By Anita Graef
One of the greatest joys of being able to play a musical instrument is that it affords you the opportunity to make music with others. Joining an orchestra can be an incredibly rewarding and enriching experience. Not only do you get to perform remarkable works of music, but you are also able to experience the magic of making music as a communal activity. Whether you’re joining a community orchestra or a local chamber orchestra, joining as an adult can also feel intimidating.
As someone who has played with many orchestras throughout my life, I have found that cultivating your powers of kindness, consideration and attention to detail will always serve you well, and will enable you to be a good colleague to your fellow musicians. If you have decided to join an orchestra—congratulations! Undoubtedly, this endeavor will help you to grow as a musician and to explore your instrument in new ways. Here are some tips to help you thrive as an orchestral musician.
Practice Your Part
This tip may sound obvious, but the importance of preparation outside of rehearsal cannot be overstated. In general, rehearsals are a time to address issues of ensemble and interpretation, not to familiarize yourself with the parts. Everyone’s job becomes easier when each musician comes to rehearsal prepared.
Listen to Recordings
Whenever possible, seek out multiple recordings of the repertoire you will be performing. This can be very helpful in learning your part, as it provides greater context, and helps you to internalize the other instruments’ roles as well. Listening to a variety of recordings will provide valuable perspective, as there are often many different interpretations of the same piece.
How to Ask Questions
In an orchestra, there are many unspoken codes of conduct that help rehearsals run smoothly. For example, if you have a question about something happening in the rehearsal (this could be regarding a bowing, a change made by the conductor, or similar), it is best practice to discreetly pass the question up through the players in your section to your section principal. They will either be able to answer your question or direct it to the conductor, if necessary.
Inside Player Technicalities
We refer to the string player at a stand positioned to the audience as the “outside” player, and the person positioned most closely toward the orchestra as the “inside” player. Any time that you find yourself playing on the “inside” of a stand, there are certain duties that accompany this position. Namely, you are responsible for turning pages, making markings in the music, and helpfully pointing out the location of measures where the orchestra will start playing (you can indicate this with your bow tip). Most often, if you need to write down a fingering in the part, the inside player’s marking may be written below the music staff, and the outside player’s go above. Feel free to confer with your stand partner on their preferences; these are general guidelines.
What to Bring with You
In addition to bringing the obvious items with you to rehearsal (your instrument, your music), it is also important to have a few pencils, extra strings, and earplugs available. Earplugs are often available at rehearsal, but it can be helpful to have your own. Whether you need to use them can depend on personal preference, your seating location relative to the winds and brass sections, the repertoire being performed, and the size of your orchestra. Though it may take some getting used to, it is so important to take the safety of your hearing seriously. As part of being a good colleague, it is always helpful to have extra strings, pencils and such with you, in case you or someone else may need them.
Get to Rehearsal Early
Keep in mind that the indicated start time for a rehearsal is when the conductor gives the first downbeat. This means that you already need to be unpacked, seated onstage, and have warmed up on your instrument. Every orchestra may have different indications for how many minutes before a service the musicians should be onstage and/or in the hall. Make sure to allow yourself enough time to be ready to go well before the scheduled rehearsal time. This will allow you to have a more pleasant overall experience, and help enable you to play your best!