The art of being an orchestra dork
September 29th, 2011
07:26 AM ET

The art of being an orchestra dork

Like any passionate group of people who throw their entire body into what they do, you can tell an “orch dork” by their battle scars.

The imprints of bass, cello, violin or viola strings are almost permanently embedded in their fingertips. Streaks of rosin, used to keep their bows in working condition, end up on their clothing. And always look for that telltale hickey on the left side of a violin or viola player’s neck – the end button gets them every time.

But like a “band geek,” an orchestra dork is branded by association without any firm foundation for the moniker. What makes a person who plays a string instrument a dork … or not a dork?  Is it the classical music? The shyness that evaporates when they perform? The tendency to stick together?

Dean Marshall, musical director and founder of the world-touring string group Barrage, sees the initial connection between a person and his instrument as the beginning.

“The string instrument is so difficult to get it sounding good initially,” he said. “It’s not like a piano, trumpet or guitar, where you can hit a chord right away. But boy you pick up a violin and it can really sound terrible. Geeks, being one myself, we kind of have a one-track mind that we’re really going to get this figured out. That determination of really getting it and going for a challenge, it’s what geeks do.”

Marshall paused. “Geeks and strings,” he murmured. “What is it really? What is that?”

The connection is difficult to discern, especially for musicians, because string musicians don’t see themselves as “orch dorks.” They are drawn in by the tug of the music when it resonates in their hearts, the camaraderie of lifelong friendships and the idea of performing alongside like-minded musicians, all contributing lilting components to one great swell of music.

The violin spoke to Marshall when he was a small child. It was the family instrument, beginning with his great-grandfather. “My mom told me that I couldn’t speak but I carried around this fiddle record all the time. At a very young age, that’s what I wanted. It was having that connection, that spark of joy in life.”

Christina Smith, principal flute for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, also works with the organization’s youth orchestra, the ASYO. Working with young musicians, ages 13-18, is a reminder of the joy Smith discovered when she first joined the San Francisco Youth Orchestra in high school.

“I’ll just never forget the first rehearsal, the first chord that the orchestra played and how it sounded in my ears,” she said. “It was absolutely intoxicating and I knew that I couldn’t not have that in my life. I always felt like I was sitting on cloud nine during youth orchestra rehearsals. It’s like you’ve excelled in an area that very few people get to do, and it makes you feel really confident.”

Smith has maintained her friendships from youth orchestra and she’s never forgotten the lessons of teamwork, leadership and discipline contained within every rehearsal.  Feeling like a geek because of her love for music, or considering the string musicians around her to be geeks, never really crossed her mind.

“I think I had an idea that people thought I was a geek, but I realized later that my classmates thought it was super cool,” she said. “If there was a stigma, I probably didn’t even notice it because I was doing what I loved. When people have a passion for something and they pour their heart into it, they don’t care what other people think.”

Now, Smith is part of a new family with the Atlanta Symphony. The familial atmosphere prevails not only because of the amount of time they spend together, but because of the respect they have for one another. It takes tremendous effort to win each seat in the ASO. And they are bonded by the music that flows through each of them. “It’s very personal making music with other people on stage,” she said.

But just why do orchestra’s instruments become the weapon of choice for musicians? And why do we enjoy the sound of string music?

Stanley Romanstein, the president of the ASO, believes it has to do with good vibrations. Romanstein was “born a musician,” and has always been singing, conducting or playing some sort of instrument. For a time, he tried his hand at the cello and viola. Now, he regularly watches his ASO practice. Rehearsal is one of his favorites.

“My experience is there is something about that sense of vibration of bow on string that resonates with us as humans in a way that almost nothing else does,” he said. “Everything exists as a series of vibrations. Our human connection with string instruments is because of those elemental vibrations.”

These vibrations are largely responsible for connecting people to music or instruments. They can also sooth a broken heart – literally.

Musician Dave Villano’s heart would race out of control from time to time. It wasn’t because he was constantly listening to heavy metal, but due to Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome. During the time he spent in hospitals for three separate heart surgeries, Villano discovered the soothing and healing power of string music. After mastering guitar, he also went on to become proficient on the violin. Now, he performs shows on his electric violin around the world.

“I’ve always had music in me,” Villano said. “When I saw that you could play more than classical on it, that opened up my eyes to the whole thing. Of all the instruments, I feel that I’ve been able to express myself best on violin.”

Villano especially fell in love with the electric violin, what he calls a “game changer” for the face of string instruments and their “nerdy” association.

Marshall was thinking the same thing when he formed Barrage. The group is far from your average sit-down orchestra with classical arrangements. They stroll, jump and dance while they fiddle and play popular music. Electric instruments, colorful themes and vibrant personalities add to the rock-star quality of the group. “I like taking the violin where it’s never gone before,” Marshall said.

While Marshall admits he was a “geek” in youth orchestra, it formed the blissful foundation for his musically-inclined life.

“It’s that feeling of getting in front of people and moving them and moving yourself - it’s infectious,” he said. “You put something out there and then it comes back at you. That energy goes back and forth. For me, orchestra was more important than school, socially. That was the social centerpiece for everything.”

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soundoff (39 Responses)
  1. Dave

    Anyone who can get the words, "...trumpet is easy to get a note out of..." knows nothing of which they speak and should stfu. Thanks!

    October 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Joe

      Anyone who doesn't play a bowed/stringed instrument should not be telling people to stfu. In other words, stfu.

      October 26, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  2. Virtuoso

    When I was in high school I played the skinflute.

    October 25, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Sacbutt 57

      That' not too bad if you always wanted a mouth filled. Perhaps you should wash you mouth out about once a day

      October 27, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  3. Shan

    As a former band geek, it seemed to be common knowledge among all of us that the three most difficult instruments to play well are (in no particular order): Violin, French Horn, Piano. And that flute was among the easiest (ha, which is what I played!). Our flute section had like 12 people! The French Horn section sounded God Awful, but nobody ever laughed at them because we all knew how hard it is. In my own experience, as someone who reads music and has attempted to play a number of other instruments – guitar seems awful difficult too.

    October 25, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • Oboegirl's Dad

      I agree that its probably not a good idea, and not accurate to rate instruments on difficulty. However, after watching my daughter struggle with and utlimately master the oboe over a period of seven years, my vote for most difficult instrument has to go with the double reeds! Regardless, I agree with the article about the great benefits of music and I have always been very proud of the achievements of my oboe playing daughter (now a performance music major at a major university). I encourage all school districts to maintain or increase funding for music across the country!

      October 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  4. Jay

    I want to be an Orch Dork!! 🙁

    October 24, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  5. Will S

    This guy isn't a geek, he's a pompous clown.

    October 22, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
  6. AndyinOz

    I suspect that if the article featured groups such as Bond dorky or nerdy would not come into the description somehow.

    October 22, 2011 at 3:23 am |
  7. yayay

    woooooo orch dorks!!!!!!!!!!

    October 21, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
    • yayay

      We're proud of this name! nobody says orch dork except people in orchestra, it's good to be dorky and passionate about something!!!!!!

      October 21, 2011 at 11:21 pm |
  8. Rock

    and this one band camp...i stuck a flute in my....

    October 20, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  9. Laura

    We are not dorks. We are professionals that contribute to the cultural welfare of our town, state, and country. Research shows the positive correlation between music and math, reading, language, and creative skills. Are we really dorks for helping to maintain and create responsible and intelligent people?

    October 6, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  10. Bruce

    Having played trumpet, trombone, baritone, and saxohone through high school, and then taking up violin and viola, I can tell you that fretless, stringed instruments are MUCH harder to learn and to play than brass or woodwinds. For one thing, the arm is jointed and moves in arcs. It is very difficult for the muscles to learn to coordinate in a manner that allows the hand to draw the bow in a straight line and then to allow the proper weight to be applied, because as the bow moves, the physics changes. You see, with one end of the bow being unsupported, the weight on the string varies from a minimum at the tip to a maximum at the frog (the part where the hand grips the bow). And that maintenance of weight along with the smoothness of the movement of the bow is the secret of making a beautiful sound. It cannot be achieved without great effort. In addition, the fingering on a stringed instrument is MUCH MORE complicated than on either brass or wood. While those instruments usually have one finger arrangement for any note, It is true that they do have a few alternate fingerings. But it's a very limited number. For instance, on a trombone the F below middle C can be played in either 1st or 6th position. That same note can be played on the viola with either the 1st, 2nd or 3rd finger. But it gets more complicated that that. On either violin or viola the B one step above A-440 can be played with the 1st finger on the A string, or any one of the 4 fingers on the D string giving 5 different fingerings. Also, as the string player slides his/her hand up the fingerboard, the fingering for each printed note changes. Given the speed of that much string music is played, it requires an exorbitant amount of time to make the transformations automatic. It isn't easy. But, it gets even more complicated, especially when considering harmonics: in the most extreme case, the G on the E string one step below A-880 can be played in any one of 17 different fingerings – especially since that note can be played on any one of the 4 strings. As an exercise for the reader, try to determine how I can justify that claim. Clue: pressing the G string lightly where one would normally play middle C sounds 2 octaves above the open string. Good luck with tat one.

    October 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Dave

      You obviously never played trumpet very well and you do not know what you are talking stfu my little friend.

      October 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  11. Dan Atlanta

    An orchestra is one of mankind's greatest inventions. My thanks to all of the classical musicians, young and old, who give years of their life devoted to doing very hard work so that I can hear such beautiful and stirring sounds. What a vastly poorer place the world would be without you!

    September 30, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  12. Former Orch Dork

    After you stop playing the violin for long enough, I promise you that hickey does go away.

    September 30, 2011 at 2:07 am |
    • dx2718

      Indeed. It's also not from the endpin! However, if you don't play for a while and then play again, you can get a swollen lymph node on the left side. This can be alarming until you figure out it's just irritated from unexpected practice

      September 30, 2011 at 3:32 am |
    • Current Orch Dork in the land of Band Geeks

      I've been playing the violin since 2nd grade now, and have yet to get a hickey from my instrument of choice. I do however, get indents from the strings in m fingers all the time. And you know what else? Band people are very different from orchestra people, starting with the stronger lungs. But know what? If there was a contest between me, the oboe, and the percussion to see who could play the longest, continuing note, I'd win. (I play violin in my high school band class, only one this year!)

      October 1, 2011 at 1:22 am |
  13. Orchdork and proud

    Intonation is defintely one of the hardest parts of learning to play a string instrument, me playing violin myself. However there are other things that make string instruments diffucult like bow distrubution and mastering vibrato. I only played the violin, however, I am pretty sure that the other instruments are just as diffucult to play as well, but for different reasons.

    September 29, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Irene

      Agreed, I play several string instruments, but mostly on the harp. Harpists have so many strings that they spend half of their lives tuning and the other half playing out of tune! Callouses are our best friends.

      September 29, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
  14. SA

    If you are an orchestra greek or would just like to see a great geeky orchestra, look for the circus punk marching band MUCCA PAZZA. They are based near Chicago but travel the country. They are wonderful! Wearing vintage marching band uniforms as mismatched as possible, they play anything from classical to rock with more enthusiasm than you can even imagine. They march a bit, depending on the venue, and hit the high notes with gusto. I even saw them perform in a lagoon once. Don't miss them.

    September 29, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
  15. KC

    I do not play any instrument, never really had that desire. I think its amazing how some people can play such beautiful music. Just wanted to give you all a pat on the back. i don't consider it geeky at all, its awesome to have a talent like that! Keep up the great work!

    September 29, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
  16. Grondahl

    Chord on a trumpet....maybe he means multiphonics. And those are fiendishly difficult. Certainly, this man is not a brass player.

    September 29, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Shelle

      Yeah, I'm a violinist and I know the hard work in mastering technique and intonation, but when I read that, I thought, "I wonder if the author has ever heard a beginning trumpet player."

      September 30, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  17. Ex Band Geek AND Orchestra Dork

    I played the trumpet for many years, and I never, ever succeeded in hitting a chord, let alone right away!

    September 29, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • Dorothy

      I know, right?! And at least you can automatically get a sound out of a violin, however terrible it might be – all I got the first time I put my lips to a trumpet was the sound of air rushing through the instrument.

      September 29, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  18. Accidentals

    For most people it takes years of practice and dedication to become really proficient on any instrument. I agree with the criticisms of the Dean Marshall comment, and if he thinks he can pick up any other instrument and immediately make it sound good I have a laundry list for him to try. I also didn't know you could hit chords on a trumpet . . . Here is another piece of world-rocking information. There are lots of other instruments in an orchestra besides strings (although it seems one flute is also allowed in). Shocking, I know. Please learn a little about the topic you are writing about before you rattle off another piece of drivel like this.

    September 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Shelle

      Wow, I don't think there's need for such huff. The author may have been writing about chamber orchestras, which often don't include any wind instruments, even more rarely brass instruments. It was a lighthearted, fun piece, not an encyclopedia entry. Lighten up.

      September 30, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  19. redwhiteblued

    I am not considered a "nerd" or "geek", however I started playing instruments when I was about 8 years old. It all started with the "forced" piano lessons. I perform on the piano,bass viola, bass guitar, tuba, trombone, and a lot of the rythym instruments. I was formally educated in music. (Music Major in college with minor in Business Management) I was always told being a musician amounts to being broke and lazy, and I should concentrate on a "real" carreer, so I did. I went into Business Management. I look back at the past 40 years and the only thing that I miss is the instruments that I performed on and the comraderie that being in a Symphony Orchestra, Brass Band or Rock and Roll Band brought. I made numerous friends and had outstanding experiences while performing. Needless to say over the years my performing has suffered because of the concentration on the "real" carreer. The music was the only reason that I stayed in school and continued on to College. It gave me comfort, and yes it "soothed the savage beast". I believe that the Music Curriculum should be made available to all those students that want it. The athletic curriculum is not suited to all students, however it seems to garner more attention than Music. If it weren't for the music program I probably would have turned out to be much more of a "deliquent". YES, There is a difference in playing an instrument and learning to master it. Anyone can play their instrument but it takes someone with dedication and commitment to "Master" their instrument.

    September 29, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  20. Cheryl Lopez

    Anyone who can play any insturment from bad to good to great, HAS A GIFT!

    September 29, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  21. Band Geek

    If Dean Marshall thinks playing a trumpet is as easy as a strumming a guitar, he is sorely mistaken. It takes years to make wind instruments sound good, just like it does with a string instrument but for different reasons... Unlike string instruments, the muscles required to play a brass instrument develop over years. For strings, you just need to learn the proper technique which, much like piano, can come easily to some people. I guarantee anyone with arms and no experience can pick up a violin and make a nice sounding note. I also guarantee that same person cannot do the same with a trumpet.

    September 29, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Nofets

      I am going to have to disagree with you. What I will say is they equally take practice to get them to sound good. I am a violist and my brother plays the trumpet and tuba. I've tried to play his trumpet, and it sounded like a wet fart. My brother tried to play my viola, and it sounded like a cat with its leg stuck in a blender.

      September 29, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Grondahl

      The quip equating trumpet with piano and guitar made me cringe, too. That's just ridiculous. Every human being with or without fingers is capable of playing the full range of a piano, guitar, or to an extent, a stringed instrument, but it simply cannot be done on brass instruments. That's why you'll never see a class of four year-olds collectively learning to play the trombone (though it would be indescribably awesome if such a thing existed); an existing degree of muscle development is necessary.

      @Nofets, the Wet Fart reference is spot-on.

      September 29, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • jgress

      I think they're talking about intonation. Fretless instruments like violins/cellos/upright bass... sure, you have access to the whole range with your hands, immediately, as opposed to needing to develop an embouchure to play an entire range, but simply being able to put your hands on the string right away doesn't mean you can produce a melody. Maybe trombone is the worst of both?

      September 29, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
      • Grondahl

        The trombone is the worst of both worlds but the best instrument there is. I'll give you one guess what I play 🙂

        September 29, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
      • A-443

        Intonation? I'll double guarantee you that ANY instrument can be played out of tune... and rather easily at that.

        September 29, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Chris

      Agreed. I'm a trumpet player, and it took years for me to reach a level where I could play respectably (and I played with Seiji Ozawa at Tanglewood once, so I was no slouch) And since I'm also a bassist, I'm a little offended that he put electric stringed instruments into the "easy" category. While anyone might be able to pick up a bass and fart out "Come as you are", to play the instrument to its full capability takes years of study and practice. Think of a bassist's right hand as the equivalent of a violinist's bow: there are many various styles and techniques needed to play the bass well. Finger plucking (using three or even all four fingers); popping and slapping; picking; strumming; two-handed tapping; etc. Listen to some Victor Wooten. The bass can be as monstrously hard to master as any other stringed instrument.

      September 29, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Shelle

      "I guarantee anyone with arms and no experience can pick up a violin and make a nice sounding note." HAHAHAHAHAHA. Wrong-o, my friend.

      October 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |