Performing with orchestra

September 1, 2019, 11:25 AM · Hello,
Is performing with an orchestra, professional or amateur, as easy as dropping them an email and asking them so?


Replies (45)

September 1, 2019, 11:54 AM · I presume you mean playing with the orchestra - not playing a solo :D

It depends entirely on the orchestra. Some amateur (community) orchestras will accept anyone that attends. Its a common way of self-filtering players who can not keep up rather than have the stress of auditions. Others will require an audition with varying degrees of stringency right up to those for a major symphony orchestra.

BUt before turning up you need to check whether you are needed. With the required number of strings there are often places in the low and middle level orchestras but these are rare in career orchestras and, correspondingly, there may be hundreds of applicants for a single chair.

September 1, 2019, 11:57 AM · No. I meant playing a solo with an orchestra
Edited: September 1, 2019, 12:05 PM · I think usually the concert organiser seeks out the soloist—not the other way around. The soloist ends up being the concertmaster or local talent, and not some randy.

But if you already have a reputation as a soloist and have some references, I guess you could try.

September 1, 2019, 12:21 PM · The amateur orchestras I play in often make contact with people studying at the local music conservatoire. You could try emailing, I can’t see it doing any harm!
September 1, 2019, 1:18 PM · Jake, indeed, normally the orchestra asks a soloist (whom they know through various possible connections) or sometimes even launches a call for soloists who then audition. I am talking amateur orchestras, just to be clear. But: I believe it is harmless to send a polite email to a local community orchestra, introduce yourself, and ask if they would be interested in putting your viola concerto on their next program (with you as the soloist). You could offer to meet the conductor and play for them, so that they can hear you play, chat a bit, talk about rehearsal schedules, etc, get to know each other. Just be realistic and understand that the probability is high that they will not be interested, for whatever reasons. But it is not impossible.
Edited: September 1, 2019, 2:20 PM · Also keep in mind that virtually all professional orchestras, and even many amateur orchestras, set their programs a year or more in advance. In late 2017, soon after becoming principal violist in an amateur orchestra, I tried to recommend a soloist to our conductor, only to be told that all the soloists were already booked through the 2018-19 season.

It varies greatly by orchestra, of course. There are also amateur orchestras that rarely set their programs until after the previous concert. The one time I played as a soloist, in 2014, was with one of those orchestras. In my case, I had joined them as principal violist a few months earlier, I suggested the piece mostly because the string players (mostly lower intermediate players) would be capable of handling the orchestra parts, and the conductor said he would put it on the program if I could play the solo.

September 1, 2019, 4:18 PM · You might have the best chance if you joined an orchestra and established an excellent reputation - politeness, preparedness, cooperativeness - as well as outstanding performing skills.

Realize that there are a lot of musicians who would kill for the same opportunity.

September 1, 2019, 6:16 PM · It really depends on the orchestra. I volunteered to play a solo with our local (no-audition) community orchestra. I've been playing viola with the group for a couple of years. I told the conductor I wanted to perform the Beethoven F Major Romance Op. 50 as a soloist. He said, "Fine." They bought the score and parts for me and everything. I'm performing in December.

Edited: September 1, 2019, 7:17 PM · Good for you Paul - I played that (on violin) with my orchestra at the time. One of the biggest thrills of a lifetime :)
September 1, 2019, 7:25 PM · Just as an anecdata point: the no-audition community orchestra I play in tends to feature principal players - in recent years, cello, harp, flute, and violin (the concertmaster gets more as a perk of being concertmaster). Since I joined, we had a high school violist from where the conductor teaches and an outside cellist (perhaps he was connected but I don't know). There are also community/semi-pro orchestras around here that hold concerto competitions to select student soloists.
September 1, 2019, 9:41 PM · If only! I don't know how it is everywhere, but we live in a large US city, and even the amateur community orchestras have competitions to pick their soloists. Maybe it is different when you are outside a big city, but here it is actually rather hard to get to solo with orchestra.
Edited: September 1, 2019, 9:59 PM · In my city (and probably most others), the only time you'd ask a conductor for a performance opportunity is if you're friends with them & it's a student/amateur orchestra. Otherwise, they already have enough choices, due to the oversupply of young highly trained performers.
September 1, 2019, 10:04 PM · I know there is a solo concerto competition thing in my nearest city (about 17 miles away). However, I think it is for 21 and under (I am 22 this year)
September 1, 2019, 11:51 PM · My community orchestra's situation is similar to Mengwei's. We are auditioned, but lightly so, in that we accept most string players. The conductor generally plans soloists a season or two in advance. We feature principal or highly skilled section players, who usually have experience playing solos with orchestra (and as the concertmaster, I have more of these opportunities). Like most amateur orchestras, if we engage outside soloists they are usually people that we expect to draw a significant audience -- often those people are principal players in local pro orchestras or otherwise notable. And many of the community orchestras hold student concerto competitions.

My previous community orchestra held a yearly concerto competition for members of the orchestra. Winners were generally section principals, unsurprisingly.

If you are a pro with an existing or potential solo career, it's possible to get solo gigs by making cold calls. If you're an amateur, it's extremely unlikely. Your best bet is to join a community orchestra that routinely features its members as soloists, and do a truly outstanding, notable job (both musically and in terms of the "professional" aspects of being on time, prepared, etc.), before discussing the possibility with the conductor.

For violists, the repertoire pretty much requires a conductor who is really jonesing to do the Walton or Bartok, etc. (If you are playing below the Walton/Bartok level, the odds that you can do a concerto with orchestra are near nil, to be honest.)

September 2, 2019, 4:07 AM · Jake, what's your orchestral experience?
September 2, 2019, 8:59 AM · @Steve, I played in 2 youth orchestras for over 5 years but that was almost 4 years ago. I attended my local amateur orchestra for 2 rehearsals before they decided they didn't want me. I'm going to go back there before christmas this year
September 2, 2019, 10:43 AM · I'm sure that's the way to go - not by cold-calling but by establishing a relationship with an orchestra and conductor before broaching the subject of playing a concerto with them
September 2, 2019, 11:13 AM · Anecdote time - 40-odd years ago a young schoolboy named Paul Brough, probably aged about 14, turned up at our Greenwich Symphony Orchestra (one of the world's worst) and asked if there was a vacancy to play timpani, at which he turned out to be rather good. After a while he presented us with some nicely written parts of his own composition to play. One of the senior players commented that he thought it "better than some of Sir Arthur Bliss's stuff". A few years later while Paul was at college he organised a chamber orchestra that played at some quite prestigious venues around London. I forgot about him until a few years ago when his name cropped up as conductor of the (100% professional) BBC Singers. From his wikipedia entry he seems to have become quite a success as a conductor and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. I think the moral is "cultivate your grass roots".
Edited: September 2, 2019, 1:25 PM · Oh! I should have added that we played the Larsson viola concerto (concertino?). I'm uninformed about where that falls in a typical repertoire progression. The violist also joined us after intermission for Sibelius 2.
September 2, 2019, 1:13 PM · Jake, why did your amateur orchestra decide "they didn't want you"? Whose decision was that, and what was the reason?
Edited: September 2, 2019, 1:42 PM · Just a clarification -- my performance of the Beethoven Romance will be on violin, not viola. I can't imagine playing those high scales on viola. That would sound awful.

I'll bet my community orchestra would accept a violist who wanted to play Vivaldi. The orchestra itself will never be able to play Walton or Bartok, so there's no point having a soloist who can. We had a cellist who played the Variations on a Rococo theme and even this orchestra part was very difficult for us. That's partly why I volunteered to play the Beethoven. I saw it as being doable for the orchestra.

September 2, 2019, 2:08 PM · When I soloed with a community orchestra, it was the Bruch Romanze, which I recommended because I thought the orchestra could handle it. It has among the easiest orchestra parts in the viola-and-orchestra literature. I don't think most community orchestras can play Walton or Bartok, and any orchestra that can play those will get professional soloists (except for the occasional youth competition winner).

Generally, it's hard to get solo opportunities as an amateur unless you are a principal player in the orchestra. And it has to be the right kind of orchestra: the orchestra has to be strong enough to play the concerto, but still all amateur so you have the opportunity to lead the section in the first place.

September 2, 2019, 3:01 PM · My local amateur symphony is sort of semi professional. They are very good and could do Walton or Bartok. However, since starting this discussion, I had a brain wave. There's a less good amateur group, which is run by one of my conductors from youth orchestra. I think they could pull off the concerto I had in mind
September 2, 2019, 5:09 PM · My previous community orchestra did the Walton with our principal violist as the soloist.

What piece do you have in mind? Usually the conductor chooses the work.

Edited: September 2, 2019, 5:38 PM · In my dotage I am fortunate to play with a conductor-less 30-piece chamber orchestra of mostly aged, seasoned amateur musicians. We perform several concerts every year and during the summer months, with a relaxed "rehearsal" schedule we allow any of our anxious members to play a solo with us (usually a concerto). If they go particularly well we encourage them to perform them in one of our regular season concerts.

In these relaxed summer concerto sessions we usually run through the piece twice. We trust the soloist is very familiar with the music, the orchestra is sight reading the parts - except those who have played them earlier and elsewhere.

September 2, 2019, 6:32 PM · *Lydia, its Zelter's E-Flat viola concerto. I'm learning it currently
September 2, 2019, 10:31 PM · Rare work, no readily available orchestral parts (therefore $$$ to rent or buy, if it can be tracked down by the orchestra's librarian at all, which may not be possible for amateur librarians), and almost certainly not known by the conductor, and probably neither conductor nor orchestra members have ever heard it before. Bad choice.

September 3, 2019, 12:21 AM · The orchestra are known for playing not as well known pieces. I think it would be a good fit. According to the foreword in my edition, parts are easily available
September 3, 2019, 9:17 AM · I just did a quick google search for parts and only came up with piano reductions. I would suggest tracking down the actual parts yourself before telling the conductor or orchestra librarian that the parts are easily available.
September 3, 2019, 9:31 AM · @Mary Ellen, I have also just done a Google search and found them haha. I must admit from what you said I didn't think I would
September 3, 2019, 10:52 AM · Very curious to know where you found them since I found lots of links that appeared to have the parts but when I clicked through, turned out to be the piano reduction. Could you share the link, please?
September 3, 2019, 12:09 PM · Zelter was the poor man's Germanic version of Mozart, no???
September 3, 2019, 1:07 PM · I'll repeat what others said; your best chance would be to volunteer a solo with the orchestra where you are currently principal Viola. Be sure the parts and score are available, affordable, and within the orchestra's size and technical limits. The last time I did a solo with my orchestra, it was an obscure modern work, and I bought the parts. -- Can you do Berlioz, Harold in Italy ?
September 3, 2019, 2:20 PM ·

Second result for Google query [zelter viola concerto orchestral parts].

September 3, 2019, 2:30 PM · @Jean, thats the link I found
September 3, 2019, 3:42 PM · Amateur-orchestra conductors who choose lesser-known works generally pick works that speak to them that might not be played as heavily by professional symphonies. Most obscure works are not masterpieces. You will want to pay for not just a set of the parts, but also a conductor's score.

Joel's suggestion for Harold in Italy is good. Pick one of the standard concertos in the viola repertoire. "Concerto for viola" is practically the definition of a lesser-played work anyway.

September 3, 2019, 4:26 PM · Thanks, Jean and Jake.
September 3, 2019, 7:02 PM · @Lydia, no way to get things more known than playing them ??
September 3, 2019, 7:42 PM · Here's the thing: you are not the conductor. You need to convince the conductor to program both the piece and you as the soloist. If you have a good reputation in your area, you are more likely to convince a conductor to play an obscure piece. If you don't have a reputation as a performer, picking a piece the conductor isn't familiar with makes it that much harder to get the opportunity.
Edited: September 3, 2019, 8:54 PM · Andrew explained my point succinctly.

I would add that unknown soloists programming unknown works tends to result in drawing no audience. Amateur orchestras typically pick their soloists either to draw more of an audience than would otherwise attend, or to offer opportunities to valued members of the orchestra.

September 4, 2019, 8:42 AM · @Amdrew & Lydia, I understand your points. But unknowns are not always bad and could potentially get an audience due to being unknown because people are curious. Thats my thinking anyway
September 4, 2019, 9:18 AM · Good luck convincing a conductor of that. Your conductor is going to wonder, "Who is this guy? Why should I take a chance on him?" You don't have a performance degree; as far as I know, you don't hold an FRSM that would give some indication of performance qualification. It's unclear to me whether you study with a famous teacher. I suspect if you did, you would not have needed to ask this question in this forum. If you did, it would be better if that famous teacher called a conductor he knows and says, "I have this exceptionally talented student that I think would really wow an audience" and sales-pitches a concerto (and thus provides assurance that it should go well). The paper qualifications suggest at least a minimum level of competence, and the conductor can feel reasonably assured that the famous teacher would not send him a student who isn't ready.

In terms of attracting an audience, it's unclear to me if you have a local reputation as a performer, or some other quality / eye-catching thing in your bio, that would make people read your bio and say, "Wow, I have to go hear this guy." Just being unknown makes people shrug and think, "I have no idea who this guy is". You have to consider, why should the conductor offer you this opportunity over the thousand other musicians who would sell a small piece of their soul to do this? Especially over one of the local symphony violists, or the viola prof at a nearby university, or the orchestra's own principal viola?

The conductor also needs assurance that this thing is going to go well. Most guest soloists get a rehearsal or two before the concert, which are usually just run-throughs. What evidence can you present of the rock-solid experience and preparation that allows you to stand in front of an orchestra and not waste their time in rehearsal? Of the performance experience that lets you recover gracefully from an error (whether yours or the orchestra's) during a performance?

Given that you were asked to leave a community orchestra previously, if the conductor asks around (local musician communities are usually pretty tight knit), what will he find out? Why were you kicked out? (In the youth orchestra where you played under this conductor, how well do you think he believes you played? Were you the most outstanding violist and the section principal, always well-prepared and attentive?)

Finally, the conductor needs to feel that the work is compelling. Orchestras doing less-known works these days are often deliberately choosing works by women or composers of color, or contemporary works. Baroque/Classical-period dead white men are not high on the list.

The conductor will expect you are prepared to answer these questions with your CV, at the least.

September 4, 2019, 1:46 PM · @Lydia, you have some valid points there
September 6, 2019, 9:44 AM · If you finance the venue, rehearsals and concert out of your pocket, any orchestra will play with you.
The trick is, that you need to make MORE than you spend if you want this to be profitable.

This might prove tricky if you are not a well known name...

Edited: September 6, 2019, 10:05 AM · Tony's statement is not correct. You can HIRE an orchestra to play with you, but you cannot normally buy a slot on an orchestra's regular season. (If you're leaving a large bequest to a community organization, you could certainly pressure them into that as a condition of the gift, but it would not be a guarantee.)

There's a US organization that puts on summer concerto performances for amateurs. I forget its name at the moment. You get a rehearsal and a performance with an orchestra made up of professional freelance players, and you can invite people to attend the (shared) concert. If I recall correctly, the fee is in the vicinity of $5,000, and you have to choose from a list of standard works.

That seems high, but in reality it's not bad value for the money. Say your work requires a 60-piece orchestra, and you wanted to do that on your own. Rehearsal + performance is two union services, which at a lowball minimum rate of $75/service is $150 per musician, times 60, so $9,000. Add a bit of money to rent a high school auditorium, and pay miscellaneous fees (insurance, music copying, etc.) and you're at nearly $10k.

Music Minus One recordings are roughly $30. :-)

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