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Why School Students Benefit Hugely from Playing in an Orchestra

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Image shows a row of violin players in an orchestra.

Competition for university places and jobs is fiercer than ever, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd.

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Giving your university application or CV an edge over other candidates may mean taking on extra qualifications, such as an Extended Project Qualification or additional A-levels, or it might mean gaining work experience in a relevant area (or both!). But not all the things you can do to enhance your prospects have to involve stressing yourself out with too big a workload. One of the more fun activities that will bestow a surprising number of benefits upon you is playing in an orchestra. In this article, we look at the different ways in which this can set you on the road to achieving great things in life and give you some tips for how to get involved.

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It benefits your career

Of course, if you want to play in an orchestra professionally, then it goes without saying that involvement in an orchestra while you’re still at school is essential. However, there are many transferable skills to be gained from being in an orchestra that you can apply to all walks of life. When you’re first trying to get onto the career ladder and you’re answering all those awkward interview questions about “demonstrating teamwork”, “your biggest challenge”, and so on, you’ll be able to use anecdotes from your orchestral experience to help if you don’t have any work experience to fall back on. To give you an illustration, these are just a few of the transferable skills you’ll pick up:

Teamwork

In an orchestra, you’re part of a team working towards a common goal. You all have to work effectively together to produce a sound people want to hear, and to do justice to the notes a composer has written on a page. If one person doesn’t pull their weight, it can affect the entire performance – so you all need to pull together and contribute to the best of your abilities, just as you would in a business environment.

Organisation

Image shows a double bass lying on its side.

Getting a double bass from A to B can be a logistical challenge.

You’ll need to practise your part in between sessions, as well as committing the time to weekly rehearsals. Your organisational skills will get a good boost when you have to juggle all this with your schoolwork, and it will give you good practice for handling large workloads at university and beyond.

Coping under pressure

Though enjoyable, an orchestra is a high-pressured environment because you’re required to play your instrument to a high standard, performing beautifully without making any mistakes. Your ability to overcome stage fright and put on top-notch performances will stand you in good stead and boost your confidence in other situations you may find yourself in at school, university or in a job, such as giving a presentation.

Discipline

It takes a lot of hard work and determination to reach a high standard on any musical instrument. You’ll need to practise religiously pretty much every day for years, and continue to do so in order to maintain that high standard once you’ve attained it. Not all music practice is fun, either; scales and studies are often dull and repetitive, and the practical and theory exams you’ll be encouraged to take are challenging. If you want to prove you’ve got the discipline and self-motivation it takes to see a project through to its conclusion, this is a great way to demonstrate it.

It improves your general knowledge

Image shows a woman wearing sunglasses playing cello in a park at sunset.

What inspired Elgar to write his cello concerto in E minor? The answer is at the end of the article.

How many questions do you get right during the music round of University Challenge? If you play in an orchestra, the chances are you’ll be able to answer a lot more of the classical ones! The breadth of music you’re likely to cover if you play in an orchestra will greatly enhance your general knowledge, as you’ll be able to identify music (or at least give an educated guess as to the period during which it was written or the composer who wrote it), learn about composers and when they were writing, and understand the different techniques composers use to create a particular musical effect or evoke a particular emotion. From the religious music of the Renaissance to modern day film music, there’s great variety in the material you can get to know in an orchestra, and it will open your eyes to the development of Western music and how it has reached the point it’s at today. Not only that, but the very best way to understand the complexity and nuances of a piece of music is to perform it, and this will deepen your musical appreciation.

It keeps you sane

Making music with lots of other people is tremendously rewarding and very therapeutic. No matter how bad your day at school has been, you’ll soon forget about your troubles once you’re sitting down in front of your music and throwing yourself into a performance. Playing in an orchestra is an incredibly intellectually demanding exercise, and one that must command your full attention. It’s a great way of forgetting about schoolwork for a while, at the same time as still making use of (and developing) different areas of your brain. Much better and more productive than watching trash TV or going shopping, and it’ll refresh your mind ready to tackle your schoolwork with renewed vigour.

How to get involved

So, now that we’ve (hopefully) convinced you of the benefits, how do you go about getting involved in an orchestra?

Choosing an instrument

If you already play a musical instrument, you can skip this section and go straight to the next one to find out how to find a suitable orchestra for you.

Image shows a painting by Michel Garnier entitled 'The Music Lesson', showing a young woman in a flamboyant pink dress standing next to a harp.

The harp: impractical, but beautiful.

If you don’t already play a musical instrument, but you’ve decided you’d like to play in an orchestra, now’s the time to choose the right instrument for you. There are orchestras for all levels of ability, but you’ll still need to put in quite a lot of work on your chosen instrument before you’ll be able to participate in one. Here are a few considerations to take into account when deciding which instrument to take up:

– Your musical tastes – certain instruments lend themselves to particular musical tastes; if you enjoy noisy music, for instance, perhaps percussion might be right for you. If you’d prefer a gentler sound, the flute might be better suited.

– Practicality – some instruments are huge and difficult to transport, such as a harp or double bass. If you live in a small house, or have a complicated journey to school, you may be better off with a smaller instrument that’s easily transported and stored. What’s more, you’ll have to spend a lot of time practising, so a particularly loud instrument may send your parents mad if you live in a small house with thin walls!

– Your build – if you’re very small, you might struggle with a large instrument such as the double bass; if you have short fingers, you might find it difficult to play some instruments that require large stretches of your fingers, such as the piano.

– Confidence – if you don’t mind, or actively like, being the centre of attention, an instrument that will require you to play solos in an orchestral environment would be good for you, such as the flute or clarinet. If you’d rather be able to hide in a bigger group, a stringed instrument such as the violin might suit you better because you’ll be one of many.

– Competition – some instruments are more popular than others, and that means there’s variation in how easy it is to get into an orchestra. An instrument such as the flute will have lots of competition for two or three spaces in an orchestra, while a less popular instrument such as the viola is always in demand, meaning you’ll find it much easier to get into the orchestra you want.

– Budget – there may well be a scheme at your school to hire a musical instrument, but if not then budget may be a limiting factor. Most instruments have models for a range of budgets, but some are undoubtedly more expensive than others (harps, for example).

– Teachers – you’ll need to make sure there’s a person within easy reach who teaches your chosen instrument, so that you’re not having to travel great distances to lessons. There may be music teachers at your school whom you can go to for advice on this.

– Gut feeling – many people are naturally drawn to a particular instrument, which perhaps has something to do with personality; each instrument has its own personality and it can sometimes be a question of finding the one that matches yours. If you’ve always had a yen for a particular instrument, regardless of its practicality, then this is the one to go for, as you’ll be motivated to succeed at it.

Finding an orchestra

The first place to look for a suitable orchestra is your school, as it will be easier logistically if your rehearsals are on the same site and you can go straight from lessons to rehearsals. If there isn’t one at your school, try a Google search for orchestras in your local area, as there will probably be a county youth orchestra and other amateur groups. Your town’s local website or newspaper may also be able to point you in the right direction. Keep an eye out for local concerts, as this is a good way to find local orchestras and assess how good they are.

Alternatives to orchestras

Don’t forget that playing in an orchestra isn’t the only way of getting involved in playing music; music groups come in many different shapes and sizes, so you’re bound to find one that suits you. Leaving aside pop, rock and similar popular music groups, here are some of the alternative musical ensemble options open to you if you decide that an orchestra isn’t quite what you’re looking for. They all bring the same benefits as playing in an orchestra, but provide different repertoire and group sizes.

– Wind/concert bands – these are made up of woodwind and brass instruments, and usually involve a more modern repertoire.

Image shows a brass band playing in New Orleans.

There are plenty of alternatives to orchestras if that’s not your cup of tea.

– Brass band – as the name suggests, a brass band is made up of brass instruments, such as trumpets, tubas and trombones. This produces a very unique sound, which you’ll probably have heard on the streets playing carols at Christmas time. The brass band repertoire is a bit more varied than that, though!

– String quartet – this is perfect if you play a stringed instrument and you want a more intimate setting than an orchestra. It’s made up of two violins, a viola and a cello.

– Jazz band – these are tremendous fun and often involve improvisation, so if you’re a creative type and don’t mind making music up on the spot, a jazz band might be just the thing for you.

– Choir – thanks to TV programmes such as Gareth Malone’s The Choir, choirs are enjoying a resurgence in popularity. There are groups to cater for all musical tastes, from Renaissance religious music to reworkings of pop songs.

Auditions

Not all orchestras and music groups require you to do an audition, but the best ones almost certainly will, even at an amateur level. Auditions can be nerve-wracking, because you’re very exposed and you know you’re being judged and compared to others. Here are a few tips to help your audition go as smoothly as possible:

– Choice of music – choose a piece you’re comfortable with, and one that demonstrates the emotional and technical range you’re capable of. It’s better to play a less difficult piece exceptionally well than it is to try to tackle a technically challenging piece that’s too difficult for you. Top tip: never play a piece of Bach at an audition. People have very varied opinions about how his work should be performed, and the chances are that the person you’re performing to won’t agree with your interpretation!

– Practising – in the run-up to your audition, practise your piece again and again until you could almost play it without the music.

– Page turning – if your piece of music has any awkward page turns that could disrupt your performance, photocopy your music so that you can lay the sheets side by side.

Image shows a flute lying on top of some sheet music, in black and white.

Sight-reading shouldn’t frighten you if you’ve practised enough.

– Sight-reading – you’ll probably be given a piece of sight-reading during your audition, where you’re required to play a piece of music you’ve never seen before. This is one of the most stressful elements, but you can prepare yourself for it by practising as much sight-reading as you can beforehand. Sight-read a range of pieces with different time signatures, rhythms and tempos so that you’re as prepared as you can be for whatever they might throw at you.

– Stage fright – try to relax before the audition and perhaps try a little meditation to help combat nerves.

– Warm up – allow enough time before the audition to warm up properly. Going in with cold fingers is a recipe for disaster, as is a cold instrument. There will almost certainly be a rehearsal space in which you can do a few scales and a practise run-through of your piece to help you warm up.

Once you’ve passed an audition and got yourself into an orchestra, you’ll soon be able to experience the exhilaration of performing with lots of other musicians – and you’ll soon start to feel the far-reaching benefits of your new hobby.

 

Answer: Elgar wrote his cello concerto in E minor out of nostalgia for the end of the Edwardian era after the First World War.






 

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Image credits: banner; double bass; cello; harp; band; sheet music

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