At its best, orchestra playing is a unique combination of artistry and technical craft. It’s a skill which develops over time. As musicians play together, they develop increasing sensitivity and cohesiveness. With the help of a visionary conductor, a disparate group of highly skilled individuals is forged into a team.
Whether you’re a member of a student ensemble or an amateur performing in a community orchestra, here are a few orchestra playing tips to consider:
- Know how your part fits. Preparation goes beyond learning the notes. Be sure to listen to recordings of the piece you’re playing. Understand how your part fits into the whole. Pay attention to sections where the tempo or dynamics change.
- Feel the rhythm. Practice with a metronome and pay attention to the subdivisions within larger beats. When playing in the orchestra, feel a sense of collective rhythm. Be careful not to rush, especially in difficult fast passages. Even when it’s fast, you often have more time than you think you have, so fill out every beat. Anchor on important beats. Organize and group notes in ways which allow them to flow naturally. Carefully place pizzicatos so they don’t speak early. For soft pizzicatos consider just touching the string with the tip of your finger and release. Don’t forget to breathe.
- Use multiple senses. Imagine how you want the music to sound as you see the notes on the page. Listen to what’s happening around you. If you’re a string player, use peripheral vision to keep track of the section leader’s bow, and other bows around you. Make sure you’re in the same part of the bow as the leader and try to match bow speed. And, of course, watch the conductor.
- Bring a pencil, eraser and mute.
- Pay attention to balance. Many students would be surprised to hear how softly professional string players can play. A soft dynamic in orchestra repertoire is generally much softer than the same dynamic in solo repertoire. It also requires a different tone color. If someone else in the orchestra has a solo line (usually in the woodwinds or brass), get out of the way and make sure the soloist doesn’t have to force to be heard.
- Play for the team. Always be mindful that you’re part of a collective sound. Never try to stick out. Listen to the players around you and blend in terms of sound and intonation.
- “Music Police” kill the music. If you hear a mistake, don’t point it out to your colleague. They probably also heard it and will try their best to not repeat it. “Music police” can create a debilitating and backstabbing atmosphere which kills real music making. Never react to a mistake, especially in a performance. Just stay in the “zone” of the piece.
- Be ready when the conductor is ready. It’s okay to drop out to mark an occasional bowing change, but never make the conductor wait for you. Use direct eye contact with conductors whenever possible.
- Where you sit isn’t important. Every part is essential. If you’re playing second violin, you often have rich inner voices and supporting lines which need to be brought out. Because it’s harder to hear, the people in the back of a section have the hardest job in terms of precision.
- Enjoy the sound around you.
Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela gave a memorable performance of the Mambo from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the 2007 BBC Proms at London’s Royal Albert Hall. You can hear them play the full Symphonic Dances from West Side Story here.
The Mambo has transcended West Side Story to become a cultural icon. It’s almost like a twentieth century Ode to Joy.