As a music performance student, you’ll probably spend more of your “work” time practicing and working on your private teacher’s assignments than on anything else. The thing you’re likely to spend the second largest block of time on is your orchestra or other ensemble classes. School orchestras are often misunderstood. Students often see their orchestra requirement as:
- a “gig,” something they need to do to appease the school and earn their scholarship. When you’re grinding through a boring opera rehearsal it can certainly seem that way.
- An activity, something they enjoy and do primarily for their own musical enjoyment. We all want orchestra to be fun, but it probably won’t be all the time.
- A PR organization, presenting concerts to encourage community involvement in the school, get in the local paper, and entertain the trustees.
Parents and school administrators can also see orchestra as one or more of these things, although they may assign them different values than students. For example, to a college administrator, the school orchestra is indeed sometimes a PR organization or scholarship requirement. That's fine, but that has to do with the orchestra's role is satisfying their needs, not yours.
The thing I encourage all prospective (and current!) music students to remember is that your school ensemble is a class. Playing in a large ensemble requires developing specialized skills – figuring out how to find and agree on tempo with 100 other musicians in an instant, learning which notes on the bassoon tend to be sharp, learning how to hear and adjust your pitch while everyone is playing fortissimo, and many others. Your school ensemble should help you acquire these skills, and hopefully the conductor should focus his rehearsal time not only on learning the music in front of you, but on teaching you how to learn the music in front of you. Sadly, some college orchestra programs fall short in this area; finding those that don’t can mean the difference between a great orchestra experience in school and an OK one.
If you can work it out, go see a rehearsal of the orchestra or other ensembles at the schools you are interested in. Try to contact students and ask them about the orchestra experience at the school. Try to see if the orchestra is something that you can see as a learning experience, and not just a place to play through orchestral rep.
Many of these same principles apply to chamber music. Almost all schools have a chamber music requirement for undergraduate and graduate students, and that program should also ideally be a learning experience for you. Inquire about it as well. How many coachings do you get with the faculty? Who are they and what is the experience of working with them like? All these questions can help you glean some important nuggets of information as you consider your choices.