How Amateur Orchestral Musicians Should Practice

violin10The sheer prospect of my first orchestra rehearsal terrified me. To calm myself down, I asked a violinist friend for advice. I thought she’d share something about how to play. Instead she said: Pretend you know what you’re doing. You’ll learn as you go along, and you’ll be fine! It was the best advice I could have gotten.

In the years since, I’ve picked up a few hard-earned tips of my own. As I look back, I realize that a surprisingly low number have to do with how to play. Rather, they mainly focus on mindset, as well as the practical work of preparation that anyone can do, regardless of skill level.

(Keep in mind that this list is geared toward string players in particular, since I’ve only played violin and viola in orchestra. However, I imagine the general principles are relevant to the other sections, too.)

So without further ado, here is a list of things you can work on to become a better amateur orchestral musician:

1. Come to terms with the fact that you aren’t going to hit every note. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aspire to play your best. It just means understanding that you are an amateur precisely because you can’t hit every note. And that’s okay!

2. Once you’ve accepted that you’re not going to hit every note, be canny and prioritize which notes are the most important ones. This means setting aside some time for intensive listening and score studying. is your friend. Always be aware of what’s happening around you. If you keep getting lost in a certain section, consult the score and keep an ear out for musical signposts: an oboe solo here, a cello entrance there. Latch onto those.

3. Don’t have time to score study? Leave recordings of the pieces on while you work, do errands, exercise…anything! The music will seep into your brain. It may not be as helpful as concentrated score study, but it’s much better than nothing!

4. Hear harmony! You might be doubling with another instrument or section. Listen for them!

5. Once you have a handle on what needs to be practiced, make a list of trouble spots, complete with measure numbers. Rotate through these spots during your practice sessions. Identify what specifically about each one is problematic. Be aware what technical challenge(s) you are taking on in each. Treat each one as a miniature etude.

6. Especially when practice time is limited, many people believe that musicians should focus solely on the trouble spots. And I certainly agree that mindless practice is a huge danger! However, all that being said, I also feel there’s a disadvantage to never running through long portions of the score. New issues can arise if you don’t understand the larger sweep of a piece. Try to find a balance between these two kinds of practice.

7. Don’t start practicing at the beginning every time. This results in an over-practiced beginning and an under-practiced end. Skip around. On a related note (pun intended!), pay special attention to the final page of every piece. Lots of orchestra pieces are fast and note-heavy toward the end, and being able to feel technically secure in the final stretch of your performance is a huge relief. (A strong finish also leaves your audience with a positive parting impression!)

8. If you’re trying to bring a brisk passage up to speed, don’t feel like you have to get to your BPM goal in a single practice session. (In fact, you might even be risking injury to do that.) Instead, work up a little every day, and keep track of where you’re at. As I’m gradually speeding up passages, I write my BPM in extremely light pencil on the music itself, then erase it before I turn the music in. It’s gratifying to see the numbers crawl up every day.

9. If you’re an amateur and not used to playing for hours every day, building up physical strength before a performance or a long rehearsal is extremely important! Whenever you can, seek out opportunities to rest your body. Don’t think of rests as moments of not playing. Think of them as as an actual marking in the sheet music encouraging you to take a deep breath or consciously relax your shoulders.

10. Don’t save counting rests for rehearsal and performance only. It’s just as important to nail the rests as it is the notes! (And we all know it’s more embarrassing to screw up a rest than it is a note!)

Follow these tips, and you’re going to show up well-prepared to your next rehearsal!

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