Friday, July 1, 2016

Solo vs. Orchestra Playing

Recently, Strad magazine published an article where bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku suggested that double bass students spend too much time and energy practicing their solo pieces, at the expense of their orchestra music. While I don't play the double bass, I'm familiar with the attitude he's describing, and it effects many musicians, especially younger ones. So why is it so important for music students, and their teachers, to focus on orchestra playing as well as solo playing?

Realistically, most musicians play in orchestras or other ensembles far more than they perform as soloists. I'd guess there's fewer than a hundred full-time, professional violin soloists world wide. Keep in mind, the music industry as a whole (including pop music), has lost nearly half its revenue since people began downloading and streaming music instead of buying CDs. Few if any classical musicians can make money selling CDs in the traditional way (some might do better with their youtube videos, but even then most people don't make a good living that way either). What's more, jobs performing as a soloist with orchestras are few and far between, and it often takes a particular combination of talent, luck, excellent connections, and attractiveness to make someone an in-demand soloist.

That's not to say that we shouldn't practice solo music, of course. It's great for anyone to keep up their chops and explore new repertoire. But most of us make our money playing in orchestras or small ensembles like string quartets. For some reason, some music teachers and musicians actually look down on orchestra playing. Perhaps from the standpoint of an academic with a tenured job, orchestra playing looks less exciting or independent than solo playing, or less glamorous. But that doesn't mean that orchestra musicians don't have highly developed skills, including ensemble skills, or that their work isn't important. In fact, I'd argue that the orchestra is an essential part of Western music and culture, and without dedicated orchestra musicians, we'd lose that.

Orchestra playing helps young musicians develop essential ensemble skills, such as learning to listen to the music around you and blend your sound, or how to follow a conductor. It also helps musicians develop their sight-reading and rhythmic sense. I once did a string quartet gig with students from a highly prestigious musical conservatory (which shall remain nameless). I'm sure those students were skilled soloists who could play advanced concertos with ease. But when it came time to sight-read simple wedding music with a quartet, I was appalled at their poor sight-reading and ensemble skills. I couldn't believe that this elite institution had produced students who couldn't perform a wedding gig as well as students from a far less prestigious state university. This is a failure of music education, one that no doubt contributes to the infamous Julliard effect, which shows that out of a class of 36 instrumentalists, only 3 became soloists, and a good many ended up quitting music all together.

So practice your solo music, but practice your orchestra (chamber) music, too. Very few people can have a successful career without all those things.  


  1. Reading it here, it makes perfect sense but I imagine that as you say, a lot of people practice solo's that may rarely be heard. I'd really like my son to play an instrument and so will make sure that he joins an orchestra. Thanks for joining #weekendblogshare

    1. Your welcome! Orchestra and band make learning music fun and communal as well, so it keeps kids interested longer.