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Orchestra tryouts

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Everybody was so helpful on the School Loop question that I decided to ask another (now if you could all just finish my WIP for me.)

How do orchestra tryouts/auditions (what are they called?) work at the middle school level? If a student is a second chair, for example, but wants to move up to first chair, does s/he "challenge" another student? Would this be done privately or in front of the rest of the orchestra? Or is this something that's done at regular intervals throughout the school year with the scheduling determined by the teacher?

(I would know the answers to these questions if my daughter hadn't abandoned cello. On the other hand, the dogs and I don't have to cover our ears during practice time anymore.)
#1 - January 06, 2012, 09:51 AM

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My son is in 8th grade orchestra. They don't challenge another player (and we didn't do that in band back in the stone ages when I was there, either.) They have regular tryouts. But so far, his have been at pretty wide intervals. I think there was one last year, and he was at the bottom (they start in 5th grade here, but we moved in and he started from scratch in 7th. Howling dogs and sounds like cats swallowing glass--oh yes, we know the sounds!). But sometime in the past two months of 8th grade, they had tryouts again (only I don't think that's what they're called--I'll ask when he gets home from school). Now he's made his way up to second stand (so, 3rd or 4th chair)--but he's still playing second violin parts. So the seating changed, but the parts haven't yet. The director is planning to do that soon, too, but I think maybe he didn't want to mess things up before the concert??
#2 - January 06, 2012, 09:56 AM


My kid has been in orchestra since middle school. It's a course, so there is no audition to be in the orchestra, just an audition to be positioned. I think it's only in the fall, and if the instructor wants to move someone up or down later in the year, that happens. In both middle school and high school they also have a challenge process they can use. I honestly don't know if it's public or private. And I don't think this bunch of kids is so competitive that it happens very often.

On a side note, my kid moved up from 2nd violin to first this year because one of the firsts decided to get involved in a "Glee"-style program instead. Another level of complexity you might find useful to think about.
#3 - January 06, 2012, 10:43 AM

If it's your regular school orchestra the challenges/auditions/reassessments/chair placements (pick your favorite term) are probably done on a schedule and are private. It might also be the time when scales, etc. are checked for individual grades.

If it's a more prestigious group, an arts school, an area youth symphony or a school where orchestra is THE thing it's more likely to be hard-core - in a challenge format and in front of the rest of the group. I'd also associate that with an older, stricter teacher. If your conductor character is all smiles and praise he/she won't do a public challenge.
#4 - January 06, 2012, 10:48 AM

Thanks... I'm thinking public school with a middle-of-the-road kind of teacher. But a battle to be first chair between two rivals. So maybe one girl would "challenge" another and they'd meet right after school with the teacher? (There would only be one first chair, right?)
#5 - January 06, 2012, 11:19 AM

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The phrase used here is "seating auditions." Kids can challenge the chair directly above them, and they can challenge once a month.
For seating auditions, all kids for each instrument are given the same piece of music one week in advance. Each instrument auditions on the same day. They play the prepared piece and also sight read a piece -- one kid playing for the teacher/teachers. No one else around. The teachers score them on a number of things -- some kind of rubric. They add up each individual grade for a total. Highest grade is first chair, second highest is second chair, etc.

Kids can then challenge the chair directly above them. They can challenge once a month. The format is the same. They play the same piece and sight read, but this time, both kids are in the room.

Our school is very competitive music-wise, but still, there are very few challenges. There are always kids pissed off about their seating - some are justifiably pissed as there is quite a bit of favoritism in the seating process. I think they just deal with it.
#6 - January 06, 2012, 12:56 PM

In our public middle school there are no challenges and no auditions (it's a course and they have to let you in), but my daughter would still understand the concept and not find it strange if she came across it in a book.
#8 - January 06, 2012, 03:07 PM
Sylvan Dell, July 2008

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Oh -- I gave you info on band. Not sure if orchestra is run exactly the same way.
#9 - January 06, 2012, 03:09 PM


Talked to my teen in person. I learned some interesting things.

Teen says middle school director, a nice woman, would schedule the challenge away from the rest of the class, so probably after school or early morning. High school director, a tough sort of fellow, would schedule the challenge in front of the rest of the orchestra.

Depending on the kind of challenge, they might play a piece they are working on or a new, fast-to-learn piece. The reason is a little complicated. Obviously, second violins play a different part than first violins, say. So if a player who wants to move from second to first, they are not currently practicing the same part. So it's only fair to assign them a new piece. They'd likely be asked to perform during the next practice.

In my teen's orchestra (and I suspect this is the norm) the strongest players are not all first violins. Instead, the strongest players are all first chairs, descending from first violin to third. And then the whole thing snakes around again. So your two strongest players really would be playing different parts, because they are the first chairs each of the first and second violins. The first chair, second violin, is most likely to challenge the first chair, first violin. If anything, that would add more tension to your conflict, I think. It's not just the honor of first chair that's at stake; it's also the melody.

#10 - January 06, 2012, 03:52 PM

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Adding to what Jeff said, the first chair, first violin is generally the "leader" of the orchestra. Running tuning and such for performances. It is a bigger honor than first chair in any other section.

That being said, PRAISE THE LORD that my little high school orchestra didn't have any of this crap. It's making me nervous just reading it! (I played violin and viola.) :)
#11 - January 06, 2012, 03:57 PM
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All very interesting... I'm talking to a few kids this weekend in our middle school orchestra to find out how they do it.

Jeff, one question--what if it's not violin but cello? There wouldn't be nearly as many as violins, so would there just be a first cello, second cello, etc? And the second cello would challenge the first cello, theoretically? Could you ask your daughter when you have a chance?
#12 - January 06, 2012, 04:29 PM

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Our school district has an excellent music program, but challenges aren't allowed. At the high school, there are seating auditions done by the teacher/conductor at the beginning of the year, and that's that. Each string section has one or more principals. There isn't a set number of principals; it's based on a given level of playing. Principals are in a chamber orchestra, and play in both our symphony and strings orchestras (we have so many kids they don't fit on a stage, so there are 2 orchestras). In contrast to what Jeff said though, the best players generally are 1st violin, mainly because that music is harder and more interesting to play. Maybe the 4th or 5th best 1st violin (or even lower) will be the 1st chair 2nd violin.

At the middle school level, there aren't even formal chairs. The better players are seated closer up, but they also switch halfway thorugh the performance, so everyone has a chance to be a little closer to the front/outside. So you might have the first 4 chairs rotate, and the next 4 rotate, etc.

My son also plays in the competitive regional orchestras, including the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra. There is an audition to get into the orchestra, then seating auditions by the conductor (who is also an assistant conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony) 2 or 3 times a year. LOTS of stress around the audition to get in, and also fair amount around the seating auditions. But even in PYSO, where many of them will go on to become professional musicians, there are no challenges. I don't know if that's a regional difference?

So I think the idea of a challenge would be foreign to kids here, but if it's presented/explained in the book, they'd believe it. You're going to have to explain it somewhat anyway for non-orchestra kids, yes? I think you can do it however you like, because there are always going to be schools with their own quirks.

#13 - January 06, 2012, 06:27 PM


My teen's orchestra is big enough for one cello. They actually have two, to make an accommodation, but they really just need one. The two play the same part and are not distinguishable in any way. I have no idea what it's like in a bigger orchestra.
#14 - January 07, 2012, 07:21 AM

Again, interesting. I know my daughter's middle school orchestra has at least six cellos... it's kind the hot instrument.
#15 - January 07, 2012, 08:10 AM


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