How to get into an orchestra: we asked members of LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI to share their experience

Lucerne Festival Academy | Matthias Pintscher (Photo © Patrick Hürlimann)

In February 2017 the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY and ALUMNI were invited to take part in a conference on orchestral music making, organised and hosted by the Haute école de musique (HEM) in Geneva. The various stages of an orchestral musician’s career were discussed by guests including staff from the music conservatories in Copenhagen, Singapore and Manchester, organisers of the orchestra academies of the Berliner Philharmoniker, London Symphony Orchestra and Orchestre de Paris, and many professional orchestral musicians and orchestral managers. Musiciens d’orchestre was published soon after the conference, a book documenting research conducted with the former students of the HEM, focusing on key moments in the life of an orchestral musician through interviews on different aspects of an orchestral musician’s life, alongside portraits of the musicians themselves.

On this occasion, we asked members of LUCERNE FESTIVAL ALUMNI to share their experience in the orchestral profession. Joséphine Poncelin (2015, 2016) currently plays second flute with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Ben Moermond (2008, 2009) is principal bassoon of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Chilcote (2012-2013) plays the double bass with the New World Symphony, and Sonja Winkler (2004) works as Senior Director of Operations and Orchestra Manager with the Nashville Symphony.

How to get into an orchestra: higher education and orchestra academies.

Aspiring orchestral musicians begin their training before they enter higher education, most of the musicians interviewed in the book stressing the importance of playing in school orchestras and bands. Through such ensembles they of course improved technical control over their instrument, but also were provided with a chance to become part of a group and experience the complexities of both musical and human interactions at a young age.

When they enter college, most instrumentalists don’t have a clear view of their possible future career path, and so institutions need to offer a range of pedagogical trainings. Those focused on orchestral performance require very specific set of skills, crucial amongst them being successful auditioning. For example, the Royal Danish Academy of Music’s Live global audition for music students programme links music institutions to work together live online, such as can be demonstrated in this video. Alberto Boncini in Musiciens d’orchestre lays out the perspective from the jury: “We first of all want to hear an objective interpretation of the score … [b]ut the difference is made by the musician who can convince the jury whilst meeting the aesthetics and sound the orchestra is looking for.”

From the other side, Joséphine Poncelin recalls her strict routine: “I had a daily plan with very short timings, 20 minutes on each repertoire piece and 5 minutes on each excerpt. I even used a stopwatch, it meant I had to be very efficient and never had enough time to get crazy about one specific excerpt.” Ben Moermond meanwhile emphasises persistence: The hardest part is accepting that even on your best day things might not go your way, you just have to keep at it. I can’t even remember how many ‘no’s I heard before getting a ‘yes’.

Alongside higher education institutions, orchestra academies offer one or two year training programmes in which students are coached inside an orchestra. Peter Riegelbauer describes in Musiciens d’orchestre how their academists at the Berliner Philharmoniker are integrated into the orchestra: “We never consider the students asextras”, [however] we don’t expect them to behave as professional musicians since we are there to guide them in the profession. In that way, we frame and supervise their work, also during the orchestra rehearsals.” The New World Symphony however works very differently, as Andrew Chilcote explains: “We are like a professional orchestra in that we usually have a concert cycle every week, but we have professional musicians come down to coach throughout the season. There are also weeks without a concert to read through repertoire, [and] open format concerts where fellows can present anything from a solo piece to a chamber orchestra.”

Other academies offer an intense program over a short period, such as the LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY, the Verbier Festival Academy, the Aspen Music Festival and many others. Our alumni have fond memories of their time in Lucerne as well as other programmes, stressing the particularly inspiring atmosphere of collective music making. Joséphine recalls “this idea of sharing every single minute with musicians, having two to four very intensive weeks of music” and Andrew stresses “a sense of bonding with all the other musicians since we are all working towards the same goal”, whilst Ben goes so far as to say that “Most students will get more orchestra experience in a summer festival than they will in an entire year of conservatory orchestra”.

Following a successful audition comes the trial period. As Patrick Lehmann writes in Musiciens d’orchestre: “It’s a time to verify the solidity of the human and musical links that have been established between the jury and the candidate … The relationship that has been established by affinity between the orchestra musicians and the values they share and defend has to be endorsed.” So it is perfectly possible that a musician talented enough to win an audition will fail their trial period for reasons beyond their musical abilities. Even after passing the probationary period, one must adapt very quickly to the life of a professional orchestral musician.

Life inside the orchestra

An orchestral musician’s life presents a wide range of challenges, being expected to live up to high musical expectations whilst losing a sense of individual artistry and often struggling with high physical demands. To cope with such challenges, orchestras invest significant time and resources on the well-being of their musicians. Sonja Winkler, oboiest in the 2004 LUCERNE FESTIVAL ACADEMY, today works in the administrative side of operations, recently being chosen to participate in the League of American Orchestras’s Emerging Leaders Program, as well as writing a blog about her career in orchestral management. She describes her multifaceted role, “… making sure that everybody’s time off is well arranged, preventing injuries and keeping the mind clear. I spend a lot of time talking to the musicians and the production staff about:Are you OK? How can we make sure that your schedule is manageable? Do we need more resources?’.”  In Toulouse, Joséphine describes how musicians can help overcome such challenges themselves: “We work a lot, almost every week because of our double season. But we arrange between ourselves [the flute section] who plays what and when, so there is the opportunity to have a free week, or to be replaced by another colleague when we have a chamber music or solo concert.

The role of an orchestra in a changing society

One discussion in Geneva focused on how an orchestra could or should be structured, the aesthetic and logistic advantages of working with a fixed group of musicians being clear, but many favouring part-time members which can maintain a healthy relationship with the orchestra whilst allowing for more personal development, and also providing performance opportunities for younger musicians. Orchestras are no longer limited to the large-scale repertoire which dominated performance practice in the twentieth century, and in recent years many smaller orchestras have been founded, often with innovative organisational or funding structures (often lacking state support) and more democratic relationships with their musicians. Philippe Dinkel in Musiciens d’orchestre notes that “The position of a symphonic orchestra has evolved considerably over generations. Whether one considers repertoire, audience, financial resources or the management system, it’s a microcosm of the evolution of society and therefore a very fascinating study object.”

Photos: Lucerne Festival Academy Summer 2017 | © Manuela Jans

Our alumni feel very passionate about their evolving roles as orchestral musicians. Andrew mentions some of the ways New World Symphony is trying to reach new audiences: “We have introduced Wallcast Concerts (a free family-friendly outdoor concert for 1000+ people), hosted a wine tasting concert and a yoga concert. We have a high-tech hall allowing us to present a profile video of a fellow before almost every concert and create immersive videos to go along with works, and a website featuring talks with fellows on topics including performance nerves and audition advice as well as complete concert performances.” Ben believes that “the role of the symphony orchestra has stayed mostly the same, bringing great art to their community, [however] the speed of society has changed … I think orchestras need to explore other ways to get people’s attention … Building relationships with audiences is absolutely vital to long term relevancy. An orchestral season has something for everyone, the challenge is to get them in the door.” Joséphine is also proud of how her profession can communicate on an emotional level: “A concert is a very human experience, a shared moment which allows the public to listen to their feelings, which proposes ideas, which strikes or shocks if necessary, which is alive!”

Many thanks to the Haute école de musique de Genéve for the invitation to participate in the colloquium, for Musiciens d’orchestre, and of course to our alumni for sharing their experiences!

Article by Lucerne Festival Alumni: Katrien Gaelens, Jack Adler-McKean

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