Archive for the ‘Excerpts’ Category

Learning an Orchestral Excerpt by Yvonne Smith

Orchestral excerpts are an important component of any violist’s repertoire. Often only a minute or two in length, they require hours of practice and fine-tuning. Not only is the mastery of excerpts necessary for an orchestral career in the United States, but it also opens up our ears and minds to a different level of musicianship. Intonation, rhythm, and sound are crucial in any excerpt. But how do we pay attention to all three of these and not lose our minds?


When I am learning an excerpt for the first time, I listen to a couple of recordings of the piece that the excerpt comes from. I try to listen to at least one recording before I even start working out the notes. Why? Listening to the context around the excerpt gives us hints as to what the committee may be listening for when they hear us play, such as:

• approximate tempo of the excerpt;

• mood of the piece;

• how the excerpt fits in with the music right before and right after it;

• music to be “listening for” as you play the excerpt. For example, in the famous excerpt from the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, the “quarter, eighth–eighth” rhythm of the low strings at rehearsal 15.

Before I even look at the notes, I have an idea of what I want the excerpt to sound like.

Establish a solid foundation

When an orchestra committee listens to professional auditions, they are looking for the person with whom they want to work for the next ten to thrity years, and therefore, auditioning for a professional orchestra is very different than auditioning for youth orchestra or taking a college placement orchestra audition. Aspiring orchestral musicians are often juggling preparation for multiple auditions. With ten to twenty excerpts per audition to keep at a high level, a solid foundation is key. While definitely the most time-consuming step, establishing a solid foundation means less upkeep later on.

When practicing intonation, I first make sure that I have a fingering. The fingering may change as I continue to practice, but I make sure that I know where my fingers will go. My goal in practicing intonation in a new excerpt is for ringing, open resonance of my instrument with every note. An exercise I learned from Mr. Irvine at the Aspen Music Festival and School has been particularly helpful in achieving this goal: With the metronome on quarter note = 40, I play one note of a short passage every other click, using the silent click to hear the next note in my head and move my finger there. I remove the silent click and then increase the speed by equal increments, continuing to hear the note in my head before I play it.

When practicing rhythm, I put my metronome on the smallest subdivision in the excerpt and play through the excerpt slowly. While doing this I notice the instances when I am not with the metronome and isolate those instances. Most of the time, rhythm is thrown off by a technical difficulty, such as a shift or string crossing or poor bow distribution, so it is important to me to fix those problems at a slow tempo. To work an excerpt up to tempo, I will isolate a passage and start at the tempo at which I can play everything in that passage perfectly in rhythm and in tune. After a successful play through, I will boost the tempo by four clicks. If I play the passage successfully, I will go back two clicks and play again, then up four clicks again, etc. The up four, back two approach really helps me solidify the work that I did with rhythm and intonation.

While practicing rhythm and intonation, it is always very important to me to keep listening for what kind of sound I want so that the excerpt doesn’t sound boring after all of the hard work.


When learning a new excerpt, I also think of words to describe the character of the excerpt. The more detailed the description, the more interesting the excerpt tends to be to play and listen to. Writing these on a post-it note and sticking it near the excerpt is a good way to establish character goals.

Record yourself

When learning an excerpt, it’s important to record yourself and honestly evaluate your performances. Try recording yourself playing for someone who makes you nervous, and listen to the recording several times. Once, just focus on your intonation and write both positive things and aspects to work on. The second time listen for rhythm, the third time dynamics, and the fourth time, artistry. This way you’ll be able to thoroughly evaluate your playing.

When I began really focusing on the nuts and bolts of orchestral excerpts, my ears were opened along with a new depth of sounds that I could now make and be in control of. While learning orchestral excerpts well takes a lot of energy, it is also very rewarding if done with focus and specific goals in mind.