Honors orchestra

Back in the 1980’s, before i had met him, my friend Ron Apperson was the principal tubaist with the Hartford Symphony. That may not sound like much but at the time it was one of only four full-time jobs for tuba players in the United States. He won his position through a blind audition, in which he played for judges who could not see him and were evaluating only the sound of his playing. This all happened before I met him. When I met him he was, as is true of most tuba players, earning his living through other jobs and playing his tuba as an amateur. Very few musicians are able to support themselves with their music alone. Those who do supplement playing income with teaching and other jobs.

Symphonic music is an interesting phenomenon, because it is based on community. No individual can make the beautiful music of a symphony alone. A traditional orchestra can have 100 or more players and they have to learn to play together. This process means hours and hours of rehearsal and close relationships grow out of the experience. Learning one’s part and playing one’s music accurately is only part of the process. Symphony musicians have to learn to listen to each other and watch the director for the clues to play together precisely. Ensemble music is an acquired art, born of lots and lots of practice.

Interestingly, most positions in symphony orchestras, however, are obtained through a competitive process. Auditions assume that there will be more people applying than there are positions. Somehow a decision has to be made about who gets into the symphony and who is left behind. This process of competitive music begins early in the career of the musician. They compete for positions in their orchestra or band as students. the most talented or most advanced students get to be “first chair” and lead the seconds of the ensemble. It is always a bit of a tension in student orchestras because taken and leadership are not the same thing and the person who earns the first chair position my be very gifted with their instrument, but less skilled at motivating, encouraging and leading others.

Last night we once again had the honor of being in the audience for the performance of the J. Laiten Weed Honors Orchestra. The orchestra is a chamber group of 22 high school musicians who are the top-scoring students in the auditions for the South Dakota All-State High-School Orchestra. That means that the student attends a school that is a member of the South Dakota High School Activities Association. Then the student submits audition recordings to a group of string teachers who score the auditions. The top scoring violins (12), violas (4), cellos (4) and basses (2) compose the orchestra. If a student is unable to participate, the alternate, who is the next-highest-scoring student takes that person’s place. A conductor is selected to be the clinician and conductor of the group. The group gathered for rehearsals on Thursday evening when further auditions determine ranking within the orchestra and who will be assigned solo parts. The students have had the music and have been rehearsing separately prior to the gathering. Then they spend Friday and Saturday in rehearsals and perform a concern on Saturday evening.

As you can imagine the concert is stunning. The students are talented and eager to learn. The clinician/conductor is a skilled teacher. The result is a wonderful musical event. As much as I enjoy the concert, I am interested in the process. I understand that there is a lot of heartbreak on the way to this performance. Along the way, talented students who love music are scored lower and do not make the orchestra. Whether a student is selected for the orchestra is greatly influenced by the quality of the string music program in their high school. Although auditions are open to students form all of the schools of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, those who earned a place in the orchestra this year represented only three high schools. Twenty of the twenty-two players represented only two high schools. High school orchestra programs in South Dakota are dominated by the two Rapid City High Schools. Those schools are set up with teachers who understand the audition process and with equipment to make audition recordings that meet the standards of the judges. Most of those students have access to private teachers. They have advantages that are simply not available to all students in the state.

Then there is the simple fact that the two high schools in Rapid City are intensely competitive. Their conductors often display competitive moves for public support and funding from the school district.

As a result of all of these factors the twenty-two students who arrive at the rehearsals are not immediately predisposed to form a community and work together. They have competed with others to gain their pace in the orchestra. They have been told and have believed that they are the best. They have gained their place by leaving others behind. Then, suddenly, they have two days to become an orchestra that can think and work and play together. Their individual sounds need to blend with others so that the ensemble sounds as one.

The All-State Orchestra, with hundreds of players is much more inclusive but playing in a large orchestra is very different from being a member of a chamber ensemble. In a chamber ensemble each part is critical. You can’t just imitate the sound of the person sitting next to you. Every player needs to observe dynamics, stay completely in rhythm, play notes accurately and listen to the other players.

Somehow each year the students pull it off. Last night’s concert was masterful and a wonderful experience. The students really performed at a professional level. They sounded as good as any orchestra anywhere. And as I listened and really enjoyed their music, I thought of those students who did not make the orchestra. I thought of their gifts and talents. And I hope that they find enough pleasure in their music to continue to play as amateurs. May their love for music flourish and grow despite losing a competition.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!