Orchestra or chamber music?

January 29, 2019, 1:30 AM · Hello all.
I've recently realised/decided to make playing the viola in chamber music my career focus (so I go to university knowing what it is I want to do in life). My idea is to play viola in a quartet, and do solo recitals on both violin and viola. My question is this. If I do manage to get professional engagements with these, would I be missing out by not doing orchestral stuff as well?

Replies (11)

January 29, 2019, 5:51 AM · A string quartet is a team of fine soloists, in terms of quality if not of style. The repertoire is often more intense.
Orchestral players have to blend, without fully hearing what they are doing.
January 29, 2019, 6:22 AM · Yeah, you need to be an extremely good player to keep up with the demands of quartet playing.
Edited: January 29, 2019, 10:16 AM · Adrian wrote, "a string quartet is a team of fine soloists." Yes. For me, at least, it's hard to appreciate by listening to a recording just how hard quartet playing really is. It's when you go see them in recital and see how hard they're working to make that happen that you realize, "Wow, that is not any easier than playing concertos with an orchestra." Some aspects of it are easier but other aspects are harder.

Here's another data point. When a quartet needs an extra cellist or violist to round out a quintet, who do they hire? Often excellent soloists. Who did the Cleveland Quartet bring on to do the Schubert Cello Quintet? Yo-Yo Ma, that's who.

If you want to test yourself, download something considered "less difficult" like Haydn Op. 20 No. 5 or some of Beethoven Op. 18 and try playing that along with a professional quartet recording. The demands on accuracy are truly punishing. And that's not even late Beethoven or Brahms or Janacek or Shostakovich.

Assuming that you have the goods for a performing career, the most likely outcome these days is a career that combines some fee-for-service orchestral playing, teaching mostly children, and freelancing which might include solo, string-quartet, or piano-trio gigs (weddings, church services and such).

Just a comment ... in my area you'd be surprised the (low) quality of violinist who is able to score paid wedding gigs, but they market themselves well and their clients are apparently satisfied because they get return business. I see that as being very unusual and even rather distressing. But the other part of me wonders whether I should make a demo tape.

January 29, 2019, 11:03 AM · Mr. Deck,

Keep following your own, higher performing standards. Let those players be happy doing what they do-no need to follow on a path that perhaps is not what you would enjoy. Of course, I do not mean to disparage those players, but rather state that every person is different in regards to what they find acceptable for a public performance.

January 29, 2019, 11:30 AM · Making a living as a full-time chamber music player, unless you mean weddings, is exponentially harder than winning an orchestra job, which is brutally hard.

My first thought when reading your question, "What would I be missing out on by not doing orchestral stuff," was "a paycheck."

You don't need to be making these sorts of decisions right now. Focus on becoming the best musician you can be. Any performance degree will require that you play both chamber music and orchestra. I see you are a bit older than the traditional university student, unless you're already in school, so I also strongly recommend a frank conversation with your current teacher about your hopes for the future.

January 30, 2019, 4:52 PM · As Mary Ellen already pointed out, the paying opportunities for professional chamber musicians are very rare, unless you are among the elite players in a given conservatory. These positions are second only to soloist work, which, like professional sports, is a very elite game. That said, nothing hones your chops better than playing chamber music. You'll rapidly become a better orchestral musician, because in a sense, playing chamber music is like being the principal player in a orchestra. You'll learn to watch each other, listen to the ensemble and your own playing on a deep level, and you'll play some of the best music ever written.

But, don't neglect orchestral playing. There are skills you can only learn there, like watching a conductor, working within a section and with your stand partner, and the teamwork it takes to really play great large-scale music. And, as already stated, even pro orchestra jobs are difficult to get.

I'd suggest staying the course and striving to reach your personal best, but be flexible in terms of the kind of work you plan to get. Take the jobs you come across, and learn from each one of them.

January 30, 2019, 5:47 PM · Think about the venues where you're seen quartets play. How many seats did they sell? What were the ticket prices? Was there any sponsorship or underwriting? What kind of expenses have they? And remember -- all the profits get divided by four, and there are no fringes. I just looked at the schedule of one of my favorite quartets, The Jerusalem Quartet, and it's murder -- in March they have 12 gigs in 14 days. You can bet they would not do that if it were not necessary to make ends meet.
January 30, 2019, 7:36 PM · And that quartet is probably grateful to be getting the work, too. I think professional quartets often have fairly compressed touring schedules, though, because they often have other jobs as well -- for instance, they may be in residence at a university where they have teaching duties.
January 30, 2019, 7:51 PM · Go play/study what you love but know that making a living at is extremely difficult and, frankly, unlikely. The number of quartets who earn anything approaching a steady paycheck is tiny, and there have never been so many really fantastic young quartets in the world. But winning a seat in a professional orchestra is almost as hard -- it's almost like hitting the lottery. Just try to keep your expectations realistic. If you want to make a living as a musician, chances are you will have to do a lot of things really well and play an awful lot of music that would not be your choice to play. Even Hilary Hahn is doing youtube videos playing Paganini while hula-hooping -- that's the kind of commitment it takes to make a living at music.

January 30, 2019, 9:37 PM · Professional touring quartet members are playing at the same level as any soloist (although the skillsets and knowledge base are a bit different.) Look at their bios- they met at Julliard, they went to Coburn. They won blah blah prize...

As for wedding/venue quartets, that's very much a part time gig. In fact, many of the symphony players I know have this side hustle going. You will be competing with BOTH highly trained symphony musicians AND really good amateurs/semi-pros/3rd tier musicians for work.

This is a business, so if you intend to do this, major in performance, double major or double minor in business and marketing.

Edited: January 30, 2019, 9:56 PM · I don't think that Hula Hoop video has any influence on Hilary Hahn's income. My guess is she just felt she couldn't say no. You don't see Anne-Sophie Mutter doing that stuff and she's got to be loaded. HH will grow out of it too one day. By then someone else will come along to perform monkeyshines with the likes of TwoSet Violin.


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