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What Qualities Make For A Desirable Orchestra Member

Does being a fantastic strings player mean you're on the way to the top of the orchestral career ladder? Not necessarily.

Being a part of an orchestra is musical teamwork at its finest - and it takes a particular set of personal qualities in order to be successful, and to earn the conductor references that will continue to propel you upwards in your orchestral career if you so desire.

In fact, being a good orchestra member is not unlike being a good choir member, with the ultimate quality being your desire to blend into a group, rather than to shine like a superstar.

Blend with the surrounding musical landscape

In direct opposition to what it means to be a good soloist, orchestra members desire with all their hearts to create "one sound" with their fellow musicians. In fact, one of the worst "compliments" an orchestral member would ever hear is, "Oh, you sounded wonderful - I could hear your violin all the way in the balcony..."

Of course, there are times where you may play an independent line of music or two, or given the honor of showcasing as a soloist. For the most part, however, orchestra members strive to blend their instrument's sound - even down to the fluctuation of the vibrato - matching it with their neighbors' - the effect being that multiple instruments are played together as a single, unified sound.

Excellent work ethics and attention to details

This "group-first" mentality is the reason why excellent work ethics and respectful attention to detail are so important. Orchestras fit the adage, "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Members must:

  • Attend every rehearsal on-time (aka "early" since you must be set-up, warmed up, in-tune, and ready when rehearsal begins.
  • Come prepared with music, pencil/eraser, stand (if necessary), tuner, relevant instrument equipment, back-up strings, water bottle, etc.
  • Commit to your private practice.
  • Over-practice difficult passages so you're "safe" if any unexpected tempo changes occur.
  • Remain quiet and attentive, even when the conductor is working with other sections.
  • Have sheet music copied and assembled, with no need for page-turn prompts.
  • Counts rests accurately, without reliance on conductor for entries.
  • Takes conductor's notes, practices them, and never need reminding.
  • Always keeps an eye - even if a peripheral one - on the conductor

Intonation is accurate and pure

A desired, unified sound is impossible to achieve without each orchestra member making a high-quality sound, via pure, accurate tones. The ideal candidate for an orchestra knows when to apply vibrato, but without excess - and can also maintain high-quality tone on quick, staccato notes. Musical phrases are shaped expressively and equal attention is paid to the start and stop of each notes.

Not surprisingly, a good ear and excellent bowing technique are the keys to this quality of musicianship.

Be an excellent sight reader

While having a good ear is essential, so too is the ability to sight read. At the higher-level amateur and professional orchestra levels, a musician should be a confident sight reader - able to play a new piece accurately - using personal practice time to focus on expressive elements of the piece. If a piece is too difficult, you should know what to leave out so you never detract from the section - and orchestra - at large.

You should be adept at transposing for the instrument, at playing in all clefs for the instrument and able to fill in missing parts - including the transposition of different clefs.

Need to beef up your sight reading skills? Read, 2018 Best Apps and Games for Learning to Sight Read Music.

Attentive to timing and dynamics

Orchestras create multi-faceted emotions within the rise and fall of their dynamics and the musicians' ability to express the music with respect to how it's written and the conductor's vision and expectations. And, again, intonation must maintain its purity no matter how fortissimo or pianissimo notes are played.

Similarly, desirable orchestra members have an excellent sense and knowledge of rhythm. Without this, sight reading will suffer, notes will be all over the place and it will be difficult for the orchestra rehearsals to progress in a timely manner.

Always practice humility

Dedicated orchestra members practice humility. Does this mean they are all humble people? Not necessarily - they may compete with gusto for an available solo or for a first-chair position. However, when it comes to the orchestral rehearsals and performances, orchestra members study and admire the musical greats who have come before them. They're open - and committed - to learning from other teachers and/or hearing suggestions from more experienced players. Committed orchestra members will even ask the conductor, and respected players , for feedback.

Do you have what it takes to become a desirable orchestra member? Pay attention to areas where you're lacking and your conductor and fellow musicians will notice.

Violins on the wall