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Which is more enjoyable to play in - a good amateur/semi-pro orchestra or a major orchestra?

August 10, 2022, 6:41 PM · Taking the money out of the equation, is it more enjoyable to play in a solid "amateur" or semi-pro orchestra or one of the higher tier orchestras - i.e. one where players make a large part of their living.

By "amateur" I don't necessarily mean a community orchestra where the intonation is always shaky and the repertoire is severely limited by the infirmities of the largely elderly participants but rather of the quality where 8/10 or 9/10 members of the general public probably wouldn't know the difference between them and the LSO. An organization on the order of this orchestra - the Richardson Symphony or similar. I gather they get paid a nominal amount to defray travel expenses and the level of musicianship is high but it's considered a "for fun" orchestra.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2YNYWedt6Bs


The impression I get that being in a higher tier pro orchestra is that along with the arduous process to get in, it can be a very tense environment. Is it on balance an enjoyable experience?

Replies (17)

August 10, 2022, 9:07 PM · depends entirely on what you enjoy!
August 10, 2022, 9:39 PM · For players in major orchestras, I suspect the biggest difficulty is the schedule, not the pressure. Tenure takes away some of the pressure once musicians have it, but major orchestras play an intense schedule that involves learning and performing a whole new concert program (sometimes more than one) each week. Some writers have noted that the trend in programming toward an increased focus on larger-scale works has made the job more and more physically demanding over time.

I play in a top-tier community orchestra of the type you're describing: capable of giving a creditable performance of anything in the repertoire on 4-5 weeks of weekly rehearsals. By definition it's probably more enjoyable simply because it's a hobby for most of us. (Not all, as all our principal players are paid pros, and a number of other members are pre-professional students or actively on the audition circuit.) Programming has to keep musicians' enjoyment in mind, because the orchestra needs to attract and retain good amateur musicians. That said, it's definitely not free of pressure. Keeping up standards while working a day job is its own challenge. And for amateurs, knowing our technique is not as consistent as top-tier pros can be a source of stress.

August 10, 2022, 10:54 PM · The Richardson Symphony Orchestra sure as hell doesn't look anything like an "amateur" or even a "semi-pro" orchestra. It looks like a fully-professional per-service orchestra that's neither a ROPA nor ICSOM member, a so-called "freeway philharmonic". Audition expectations look fully professional, and player bios are suitably high-level. (Their concertmaster is no less than Elizabeth Adkins, former assoc CM of the NSO!)

They only have a six-concert season, so what the players earn is probably a pittance, but that's par for the course.

August 11, 2022, 4:58 AM · What's enjoyable is a different thing for different people. Some people will enjoy working with a conductor or colleagues with an artistic vision, and disagree about what artistic vision will work. Some will love working with people who are very warm and friendly and it feels like one big family, others won't like that...
August 11, 2022, 7:18 AM · @Scott - My experience is in the DC area, so I do not know if it applies elsewhere. The amateur orchestras here are many and varied, so I think it is very difficult to generalize meaningfully. They tend to combine fun and hard work in varying amounts. The quality range is also quite variable. Once you get to the semi-pro level, i.e., orchestras that play a number of concerts during the year for which they charge a significant ticket price and pay their members something, the quality of the players and the group tends to be better and they work harder. But, they are probably having a good deal of fun, also.

I am in the NIH Community Orchestra. We have a lot of fun, put on two or three concerts a year plus some chamber concerts, and the quality is pretty good. We have a range of talents ranging from ok to quite good. But, we have lots of fun, and the people are great. Our concerts raise money for the NIH Charities such as the Children's Inn. There is not a lot of pressure, and the rewards are substantial. It works well for us.

August 11, 2022, 8:27 AM · The more enjoyable orchestra is the one that matches your playing skill level more closely.
Edited: August 11, 2022, 9:04 AM · Lydia Leong said:

The Richardson Symphony Orchestra sure as hell doesn't look anything like an "amateur" or even a "semi-pro" orchestra.

The Richardson Symphony is definitely a solid ensemble. My cousin is a member and refers to it as a "community orchestra". I told my cousin that they're in a different universe than what I think of as a "community orchestra" - i.e. the kind organization I described in my original post.

August 11, 2022, 9:27 AM · A community orchestra is going to look like (finding these DFW groups on a quick Google search) the New Texas Symphony Orchestra, or the Fort Worth Civic Orchestra. They use words like "all-volunteer" on their website.

FWCO has a YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2ODu1tpSAdUIoqa4tZ49aw - They appear to be a pretty good community orchestra. I assume player level is mixed, but ensemble intonation sounds decent, so a solid core of good players.

All professional ensembles have professional expectations for preparation and the general level of your playing. It's a job, and has to be treated as such, but like other good jobs, it can also be a lot of fun. But in my opinion, it's broadly more enjoyable to play in groups where the level of musicianship is higher.

Edited: August 11, 2022, 11:16 AM · The pro orchestra is easier to play with. The ensemble is tighter, the intonation is well centered. They know how to play their instruments and they can play the parts. In a low level community, amateur, or student orchestra you have none of that. As a community orchestra concertmaster I am constantly fighting the people around me, constantly making split second decisions whether to play in tune or match the lead flute or oboe, whether to play in time or literally follow the conductor.
Of course in a fully professional orchestra there is more pressure. You have to be able to play everything at the first rehearsal. If you can't do that you don't belong there.
The same is true for non-classical ensembles. For what I mostly do, mariachi violin/singer(!), it was much easier to work with the top-tier, prestige band than with the group that I left.
August 11, 2022, 3:43 PM · Since I've never played in either cited type of orchestra I cannot speak to which is better place to play.

As a concertgoer, I prefer the Semi-Professional and Community Orchestras. While I'm sure the professionals love what they do the rank amateurs are there because they want to play their instruments. The want to play well as well as enjoy the experience.

As a fellow Rank-Amateur I can feel the joy, even if the performances are less than perfect.

When we turn music into something that is only for the best of the best of the best... it becomes remote, something for others, a place where I need not apply.

My wife and I have volunteered with the NJSO and while most of the professionals are very nice people that enjoy what they do, they also acknowledge that playing, teaching, performing, is their JOB first - vocation second.

I truly love the moments when Semi-Pro and Community Orchestras have their golden moments when it all comes together musically. Because it is not expected - it's magic.

Were in not for my arthritic hands and cataract besotted eyes that make nighttime not my drive time, I'd still be playing in a community orchestra looking to make that magic moment with my fellow musicians.

August 11, 2022, 6:10 PM · It seems to me that the most important factor in enjoying almost any pastime is that you are up to the job yet still challenged.

So your own playing level should dictate where you want to join.

Edited: August 12, 2022, 10:02 AM · The most enjoyable orchestra level is the one that you enjoy playing in the most.

For every professional player I have ever known and most definitely including myself, that is the orchestra that plays at the highest artistic level.

I agree with the comment about the stress of that level coming much more from the schedule than anything else.

Editing to add that while 8/10 or even 9/10 of the general public might not be able to hear the difference, 10/10 of professionals can do so and the difference is not trivial.

Edited: August 13, 2022, 2:56 PM · To the OP: Most players in community orchestras won’t know what it’s like playing in a major orchestra and can’t make a true comparison to answer your question.

Realistically, the only people who can answer the OP’s question are musicians who are skilled enough to have played in both. I don’t think the playing level of a good amateur orchestra is satisfactory for a major orchestra player, but some might like them for other goals and roles. For example, I know a professional brass player who took up a stringed instrument as an adult and plays the instrument in amateur groups. Other professional orchestra musicians have enjoyed conducting or soloing with amateur orchestras.

Edited: August 12, 2022, 11:27 AM · Wot Frieda said. I was going to joke about my days in the Berlin Phil, but then decided not to bother.

OK, Pro orchestras. There's money and there's repertoire.
Orchestras are often strapped for cash, and some treat their musicians like crap. Read Galway's autobiog about his experiences with Sadler's Wells and the Berlin Phil.

Theatres are replacing their string sections with synthesisers. Things are going to get worse, especially if 3 out of every 4 two-year-olds is at the Bruch level - supply and demand.

Repertoire. How much do you think you'll enjoy playing the Nutcracker 20 times every Christmas for 30 years? (my teacher dreads it)

Or would you rather play for André Rieu? Johann Strauss non-stop for the rest of your life? And how much does he pay? Do they do it so it looks good on their CV?

Playing 2nd oboe (-am) in a pro-am orchestra was the most enjoyable thing I've ever done.

Etc.

August 12, 2022, 11:23 AM · There's a local all-volunteer orchestra here that is significantly freelancing pros playing for fun -- many of them playing their secondary instrument or for violinists, switching sections (i.e. those who normally play 1st in their day job are playing 2nd or viola, etc.). It's a valuable change of pace, I suspect (and it has minimal rehearsal commitments, and plenty of social time).

Personally, I think side-by-side opportunities (amateurs/students sharing stands with pros) are incredibly valuable, as they make it clear how huge the delta is in skill. I had a memorable moment at BSO Academy a number of years ago. Marin Alsop, trying to convey what she wanted from Russian Easter, asked the Academy students (a mix of music educators and amateurs) to be silent and just let the BSO members play the opening. The instant change in the quality of the musicianship was breathtaking. It wasn't in the notes per se. It was in color, the shape of the phrases, etc. -- all the things supplied without any external input.

August 12, 2022, 5:28 PM · In July 1973 I played one evening session of the "ad hoc" orchestra assembled every July for international maestro Herbert Blomstedt's Conducting Master Class at Loma Linda University in Redlands, CA. The mostly unpaid orchestra was "staffed" by a mix of talents including LA orchestra and studio professionals, the virtuoso-violin students from Heifetz's USC Master Class and other accomplished musicians --- and people like me. Playing under the baton of such a master as Blomstedt was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (this was a few years before he took over the San Francisco Symphony for 10 years). He ran the Conducting Master Class every summer for some years at loma Linda U (a religious school of his faith). Blomstedt's musical intentions were so transparent from his hand, arm and body language that he did not need to say a word about what he wanted the musicians to do. The only thing he conveyed to us by word was to follow the conducting students taking the class exactly as their "conducting" indicated. The students were mostly college music instructors and professors - (who really needed his help). Most of the students were really shocked by the sound they got when we musicians actually followed the way they conducted instead of the way the music should have sounded (which we all could have done).

I also participated in the associated violin master class during the day under the direction of Claire Hodgkins (Heifetz's teaching assistant at the time) who also served as the orchestra's concertmaster.

It was a great experience for me. But I would not want to spend my working life that way.

I was supposed to be there for the full 2-weeks (for which I had paid) but with temperatures in the shade running about 105°F and no cooling in the practice rooms I left after the 2nd day and drove home.

For completeness - I'll tell you that at the end of the 2-week MC the conducting students who "passed" got to conduct in the final concert and those who failed did not. I know that because the conductor of my community orchestra back home took the course (funded by our orchestra's budget) - and he failed the first time, but went back the next year (on his own dime) and passed! :-) and he was not a bad conductor before - but he was better afterwards (he was on the music faculty of our community college).

Years later we had another conductor candidate for our community orchestra and I could see immediately that he had taken the Blomstedt course - but it had not really gotten into his body & soul.

August 12, 2022, 5:47 PM · High level is great. Given that nothing is perfect, the next step is figuring out which aspects of a performance give you the buzz more than others, assuming you have the choice.

I will say that there have been a few non-fully-professional concerts I have been in that have given me great pleasure. I spent a long time in the Boston Philharmonic, and more recently in the Mercury Orchestra and some of the better groups at Oxford University. I also did a few fantastic performances with Grande Harmonie, a more professional group (before it folded). It's never a sure thing that you'll get all the right people pulling in the right direction, but the best results can be enormously satisfying. And there are a lot of professional orchestras that just won't give that.

There is a pro orchestra I know of that seems to be hugely successful, and plays with the very tip-top of international soloists. But it seems to do it by getting its excellent roster of freelancers to pull stuff together on maybe 1.5 rehearsals. As a resulty, you get a lot of greatest hits, not played dangerously badly, but not really worth a walk in the rain. Unless Marta Argerich or Anne-Sophie Mutter are on the bill.

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