Skill Level to Play in Community Orchestra

Edited: January 18, 2023, 12:26 PM · I've seen previous posts that discuss this in a general way, but I thought I would ask about my specific community orchestra to see what y'all think.

I'm very much a beginner, so I'm not thinking of auditioning this summer or anytime soon. I like setting goals though, and would like to get a feel for the skill level these guys are looking for.

The audition pieces they had folks play for violin last year are:

Mozart: Symphony #39, Last Movement, Beginning – Bar 41
Mendelssohn: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beginning – Bar 99
Beethoven: Symphony #9, 3rd Movement, Bars 99 – 114
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet

Based on that, is this an intermediate level orchestra, or closer to semi pro?

Replies (42)

Edited: January 18, 2023, 12:32 PM · It's a standard list, from very good student level to semi-pro. But you have no idea of the level of players attempting it and passing.
January 18, 2023, 12:36 PM · Thank you. Their next concert is in April, and I plan to go. Maybe that will give me a sense of where they're at.
January 18, 2023, 12:43 PM · That will be more indicative. Catch a rehearsal, also, if you can.
January 18, 2023, 2:24 PM · You might also want to talk with some of the violinists in the orch to get an idea from them about their background and skill level.
January 18, 2023, 2:44 PM · Those excerpts are pretty high level, and higher than the level I usually have seen for community orchestra entrance. Either it is a really good community orchestra, or nobody plays them well! I agree with the others about watching a concert. You will get a much better idea.
January 18, 2023, 2:53 PM · Agree with Susan. These are professional audition excerpts. The list suggests a highly selective orchestra, but it's also distinctly possible that people don't have to play the excerpts very well to get in.
January 18, 2023, 3:16 PM · Putting those pieces into a Google search I arrive that it might be the Durham Symphony Orchestra. When looking up the orchestra, I see they list the musicians. You might do a Google search on each of the violinists names adding violin or violinists after. This will give you an idea of their background and training, if they are professionals or amateurs. It seems a bit like stalking, I’ll admit. But it is simply useful to see the range of skill level.
Edited: January 18, 2023, 3:28 PM · Those are serious excerpts and a beginner would be years away from playing them well.

I agree with going to a concert and hearing for yourself.

If you live in a large enough city, perhaps there are multiple community orchestras of various skill levels.

January 18, 2023, 5:03 PM · Mary Ellen's points are good. If there are other community orchs in your area, you might want to see if there are any that do not require auditions. That is at least an indication that the orch is not a fairly high level one that is almost semi-pro.
Edited: January 19, 2023, 2:55 AM · Do good community orchestras not all have youtube videos?
This is my local one: -
I plan to join in September 2024.
January 19, 2023, 4:11 AM · This is mine:
Posted by the publicity manager or a critic?
After two rehearsals I'm starting to realise the viola situation is desperate although not serious. The principal hasn't shown up yet.
January 19, 2023, 5:06 AM · How Viennese. Most of the rest of the world can have crises that are serious but not hopeless. Theirs are usually hopeless but not serious.
January 19, 2023, 6:07 AM · hi Gordon, Steve, both videos are quite good I think!
Edited: January 19, 2023, 6:45 AM · If it's the Durham Symphony, then there are lots of YouTube videos. They're seriously good. Also, some quick Google searching shows that the majority of their string players are full-time music teachers, and almost all play in more than one orchestra.

Fortunately for OP, there are multiple community orchestras in the area. Consider the Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle first; that's more of an intermediate level group.

Edited: January 19, 2023, 7:30 AM · Here's our Blacksburg Community Strings. Sorry -- I shamelessly picked the video where I am playing the Bach Double with a college student -- I actually recruited her to the orchestra from my lab course!

Sorry the video and audio are not perfectly synchronized ...

Edited: January 19, 2023, 7:55 AM · I'm glad to see the two long notes at the start of the second violin part played down then hooked then up. The HIP view is play both down, but I think that's an unnecessary PITA.
However, I once saw a documentary on Nigel Kennedy, and he did it both ways in two different performances in about 1980, which I found strange.
Edited: January 19, 2023, 8:24 AM · Here is another sample. Sadly, the mike placement for the overture didn't give great focus to the concerto, which was a very fine performance on both ends.
Edited: January 19, 2023, 9:13 AM · Andrew nailed it. It's the Durham Symphony.

I figured it was way up there when they had an audition. I was looking up the pieces on youtube and someone was talking about how to play it for an audition. They spoke of flying to auditions all over the country...

I saw the Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle. It's in Cary though and is a bit of a haul for me. There's also a Durham Community band that I may check out in the future.

There were no videos on the Durham Symphony's website, and I didn't think to check youtube. Sure enough:

January 19, 2023, 8:37 AM · Bravo, Paul, you have a lovely sound.
January 19, 2023, 10:25 AM · Either it is a really good community orchestra, or nobody plays them well!

It could very easily be this. Then again, it could also be a very high level community orchestra. Some directors, however, have a tendency to hand their members music that is a beyond their ability.

My own story:

I had been playing the violin for exactly one year. However, I was progressing rapidly. Having just won an award offered by a former member of this orchestra, I was offered a seat in the orchestra. My first exposure to that orchestra was the Storm from Beethoven's Symphony #6. Oh boy, I was not the only one who was lost!!

January 19, 2023, 10:56 AM · Well done, Paul!
Edited: January 19, 2023, 11:55 AM · My experience is that the difficulty level can vary orchestra to orchestra, and it can also vary season to season within the orchestra.

I played with a college orchestra during fall term, and we played the Schumann Piano Concerto, among other selections. Given COVID, auditions (informal when required) had been suspended. What fun! I had to practice hard, but as a 2nd violin, I was able to contribute.

All that changed during winter term, which rehearses for the spring pops concert. After our first rehearsal, which included playing John Williams Harry Potter piece with all those glorious, 32nd note runs, I came to the conclusion that the music is over my head. Rather than beat said head against a wall trying to play that level of music, I decided to focus my practice time entirely on lessons.

But there's a local, true (non-college) community orchestra that I'm looking into. It's my understanding that they pick selections to match the skill level of he orchestra.

In our area, orchestras play concert by concert, and they have rehearsals scheduled for each. So, joining this or that orchestra doesn't doesn't entail playing for an entire year. This enables me to scratch my orchestra itch by picking and choosing my concerts.

January 19, 2023, 12:22 PM · Thats great playing Paul, brilliant stuff.
January 19, 2023, 12:50 PM · I have listened to a couple of our local community orchestras, and they are not programming anything nearly so hard, and most definitely sound like a bunch of people getting together to have fun. I'm wondering if the fact that they audition at all, is a tip off to the caliber of the orchestra; one I listened to had a member with fairly advanced tremors (I have it too, so I sympathize), which everyone could hear, whether she was playing or at rest, and there is no way she would have made it past any auditions.

Edited: January 19, 2023, 1:07 PM · "Some directors, however, have a tendency to hand their members music that is a beyond their ability."

My daughter was in her junior district orchestra last week, and they were playing pieces that were probably sight readable for most of them. I think that makes sense, especially since they had roughly 12 hours to put together 4 or 5 pieces. They sounded absolutely glorious, despite the pieces being so simple.

By contrast, the senior district orchestra that came after them, was a disaster. They opened with Russlan and Ludmila, and never recovered from it. It was likely well above their abilities (it turns out that the aspirational kids do regionals, not district), and there just wasn't enough time to do it well.

I feel that the new conductor for my daughter's youth orchestra is also in danger of choosing pieces that are above what her kids can do. She started with Dvorak #9 for their first concert, and ended up having to drop movements. So naturally, she chose Tchaik #4 for the upcoming concert. She has had to call out kids in violins, because the first two chairs in each section are carrying the entire section.

January 19, 2023, 1:08 PM · Yes, Sue, and I really question the point of doing that. Sure it's fun to play this great repertoire, but if to do so, you are not only torturing yourself, but the people that are listening to you, that's not teaching these kids a good lesson. I think the hardest piece that I have done in a youth orchestra many years ago was the Brahms Symphony, No. 2 with the Victoria youth orchestra, in British Columbia. That was within the ability of most of us and I think it sounded pretty good. That was the last piece of music I worked on. I quit the violin soon after that due to an injury, and a few other issues that were going on in my life, and didn't touch it again for almost 3 decades.
Edited: January 19, 2023, 1:46 PM · It is no fun to play in an ensemble one is not ready for. As amateurs we play for the love of it and that love can die rapidly in the wrong environment.

My first orchestra experience was 2 months before my 10th birthday. I had been taking violin lessons for 5 years and at my first private lesson at the MSM in New York my teacher suggested I go down to the auditorium after my lesson and try playing with the youth orchestra. So I did and I was a disaster! I had had some confidence in my sight reading ability, but the rest of the kids played everything so well and so fast. It was only about 70 years later that I realized they must have been re-playing their Spring concert - so no one else was sight reading. I actually went home crying. But I continued 30 minute private lessons with that teacher at MSM as well as the hour-long theory class later the same day with a different teacher, every Saturday of the next 2 academic years.

I actually quit lessons and playing before I was 12 for more than a year and never took another violin lesson; I've been "self-taught" ever since. I never played in an orchestra again for 4 years when I joined my high school's orchestra as a beginning freshman. I've been playing in orchestras and other ensembles and I have never had the same problem in the 76 years since.

January 19, 2023, 4:18 PM · I think the skills required for conducting youth and community orchestras are massively underappreciated - especially when discussion of conductors is around the top level who only ever conduct orchestras who can play anything thrown at them (see the film Tár, or recordings by any big name conductor).

Choosing repertoire is tough, and rarely successful. Those orchestras need a mix of pieces that are manageable challenges to bring them on, and others that they are able to work up to high performance standard so they get a sense of what is possible.

And ideally those conductors, having coached and cajoled the orchestra to be able to play the pieces to a moderate standard, can then switch to interpretation mode so the musical shape is brought out in the final performance. Really hard.

January 19, 2023, 4:20 PM · Bruce - Brahms 2 was the very first symphony I played in my school orchestra and it made me a Brahms lover for life. I'm sure it was a shambles but if it worked for me...
Edited: January 19, 2023, 5:45 PM · Yes, Steve, there is a ton of emotion attached to that piece of music for me, because of what was going on in my life at that time. Anyhow, technically, I didn't find it that difficult, but musically it is very challenging.

Also, if my memory serves me correctly, and I'm remembering the name of this person correctly, the principal second violinist of that youth orchestra is now the concert master of the Toronto symphony.. and I mention that, because so often these community orchestras and youth orchestras, are the breeding ground for the next generation of great players in major Symphony Orchestras. Inappropriate music selection, can damage or defeat this benefit for these young people.

January 19, 2023, 6:02 PM · My first orchestra experience was similar to Bruce's and Andrew Victor's. I played in my college orchestra when I had been learning for only a year and a half, completely self-taught. I would now say I was doing extremely well for a year and a half of self-teaching, but... that's not saying much. I was probably not where Bruce was after 1 year.

The first thing I saw on my stand in an orchestra rehearsal was Brahms's 1st Symphony, and I ended up faking the vast majority of it in the concert. This was at a small school with no music department; there were some excellent players and the front half of each string section had no trouble with the repertoire, but they also let in people who really weren't able to keep up a lot of the time.

But not everything in Brahms 1 was unplayable. I was able to play some of the familiar themes, and that was enough for me to be happy to continue trying to play a little more and fake a little less each concert, and get as many pointers as I could from other people. After I graduated, I dropped down to more intermediate-level ensembles, and worked my way up over the next decade to auditioned orchestras that could play standard repertoire. I now play in an orchestra that takes on even the most challenging pieces in the repertoire on just 4-5 weeks of weekly rehearsals.

This is my current orchestra:

Edited: January 20, 2023, 8:04 AM · Any community orchestra with that kind of excerpt list is a fairly serious one. Many community orchestras don't really audition, and if they do, it's often "come play something for the conductor" (or maybe "come play two short contrasting bits").

Looking up the Durham Symphony, they classify themselves as semi-pro, with both professionals and volunteers; I assume that means that they pay some but not all the players. They are tiny -- chamber orchestra sized.

They are not the right group for you, OP. The type of player they seek is likely either a music educator with a strong command of their instrument, or a really excellent amateur. Look for a different community orchestra in your area, one that accepts casual hobbyists.

Community orchestras vary really widely. I posted a tiered classification here some time back, and I turned it into a blog post: LINK

That said, all the pieces that are used in that audition are fairly commonly played in community orchestras, and I originally learned them that way (and the first time I played that Scherzo for an audition, it was for a community orchestra re-auditioning existing members).

Edited: January 20, 2023, 8:08 AM · I think choosing repertoire for community orchestras often involves the interesting juggling act of playing to the strengths and weaknesses of individual players.

When I was very young, I was the assistant CM in a community orchestra that had an absolutely fantastic brass section, pretty good woodwinds, and average-quality-for-a-community-orchestra strings. Well, the thing about brass is that in the right repertoire, they can cover an amazing assortment of ills, especially in the strings. We did a lot of big bombastic works that were a delight to participate in but had utterly murderous string parts that were largely drowned out. (This is how I learned a good chunk of the common Richard Strauss works...)

There's also the question of the length of a set and the number of rehearsals therein, and whether or not what is a total mess in rehearsal #1 and possibly #2 will fix itself by the time you get to the concert and everyone has the weeks they need to learn the repertoire (or gets over the procrastination hump and panic practices).

And much of the time it's not the difficulty of each individual work as the total amount of practice time investment necessary to get the whole group of works for the concert to a decent level. A single really difficult but has-to-be-right transparent segment of music can eat ridiculously disproportionate practice time.

Player mix in the strings is a huge factor also. If you've got big string sections you'll likely have more of a mixed bag of skill levels. A handful of strong players can often carry a section, but conversely a handful of weak players can really mess up the precision of sound of an otherwise excellent section.

Community orchestra concertmasters are likely to get some input into the proposed sets for a season, especially when the conductor isn't a string player. That serves as a bit of a balancing mechanism against the risk that a set is too difficult in ways that aren't necessarily obvious to the conductor. (In general, conductors have the sense to recognize themselves that notes in the stratosphere will be a problem for most community orchestra 2nd violinists, etc.)

In the end, in the community orchestra context, for strings the expectation is usually "contribute what you can, fake the rest", with some reasonable floor to the minimum skill level expected. For first violinists that tends to be a Bruch level, maybe deBeriot 9 at the low end. For second violinists it's solid intermediate technique, comfortable in 1st position, reliable enough in 3rd position, and maybe occasionally able to manage what my teacher jokingly calls "emergency position" (5th position) -- where Accolay level is considered good.

January 20, 2023, 9:04 AM · Lydia, there may be some of what you saw in the community orchestra going on in my daughter's YO. The woodwinds are VERY good, the brass is strong (except the French horn, OY!), but the strings are not that good. Maybe she's hoping that the others are loud enough to cover up whatever is going on with the strings.
January 20, 2023, 9:29 AM · Lydia, I have often seen Bruch referred to as a "level". For the ignorant, what does this mean? Are you referring to a specific piece, or is most of his music written at a certain level?
Edited: January 20, 2023, 10:39 AM · "In the end, in the community orchestra context, for strings the expectation is usually "contribute what you can, fake the rest", with some reasonable floor to the minimum skill level expected. For first violinists that tends to be a Bruch level, maybe deBeriot 9 at the low end."

Lydia, the second sentence of your paragraph seems to contradict the first and is completely at odds with the zeitgeist in the UK. Nobody I know "in the community orchestra context" thinks in terms of a "minimum skill level" determined by what grade of showpiece you can get your fingers round.

Our community orchestras try hard to be welcoming and in my experience never audition aspiring string players. If there happens to be a vacancy pretty much any applicant will be invited to occupy it and first of all judge for themselves if they are a good fit. Of course some selection takes place in determining who sits where, but this is determined by getting to know each player in context. Musical sensitivity is a highly prized quality that isn't, in my view, reliably indicated by any player's performance as a soloist.

January 20, 2023, 10:19 AM · Gray, Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 is typically the first professional level concerto that violin students learn. It's adjacent to Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor.
Edited: January 20, 2023, 12:34 PM · I'm not sure minimum skill levels Lydia described are "typical" in my experience -- most community orchestras I've seen have been at the low end of that.

But then my area has a big gap in community orchestras. By the description in Lydia's blog post, locally there are three "elite" community orchestras where most of the 2nd violin section can play a reasonable Bruch or Mendelssohn. All the others are either in the lower half of "casual" orchestras or expressly adult beginner orchestras, with one of those casual orchestras hitting its ability limit at early Romantic symphonies and the others mostly playing arrangements. Oddly, nothing in between.

January 20, 2023, 2:43 PM · @ Gray. I suggest you check out Indie Strings Orchestra in Durham. It is for beginner to intermediate level adults.
January 21, 2023, 3:03 PM · Steve, I distinguish between being capable of playing something under performance pressure, with sufficient practice, from the likelihood of actually doing so (including putting in the necessary practice time). You'll get plenty of people who could, with enough diligent work, have a reasonable probability of getting the notes. But in reality, most of those people are going to put in enough time to sound decent -- without going that extra mile to nail every note.

I'm using "Bruch level" and "De Beriot 9 level" as proxies for general technical level, as opposed to anyone being asked what they've learned in the past. However, auditions are moderately common for American community orchestras. Some have a "come play with us and we'll mutually decide if you should stay" attitude, and that's probably the bulk of the orchestras, especially outside major metro areas.

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