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My First Orchestra Experience
Hopefully an ongoing discussion... topics on beginning in orchestra, dealing with learning the music, following the conductor, playing with the section, being a positive contribution to the orchestra.
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cid
November 15, 2019 - 6:07 pm
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Is it very audible if you accidentally hit a string when you are trying to fake it and skip notes? 

I am assuming that maybe you know that particular part is beyond your current ability, and will be by the time of the performance that you practice doing it in your modified form you are able to do so you are not modifying it during the performance?

I am sorry to be a pain about this. I have just wondered about this since reading about it, maybe earlier in this thread, and was picturing myself trying to modify a piece during a performance because it is a section I have issues with. Would you practice with that modification in those trouble spots? Does the conductor know you are doing this? Is it considered acceptable? 

I realize a major symphony would not allow this from paid musicians, but with community orchestras where players are not paid and are of different levels, is this acceptable? I seem to recall that when I read, whatever I read about it, it sounded like the person was getting away with something, for lack of better description.

They call me, “Mellow Cello” 

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AndrewH
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cid said
Is it very audible if you accidentally hit a string when you are trying to fake it and skip notes? 

I am assuming that maybe you know that particular part is beyond your current ability, and will be by the time of the performance that you practice doing it in your modified form you are able to do so you are not modifying it during the performance?

I am sorry to be a pain about this. I have just wondered about this since reading about it, maybe earlier in this thread, and was picturing myself trying to modify a piece during a performance because it is a section I have issues with. Would you practice with that modification in those trouble spots? Does the conductor know you are doing this? Is it considered acceptable? 

I realize a major symphony would not allow this from paid musicians, but with community orchestras where players are not paid and are of different levels, is this acceptable? I seem to recall that when I read, whatever I read about it, it sounded like the person was getting away with something, for lack of better description.

  

It depends on the size of the section and how loudly the orchestra is playing. If the orchestra is playing quickly in a pianissimo dynamic (as might happen in a Mendelssohn scherzo), you'll probably be heard if you play a wrong note. On the other hand, if everyone is playing fortissimo, wrong notes won't be very audible and you'll at least contribute what you can play. (If it's fortissimo and you have a ton of notes, it's mostly just for effect anyway.)

Since you're rehearsing every week, you'll probably know what you can and can't learn quickly enough, and you'll have a good idea of how it works out. You can even make changes from week to week. Community orchestras tend to get plenty of rehearsal time. (Generally, as the level of the orchestra goes up, the number of rehearsals decreases in addition to the music getting more difficult.) Back when I was playing in orchestras above my ability and faking a lot, in those difficult passages I would try to play a bit more and fake a bit less every week of rehearsals, and then a week or so before the concert I'd stop trying to get more notes and just make sure I could stay with the orchestra in what I was playing.

In most community orchestras, it's quite well known that hardly anyone tries to plays every note, except for maybe a handful of the best players. The conductors just tend to trust that different people are be faking at different times, and enough people are playing at any time that the section sounds OK. Community orchestra audiences aren't really expecting perfection. And conductors would much rather have you skip some of the notes than play out of tempo or out of tune.

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AndrewH
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When it comes to expectations, it often depends on the orchestra. There's a whole world of community orchestras out there, with varying goals and expectations. I think it's possible to put them into a few loose categories, with the understanding that I'm really just describing what's typical of each category rather than putting orchestras in boxes. (Also, some orchestras are in-between.) You'll note that there is some faking at all levels, but the amount and the nature of the faking changes.

I'm mostly describing the orchestras' goals rather than their quality. Although more serious orchestras tend to have higher minimum standards, the best "casual" orchestras are stronger than many "serious" orchestras, for example, because they may have a solid core of excellent players who are mainly interested in playing in a group as a social outlet and who can carry the orchestra through more challenging music.

Beginners: An orchestra whose express purpose is to give adult beginners and returners a group to play in. Players range from beginners to lower intermediate. Repertoire is almost entirely simplified school orchestra arrangements. Often founded and conducted by a local music teacher who has a large number of adult students. Almost never auditioned; if there are auditions they are for seating only. These orchestras are a relatively new concept, only starting to appear within the last 40 years, but the number is growing rapidly and many major cities now have at least one.

Casual: An orchestra that serves mostly as a social outlet; often family and friends make up a large part of the audience. Mixed skill levels within the orchestra; a single orchestra may include all levels from beginner to near-professional. Typically plays a mixture of light classics and arrangements, though the strongest casual orchestras may play more ambitious repertoire including some large scale classical works. Programming has to be carefully selected to be within the majority of players' abilities. Usually accepts almost anyone who at least knows the basics of playing; sometimes auditioned but auditions tend to be only for seating. However, the minimum level needed to keep up is usually somewhere between Suzuki 3 and Suzuki 5 depending on the orchestra. (By "keep up" I don't mean playing every note, I mean contributing consistently and not looking noticeably out of place.) For the most part, these orchestras are happy to have everyone do their best and contribute whatever they can to the section sound. Most community orchestras are in this category, with some much stronger than others.

Serious: An orchestra that plays mostly or all professional repertoire (i.e. classical and some film music, all in its original form) mostly in classical-format concerts, but does not necessarily aim for near-professional quality and avoids the most difficult pieces. Although people are still playing entirely for fun and there is still a large social component, the main goal for musicians is to challenge themselves and get the experience of playing great music. Often but not always auditioned; auditions tend to be informal, typically asking for either one piece of the player's choice or two contrasting pieces. Minimum level to keep up tends to be solidly intermediate (for violin, Haydn G major, Bach A minor, or similar concertos), though most of these orchestras accept lower-intermediate musicians knowing that they will do quite a bit of faking. Musicians are expected to practice reliably, even if their skills are not that advanced. The strongest community orchestra in a small to mid-sized city is often in this category.

Elite: An orchestra that takes pride in giving polished performances of professional repertoire including the most difficult works, mostly in classical-format concerts. Musicians are highly motivated to excel and enjoy being part of high-quality performances alongside other accomplished musicians, but most have little or no interest in performing for a living. Selectively auditioned, often with a formal audition similar in format to professional auditions (concerto + excerpts). Principal players are almost always paid professionals; sometimes the entire orchestra is semi-pro. Many members are music teachers and some are recent graduates who are on the professional audition circuit. The minimum standard for string players is typically at the lower end of the "advanced" range (for violin, a competent Mendelssohn, Bruch No. 1, Mozart No. 5, or similar concerto). Musicians are expected to be able to play almost everything in their parts without faking, though not necessarily accomplish it consistently. (That is to say: players learn the parts as written and rarely go into concerts expecting to fake any particular passage, but most don't have the consistency of full-time pros and make some mistakes that may put their hand in an awkward spot or cause them to lose track of where they are on the page, which forces them to fake on the fly for a few measures to recover.) Probably only 30-40 community orchestras in the US are in this category, mostly located in large cities.

College/Community: Not really part of the spectrum, but a category of its own that overlaps with most of the range of community orchestras. Often a college or university that doesn't have a big enough music program or student population to fill an orchestra with its own students will open the orchestra to community members. Depending on the resources of the school and the size of the community, these orchestras can be anywhere from casual orchestras that welcome near-beginners to fairly strong serious orchestras with selective auditions.

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Gordon Shumway
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Probably every question has been answered by now, so I had no real reason to chip in. Our orchestra has some very good players, and some less than good. Sometimes our four cellists are playing a solo and they are playing wildly different notes until stopped and restarted.

It is the case that an orchestra that's worse than you will have a detrimental effect on your playing, whereas one that's better than you will boost you. If you go to one of these, the price you have to pay is to tolerate the fear that you will be "found out".

My favourite faking method of course is to play ppp whenever I'm in doubt. The problem is then it's harder to hear myself and tell if I'm in tune or not. I expect once I hear a bigger selection of the people around me, I'll gain a little confidence.

One of our pieces is a march, so clearly playing the important beats in the bar will aid the march effect on the audience. But it will reduce the probability that everyone is faking at different times, lol!

Finally there's a frightening amount of chromatic/accidental work in our stuff, so that fingering by numbers is crucial (in lieu of thinking about where to find that Eb C# sequence in a piece in G!), and for this scale practice is important, and a little knowledge of the half position. In the John Ireland there are descending B, E and F# major scales which are obviously much more easily sight-read if you know those scales already.

I'll probably have to give up practising anything but orchestra music and scales and arps for a while. (Eb is a good one to learn - we have to hit a high, loud Eb out of the blue, and it's easiest for me if I shift to 4th position in the previous bar, which is the standard way to play the scale and arp in that key, I think)

Andrew

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cid
November 16, 2019 - 9:06 am
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Thank you. I do not play in any group but I am in awe of the Beginner, Casual, Serious, and College/Community orchestra members, as explained by AndrewH. The elite’s talent is not ignored by me, but I am more in tune with the other levels. 

@Gordon Shumway said

Probably every question has been answered by now, so I had no real reason to chip in.

Alf, your input was, indeed, informative and helpful. Thank you. 

I am in awe of all you forum members who participate in an orchestra or some sort of performance appearance and your ability to play in front of people. I simply cannot do it.

Thank you all for explaining the “faking” to me. I would be faking the entire thing and maybe actually playing a note once in a while. 

I know being in a group would definitely help you improve, and would far outweigh any feelings of being uncomfortable playing with and in front of people, but I cannot do it. I would feel like I let them down when I messed up.

I mention this for those considering it. Don’t be like me. Join a group and share your interest with those like-minded. I know it will only help you improve with your playing, and with your music reading, keeping time, etc. That can only make it more fun for you.

😁

They call me, “Mellow Cello” 

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wtw
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AndrewH said
conductors would much rather have you skip some of the notes than play out of tempo or out of tune.
  

Exactly. As our conductor said, "you gotta show what you can do, not what you can't" wink.

For me "faking" involves playing ppp with more or less the right rhythm and bowing, until I'm on solid ground again (pretending to play with the bow off the string is not something I'd manage).

I was very hesitant about joining a group - I almost forced myself (since may). They're all much more experienced than I am. I found it has advantages and drawbacks.

Advantages :
- I'm making progress, especially with my left hand. And well, with reading music too, since I never played with sheet music before joining them.
- The social part. You socialize without talking much, which suits me well.
- Relating to exposure, I find it easier than to take private lessons. In the orchestra I can stay more or less hidden if needed (not too much because we are only 4 violas on the best of days, bus still).

Drawbacks :
- big one : less time for "carefree" playing. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I often think in terms of "tonight I must" practice this or that part. Of course it's not disagreeable when I get down to it... But I try to remember to keep playing other things I like - klezmer, irish, whatever.
- less time to work on the right hand and quality of sound.

I'm hoping that when I get better, I'll have more time to myself.

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cid
November 16, 2019 - 10:47 am
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I should have started this as a whole other thread about “What Keeps me From Playing in a Group, and Why Are Others Able To and Why Do They Do It”. 😁 

They call me, “Mellow Cello” 

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AndrewH
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Gordon Shumway said
It is the case that an orchestra that's worse than you will have a detrimental affect on your playing, whereas one that's better than you will boost you. If you go to one of these, the price you have to pay is to tolerate the fear that you will be "found out".

  

That's my experience, though once you're at a certain level you can also gain something by leading a section in an orchestra where most people are below your level. Leading a section is a whole different ballgame.

I advanced mostly by playing in the best orchestras that would accept me, where most people were far above my level. It helped to think: they knew my playing ability from the start, and as long as I wasn't getting worse, I was good enough.

That said, this is also true:

wtw said 

Drawbacks :

- big one : less time for "carefree" playing. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I often think in terms of "tonight I must" practice this or that part. Of course it's not disagreeable when I get down to it... But I try to remember to keep playing other things I like - klezmer, irish, whatever.

- less time to work on the right hand and quality of sound.

  

Because I was self-teaching while playing in orchestras, my right hand technique trailed far behind my left hand for a long time.

I think these are especially a problem when you play in stronger orchestras that play challenging material, because you're spending a lot of time trying to learn all the notes. These drawbacks are worst in orchestras that play pieces above the level of most of their members, because at that point the entire orchestra is just trying to hack its way through the piece and there isn't much time in rehearsals to work on expression. This is especially the case with lower-end serious orchestras that try to play mostly professional repertoire but don't have the musicians to do it. A good casual orchestra often devotes more effort to expression in rehearsals because there are enough people who have no trouble playing the notes.

But letting go of some of the perfectionism helps a lot -- in particular, understanding that the orchestra often wants a certain quality of sound more than it wants you to play all the notes. Also, remembering that everyone is in it for fun and it shouldn't become so all-consuming as to feel like a burden. Ideally, the orchestra is a source of motivation to practice more, without eating up too much practice time.

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These comments have been great. It really gives an idea of what it is like to play in an orchestra. What you should expect from yourself in playing with the orchestra. And, most importantly, should give those who would like to, but have some hesitation based on what they think their abilities are or what they perceive their abilities lack, encouragement to give it a try.  

They call me, “Mellow Cello” 

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Gordon Shumway
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AndrewH said

I advanced mostly by playing in the best orchestras that would accept me, where most people were far above my level. It helped to think: they knew my playing ability from the start, and as long as I wasn't getting worse, I was good enough.

  

Yes, optimism is crucial. Join an orchestra with the point of view "They are better than me now, but they won't be by the end of the season".

Andrew

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cid
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@Gordon Shumway Love the attitude. Spoken just as Alf would say!

They call me, “Mellow Cello” 

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cid said
I should have started this as a whole other thread about “What Keeps me From Playing in a Group, and Why Are Others Able To and Why Do They Do It”. 😁 

I wasn't sure about saying what I'm about to say - new thread or here.

The downside to being in an orchestra is that combining commitments is hard. Our conductor just gave us three new pieces for the Christmas concert two weeks before the concert!

I have to combine a) general violin study, b) orchestra-specific violin practice, c) a relationship more demanding than either, d) my target of joining a more advanced orchestra in September 2020. I had spent a while trying to design a year-plan, but I think realistically what I came up with required more practice per day than I could ever find time for (not to mention more days per week!).

I think in January I must concentrate almost entirely on orchestral work with scales and études on the side and forget about learning any pieces. Optimism says the orchestral emphasis will be good for joining that better orchestra in September. But after that, even more of my time will have to be spent on orchestra-based practice. But since that's basically the only reason I'm learning the violin, that's OK.

Andrew

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starise
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It would seem to me that it isn't very helpful to load players up with material they have no hope to play in a short amount of time. Wouldn't it make more sense to have mostly material at the level of the players and maybe a few challenging pieces? This way you have material you can play and material you can challenge yourself with.

If the result is players are "hacking through" the music why doesn't the director see this and make changes to the program? I would rather hear simple music well played than complicated music all botched up 🙂

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starise said
It would seem to me that it isn't very helpful to load players up with material they have no hope to play in a short amount of time. Wouldn't it make more sense to have mostly material at the level of the players and maybe a few challenging pieces? This way you have material you can play and material you can challenge yourself with.

If the result is players are "hacking through" the music why doesn't the director see this and make changes to the program? I would rather hear simple music well played than complicated music all botched up 🙂

  

The Christmas gig is in fact mainly a showcase for the South London Choir, and the new pieces are accompaniments to their singing, so it's not too bad, just a surprise! In an intermediate orchestra, there will always be players hacking through, myself included.

Our conductor's approach is interesting - he has rejected much of the simpler baroque music on the grounds that in such music there is often not enough to keep the cellos and basses interested.

Last week I asked if the orchestra had ever done the Barber adagio, or was it a cliché? and he said they hadn't done it for a long time, and he seemed interested, so we'll see what next year brings!

Andrew

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AndrewH
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Gordon Shumway said

cid said

I should have started this as a whole other thread about “What Keeps me From Playing in a Group, and Why Are Others Able To and Why Do They Do It”. 😁 

I wasn't sure about saying what I'm about to say - new thread or here.

The downside to being in an orchestra is that combining commitments is hard. Our conductor just gave us three new pieces for the Christmas concert two weeks before the concert!

I have to combine a) general violin study, b) orchestra-specific violin practice, c) a relationship more demanding than either, d) my target of joining a more advanced orchestra in September 2020. I had spent a while trying to design a year-plan, but I think realistically what I came up with required more practice per day than I could ever find time for (not to mention more days per week!).

I think in January I must concentrate almost entirely on orchestral work with scales and études on the side and forget about learning any pieces. Optimism says the orchestral emphasis will be good for joining that better orchestra in September. But after that, even more of my time will have to be spent on orchestra-based practice. But since that's basically the only reason I'm learning the violin, that's OK.

  

One of the important things you get out of playing in orchestras is a better idea of what you should be able to play, i.e. what techniques should get priority. And it does help with solo rep later on. At one point I went years without touching any solo material, then went back and looked at pieces I'd tried before but found unplayable before, and found I could play them comfortably. (It might be more common to go a long time without any solo material as a violist, because there isn't much intermediate viola rep, and orchestras help bridge the gap between lower-intermediate and advanced.)

The other things orchestras will help with over time: sight-reading and learning music quickly. As you get more experience, you may find that you need less and less practice time with new pieces because you increasingly see patterns that you've practiced before. Learning solo repertoire usually doesn't prepare students for that, because traditionally students spend a lot of time polishing a single piece.

But yes, balancing orchestra material with personal practice is a serious challenge when you first start out. It gets easier with time.

 

Gordon Shumway said 

Last week I asked if the orchestra had ever done the Barber adagio, or was it a cliché? and he said they hadn't done it for a long time, and he seemed interested, so we'll see what next year brings!

  

A friend of mine who is now a pianist of some note once told me an interesting anecdote about cliché pieces. When Van Cliburn made his solo recital debut at Carnegie Hall, he decided to put Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the program. At first the organizers balked at his proposed program, saying the Moonlight Sonata was overplayed. Cliburn replied that, if they could show him that the Moonlight Sonata had ever been played at Carnegie Hall, even once, he would take it off the program. It hadn't. He played it.

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@AndrewH said

 ...(It might be more common to go a long time without any solo material as a violist, because there isn't much intermediate viola rep, and orchestras help bridge the gap between lower-intermediate and advanced.)

The other things orchestras will help with over time: sight-reading and learning music quickly. As you get more experience, you may find that you need less and less practice time with new pieces because you increasingly see patterns that you've practiced before. Learning solo repertoire usually doesn't prepare students for that, because traditionally students spend a lot of time polishing a single piece.

But yes, balancing orchestra material with personal practice is a serious challenge when you first start out. It gets easier with time....

Thanks for those wise words - their truth is clear.

As to viola rep, I saw Bashmet do the Telemann on Youtube and bought a box-set of 9 of his CDs, but too quickly - they are all 19th century and modern and nothing that I could enjoy as much as the Telemann. But I only listened to it once nose-to-tail. When I was doing oboe I studied the Hindemith sonata, and loved it, although I heard it recently and didn't like it, but maybe I should first listen to Bashmet playing Hindemith again, just in case, and so that I can concentrate my attention.

I'll be happy if I never play the violin solo. I just assumed that the better my general violin technique was, the better I'd be at orchestral work, but I guess I now have to append "or vice versalaugh"! This emoji is apt:- snake1

Andrew

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Incidentally, @AndrewH, it's considerations like these that make me ask what seem like odd questions about Kreutzer on vcom! Apart from orchestra, I suspect I'll only ever have time for one étude, so make it a good one! Let the people on vcom practise 25 hours per day!

Andrew

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