You Can Join an Orchestra

Community colleges are great sources for adult enthusiasts

So you've got the joy of music in your heart and, with all due modesty, pretty good intonation. What you don't have is an outlet—a place to perform, maybe show off your bowing skills, and connect with like-minded musicians. Of course, this outlet can't be too time consuming, since you have a full-time life outside of music. And it can't be too expensive, either.

Does finding a musical venue with all these "gotta haves" and "can't haves" sound like a pipe dream? Try localizing your hopes and tap into a nearby community college. Many of these schools offer innovative, affordable, and sophisticated opportunities for creative expression and performance. And precisely because of the academic environment, string players from almost-intermediate to semi-professional are all welcome.

The Lowdown

Before leaping into the creative benefits of joining a community-college orchestra, let's dismiss the myths. Truth is, they're cheap, and they don't require a lot of time.

At Palomar College, a community college in San Marcos, California, orchestra members are technically students, enrolled in the class called Palomar Symphony Orchestra. However, the class is only one credit, and with an enrollment fee of $26 per credit (for California residents), the price to play for a semester is less than your average dinner out.

Time demands are also low, adds Douglas Bruck, Palomar Symphony Orchestra's music director. "We meet in the evening once a week, for two and a half hours, and we have four concerts a semester," he says. "It's nothing like the professional musician's grueling schedule. Our schedule fits perfectly with someone who has another life as well."

Although there are different ways to administer a college community orchestra, costs and time requirements generally follow Palomar's example.

Curtain Up

If accompanying Aunt Mabel's piano recital at the annual family Christmas party doesn't satisfy your inner musician then you'll appreciate the wide range of performing options at your nearby community college. Opportunities vary between schools and range from full symphony orchestra to smaller, intimate string ensembles, but in all cases, Bruck says, there's a chair for every skill level and a drive to perform that unites all the musicians.

At Richland College, within the Dallas County Community College District, Bruce Wittrig directs the Richland College String Orchestra. He's also a 25-year violinist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Wittrig not only respects this craving for the stage, he encourages it. This, he says, is what separates string players who make music from musicians who play a stringed instrument.

"You know, it occurs to me, that the one thing we share as musicians—professionals and amateurs—is why we got into music," he says. "We play for that electric moment when just everything fits together perfectly and everybody feels the same thing. It's the true meaning of harmony. But we can only have that by coming together in a big group and performing."

So, like most community-college orchestra directors, Wittrig schedules just enough performances to scratch a musician's itch to perform but not so many that the orchestra becomes a burden.

Friends, Indeed

Musicians in community-college orchestras or string ensembles usually represent a jumble of backgrounds. There will always be some music students, but you'll also find, for example, businesspeople who have nothing to do with string playing from 9 to 5: music teachers, career oboists who noodle around with the viola, talented retirees, and the list goes on. In this scenario, every musician is considered an amateur—playing for pleasure rather than pay—which creates a comfy nest for friendships, camaraderie, and creative conversation.

As Wittrig says, "The great thing about orchestra is that you're part of something bigger than you can ever be on your own. When you feel that, your ego doesn't matter. All that's important is making connections."

Bruck agrees, adding that his orchestra members are like a community within the community. "It's a place to mingle," he says, "and it gives everyone an opportunity to get together, share fantastic music, and establish friendships."

There's also ample opportunity to strengthen existing relationships, Bruck adds. "The musicians love to invite their family members and friends to our performances," he says. "That's mostly what our crowd is. Family and friends. And a lot of students, of course, because our performances are on the Palomar campus."

On a Serious Note

Despite a community-college orchestra's amateur status, don't think for a moment that performances are slipshod or filled with Suzuki Volume 2 songs. As Bruck says, "We can't tackle everything I'd like to do, like the larger romantic works, because I have to take into consideration how many members I have in the orchestra and overall talent, but each semester we're really branching out into larger works."

What are these works? Think Dvo?ák's Symphony No. 8 in G major, Corelli's Christmas Concerto, Rossini's Overture to the Barber of Seville, and maybe a little Vivaldi.

"These are all works in the standard orchestral literature of every professional orchestra in the world," Bruck says.

As for performance caliber, that's ultimately up to the musicians, but community-college orchestras generally garner a fair amount of respect. As far as Bruck's orchestra goes, members are expected to make a commitment.

"In terms of discipline, I rehearse them as I would any level musician, professional or amateur," he says. "Certainly not in repertoire or technique, but in the way we approach technique and emotion. We work very hard. And I try to inspire them, during rehearsals, to take that discipline home and practice on their own, so the next time we get together we're just that much better."

When the day is done, with budget, scheduling issues, and performance needs satisfied, Wittrig says, a community-college orchestra is really about "sharing a common journey into music" and the true fellowship that comes from... you guessed it... a community.

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