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Why Do Orchestras Need Sheet Music and Soloists Don’t?

Sheet Music

Whether you are an avid orchestral performance attendee or you go to the occasional concert or two, you have probably seen at least one concerto featuring a soloist. You may have even had the opportunity to see a soloist perform with or without an accompanist (which is often a piano). One thing you may or may not have noticed, however, is how orchestras use sheet music while soloists, and even some ensembles, typically do not. Why?

Lack of Time: An orchestra doesn’t have the luxury of a lot of time to learn pieces. Some professional orchestras rehearse as little as two times before performing. Community orchestras usually have about 1-2 months of rehearsals prior to a concert. Still, that is not enough time to memorize 3 or 4 pieces which can span 3-6+ pages each. Orchestras, also, typically only perform the music on one night and then move on to different music for the next concert. The sheer volume of music an orchestra goes through makes it impossible to memorize every part.

A soloist, on the other hand, spends years practicing and perfecting the same pieces, performing them over and over to different audiences and with different orchestras.

Breadth of Works: There is so much orchestral music out there to choose from. Estimates are nearly impossible to make especially since music continues to be written to this day. Even if you just speculate that there have been 10,000 composers throughout history and each one wrote just 100 pieces, the result is 1 million pieces. That is an awful lot of music to memorize as a member of any orchestra – professional or volunteer. And the odds that an orchestra member will play the same piece more than once or twice in their lifetime is slim.

On the other hand, soloists tend to have a memorized, well-rehearsed repertoire ready to go at a moment’s notice. And when they are asked to play something outside of their repertoire or they are asked to play a new composition, they are given plenty of time to prepare and memorize the piece before performing it.

Need For Consistency: Each member of a section needs to play tightly in unison with other members. You can’t have 10 first violins, each playing something slightly different. During rehearsal, conductors will typically give direction about tempos, dynamics (volume), bowings, and breathing and the musicians will note that in the sheet music to remember for future rehearsals and the performance. Memorizing the music and remembering all those directions is not only difficult, but also not useful for future performances where other conductors may ask for something different.

Soloists, however, have a lot more room to interpret the music as they want. The accompanist or orchestra follow the solo performer’s lead.

All of this is not to say that being a soloist is any easier than playing in an orchestra. Soloists have a unique skill set and face different challenges. They are required to perform their best with very few rehearsals – maybe 1 or 2 or at most. They are expected to play from memory but, at the same time, play with a passion that keeps the audience engaged.

The bottom line is that orchestra members and soloists use sheet music differently due to their unique circumstances and requirements.


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