Joining an orchestra: learning in the face of terror

I have not written about my flute activities since a month ago, but that’s not for lack of action: in fact, I’ve been spending a lot of time on the flute, at the expense of other personal projects, including writing.

Two months ago, I mentioned that I was considering joining the Carnegie Mellon All-University Orchestra, which I claimed was “not very good” and that “I don’t have to be super good to be a part of it.” I take back those comments.

I joined the CMU AUO two Sundays ago, attending the first rehearsal then, and it was one of the most frightening experiences in my entire life. I almost left before even entering the rehearsal room. But I went in, stayed for the two and a half hours, and last Sunday, I went to the second rehearsal.

Let me put it this way: at the first rehearsal, there were about ten flutes and one piccolo in the flute section. At the second rehearsal, we are down to four flutes and one piccolo. I hope that we don’t lose any more flutes at the next rehearsal. OK, maybe some students happened to be busy and will be returning. Or maybe some of them had the same reaction that I had: absolute terror.

Let me explain.

The music we are to play for the April 15 concert

At the door of the rehearsal room, we got to pick up the music for the concert scheduled for April 15. There are four works, but one is for brass and percussion only, and the other for strings only, so there are only two I would play in on flute:

On inspection at the door, I immediately realized that I could not play any of this music. Both the Gershwin and Bernstein were totally out of my current abilities. Worse, the Bernstein piece looked particularly insanely hard to me, even though I picked up the “flute 2” part, not the “flute 1” part. There were a lot syncopations, accents, extreme dynamics, very high notes (some of which I had not yet even learned the fingerings for yet), and the music was very fast.

I was filled with terror. I almost left without entering the room and signing in.

Why I stayed

I went in anyway. I decided that I needed to see what this orchestra was about, since I have never been in an orchestra in my life (I stopped my feeble playing of the flute at age 13 and never played again after that).

I had a “fail fast” plan: if I really felt I couldn’t make a decent contribution in this orchestra, I would walk out as soon as I felt I was a hopeless burden to the team. Forget ego: what I do or do not do must be based entirely on objective considerations. I wasn’t going to walk away already just because I believed (and still believe!) that I must be the worst musician in the entire orchestra, nor would I be afraid to walk away in the future if I found that I was harming the team.

The first rehearsal

I ended up surviving the first rehearsal, in that we did a sight-reading session in which although I could barely play any of the music, I sat there trying to learn and did what I could, playing a few notes here and there when I could, and sitting out when there was just no way I could get anything right at all.

Also, I sat next to a guy who was playing piccolo, and he seemed to nail everything, although I had asked him earlier how long he’d been playing flute and he said twelve years. Note: I have been playing flute seriously for only three months, and on the membership form for the orchestra, it asked for a self-rating of experience level, ranging from Beginner to Advanced Beginner to Intermediate to Advanced, and with all honesty I checked off Beginner (not even Advanced Beginner).

However, it gave me some hope when I realized that everyone was having a hard time with the music. I’m sure nobody was having as hard a time as me, but we were struggling while sight reading at a very slow tempo. It also gave me hope that the director, Maria Sensi Sellner, happened to mention that we were tackling probably the hardest work the orchestra had attempted in its history, because she is leaving after this season and wanted to do something ambitious. OK, so it wasn’t just me thinking this music was hard.

Also, she seemed to me very effective in helping us get started with the music. She worked out the tricky rhythms with us, and the music began to make more sense to me during the rehearsal. She told us that we should listen to recordings and check out the West Side Story musical so that we would understand the music in the context of the action.

I left the rehearsal still shell-shocked, but I reasoned to myself that it would be stupid to quit this early on, before having had a chance to study the score more, continue to improve my technique, etc. I had grave doubts that I would return for the second rehearsal, but I had one week to decide whether I should even come back. (Note that the orchestra has an attendance policy, so that anyone missing too many rehearsals may not play in the concert.)

A sample AUO performance

For fun, here is the CMU AUO performing last fall Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. They weren’t bad. That gives me hope, because we sounded pretty bad sight reading the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, so I actually have faith that Sellner can get us into reasonable shape in two months.

My practice strategy for a week after the first rehearsal

All January I had been working really hard for three weeks on flute practice, in anticipation of the first CMU AUO rehearsal that occurred on January 22. I was making a huge amount of progress working through “easy” stuff. Flute is much, much harder to play than recorder.

After the first rehearsal, I decided that there was no way I could ever play the Gershwin or Bernstein without focusing really hard on pure technique. So the bulk of my practice was beginning to systematically work through the Rubank Intermediate Method: Flute or Piccolo that I mentioned finding in early January and never having used.

I spent a little bit of time trying to play excerpts from the Gershwin and Bernstein at a very slow tempo, but frankly, these attempts were very frustrating because I was still having problems just playing the high notes at all, for example. I had to learn the fingerings for some notes I had never played in my life. I also had to improve my embouchure in order to produce those notes.

(By the way, I have almost completely stopped playing recorder for a month. I am still attending the monthly meetings of the local recorder group, and practicing a little before attending, but I cannot devote any more time to improving on recorder while trying to get successfully to the April 15 CMU AUO concert.)

The second rehearsal

As the second rehearsal approached, I wondered what we were supposed to be preparing for it. I sent email to the guy I had contacted last year about joining the orchestra, asking him if I had been put on the announcement mailing list yet, and he apologized, saying that he hadn’t, and he put me on. So it was only hours before the second rehearsal that I learned we were supposed to have been for days watching some YouTube videos and working on the two very hardest sections of the Bernstein!!!

I almost didn’t go to the second rehearsal, as a result. I had not even looked at the hardest sections of the Bernstein yet: during the entire week, I had worked on the sections just up till those hardest sections!! I spent half an hour before the Sunday evening rehearsal trying to do a little work on the hardest sections, but failing pretty miserably. Oh well.

I went to the second rehearsal anyway. I half expected that I would be asked to leave after being found out to be completely incompetent (as well as not doing my homework).

It turned out that many of us had not done our homework, or had done it but were still having a lot of problems. The director was patient and slowed things down a lot and again focused on our getting the rhythms and syncopation right, and all the instruments just staying together at all. Because we were so unprepared, we ran out of time to work on the Gershwin, which she had originally planned to cover as well as the Bernstein.

Also, we lost most of our flutists!! In fact, with only four flutes and a piccolo left, during a flute-dominated passage of the Bernstein, we found out that only one of us was playing “flute 1”. The director asked for someone else to join her, and so I guess now we have two on “flute 1”, and me and the other person on “flute 2”.

My practice strategy for this week after the second rehearsal

If we were having a rehearsal again next Sunday, I would be seriously worried and contemplate probably having to drop out of the orchestra then. Luckily, we are skipping Super Bowl Sunday. This gives me two weeks, rather than one, to improve drastically.

The director had said it was up to us individually and in the upcoming sections to get our act together on the Bernstein sections in question. So I have at least one concrete goal for the next rehearsal: being prepared to play reasonably accurately the difficult Bernstein sections, and at tempo.

For three days now so far this week, I have continued with working through the Rubank intermediate method. I have made so much progress that I think that in another couple of days I may consider myself an Advanced Beginner at flute rather than just a Beginner, ha!

Deliberate practice

I am putting in the focused, deliberate practice to improve as rapidly and efficiently as I can.

By the way, I have to put in a plug for Gerald Klickstein, author of the wonderful book “The Musician’s Way”, and his blog as well as his Twitter feed @klickstein, which have been profoundly inspirational and useful in not only my music practice but also all of my other serious pursuits. He even replies to questions and comments promptly.

Regarding learning, I will be writing blog posts in the future about my various strategies for learning that I find effective. A recent article talks about interleaving, which I have used to great effect to “parallelize” my learning, and I definitely use it in my music practice. I work on many things in one session, not just one thing, because there is no way to just get massively better at one thing during one session, and then do the same for something else at the next session. I have to parallelize, to make small bits of progress every day on something. For example, every day I work on

I squeeze as much as I can out of an hour of practice at home. I’ve found that there are diminishing returns of all kinds after an hour. Obviously, if I were a music student or professional, I’d use multiple sessions to get more hours, but for much of my life these days I use the 8020 rule to maximize the returns on my practice.


I use the metronome extensively in my practice to gauge my progress, by making note each day of the fastest speed at which I can execute an exercise with the best musical qualities I am capable of currently, and then trying to do it faster the next day. This method worked very well for me when I was learning the recorder from scratch, and it is working for me well now.

For example, here is the record for one of the twenty or so exercises I have worked on in the Rubank book for the past week and a half:



Another (in which I have been finding the series of arpeggios rather difficult):

(Where there is a gap in the record, I either did not play that exercise that day, because I chose to work on another, or I did but could not go faster without error.)

Note that the progress is not always linear. Sometimes there are “trouble spots” that hold me back for a while before I overcome them. Sometimes I am stagnant for a day or even a couple of days before I suddenly get better.

Keeping detailed records is vital to an objective assessment of where one is in one’s practice. I kept detailed records when losing thirty pounds over a decade ago, and when transforming myself from a non-runner into a marathoner.

Progress on the Bernstein

As mentioned, I have not practiced the Bernstein music that much, because I devote around 80 or 90 percent of my time to just improving my technique. The fundamentals matter (I will talk about this in future blog posts) when trying to get good at something. One cannot just rush in without mastering fundamentals.

Here are some metronome improvement numbers for sections of the Bernstein music:

Obviously, my goal for the next rehearsal is to get as much up to full speed as possible in the sections that I need the most work on. If I fail miserably to measure up, I will feel justified in quitting the orchestra. But given my improvement in the Rubank method, I think I have a fighting chance in the next ten days to get much better in the Bernstein music.


By deciding to take on the challenge of joining the CMU All-University Orchestra while being pathetically incompetent at flute, I am trying to push the limits of my learning and practice abilities. I will drop out if I only manage to hold back rehearsals or feel that I will play badly at the scheduled concert. But so far, I am still hanging in there.

(Update of 2012-03-12)

I ended up quitting the CMU AUO.

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