Solo Work may be Nullified by Orchestra Playing

October 31, 2017, 5:14 PM · On page 128 of book "Violin Mastery", Alexander Saslavsky claimed:

"... Four hours of (solo) study work may be nullified by a single hour of orchestra playing. ...".

Agree or Disagree? And Why?

Replies (47)

October 31, 2017, 5:20 PM · agreed. at least for me, I feel that blasting in an orchestra and blending with less expressive players changes my bow arm habits. It seems to take a while to get back in to playing with more nuance.
October 31, 2017, 5:29 PM · The OP left off the very next sentence in the relevant quote:

"Musically it is broadening, of course, but I am speaking from the standpoint of the student who hopes to become a solo artist."

He was referring to a small subset of violinists playing at a very high level with aspirations to a solo career. And even then I am not sure I agree. Even the best students at Indiana were required to play in one of the orchestras, at least when I was there in the 1980s, though the real future soloists were sometimes given a seat in the back so I suppose something like the OP's quote was at play.

For the average violinist, even the average pre-professional violinist, an hour of playing in an orchestra isn't going to nullify anything.

October 31, 2017, 5:40 PM · Well probably it depends on the orchestra. But posture? You're in a cramped space, and likely you're not paying as much attention to form as you should. Maybe with more experience one adapts to that better, but I haven't.

The orchestras I play in, I don't think most people have even tuned their instruments properly. So what Edward said about "blending" means that you're constantly compensating and compromising with all of the different pitches that are around you. Maybe that's something pro orchestral players have to do too, but probably not to nearly the same degree.

I have to say that when it's painfully obvious that people can't even tune their own instruments, then you should have an electronic tuner set up in the corner of the room, and make it policy that everyone uses it. Including the ringers -- let solidarity prevail over ego. And have a violinist stationed there who can help the folks with weak hands who cannot turn their own pegs and have been convinced since childhood that having more than one fine tuner is unprofessional.

October 31, 2017, 5:52 PM · I have definitely heard from teachers that orchestral playing does nothing for your technique, and that it makes it too easy to hide. I had one teacher who suggested her students count orchestra playing as half as many hours as personal practice.

I never bought that because I have never felt a since of technical progress playing orchestra. But one does learn from orchestral experience, how to blend and follow a conductor, and it is painfully obvious when one is inexperienced in this area, even if said person plays extremely well from a solo standpoint. In my pre-college program, I remember how shocked I was at first to see all of these students I viewed as prodigious, who won solo competitions left and right, completely crash and burn in a second violin section in a chamber orchestra, or play as if they were soloing with their piano trio.

I don't know if the detrimental effects are as extreme as the quote the OP used, but I would assume one needs some balance. I have always wondered why so many institutions make orchestral playing the centerpiece of their programs and put chamber and solo playing on the back burner. Perhaps out of convenience?

October 31, 2017, 6:05 PM · What you do in an orchestra depends only on how conscientious you are. Orchestral parts can be every bit as demanding as solo literature. It's really up to the player and their work ethic.
October 31, 2017, 6:08 PM · When I was in music school--and as far as I know this hasn't changed--orchestra was a requirement, chamber music was a requirement, and solo repertoire was what we studied in lessons. I wouldn't describe anything as being put on the back burner, and I certainly didn't know anyone who considered time spent in orchestra rehearsal as any part of personal practice.

"So what Edward said about "blending" means that you're constantly compensating and compromising with all of the different pitches that are around you. Maybe that's something pro orchestral players have to do too, but probably not to nearly the same degree."

No, the expectation is that everyone plays in tune.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 6:14 PM · Conjecture, but my impression was that my university program wanted to fill seats with the ‘best’ students and paid handsomely for that with scholarships. Their justification seemed to be that orchestral playing improved ensemble playing, which is why many soloistic players ‘crash’ and why so many pianists are so bad at piano quartets, etc. (did you notice that the chamber thread did not mention the wonderful lit out there with piano and strings?) Who really uses metronomes anyway ;-( and matching someone else’s direction in rubato can be challenging when you are used to just ‘feeling it.’
Nice point on physically fitting in (cramped quarters.) Probably part of why my arm feels ‘out of sorts’ when I try to adjust to different scroll positions.
October 31, 2017, 6:11 PM · I'm not a fan of orchestra playing and prefer to spend all my time working on solo reps, techniques and chamber works. However, I believe orchestra works will broaden my musical skills and knowledge in ways the former activities won't. So I've been taking this "should pill" for the past a few years and more or less forcing myself to play in the local conservatory orchestra among pre-professional students. I don't think it hurts my technique but doesn't seem to help it either. There were fun moments, but the long rehearsal hours, let's hope, will build character.
Edited: October 31, 2017, 6:18 PM · I don’t find the orchestral rep I play to be at all lacking in technical challenge, so that’s not the issue for me.
I enjoy playing pieces picked by musical directors that are outside of what is normally available to me or that I would have otherwise chosen to learn.
Edited: October 31, 2017, 6:27 PM · I don't practice on orchestra day, but not because I consider it equivalent to practice. As a player new to orchestra I find it a little fatiguing still, especially where the current piece we are working on requires many, many, many sustained notes across multiple measures. By the end of it my bow arm is a little tired from the slow sustained bowing.

I feel like at this stage in my development being surrounded by other violists playing the same thing has been beneficial for my technique, as I can observe how they're playing things and notice weaknesses in my own technique that might not come out in other places.

I think this sort of thing is very dependent on the individual and how influenced they are. If one hour of orchestra is enough to undo 4 hours of solo practice then maybe you should careful monitor how you're playing in orchestra.

Of course, some things, such as space requiring modified technique, are a little harder to overcome... We sometimes rehearse in a very small room and it's very cramped. I've been poked and poked a few times.

October 31, 2017, 6:51 PM · The reason I said other things were put on the back burner is based on the frequency of performance required for each type of playing in each program. For instance, where I went to school, you performed in orchestra every two weeks, chamber music once a semester, and solo recitals were required twice during the course of a degree with juries every semester. There were some optional things you could do such as the studio showcases, the concerto competition, and chamber music outreach, but these occurred still with a level of frequency that didn't even compare to that which you had to play in orchestra.

I assume that there are some practical reasons for this, such as lack of space and time to have so many seperate concerts, but I would think that the discrepancy could be made just a little bit smaller.

October 31, 2017, 10:58 PM · Disagree. We don't do orchestra music because it improves our technique, we play in an orchestra because it is great music. I think Carl Flesch recommended that all potential soloists do an apprenticeship in an orchestra. Pablo Casals played in a provinicial theater orchestra.
November 1, 2017, 12:52 AM · You can learn a lot from orchestral playing, and the literature.

Still, Mischakoff (concertmaster at Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, among other places) was supposed to have done an hour of scales after rehearsals to get his game back.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 1:31 AM · I think Scott makes a good point: "it's really up to the players and their work ethic".

To add to Stephen's comment: I also read somewhere that the great Josef Gingold after playing in orchestra has to play scales for a while in order to get his tuning back. And he wasn't the concertmaster of some minor orchestra.

It's perspective and frame of reference. We all can find something to improve somehow. Me - quite a lot, others maybe not so much.

November 1, 2017, 4:53 AM · I wouldn't want Mr.Savlasky in my orchestra with that attitude.Orchestral parts can be extremely challenging along with playing together in a group.I've sat with people with this kind of attitude.Not fun.
November 1, 2017, 5:10 AM · I love orchestral playing but I do find my technique is mucky after an orchestral concert - and if I'm seriously preparing for an exam or something I park orchestra for a while so I have extra practice time.
November 1, 2017, 5:16 AM · Quite frankly I think playing in an orchestra is a huge waste of time. That includes all-county and all-state orchestras. From a musical perspective, it is much better to be active in a small chamber group or string quartet where you can really see and listen to one another.
November 1, 2017, 5:37 AM · I think in respect to the orchestra requirements at Universities, no one has mentioned the fact that probably 99% of music majors who become professionals will play in orchestras as at least part of their professional income. It really helps to cut down on the practice/preparation time if one has played a piece previously and has some of the tricky spots already mostly in your fingers. So from a purely practical perspective it is useful to have played a large amount of orchestral literature before graduation.

From a technique perspective, I've found that if I am fully prepared for a rehearsal, then there is no negative impact on technique whatsoever, and when I practice and prepare thoroughly I either improve or at least maintain technique. However, if due to circumstances, I am slightly underprepared for an orchestra rehearsal or performance I can feel unwanted tension and bad habits (posture, etc) creeping in.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 6:32 AM · Saslavsky,mentioned by the OP, may have had a point for string players at an insecure point in their development, but orchestra concertmasters (who obviously play in orchestras) often play solo concertos with orchestras as well as perform recitals and chamber music. Mischakoff, mentioned by Stephen was a marvelous soloist and was called on to play concertos with various symphonies into his 80s (read the fascinating book "Mischa Mischakoff, Journeys of a Concertmaster" by Anne Mischakoff Heils).

The one orchestral stint I had (one rehearsal) in 1973 under Herbert Blomstedt that included a number of USC students from the Heifetz master class made it quite clear to me that even wonderful soloist-level violinists can gain needed sight-reading experience from orchestral playing.

If you have the"right violin" you should be able to hear yourself well enough when playing in orchestra and not abuse your technique. Practicing your parts for orchestra need not take much time. When I was playing 1st violin in one community orchestra (for 33 years) - after the first sight-reading run through with the conductor I usually only had to practice about 5 minutes worth of stuff (the hard high bits), so that was no interference with my regular practice. Since getting into 2nd violin and now viola, in my late 70s & 80s I glance through the music and if I see something that I think will be tricky for me I play through it - only if it is tricky do I practice it, because there is so much else to play (and so little time!).

I think if you are also going to play in orchestra you have to be aware if and when you are abusing your technique (or "solo rules"), which can happen when you are carried away by the shear volume of sound around you

November 1, 2017, 7:15 AM · The other thing no one is mentioned is the dearth of creativity one subjects themselves to. Yes, there are some amazingly creative conductors, but if orchestra is your main thing, you aren't really flexing your creativity muscles, just by the sheer nature of the beast. Orchestra, for the string section players at least, is almost an exercise in anti-creativity. You have to play like a conformist to achieve the best blend.
I could see something like this making a player rather uninspired to generally explore their own voice.
November 1, 2017, 7:41 AM · so much orchestral hate.

I never considered playing in an orchestra a waste of time. It was my first experience of playing a real symphony (Tchaik 6) in a youth orchestra at age 13 that made me fall in love with the sound. Specifically, the sound and the feeling of playing the violin as part of the larger ensemble playing great music. That's what I wanted to do with my life, from age 13 on.

Chamber music is great music and a great experience also but the one is not greater or lesser art than the other. The individual contribution is different, true. Students need chamber music experiences, first because that is also part of our art, and second because of the skills one learns best in that setting. But not because chamber playing is a greater, and orchestral playing a lesser, art.

Every orchestral player I know finds an outlet for creativity--for some it is a side professional chamber ensemble; for others it is music arranging, or photography, or cake decorating. For me it is teaching.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 8:02 AM · Mary Ellen,

Of course, there are so many positive aspects of orchestral playing. The repertoire is absolutely phenomenal, and sitting in the middle of it offers a different experience than sitting in the audience for sure. I don't know any other ensemble type in any genre which to compare it to, given the sheer variety of instruments involved, and having all those people reading music as if it were a book. You just don't get that on a regular basis in, say rock, country, or pop.

One gets to watch their favorite pieces put together by an ensemble from start to finish, and participate in it, which is pretty amazing. It is also an extremely social activity, and you get to be surrounded by so many people from stand partners, to the break. One can feel a sense of camaraderie. And as far as interpretation goes, it can definitely be fun to see the different perspectives when you play the same piece multiple times with different conductors and section leaders. Perhaps we forget here to celebrate orchestra for its strengths, and always point out its flaws.

November 1, 2017, 9:19 AM · The degree to which orchestra ruins your technique is going to be totally dependent on how conscientious a player you are, to Scott Cole's point. If you let the fact that you cannot be as easily heard in a section as an excuse to be sloppy -- to not pay attention to your intonation, to not pull a consistently good sound (and one that blends into a section), to not be rhythmically precise and even, to fake anything that's hard, etc. -- then, sure, playing in orchestra is an exercise in playing badly.

Regarding Andy Victor's comment about the community-orchestra first-violin parts for a concert only constituting about 5 minutes of hard stuff to practice, I would say that this is very dependent upon both the ambition of the conductor and the willingness to merely reach the acceptably okay level (whatever that happens to be in that particular ensemble). An awful lot of orchestra literature is quite difficult for the first violins, and often nontrivial for second violins as well.

Also, you'll hear that musicianship in orchestras changes dramatically by level. Great orchestras play together with an instinct for the phrase that is not just what the conductor is doing. At the community or lesser youth orchestra level, there may be a sense that you are just executing what is on the printed page without any attempt to phrase it the way that you would if you were playing alone, but that's not actually what you should be doing. Also, in better orchestras, intonation is typically quite secure, which allows players to tune what they're doing to the chord in a proper fashion, just like they would do in chamber music.

I find that as a section leader, my level of engagement in a rehearsal is much deeper. What am I hearing? What's causing that sound, if it's not what I hoped to hear? Can I make a useful suggestion? Should I be changing what I'm doing? An argument might be made that everyone should have that same level of engagement, though.

November 1, 2017, 9:22 AM · I have to disagree with Sung Han, by the way. As a child, I started playing with a string ensemble in my Suzuki program as soon as I could -- from the first moment I heard them rehearse, I knew I wanted to be part of that. I joined a youth symphony as soon as I could. Orchestras provided the greatest musical and social experiences of my childhood.

I started playing chamber music as a teenager -- with my orchestra friends. But much as I enjoy it, it never matches the orchestral literature or experience for me. I learned a ton from my conductors, as well, including two successive Solti assistant conductors of the Chicago Symphony.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 9:29 AM · Great orchestras function like a massive chamber ensemble, they certainly don't follow a time-beater.

I think it's important to recognize that by the very nature of our experiences, those of us who don't play full-time in high-level professional orchestras aren't always seeing/hearing the whole picture.

I was just blown away by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Schubert Unfinished, and their Schumann 2 a few weeks ago when they were here on tour in Orange County. My wife commented that it was important for us to try and go to performances like that regularly so that even despite our busy schedules teaching, we have musical moments that inspire us to continue doing what we are doing.

November 1, 2017, 9:32 AM · Fors: we have to play at someone else's tempo, how they want when they want - good training.
Againsts: we can't really hear what we are doing, and when we have a section solo it's a bit rough at the edges.
November 1, 2017, 10:37 AM · I really love orchestral playing and think it has stretched me as a player at times when I wasn't working much on solo stuff (e.g. college). I *have* experienced a lot of discomfort, however, based on the contortions necessary for me to see the music and the conductor. In fact, at one point I opted to sit in the second, not first, chair because it enabled me to watch the conductor without twisting.

I'm sure I'm doing it wrong and am curious about whether more experienced/pro orchestra players have advice. If you're sitting on the right side of the stand, do you effectively rotate away from your stand mate and point your scroll toward the conductor?

November 1, 2017, 10:43 AM · Katie, how one sits is so dependent on so many individual variables, it's impossible to give a general answer. The comparable heights of the two people on the stand and how much in agreement they are about the optimal height of the stand is a big one. Individual variation in the angle at which one holds the violin matters--players with short arms may bring the scroll closer to the center line whereas players with long arms may swing the scroll slightly further away from center. And finally, eyesight and how the aging process affects it. I am much more finicky (by necessity) now about the amount of light available and placement of music on the stand than I was in my youth.
November 1, 2017, 10:53 AM · I hear you. It's amazing how much of a difference it makes in one's ability to focus on the important things. I want to be able to hear my section (and others around me), to see the conductor at least peripherally, and to glance at the music even if my part is 85% memorized (which isn't going to be the case for a lot of these last-minute gigs). And I want this to be possible without twisting myself to the extent that I have back spasms for days.

I'm sure I'm not alone in these desires. And yet in all my years of orchestral playing--many of them in student orchestras in which we were spending literally months working on a few pieces--I can't remember a single time in which a conductor or section leader addressed these kinds of positional issues. They certainly weren't accounted for in seating. I mean, I don't actually expect a conductor to think "hmm...Steve and Katie play well together and seem to get along but he's a full foot taller than she is; maybe I'll stick her next to Rennie instead."

No solutions to offer here...only thinking out loud.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 11:06 AM · Also, re: orchestra for kids, fully agree with Lydia. Plus, having a conductor is a huge educational experience that one doesn't get from chamber music. That said, they feel like highly complementary learning experiences that can inform each other.

In one memorable orchestra retreat, Karla Lemon (who sadly passed away a few years ago) had us break up into string quartets to practice the slow movement of Mahler 5. She wanted us to feel each other's pulse w/out needing her to dictate, and to play it like chamber music. I loved that.

November 1, 2017, 11:04 AM · "Orchestras provided the greatest musical and social experiences of my childhood."

Lydia, mine too.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 11:20 AM · The individual orchestra experience is quite dependent on the conductor and the orchestra members. If you have a wonderful conductor, your orchestra experience can be wonderful, I admit. However, an incompetent conductor, combined with lousy repertoire, takes the joy out of music-making, leaving you frustrated and stressed-out.
November 1, 2017, 1:50 PM · Interesting thread! I wanted to reply but everything has already been said :-)
November 1, 2017, 2:09 PM · Interesting topic. I wonder at the way that most teachers and others seem to regard being a soloist as superior to being a musician in an orchestra. Does that mean that all professional musicians in orchestras are failed soloists?

As a moderately late starter (I was 30) I wanted to play in orchestras and the intergenerational community orchestra run by a bunch of instrument teachers was the best time I had playing and I did learn a lot because of the mix of skill levels and musicians assisting each other.

I guess you could count some of my church playing as being a soloist, but really... I've admitted to having tried to get into and even start chamber groups but they never held together long enough to count.

The closest I get now is playing duets with students and that fits my lifestyle perfectly for now.

November 1, 2017, 2:14 PM · "Does that mean that all professional musicians in orchestras are failed soloists?"

No, it does not.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 2:19 PM · I found that playing in an orchestra taught me a good amount, but I also couldn't really make good technical process while playing in an orchestra - I guess I had to cut too many corners and had too much tension in my playing. I imagine that pro orchestral players can manage it a lot better than a bum like me in a community orchestra. But I think it's more relevant to the balance you have between practice and performance. Performing a lot teaches you a lot about performance, but your playing is liable to get sloppy if you are performing a lot and it's cutting into your practice time and concentration. Some time for methodical work is needed, and it is possible to burn out.

I've heard some pro soloists in talkbacks talk about having to rehab their technique a bit after going on long tours, but rehearsal and performance can also enhance work done in the practice room.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 3:06 PM · Christian’s got a good point. As a doubler who grew up playing various wind and other instruments in ensembles and later orchestral strings (this season with seats on vln, vla, and am now moving from fourths to fifths tuned bass in another chamber group), I have experienced playing over my head on multiple instruments ;-) The orchestra doesn’t slow its practice or performance tempo (ususally) for individual security and the deadline of a performance can strain one’s ability to improve fast enough. Under those conditions it’s easy for many amateurs and developing players to get sloppy with technique.
November 1, 2017, 3:52 PM · Is it more difficult to make a living off of being a chamber player or an orchestral player?
November 1, 2017, 3:54 PM · The main difference that I see between solo repertoire practice and orchestra practice -- from a purely technical standpoint -- is that the level of challenge for solo rep can be closely optimized to the student, and practice time can be concentrated on those portions of the piece that need it most. In most amateur/community orchestras, there is going to be a fairly broad range of skill levels, which entirely rules out pieces that are challenging for the strongest players. And in an orchestra rehearsal, you have to plod through the easy parts too -- including long rests -- because those portions might be hard for another section, etc.

I think what students should ideally be learning in orchestra is how to listen and how to blend. On the other hand, I play in an all-string orchestra, where the conductor is a great, experienced violinist, who is demanding and ambitious, and who is constantly giving advice about bow strokes, fingerings, and other tidbits that help students learn how to make the most of their parts, often demonstrating the sound that he wants on the concermaster's violin. I feel like I'm getting about a one-hour violin lesson's worth of such advice in a 2.5-hour rehearsal. I love those rehearsals.

Mary Ellen said that people should just be expected to play in tune. But the thing is, what if they don't? What if you're trying to play the right "E" on the viola to match the "C" in the second violins, but you hear three or four different C's, not just one? That's what I meant about compromising and such.

November 1, 2017, 3:57 PM · They're both hard.

Very few professional chamber groups make a fulltime living and those that do are usually in residence at a university.

Many orchestral players are in fulltime orchestras that don't pay generously, or piece together a living with various part-time orchestras.

Someone with the right personality and marketing acumen can make a pretty good living with a quartet playing weddings, though I would not describe that as making a living as a "chamber player."

Edited: November 1, 2017, 7:39 PM · The distinction between chamber orchestras and (full) orchestras mentioned above is a good one. I too enjoyed and learned a lot from playing in a string orchestra conducted by an accomplished violinist.

All these decades later, still remember one of the pieces we played: Britten's Simple Symphony.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 5:39 PM · "Mary Ellen said that people should just be expected to play in tune. But the thing is, what if they don't? What if you're trying to play the right "E" on the viola to match the "C" in the second violins, but you hear three or four different C's, not just one? That's what I meant about compromising and such."

What I was responding to was your speculation that something similar to the pitch compromise you described in a community orchestra might be going on in a professional orchestra. In a professional orchestra, there absolutely should not be three or four different C's. People are expected to play in tune.

If a situation arises in a professional orchestra where there are three or four different interpretations of a certain pitch on a consistent basis, someone or a couple of someones are in danger of losing a job.

I think it is hard to imagine, if you're not in the pro music world, just how much higher the standards are and what we take for granted as baseline expectations. It's kind of like when I hear local people talking about how the All-State Symphony concerts are "as good as a professional orchestra," which they are not. The kids are good, but there are little differences which are audible to anyone with trained ears. And at that, I think the Texas All-State orchestras play at a higher standard than most all-volunteer community orchestras.

November 1, 2017, 5:37 PM · This thread reminds me of a lesson where I was studying a concerto, and my teacher (who also happened to conduct the community orchestra I played in) said "More bow, more bow! This isn't orchestra..."
Edited: November 1, 2017, 6:20 PM · One can be as conscientious as the Buddha himself, but if a context (aka orchestra) is pulling one down, what is one supposed to do? Stick out? No, you are supposed to adapt, just in any other group.
The same applies to the other direction - in a top notch orchestra, you will have to work hard to improve all aspects of your playing. Just listen to the orchestra of "La Scala" if you get a chance!

They fly and you fly along or you drop dead.

2 depreciated Canadian cents

November 2, 2017, 4:35 AM · I appreciate the difference in level between amateur and pro orchestras to the extent that I play in the amateur one and my teacher plays in a pro one. But of course I'll never have that experience myself.

I've heard that in a string quartet, often the most exposed chords will need to be carefully adjusted by the group in rehearsal to ensure that they can be exactly in tune. Do pro orchestras do that too?

November 2, 2017, 4:56 AM · Paul, I find I make the same minute adjustments as in a quartet; but the pitches in a (good) full orchestra are more "diffused", which is part of their charm!

But come back to my earlier point, even concert-master's solos can be good but a little diappointing; if they spend hours every day "leading the troops" they will not suddenly play like a full time soloist.

November 2, 2017, 5:19 AM · "I've heard that in a string quartet, often the most exposed chords will need to be carefully adjusted by the group in rehearsal to ensure that they can be exactly in tune. Do pro orchestras do that too?"

Occasionally, but nothing like as frequently as in a string quartet, and more often with the winds where there is one player on a part.

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