New Contributor!

Here’s a an awesome article by new MostlyBass contributor, Chris Strough.

How Competitive Are You?

An introductory guide on what type of band / orchestra is right for your player.

The swell of a full string section, the pinpoint tones of a great brass line, or the woody sounds of a clarinet passage, all wonderful to the ear.  An amazing amount of teamwork and dedication, a little political infighting, and sometimes bruised egos.  These are the best and worst parts of being an orchestral musician; but if the negatives outweigh the positives in your eyes, don’t worry, there’s a set-up for everyone.

Just because someone is uncomfortable fighting for their “chair” in a section, or doesn’t feel that the constant competition and challenge is for them, doesn’t mean that they still can’t be a top of the line musician.  Let’s take a few of the “standard” orchestra and band layouts, and discuss the pro’s and con’s,  who knows?  You may find that the type of group you’re planning on auditioning for may not be the perfect fit for you.

FIG 1.1: A typical orchestral seating arrangement.


If you are (or are the parent of) a string player, this is probably one of the most recognizable types of groups that you will be auditioning for.  Note the division of sections, each instrument in it’s own grouping, with some sections being further divided into smaller groups (many orchestras will break these groups down even farther depending on the piece they are performing.  Example: Within the Violin I section there may be as many as 3 or 4 separate seatings depending on the piece).
What does this mean for the musician?  If you are not happy being just thrown in anywhere, you will need to “score” better than all of the players in your particular II section to become a section I player.  If that’s not good enough for you, all section I players will need to be surpassed in order for you to become “First Chair, Section I”.  Depending on your instrument and orchestra, you may need to outdo upwards of 25-30 people for your coveted “First Chair” status.
“First Chair” players tend to be the most diligent, focused, aggressive individuals in any orchestra.  They will be required to “defend” their position from anyone who wishes to become “First Chair” in their place.  They may also have to devote an extremely large amount of their time to practice, lessons, and possibly section leadership (depending on their conductor).
Are you an assertive, focused, disciplined individual?  Is the idea of people possibly being resentful towards you because of your status acceptable?  Then this may be the ultimate form of music for you.  If not, let’s take a look at some other options…

FIG 2.1: A Small Jazz Band Layout


So the thought of dealing with 25 or 30 people who are out to unseat you at every turn doesn’t appeal to you, don’t worry, it’s completely natural.  If you’re more focused on the music, and are distracted by politics, a smaller group such as this one may be your ticket.
Keep in mind that the Jazz Band you are auditioning for may have many more players than this illustration.  Sax sections alone may have 2-3 parts per instrument (i.e.- alto, tenor, bari sax), so there’s still going to be SOME competition going on, but nothing like the level of the full orchestra.
So you want to be Alto I, for example.  You may have 2-3 people fighting for that same position in your group, or it may just be you.  Either way, less distraction means more concentration on the music, and the teamwork of the entire group.
Be aware that a Jazz Band still tends to be divided into two general groups, a rhythm section, and a horn or brass section.  Both sections have specific areas of concentration, but at least as a horn player you won’t have to worry about the drummer wanting your “chair”.
The interaction between rhythm and horns is what drives a Jazz Band.  If you like to feel like you are the foundation of a group, and that people can count on you no matter what may go wrong, you are most likely suited as a rhythm player (i.e. – guitar, bass, keyboards, drums).  If you like to show a bit more flash, don’t mind having the spotlight on you, and think you have a good ear for improvisation, you should head to the horn or brass section.
The drawback to being a horn or brass player is having to play off the cuff, or improvise.  If you’re a straight sheet music player, then stick to the orchestra, you’ll be happier there.  But if you can follow sheet music, and also don’t mind hanging yourself out for the world to judge, this is your best path…

PERFORMANCE BAND (Rock, Country, etc.):
FIG 3.1: A Small Performance Band Setup


Do you sing with the radio on your way to rehearsal?  Have you cranked the music just so you could perform an “air-guitar” solo with your favorite recording?  You might just be a performance artist.
Members of these bands do not always have a formal education on the instruments that they are playing.  Some players cannot or will not read sheet music.  But they can still bring an audience to their feet with what they play.
Although the bass and drums do officially provide a rhythm section, the group as a whole is small enough that everyone is required to work tightly as a team to have a good outcome.  Even if you pass an audition for this type of band, you may be required to defend your position against other players from the outside of the group.  Usually, if you are good enough, that won’t be a problem.
The camaraderie and experiences in a live performance band are second to none.  While a stirring movement from Wagner may draw a round of applause, a tight performance band will have the crowd eating out of their hands.  This is the group for you if you are outgoing, have little issue with stage-fright, and love being the center of attention.
On the other side of the coin, if you are sheet music oriented, this may not be a good choice.  Many bands use nothing more than a set-list (listing of songs, possibly with their Key), and some don’t even use those.  You are truly out on your own, with just the help of your fellow players.  If you hit a wrong note, everyone knows.  If you don’t fit tightly with the group, it affects the entire performance.  Because of the types of personalities that are drawn to this particular group, you may have to deal with ego issues, so if you’re not the “lead dog” personality, you may want to study up on some psych in order to deal with your band mates.  Orchestra’s and Jazz Band’s don’t tend to fold because of one player, many performance bands however, do.


No matter what type of group you choose to audition for, it will still take work, discipline, and talent to live up to your full potential.  Many professional musicians belong to more than one of these groups, in order to be able to take advantage of the benefits that each of them offers.  Just because you read sheet music five days a week doesn’t mean you can’t let your hair down, and do a bit of stage diving, on the weekends.  Keep in mind that there are many different iterations of these examples out there, so these main categories can still be further refined to suit your style.

So practice, audition, and enjoy your chosen path!

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