Orchestral Playing: Special Difficulties

Orchestras come in many different sizes, but what differentiates an orchestra from other large musical groups is the fact that here we are sharing the same musical line with at least one other cellist, and are almost always sharing a music stand also. Chamber orchestras can be almost like large chamber groups, so to look at the real difficulties of orchestral playing we will take the “extreme version” of the orchestra, which is of course the “symphony orchestra”.

A symphony orchestra is not a place for sensitive souls. Many orchestral musicians – especially string players – are quite burned out by the time they reach retirement age – if they even reach retirement age. Why? Let’s look at the reasons one by one (this could be a very long article ……… ):


The noise level inside a symphony orchestra can be comparable to standing close to a large airplane at takeoff. Having oboes and piccolos playing nearby is like having a dentist drilling inside your ear, fortissimo trombones are the equivalent of working in a steel smelter and various percussion effects are comparable to the noise of a war zone. Composers (especially modern ones) love these powerful effects: these are potent toys. An orchestra playing fff is bound to impress an audience, and it is no doubt for this same reason that rock bands (especially the worst ones) usually put the volume up very loud.

Even when we are not sitting directly in front of piccolos, oboes, brass or percussion, orchestral musicians run a serious risk of long-term hearing damage. But this is not the only noise-induced health problem that we can suffer: the excessive loudness is very hard on our nervous system in general. We could consider it as a type of sensory overload, causing tiredness, irritability and increased tension. A sure solution to protect our hearing (and our nervous system) is to play with special “musicians earplugs” but the huge dynamic range of symphony orchestra music poses a unique problem for the use of earplugs. When the music goes very soft we may not be able to hear ourselves well enough to have the necessary fine control of intonation, sound quality and volume. For this reason, those ear plugs that can easily be semi-removed (loosened) from the ear canal (for the pp passages) without falling out, are preferable to the custom-made plugs that can’t. This requires a certain earplug choreography: we need to remember when to loosen them, and when to push them in extra hard. In a concert situation this is very easy to forget, and we may find ourselves playing a delicate pp passage while half deaf, or with our plugs loose just when the dB level goes through the roof. Perhaps we will need to write little markings in the part, just like for the mute: “plugs in” and “plugs out”!


The excessive noise level doesn’t only cause loss of hearing and sensory overload. It also causes loss of awareness of what our body is doing (proprioceptivity). When we can’t hear ourselves properly, we no longer have that vital aural feedback that tells us what we are doing. It is as though we were playing “deaf”. We run the risk of  rapidly losing all sense of what is an appropriate bow speed, pressure and point of contact to make a good sound. We also can lose our sense of positioning on the fingerboard and as a consequence, start playing wildly (or slightly) out-of-tune.

This is why musicians who only ever play in big orchestras can easily and rapidly acquire a rough sound and an approximate, unstable intonation. After a noisy rehearsal we may need to spend some time playing alone at home to rediscover how to play, to remind ourself that we can actually play, and to rediscover where the notes really are on the fingerboard.


The dynamic range of an orchestra in huge but the problem is not just the excessive volume but also the dynamic imbalances between the different instruments.Whereas a cello pianissimo can be virtually inaudible, an oboe, bassoon  or trombone pianissimo corresponds to a cello mezzo forte. Most composers and most conductors don’t realize this. At the other extreme of loudness, one moderately excited trombonist can obliterate 10 cellists playing their hearts out. It would be so instructive and interesting to measure the actual decibel levels of each different instrument while playing the same dynamic markings.

Never are we asked to play as loudly – 0r as softly – as in a symphony orchestra. Conductors will ask us for more volume, even when we are breaking our hands and instrument, and they will ask us for less even if we are playing with only one bowhair and one nanogram of bow pressure. A cello in a full symphony orchestra is like an acoustic guitar in a heavy metal concert: hard work and a huge effort for not very much effect, except for in those few special moments when the noise level subsides enough for a cello to be heard. We will never be able to make as much noise as a trombone, and trying to do so will just ruin our sound, our bodies …… and our mind.

Dynamic indications – especially the soft ones – can be especially misleading also in the sense that “soloist” dynamics, “tutti theme” dynamics and “tutti-accompaniment” dynamics really are three different worlds. According to our musical function at any moment, that same “piano” indication requires totally different decibel levels. For example, in solo passages, in which suddenly all the musical attention is concentrated on one or several string players, even if the composer indicates “forte”, and the cellist plays “forte”, the resulting decibel level will be somewhere between a “pianissimo” and a “piano” of the full orchestra. But if, in a solo passage,  the composer indicates “piano” (as they often do) and the cellist follows this instruction to the letter (which we mustn’t do), then we might as well all go home, as our intervention will sound like a dying whimper or frightened mistake.  A good example of this is found in the introduction to Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, where the five solo cellists should probably interpret our dynamic indications as if we were the vocal stars of the opera (p= at least mf), because that, in fact, is what we are for those few seconds of the performance!  Even Mozart’s dynamics follow the same logic: in his Serenata Notturna, the solo group interventions are often marked piano. Once again, these solo parts will probably need to be played at least “mezzoforte” for our sonometer to register a volume (in decibels) equivalent to the “piano” of the tutti orchestra. In other words, the composer’s dynamic indications often are a simple reflection of the overall sound level of the passage rather than instructions as to the dynamic that the musician needs to play.


Orchestral cello parts are sometimes very boring. With so many instruments to choose from, rarely does the cello get “the tune” and we spend a lot of time playing the Oom, the Pah, or their more elaborate equivalents. (Note for Google Translator: Oom Pa Pa Oom Pa Pa = 3/4 time etc). This doesn’t mean however that this is easy work. It may be technically easy for the hands, but the job of carefully and sensitively accompanying (following) actually requires more mental attention than leading- and the physical work of holding the bow in the air poised for action is often more tiring than actually playing.

When we are leading (playing “the tune”), we don’t normally have to worry about the other musical lines because it is their job to accompany us. This means that we can play more naturally and freely. Accompanying, on the other hand, requires careful listening,  great sensitivity, and thus, enormous concentration. Also, the added muscular tension of always holding back, always being that imperceptible millisecond behind (so as not to be pushing the melody) makes accompanying not just hard mental work, but also physically tiring. Some virtuoso instrumentalists can actually be quite bad at these predominantly orchestral skills.

This is one of the reasons why opera orchestra musicians tend to be less “happy” than those of symphony orchestras: opera musicians spend more of their playing time following, as operas are normally written mainly as a showcase for the singers, who of course get all the best bits (with the exception of Wagner).

But this same phenomenon actually affects, to a certain extent, all tutti (section, rank-and-file) string players. Our job is to play with the section leader, so we always have to have a little bit of this same accompanying mentality in order to never be ahead of him/her, as well as not being ahead of all the rest of the orchestra.

A section string player is thus, simultaneously following the conductor, the melody line, the section leader and the rest of the many musical voices in the orchestra. Even if everyone else is doing a great job, this is a difficult role. But if those other participants are not together, then even the most simple Oom Pa Pa can become an impossible juggling act for the poor tutti string player. And it only needs one important person to be out of time to make the tutti’s job impossible.

In fact, an orchestra is always following. Even the concertmaster, even those who are playing the tune, are never really leading as they have to follow the conductor’s every tiniest gesture. It is as though we are all driving along in a single lane of cars, just behind the conductor. When the conductor slows down, speeds up, turns  in every possible direction, the musicians have to follow them perfectly, without ever crashing. This is only possible with extreme attention. And notice that the word “attention” contains the word “tension” (with a slightly different spelling). Tension is a part of attention and this need to always follow can easily create excessive tension.


When we play music with others, we need thus to be extremely alert and sensitive not just to what we are doing but also to what is going on around us. This is especially so in orchestras, because with so many people playing (and a conductor to watch) there is usually an awful lot happening at any one time – more perhaps than in any other musical situation.

Visually, we need to keep one eye permanently on the conductor and the other eye on music, but then we also need one eye to watch our colleagues around us to make sure we are with them. This is one reason why orchestral playing requires such a high level of technical instrumental skill: we must be able to play without looking at our hands or instrument,  as we normally need all our visual sense (and more) to watch conductor, music, and colleagues. In fact, we basically need to be able to play our part almost automatically, without needing to think at all about what we are doing, in order to be able to dedicate all our attention to what is going on around us.

Aurally, we need to listen both to ourselves and to everybody else at the same time. This is not easy: orchestras are not only hugely noisy, there are an enormous number of simultaneous musical lines, and they may not all be playing perfectly together.

Directing our attention to so many things at once is difficult. Our tactile sense (touch) is always in overdrive when we play a string instrument but what changes the most in an orchestral setting is the vastly increased amount of information we are now receiving both visually and aurally. All this can lead to “sensory overload”. So much is happening that we need a very good and fast processor (brain) in order to prioritize, to filter out the unimportant, to choose which line is more important, which one to follow, with whom to play etc.


Studies in worker’s health have shown that satisfaction at work comes principally from the twin factors of autonomy and recognition. As orchestral string players, we have very little of either. Our job is to blend into the group, to not stand out, and to not do anything different. This would normally be a laudable goal – cooperating in a group is tremendously satisfying – but the fact that we are playing in unison with all the other cellos means that we lose the individual autonomy and recognition so necessary for satisfaction. We become one more in a flock of very highly trained sheep doing a very difficult task. Not only do we have trouble hearing our voice (sound), we can seldom follow our own ideas or inspirations. This means that we are essentially technicians, “units of production” whose job is almost exclusively mechanical and in no way creative. We play music that someone else composed and that someone else (the conductor) is interpreting.  We don’t even get to bow to the audience in gratitude for their applause: only the conductor (the interpreter) gets that. Conductors will also give a bow to various soloists – even the percussionists will often get a bow – but almost never to a string group.

Surprisingly, the transporters, stage hands and administrative staff seem to have more decision-making autonomy as they work in smaller groups.


Responsibility is the third key factor in job satisfaction. In an orchestra we certainly have a lot of that – but is mainly of the wrong sort. Our main responsibility is not to play badly, not to make mistakes, not to stand out, not to be heard individually. If we do a good job nobody will notice us ….. and that is our most essential objective.


Orchestral music is often very difficult. All sports have rules to protect the players – a match is subdivided into shorter playing periods to allow for some recovery time, and has a maximum duration. Composers, on the other hand, are subject to absolutely no rules concerning the protection of  (or consideration towards) those who will later play their music. They can write absolutely anything they want. This is especially so in orchestral music because they don’t need to worry about whether a passage is playable or not: with a group of musicians all playing the same part, somehow the notes will always come out. This is unfortunate for each individual musician because, for our own pride and professional satisfaction, we would like to play every note well. But we need to be truly excellent players and musicians in order to play everything well that is put in front of us.

Not only do we have to play impossibly difficult passages at times, we also usually have little time to learn them as the repertoire changes so frequently. What’s more, quite often those extremely difficult passages can’t really even be heard, because there is so much other noise going on. To play a 5 hour Wagner opera perfectly is a Herculean task for each individual string player – but does all that effort by each individual player really make a Herculean difference to the audiences enjoyment of the opera?  Often (thank heavens) the most difficult passages are not the most important. Why “bust our guts” to play perfectly some very difficult but inaudible musical padding  – that is a recipe for frustration and burnout. So for our psychological and physical health there can be a fair bit of decision-making about what is important and what isn’t.

Thank heavens for the fact that nowadays it is so easy to listen via Internet to almost any piece of standard repertoire. This means that we can know before the first rehearsal which passages are very audible (and will thus need to be played perfectly), and which are less important.


Playing music is one thing, but reading it is another (see Problems of Music Reading). The enormous quantity of notes and rhythms that an orchestral player has to read and assimilate in a short time means that the orchestral player, more than any other musician, must be not just a very good player but also a virtuoso reader. To add to our already considerable reading difficulties, a lot of the sheet-music parts from which we play were published before the days of computers. This means that the page layouts and printer fonts are very often quite extraordinarily unhelpful, making our reading doubly difficult. Fortunately, most of the Baroque and Classical standard repertoire has been reedited and republished, thanks to the authenticity movement, but most of the late Romantic and Early-20th-Century repertoire (which is the most complex repertoire to read and play) is still played from horribly user-unfriendly editions. Obviously it costs a lot more to make a new edition of a huge Strauss tone poem than it does for a Beethoven symphony.


The orchestral player has so many notes to play that there is an inevitable tendency to “quantity” rather than “quality”. A player who can play fast and accurately will tend to have more success (and less stress) in an orchestra than a player whose main strengths are in the expressive department.


The music of Richard Strauss is about as far as one can get from the light-hearted joviality and friendliness of that of his unrelated Austrian namesakes, the waltzing father and son Josef and Johann. His orchestral music very often demands from us a level of technical virtuosity roughly equivalent to playing solo concertos or showpieces. Most of it – even his operas – can probably be considered as “virtuoso showpieces for orchestra” and represents the pinnacle, the Mount Everest, of orchestral virtuosity. But it also represents the pinnacle of many of the problems described on this page!


A musical democracy is not possible, practical or even desirable in a large group of performers who have to play perfectly together. A tutti string player is the lowest ranking member of the orchestra and has very little chance for creative, personal input. Basically the tutti string player is like a worker bee in a hive. Musically, our job is to do what the conductor, concertmaster and section leaders want us to do, as well as we can and without standing out from the section. Thinking is actually quite hazardous at this level because there is seldom any opportunity for exchange of ideas: there simply isn’t time, and ideas are often considered as a nuisance or even as a challenge to authority.

In the non-musical aspects of our work, we have administrative directors who tell us what, when, and how to fit in with the organisation. Orchestras require such an enormous mobilisation of resources (money) that administrative decisions are taken almost exclusively by the small group of  politicians, sponsors and administrators without the involvement of the workers (musicians). If we are lucky – as in any job – we may have kind, friendly, competent and attentive superiors and funders, but one thing is sure: the decisions are out of our hands. Chamber music is the perfect antidote to this strongly pyramidal, authoritarian organisation.


One of the differences between “modern” democratic societies and “banana republics” is that in the latter, the rulers reign until they die (or retire). Being an orchestral section leader should be considered a privilege that has to be earned and periodically renewed – like an elected politician – rather than a lifelong title. It is sad that many orchestras have to traumatically fire (assassinate) their former stars in order to get them out of positions of responsibility. Would it not be more realistic, more humane, and less traumatic to create instead a culture of periodic “reelection or reevaluation” whereby the posts of greatest responsibility are reopened internally and the sections can reorganise without anyone losing their job. It is unfortunate that relegation to a lower level in a hierarchy is often considered an unbearable humiliation – and very few section leaders will ask for it spontaneously – but this is probably more of a learned social trait rather than an unchangeable component of our genetic make-up.

When we add up all these difficulties, is it any wonder that so many wonderful musicians in wonderful orchestras are frustrated, nervous, tense ……. and with alcoholic tendencies.