Encouragement & Advice for Advancing Amateur Orchestral Musicians

Playing in a community orchestra can be one of the great joys in life

By Emily Wright

Playing in a community orchestra can be one of the great joys in life, providing an outlet for learning, exposure to treasured symphonic literature, and giving musical aspirations a real chance at fulfillment. I sat down with Victoria Gau—conductor and artistic director of the Capital City Symphony, associate conductor and director of education for the National Philharmonic, and artistic director of the Takoma Ensemble—and Bethany Pflueger—conductor of the Pasadena Community Orchestra and chair of the music department at Glendale Community College—to get their thoughts on how to make the very most of your experience playing in your local ensemble.


While audition requirements vary wildly—some ensembles ask for two contrasting samples, while others want excerpts and more ambitious repertoire—conductors are looking for musicians who can develop excellent tone, play in time, and have a grasp of the skills and techniques string players are commonly expected to employ. “The biggest thing I look for is rhythm reading,” says Pflueger. “Being able to understand and play rhythms correctly is essential.”

“Asking to hear two contrasting pieces is not so much about one thing from the 20th century and another from the Baroque. I’d like to hear something technically contrasting, so we can hear you play legato and see how you create a line, and I’d really like you to play something off the string,” Gau adds with a smile.

“While community orchestras are populated mainly by amateur musicians, bringing a professional spirit to the effort is crucial.”

When choosing repertoire to perform, there is a consensus that you should play something proficiently above all. While this might seem like common sense, many prospective members show up with material that is either beyond their playing level or rusty. “We want to hear your best playing, whatever that may be,” says Gau. Pflueger agrees. “Bring something you are comfortable playing, not what you think we want to hear that you may not play well.” If you feel the need to issue a disclaimer before you play, it’s not the right selection for an audition.


Many players fall victim to nerves, especially during sight-reading. While it’s understandable to feel anxious about the prospect of being listened to with a critical ear, Gau wants players to remember that this is a sympathetic audience. Most music directors have played dozens of auditions themselves. Her advice? Slow down. “You have time,” she says. “Take a moment to look at the key and the time signature. Scan the page for accidentals and big shifts. Take a breath before you dive in.”

If there is a strong sense that a seating mistake has been made after an audition, approach the situation with caution and respect. Many ensembles place strong players throughout the section, so a chair toward the back is not necessarily an indictment of one’s playing. Both conductors advise against any sort of aggressive stance on seating. Speaking with the conductor privately is an option but making beautiful music from any seat in the section is the true mark of a team player. “Don’t insist on a certain seating,” says Pflueger. “Accept that however it works out is for the good of the group.”

Pasadena Community Orchestra led by Bethany Pflueger
Pasadena Community Orchestra led by Bethany Pflueger

Be a Good Stand Partner

Of course, there are roles to be played, but they’re just the beginning, according to Pflueger. “Show up on time. Don’t talk when the conductor is trying to explain something. Know the protocol for page turning, be supportive and positive, and remember it’s not a competition,” she advises. “Also, many players may have been trained as soloists, and it’s important to adjust to playing in a section, both in terms of technique and attitude.” Blending sound as a stand and then as a section takes practice and a nuanced ear. Developing this skill can make the difference between a decent performance and a special one.

Other small actions that can bolster morale include helping a lost stand partner by pointing to the right measure (with a smile! it happens to everyone), never chastising for wrong notes or missed entrances, and always bringing an extra pencil and music to each rehearsal. Should conflict arise, Pflueger’s advice is simple. “Always address problems one-on-one, not in front of the group, and always assume that the problem person has good intentions and doesn’t realize that she was creating a problem—which gives her an out to correct her behavior.”


Gau remembers her time playing in a viola section: “It’s not just about turning the page, and it’s not just about being right. There are two words there: stand and partner. There’s something magical about being on a stand with someone—finding a way to make music in sync, where you’re breathing together almost as a single organism. Find ways to create music with the person, not just next to them.”

Contribute to the Whole

While community orchestras are populated mainly by amateur musicians, bringing a professional spirit to the effort is crucial. Show up with time to unpack, tune, and warm up as a gesture of respect to colleagues, all of whom carve out time away from busy lives to make it to rehearsal. It’s also important to understand that rehearsals and private practice are not interchangeable. Pflueger stresses that note learning and detail work should happen at home, while polishing larger aspects of ensemble playing like dynamics, note lengths, and style are the primary goals of rehearsal. Both kinds of practice are critical to produce a cohesive musical result.

Maintaining a teachable mindset, regardless of proficiency or experience, is also essential. Pflueger says, “Be open to learning new ways of doing things, especially rehearsal procedures and new kinds of music—there is magic in everything, even if it’s not your previous favorite or inside your comfort zone.” She also encourages players to take advantage of the expertise of their fellow musicians: “Watch closely and copy the good things they do!”


Remember that progress is always possible, even for very advanced players. Remaining flexible and humble makes every aspect of a rehearsal better and keeps interpersonal dynamics agreeable and productive. The importance of a positive disposition cannot be overstated, especially when welcoming new members and adjusting to changes within the section.

With every interaction, consider the immense investment of the director and staff, who are usually running the show with very little money, barely enough sleep, and likely work other jobs to allow them to pursue this passion. Gau says one of the best ways to contribute is to “help! Come early to set up. I’ve had members on grant committees before, and others who were lawyers [who would] help read and draft documents. Think about what you have to bring to the table that’s not musical to help your organization grow.” 

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This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Strings magazine.

One comment

  1. […] 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. […]

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