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Crash Course in Orchestral Viola Survival

Whether you’re a seasoned orchestral player, or you’ve just been called to play with your first regional ensemble, orchestra is a challenging and rewarding way to make music. Yet, it can be tricky to juggle the responsibilities of playing in a section with self-care and etiquette, especially if you do not yet know your colleagues well. As I wrap up my first year or so playing in a full-time orchestra, here are some of my tips:

1. Come prepared. School orchestra is generally a terrible way to prepare for professional ensemble playing because rehearsals are often spread out over many weeks and rehearsals are a few days apart. While each school operates differently, a lengthy rehearsal period leads people to believe that they don’t need to come fully prepared to the first few rehearsals, because there’s still two more weeks of rehearsal after that. Unfortunately, professional ensembles will often assemble a full program in two to three days, no matter the difficulty of the program. Listen to a recording or two before practicing, and plan ahead for difficult works or things you haven’t played.

2. Be aware of your responsibility in the section. Ellen Rose’s “Responsibilities of Orchestral Players” is a great start, especially for your first professional opportunities. Section responsibilities include blending sound, neither playing too loud nor too soft in order to encourage ensemble playing, and not leading the people around you. Always make sure you pass back bowing changes! Nothing is more distressing than playing last stand and having folks in the middle not taking marking the boeings or passing them back.

3. Bring earplugs. Violas traditionally sit in “the line of fire,” aka. the spot in front of the trombones. This can be overwhelming, especially if you’re in the back of the section or there are no sound shields. Hearing damage is permanent, and while it’s important to hear yourself, your hearing is your occupation and your livelihood. Most people are comfortable with one earplug in, one ear open, which allows for section/self listening.

4. Learn how to sit with proper alignment. You may have heard of headlines like “Sitting is the New Smoking,” and new desks that feature treadmills or standing desks. Sitting in the same position for hours a day isn’t great for your body, and your alignment while sitting makes a big difference. Ask your teacher for some suggestions or consult a movement therapist. My basic guidelines are to find your sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) and then stack your lungs over your hips. Be wary of the texting slump or head forward positions which are predominant in our movement culture these days!

5. Be a good colleague. Part of being in a viola section in an orchestra is teamwork and supporting your fellow musicians. That means greeting your section members at rehearsal, politely asking people to move if you can’t see, and being polite to conductors, personnel managers, and administration. If your colleagues are involved in other concerts, go and support them in their endeavors if your schedule allows, or ask them about it later.

Orchestral playing is a team sport, and being standoffish or assuming a snobby attitude towards colleagues (regardless of their playing) is a way to prevent good section playing and camaraderie.

6. Don’t EVER use your phone in rehearsal, both as a courtesy to your colleagues and to prevent the possibility of your phone going off in rehearsal. Turn it off, leave it offstage, or put it in airplane mode. Using your phone onstage, even before rehearsal, shows your colleagues that your texts/emails/facebooking/twittering is more important than engaging them in conversation or practicing your part. Most ensembles have a strict no-phone policy, but unless it is an emergency, put it away. (*If it is an emergency that you be reached, give someone the personnel manager’s number. That’s how things were done in the 80’s and 90’s before the ubiquitous cell phone.*)

7. Be respectful of personnel managers- if they call you for a gig or rehearsal, try to get back to them as soon as you can, even if you have to check your schedule or move an engagement. A prompt reply will show them you’re serious and respectful of their time, and will keep you on a sub list or on the radar for future work. Along that same line, double and triple check the schedule, dress code, and rehearsal/concert venues. You don’t want to anger a personnel manager if you’re a sub, and it’s good to avoid extraneous emails to personnel if it can be avoided.

8. If you’re playing principal, be aware of your responsibilities. It’s nice to mark bowing changes with an x or check mark in the margin to give your colleagues an idea of where to look on the page. If you have a comment for the section, don’t speak when the conductor or concertmaster is speaking and give your section members a rehearsal or so to catch accidentals, tricky rhythms, etc. Do your best to give clear physical cues for entrances, especially if sight lines are compromised. Also take care to praise the section for a job well done!

9. Never act as though you are “above” the group you are playing with. Whether it’s the Lake Wobegone community orchestra or the New York Philharmonic, the players in an ensemble deserve respect, even if you think you are better than your peers/stand partner/etc. Work is work, and be aware that many other people would be grateful for the position or the subbing work you have, especially if it’s with a full-time ensemble. Most section auditions draw between 30-100 people per audition, so even subbing is a privilege that can be revoked at any time.

10. Try not to complain too much. For all of the joy of section playing, orchestral musicians love to complain about the conductor, the repertoire, the soloist, the tempi, whether or not the conducting is clear, whether the rehearsal time was well used, whether the third piccolo was good…etc. It can be tempting to fall into this trap, but be aware that orchestra jobs are diminishing rapidly both in audiences and funding, and that a poor attitude won’t help your orchestra morale. If you don’t like playing in orchestra, then get out and do something else you love, whether that’s teaching, chamber music, or contemporary music. There are too few jobs with too many violists looking for work, and many violists who would love your job.


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