yourself lucky you have so many community orchestras you are tripping over them. So far in London there's one adult late learners orchestra that I know of and it meets on the same night as my uke group, which meets on the same night as my bridge group, which meets on the same night as my violin teacher's open mic stand-up comedy group! Yep, everything in London happens on a Tuesday, and the other 6 nights we get drunk.
Edited: October 31, 2018, 1:34 PM · The conductor doesn't actually chastise anyone. All she has said to me was in response to my very nice email saying I was stepping back for a while and explaining I'm uncomfy faking it so much. I did not directly impugn her programming, but did say that I know she is planning some even more difficult stuff in future, so clearly things will be unlikely to improve for me. She seemed unconcerned about the faking and just said it happens and I shouldn't worry about it. But I know how it can be, because I know how I played in my youth orchestra (which programmed some difficult stuff), so it isn't enjoyable to me to play poorly. And since she clearly knows a lot of other people also can't play a lot of stuff, I guess I don't understand why that is OK with her.

There is zero orchestra input re: programming, which is disappointing. It's very much an autocracy. I'm sure that is not uncommon, knowing the general tendencies of conductors LOL.

Edited: October 31, 2018, 7:33 AM · Re: Joel and Andrew Hsieh's comments above:
I've seen plenty of conductors who were string players, and some of them were the worst culprits of this. They were inexperienced conductors who seemed mainly concerned about building up their repertoire lists.
October 31, 2018, 9:44 AM · Joel, I would disagree somewhat with you. I think that yes, community orchestras provide opportunities for musicians who are not performing for a living, but they are not necessarily all aimed at true amateurs or at less-skilled players.

I can think of several community orchestras in places where I've lived for whom the Prokofiev Classical Symphony is readily within their reach. Indeed, I remember attending a sight-reading session for it once, which, while not perfect (especially in the strings), was certainly respectable -- and at full performance tempo, at that. Those types of orchestras have a high proportion of people with music degrees (who may have full-time music jobs, often teaching) and the most adept amateurs, and they generally don't welcome less-skilled players.

October 31, 2018, 11:57 AM · No sadness required-Ms. TeSelle got out of a bad situation. This is indeed for the best, and I can relate to this teacher's excitement over the news.

Arrogance tends to be one of the feature characteristics of many an aspiring conductor. Not worth feeding into it if it's not working out for you, or even the music. Improving your confidence in your own violin playing is much more valuable than attempting to "help" a conductor build his/her career and confidence/"status" as a conductor on many wasted hours of ultimately unproductive-and thus joyless-practice.

No offense intended to any really good conductor out there that actually cares for more than his/her reputation, though.

October 31, 2018, 1:12 PM · Time I think for a little light (bulb) relief:

Q. How many symphony conductors does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Nobody knows - nobody was watching.

October 31, 2018, 1:35 PM · :) Trevor

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