The Path to the Orchestra: Becoming an Oregon Symphony Player

by Jonathan Dubay

The orchestra is a complex tapestry. There is no typical or average thread; each musician has arrived at his or her own accomplishments, pursued his or her own training, and attained his or her own distinctions in different ways.

Despite this rich variety, there are certain experiences common to most musicians in the orchestra. Every player is awarded a position as the result of a competitive audition. Preceding that audition is at least one degree in music from a college or conservatory, and a number of summers spent performing and studying. There are years spent in high school orchestras, grade school orchestras, and after-school music programs. There are many, many private lessons. There are countless hours of practice.

Each member of the Symphony has passed through a pre-determined audition process. This audition always includes at least one live solo performance, behind a screen, for the music director and a committee of orchestra members. Some recent statistics show how competitive that audition can be: out of three hundred applicants who responded to advertisements for a single opening in the Symphony, close to eighty traveled to Portland at their own expense, from as far away as Hawaii and New York City, for a ten-minute audition. After two rounds and two days, one player was selected.

Typically, instrumentalists audition many times for their first appointment, and will later re-audition for a higher position or another orchestra, gaining experience all the while. Some players have come directly from school or careers in chamber music or teaching, and the Oregon Symphony is their first full-time orchestra appointment.

But most Oregon Symphony players have held positions or played as extras in other professional orchestras prior to their tenure here, and they bring that skill and experience with them. Our orchestra is all the richer for it. Here is a list of just some of these orchestras:

New Haven Symphony, L.A. Philharmonic, San Diego Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Detroit Symphony,Seattle Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Mexico City Symphony, L.A. Chamber Orchestra, Munich Symphony, Minneapolis Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra.

A competitive job market means competitive training, and a career in music requires as much training as virtually any other profession. Although college degrees are not officially required for employment in American orchestras, most instrumentalists receive a Bachelor’s degree in music performance from a college or conservatory, and many go on to a Master’s degree or further, for their own growth and simply to prepare to compete. Study in a conservatory includes liberal arts courses, music theory, music history, orchestra, chamber music, ear training, pedagogy, and private lessons. Also included might be study of a secondary instrument, conducting, composition, arranging, or performance practice (a study of style and technique). Some Oregon Symphony players hold degrees in other subjects as well, as indicated in their individual biographies in this Web page. Schools that Oregon Symphony members have attended span four continents, and include:

The Eastman School of Music, The Juilliard School, Oberlin College, Indiana University, San Francisco Conservatory, Moscow Conservatory, Liszt Academy of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Yale University, UCLA, New England Conservatory, Curtis Institute of Music.

Instrumentalists often spend their summers at music festivals. These are places to study intensively one aspect of the trade, be it solo, chamber or orchestral playing. Communities that host festivals benefit from the music making, as do the orchestras that later hire these musicians. You may recognize a number of summer festivals in which Oregon Symphony members have participated, some of which are post-graduate or professional programs:

Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood, Oregon Bach Festival, Chamber Music Northwest, Grand Teton Music Festival, Peter Britt Music Festival, Carmel Bach Festival.

At the core of any professional musician’s training is the experience of working with a teacher one-to-one. There is no known substitute for this relationship, which can be at times intense, infectious, devastating or exhilarating. These private lessons begin long before college; commonly by age 10 and often as early as age four. A student will usually seek out a specific private teacher, especially when considering what college or graduate school to attend. Some will have the same mentor for as many as ten years. Others will find benefits from studying with many teachers. Even well into a player’s professional career, he or she may travel a great distance for just one lesson with an important pedagogue. The content of a lesson may be technical, musical, practical or spiritual; it may relate to bow hold or finger technique, phrasing or rhythm, deal with posture or composure, or touch on philosophy or humanity. And for every hour in a lesson, dozens are spent in the practice room.

One component of a musician’s development can be stressed above all others. There is no doubt that each member of this orchestra can name one person — be it a parent, teacher or musician in the community — who enticed us early on with his or her guidance, understanding and enthusiasm to do what we had always dreamed of doing: to play in a symphony orchestra. Unseen by the audience, those inspirational people are every bit a part of the orchestra’s fabric. To them we all are grateful.

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