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Why Ensemble Quality is Lost


William “Bill” Lucas – joined the trumpet section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1988 bringing versatility and a flair for jazz. He has served on musicians’ Orchestra, Education and Negotiating Committees.  Bill has a national reputation for coaching musicians in the art of audition preparation and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Music where he teaches jazz trumpet.

In the second part of my article I discussed excellence in Ensemble – being on a stage full of musicians who perform at your level and all expertly communicate with one another, not with voice, but with music.


There are many reasons why the Ensemble of an orchestra can wane.  In some cases, a maestro can be responsible, possibly due to an inability to communicate, a lack of respect for the players, or wanton disregard for the job at hand. In other cases, it can be contractual hardships that create ensemble disharmony, perhaps due to excessive run-outs, lack of relief time, or an orchestra complement too small to achieve proper balance, resulting in extreme fatigue and eventual muscular and joint failures.

And yet, in other cases, it is simple economics— no matter what orchestra a musician plays in, there is a baseline cost associated with doing the job and if income falls below the costs necessary to achieve excellence, excellence begins to suffer. A musician may have to sell a prize bow, or a trumpet only used on rare but vital occasion… or take outside teaching or performing work to make ends meet on the orchestral stage. As an ensemble begins to falter, quality musicians are less attracted to the job and musicians under contract begin to look at other orchestras for employment.

There are usually few orchestral openings per year, so the detriment to the artistic quality is typically slow, but, by the time the untrained ear begins to notice it, it is a problem well on its way and one that is very difficult to repair. Here in Detroit, some musicians have in recent years, moved on to other upper-tier orchestras within the top ten: Philadelphia, the Met, Los Angeles and Cleveland to name a few.  While we have thus far been fortunate to hire new players of high artistic quality, it is vital for any orchestra to be able to maintain the ability to remunerate its artists at a level consistent within the industry. Auditions are costly to hold in general, and this price tag alone would be magnified were an orchestra be unable to retain its members. It  becomes even more costly should these auditions be held without result. The longer vacancies remain unfilled, the more potential damage to the Ensemble, what with the orchestra compliment always changing and a revolving door of substitutes serving as interim  members of the orchestra.

This is by no means a slap at the quality and artistry of an  extra musician, but, simply put, there is no substitute for a regular member of the orchestra who can be found in the same chair week to week

Understanding the path of the orchestra musician into the Top Ten is more than a study in musician traffic. It is, as well, a preventative ergonomic study for any performing arts organization. While it is true that maintaining excellence has a base cost, it is equally true that an organization must understand there are costs associated with an arts institution becoming the victim of a diminished ability to maintain a quality product.

In the long run, it is not only artistically prudent to avoid such, but financially as well.