Knowing when to sit a concert out

January 31, 2020, 6:37 PM · I come to you all for some counseling.

I've played with my local orchestra for the past 9 years. I have music degree and studied violin in college but am by no means at a professional level. This season the conductor has us playing some pieces that are way above me, most recently Bartok Concerto for orchestra, and the truth is, I can't play large chunks of them (the last movement of the Bartok is insane!). They only have the music ready a week ahead of time and as a full time public school music teacher I don't have the hours I'd need to get it close to ready, though I do try.

This is not a pro group per se, many of the members are community members and retired folks. The second violin sections is always the smallest string section for some reason some concerts we'll have 5 seconds compared to 8 firsts.

However, it's been making me really self-conscious lately. I don't want to sit and be paid to fake my way through a concert and feel terrible about it. At the same time, the section needs players and I hate to leave them thin in the ranks.

Should I sit out this concert? What would you do?

Replies (23)

January 31, 2020, 6:43 PM · isn't this something you need to discuss with your conductor?
January 31, 2020, 7:46 PM · No it's not something you discuss with your conductor! It's something you discuss with your friends in the orchestra first and decide if you're alone or if everyone else is struggling too.

One of the orchestras I play in is no-audition. We've been commiserating as players for years about how the parts are too hard for half the players. I'm one of the two or three strongest players and I have to shed some of the parts too. Finally a small group of us wrested some control over music selection by going through the executive committee of the orchestra and this season we're doing Mozart 15, Cavatina, Respighi Ancient Airs and Dances, and one piece that the conductor added -- Beethoven Coriolan Overture, which is not too hard, fortunately. At least he did not add Sibelius Karelia Suite or some other virtuoso thing.

January 31, 2020, 8:35 PM · You mention "paid". That suggests that this is a per-service orchestra, even though you characterize it as non-professional. I'm guessing that this means that you are one of the paid pros in an otherwise unpaid volunteer group? Or are all the violinists paid (probably a small stipend if so, given the nature of the group)? Are the pro players unionized, and is this a union gig paying union scale?

If you were purely an unpaid volunteer, the right thing to do would be talk to your section leader, i.e. the principal 2nd. Depending on your orchestra's approach to such things, the P2 would probably then direct you to talk to the orchestra's personnel manager.

I'm not sure what the appropriate thing to do is professionally, never having been in such a position myself (I've never taken a gig unless I was sure I could learn the music to an appropriate level). I expect that the right thing to do would depend if it's union (in which case your contract probably spells out your recourse if you can't fulfill your professional obligations), or non-union (in which case you would probably talk to the personnel manager directly). You should not take money if you are unable to fulfill the obligations of the job, but the orchestra may prefer for you to stumble through the concert anyway.

January 31, 2020, 9:49 PM · What kind of insanity is required to program Concerto for Orchestra for an orchestra of semi-pro players that might have just over a dozen violinists total?

You are not the problem here.

Edited: January 31, 2020, 9:55 PM ·
January 31, 2020, 10:01 PM · Also, are you saying the parts are only ready one week before the concert? For the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra? That's insane even for pros.
January 31, 2020, 10:20 PM · This also makes no sense because the Bartok is in the public domain, and if it were timing of a rental at the core of the one-week issue, players should be instructed (or already be making it a habit to) to go to IMSLP to download parts for practice.

A semi-pro orchestra really ought to have a player's committee that deals with the music director on the subject of appropriate music selection for the season.

February 1, 2020, 6:52 AM · Talk to your colleagues. Then agree to ALL sit this one out. It sounds to me like your music director has vanity issues - and they need to be clipped. I've seen this before in community orchestras: you do a good concert and the director starts to get stars in their eyes with ever more challenging repertoire (and equally deteriorating performances).
February 1, 2020, 7:33 AM · Scheduling the Bartok Concerto sounds like the conductor choosing works he/she wants to conduct, rather than what's suitable.
For instance, the Bartok needs at least 6 desks of firsts and seconds, with the seconds as good as the firsts.
Agree with the above - surely there's an orchestra committee to approach?
Edited: February 1, 2020, 7:41 AM · Actually, Bartok is not in the public domain, and orchestras that use excerpts from that piece for auditions need to get permission.

I completely agree that whoever is programming for this orchestra needs to be spoken to by a committee.

Edited: February 1, 2020, 7:52 AM · "A semi-pro orchestra really ought to have a player's committee that deals with the music director on the subject of appropriate music selection for the season."

As I wrote, even our non-audition community orchestra has that. What was happening was that some hard thing would be programmed (like Schubert "Tragic" Symphony) and then all the rehearsal time goes to that, and then 1 week before the concert we put our committee president up to asking the director if we can just play the first movement. Well that's a relief but all your other programming suffers from lack of rehearsal.

February 1, 2020, 10:59 AM · A few words about difficult orchestral music:

1. I've played in many, many smaller regional/gig orchestras. Conductors in these orchestras very typically program the most difficult music: Strauss, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Ives, etc. For one thing, they aspire to learn the music, especially if they're trying to advance their career. Conductors, like any serious musicians, want to move up the food chain. But they often just want to perform the great works, and just figure they'll muddle through it somehow.

2. Reality check: much of the orchestral literature is incredibly difficult--often practically impossible. Even when you have the time, chops, and training. You can't beat yourself up because you can't play every note of the last movement of Bartok. What about that movement of the Elgar Enigma variations with those ridiculous arpeggios? Isn't that the one about the dog scrambling out of a ditch or something? I'd like to see THAT on audition list. Or maybe the last couple of pages of Mathis der Maler. There are too many examples to list.

We ALL face limited time to practice, difficult music, limits to our chops, and limited rehearsals. The question is how to deal with this.

This is not limited to professional or community orchestras. It's also true of youth orchestras. So when my students come in with music that's way above them, here's how I suggest they handle it:

1. Don't worry about trying to learn the entire piece perfectly right now. You have to prioritize, and that doesn't always mean the hardest passage first. Instead, figure out which passage is the most transparent.
Many difficult passages in the literature are so covered up that you just need to make sure you keep track of where you are in the bar. Not getting lost is the first priority--a pretty low bar.

A big priority is knowing where changes occur. For example, the last movement of the Bartok starts out with all that fugal scrambling, then after all the strings come in, you get another theme. Your first priority is to simply know when to start and when to stop the running notes. Again, not getting lost.

2. Get fingerings and bowings in, and learn the notes and rhythms at the slowest speed. I tell my students that, at the very least, they should know what it is they were supposed to have played. Other low bar.

3. Rhythm first, not notes. The audience can't tell you played a little sharp or flat. But they (and the conductor)can sure see when your bow is doing something different from everyone else.

4. Treat the most difficult sections as etudes: what can you get out of it? Is there a new technique you could work on, like some big shifts or G-string technique or bow use? Take SMALL sections and use all your practice techniques, like groups and rhythms and metronome work.

Approach it as you would a concerto, not a quarter pounder with cheese that you have to gobble before the light changes.

5. Realize that for us ordinary musicians (of which I count myself), it's often unrealistic to perfect a big, difficult work the first concert series through. It may take many concert cycles over a period of years to feel really comfortable with much of the repertoire. Things do get easier over time.

Fake it till you make it.

February 1, 2020, 12:05 PM · IMSLP parts exist for the Bartok, though, for practice purposes: https://imslp.org/wiki/Concerto_for_Orchestra,_Sz.116_(Bartók,_Béla)
February 1, 2020, 12:13 PM · Just make sure you get Bartok's parody of the Leningrad/Merry Widow/Caro Nome recognizable - The audience won't be expecting to understand anything else (just joking)
Edited: February 1, 2020, 12:42 PM · Scott hit the nail on the head! Bravo!

Edited: February 1, 2020, 1:18 PM · People sometimes have to sit out concerts because of illness or injury. It has happened to me on three occasions during twiddlety+ years of orchestral playing. One was a badly strained back muscle that took some time to heal and prevented me from playing the cello for more than a few minutes. The other two were heavy colds, which came on quickly and were incapacitating as far as playing in an orchestra was concerned. On each occasion I was able to give my section leader due warning, and, as it happened, all three concerts were within my technical capabilities.

Very good, and memorable, advice from Scott, especially the last two sentences!


February 1, 2020, 1:08 PM · "People sometimes sit out concerts because of illness."

On the first day of my first full-time orchestra job, my jaded and bitter stand partner advised me thus:

"Call in WELL. You'd have to be sick to show up."

February 1, 2020, 3:43 PM · Everyone,

I really wonder who the audience for this orchestra is. Bartok is not only difficult to play but also to listen to.

Being a person who was trained using Doflein I know how difficult his duets are and there are some very non-traditional harmonies in all of them.

I think we also need to clarify the distinctions between "Community" and "Semi-Professional" orchestras. When I played in a community orchestra the only person being paid was the conductor/music director - everyone else was an unpaid amateur.

Edited: February 1, 2020, 5:44 PM · I tend to think there is not much of a distinction between elite community orchestras and semi-pro orchestras. Most top-tier community orchestras, at least among those I've seen, pay at least some of their players. Sometimes just the concertmaster, sometimes all principals, sometimes all the first-desk players. I think of it as somewhat of a continuum.
February 1, 2020, 8:06 PM · `Scott, et al,-- I am somewhat relieved to read that a violinist superior to me also finds that Elgar Enigma variation to be Really hard. I encountered it as a concertmaster of a college/community orchestra. In a rehearsal I looked up at the conductor sheepishly and tried to send an ESP message- "Maestro-this is so hard even your concertmaster can't play it" We skipped it in the concert.
Edited: February 2, 2020, 5:36 AM · I'm a bit perplexed by the downbeat tone of some of these contributions. The first half-dozen of Bartok's violin duets were amongst the first "proper" music I ever played (with a fellow pupil) and I loved their quirky tunes, rhythms and harmonies. I've since played the Concerto for Orchestra in at least three unpaid community orchestras and it's always gone down well with both the audience and the band. I don't suppose that all the violins could play all the right notes, all the time, but that really doesn't matter - it's the overall effect that counts. As for Enigma, yes it's brutal for the firsts but in the UK it's part of any self-respecting amateur orchestra's repertoire. The important thing is to get sufficient rehearsal so you know what you're supposed to be doing, even if you can't actually do it.
February 2, 2020, 11:33 AM · George, I have to disagree:
While it's true that some of Bartok's music is "difficult to listen to," I'd say the Concerto for Orchestra is pretty accessible for that time period. There are a good number pretty romantic/melodic passages. And the last page has a very audience-pleasing brass fanfare. We violinists are so busy trying to play every note perfectly we may not even notice.

I'd even go so far as to suggest that it's more accessible to a general audience than many 19th century works--including Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. Sorry pianists...

It's ok to stretch audience, conductor, and orchestra.

One of my lasting memories from a summer spent at Aspen (in addition to an annoying altitude-induced apnea) is an obviously very wealthy older couple dressed in matching white jump suits or something. After the Emerson quartet finished performing both the Debussy and Ravel quartets in the main tent, one turned to the other and said "I don't get this modern music."

Well, some people get it and some don't.

February 2, 2020, 11:50 AM · I agree with Steve and Scott on Bartok. The Concerto for Orchestra was done by my previous community orchestra (they even recorded it commercially!), though it's probably beyond my current group. We successfully did the Enigma Variations in my current orchestra and my previous two community orchestras as well. It's hard, but I don't think it's unplayable for the firsts -- the tough parts you can get at least most of the notes even if it'd take too much practice to get all of them, and importantly, it's hard to get lost.


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