Advice for Orchestra

December 2, 2019, 4:46 PM · Hi everyone,
Haven't posted on here in a long while! I've been playing violin for 2 years now which seems crazy to me! I'm currently working on sitting my ABRSM Grade 5 in a few months which also seems crazy to me!

But that doesn't really relate to what I want to ask I guess. I've been accepted into a local amateur orchestra now (probably the only one near me as I'm in fairly rural Yorkshire). Whilst this is really exciting stuff it's also completely uncharted territory for me and so I was looking for some advice, anything that will help me. The orchestra is currently working on Saint Saens Symphony 2, Borodin Prince Igor Overture and Khachaturian Spartacus Suite if that helps.

Replies (15)

Edited: December 2, 2019, 4:55 PM · Listen to recordings of the pieces as much as possible, so you know where your part fits in and you can find your place if you get lost.

Ask your stand partner any simple questions you have (but try not to talk except before/after rehearsal and during breaks! in general, silence is observed in interludes when the conductor is talking or is working with a particular section). Ask your section leader if you need advice or help. Speak to the orchestra manager if you have questions about administrative matters. Your section leader will take questions to the concertmaster or conductor if necessary.

Come to rehearsals prepared, with a stand (and possibly a stand light), the music (preferably in a music folder), and a sharpened pencil (or mechanical pencil) with a good eraser. NEVER use a pen to mark music. Show up at least 15 minutes before the start of rehearsal. The official rehearsal time is "in your seat, tuned, warmed up and ready to play", not the expected arrival time. There's usually a cursory tuning ritual but that's more for double checking you're in tune, not for the actual process of tuning, which you should do when you arrive and unpack. (Use a smartphone tuner app or an electronic tuner.)

Practice the music, with a focus on the sections you can definitely get right if you just spend a bit of time working on them. For orchestra music, you are best off ensuring that you play most of it decently rather than flushing time into the handful of sections that are super difficult.

December 2, 2019, 5:46 PM · Let me add - if you already have the music practice it before the rehearsals. If you don't have it try to download and print the parts from .
Edited: December 2, 2019, 6:24 PM · Some more tips:

Keep an eye on what your section leader is doing, especially the bowing which you should try to keep with as well as you can. When, after a few bars rest you see the SL is getting ready for the next entry then you get ready too.

Related to the foregoing, get into the ingrained and very important habit of mentally counting the beats for rest sections, but try to avoid visibly tapping your feet - for one thing it gives the game away(!), and another is that auto foot-tapping could be put off-course by off-beat rhythms in the music being played by other sections.

At grade 5 you're at the start of an interesting and exciting long journey, and there will be times in very fast passages when coordination between fingers and bow starts to waver. Don't panic - for instance, concentrate on getting the first note of a fast collection of notes in place (like a set of 4), and then you're more likely to stay in touch until things settle down. Similarly, if there is a very fast scale passage over an octave or more, concentrate on getting the start and finish notes in place and don't worry about the ones in between (the audience won't hear that level of detail anyway).

Use as much bow as you can; it gives a better tone and engenders confidence.

If you see fff, or even ffff, in your orchestral violin part it usually means that the whole orchestra including brass, woodwind and percussion is producing this level of volume. You can't really emulate them so keep to your regular ff with long bows and that will be ok.

Best of luck, and, most important, enjoy it!

December 3, 2019, 2:42 AM · Thank you all so much for the advice! Not bringing a pencil is the kind of small silly thing I would easily do. I spent some time last night going through the music, it varies from super easy to then being what is for me really hard but doesn't seem to have a middle ground. Luckily non of it seems impossible!

My teacher is also going to run through the parts with me before the first rehearsal so that should help.

Thanks again guys!

December 3, 2019, 3:33 AM · Trevor covered most of what I have to say. I'd add: in long rests, or in long passages of repeated notes, it helps to take note of when other people are entering with the melody (and even writing it in) to keep track of where you are, or to know what happens in the last measure or two before your entrance.

Also, you might be sharing a stand with someone else for the first time, and there are certain conventions you should be aware of. When you see what looks like double stops, they are divided unless otherwise indicated. The outside player (seated closest to the audience) plays the top line and the inside player plays the bottom line. The inside player turns all pages, and stops playing if necessary so that the outside player can continue uninterrupted.

The repertoire seems pretty heavy-duty for your level, but you'll get better at it with time. My first orchestra experience was when I was probably around ABRSM Grade 4 level, in a similar orchestra to yours in terms of programming. I had to simplify a lot when I started, focusing on just hitting the first note of each beat in fast passages as Trevor described. Don't feel bad if you have to do that. Over time you'll find yourself playing more of the notes in each concert set.

Best of luck!

December 3, 2019, 9:32 AM · One more piece of advice: Whenever the conductor works with a section that you are not part of: Don't tune out. Don't think avout some problem of yours either. Keep focused on the rehearsal and listen to what the conductor says to the people involved. You'll learn a lot that way.
December 3, 2019, 10:27 AM · One lesson many of us have to learn the hard way: If the rest of the section is wrong and you're right, you're still wrong. If there is a rhythm that everyone is double dotting even though that's not written in your part, check with your standpartner or the section leader at break to verify this. I once had a mortifying moment during one of my first professional gigs in which I played the correct rhythm but everyone else played what the flutes had, which was a completely different figure (dotted rhythm on beat 1 vs dotted rhythm on beat 2). I was correct, but I was the one that looked bad. It was only an outreach concert, and it wasn't a huge moment, so it could have been much worse, but the point still stands. If you notice a discrepancy between what people are doing and what the music says, check in with them. Either they're wrong and you're bringing it to their attention so they can fix it or you're wrong and need to adjust.
December 3, 2019, 11:45 AM · I am not familiar with the ABRSM levels, but if this is your first time playing in an orchestra, one of the things you should start shoring up (perhaps with your teacher) is the ability to count like hell without making it obvious you are counting.

Most of the stuff you learn in the earlier years ensembles quite easily with a piano accompaniment part. Not really so with orchestral music, and to top it all off you are keeping time with maestro rather than yourself. Of the stuff you listed I'm only familiar with Borodin (my high school orchestra butchered it), which does require the player to switch meters rather frequently, and also be able to play in 1.

December 3, 2019, 2:27 PM · Definitely get your hands on recordings of the pieces you're playing. You can often find them on YouTube, and even rip them to MP3s whose quality will be good enough for practice purposes. Put them into your MP3 player and listen to them everywhere: in the car, on the bus, sitting in the doctor's office, etc. Get to know the music thoroughly; among other things it'll help you count out those long rests. Timing is everything; remember that old saying: "The right note at the wrong time is the wrong note."

Practise along with the recordings. Find a program for your computer that will slow down the MP3s as much as you need. (They're available for all operating systems.) The sound quality won't be all that great, but it'll be good enough that you can get a sense of what's happening and figure out what to listen for. Start at 70% speed (or even 50% if it's complicated), and work your way up.

Apply a process of triage to the music. Some portions will be very easy and need little practice. Others can be polished up with enough work. For the difficult parts, others' advice about hitting just the first note of a group, or the last note of a run, is a good way to go. For the truly impossible parts, go through the motions without making a sound; a friend calls this "air-banding". The other players will take up the slack. Besides, those runs are often filigree that the audience will hardly notice anyway.

If you're having trouble figuring out just how your part fits into the piece, try to get your hands on a copy of the conductor's score. If you can find individual parts on IMSLP, you can probably find the full score there too. It's a bit daunting to read, but it can help resolve tricky rhythms or entrances. Also, it can confirm your part. You might be playing from an nth-generation photocopy where the notes are getting a bit fuzzy; it can be hard to tell whether a note is on a line or in the space above it. Even worse, there can be typos. The conductor's score can help resolve this. If all else fails, try to catch the conductor when he's free; he should be able to answer your questions.

Orchestra playing is a lot of work, but it feels wonderful when everything comes together.

December 4, 2019, 3:59 PM · Peter,

Reading trough the responses there is a lot of great advice. I think everyone missed the most important one: Have Fun!

I have found most community orchestras are focused on the enjoyment of making music together. Sure, they want to play well but, since these are not professional musicians, enjoyment is the focus.

Yes, there are some community orchestras that are Super Serious, but in my experience they are in the minority. So, plan to learn a lot, and have fun in the process.

December 6, 2019, 5:46 AM · Thank you for all the advice everyone! I made it through the first rehearsal and they have asked me back next week so I can't have done too badly! There were quite a few quick runs with lots of accidental that threw me but other than that I feel like I kept up fairly well. And the main thing I think is that I really enjoyed it and can't wait to go again!
December 6, 2019, 7:46 AM · They didn't have any wool pulled over their eyes when they accepted you, and have reason to believe that you can only get better.
December 7, 2019, 4:01 AM · Peter, have a talk with your teacher. In an orchestra, each member of a pair has "responsibilities". Probably in most community and school settings things are pretty relaxed about this, but you should learn what these conventions are, at least; and implement as many of them as you can.
December 9, 2019, 1:44 PM · Looks like Red Desert Violin ( is spamming multiple posts in this forum, under that "EmmaEm" username rather than their own. Kind of disappointing that they would resort to that.

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