For First-Year Musicians, Selecting the Right Orchestra May Be Confusing

On top of all the choices facing first-years, musically-inclined new students face an additional agonizing decision: which orchestra to join.

Harvard has five active orchestras: the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO), Mozart Society Orchestra (MSO), Bach Society Orchestra (BSO), Toscanini Chamber Orchestra (TCO) and the Pops Orchestra.

And while first-years can join multiple orchestras, given the time commitment involved most students find membership in one is enough.

As a result, first-years spend the first few weeks of school auditioning for a series of orchestras, then choosing one.

The auditions were "nerve-wracking," according to Erica R. Michelstein '02.

"We went into practice rooms [to audition], and even though it's your own room, you could hear the other people playing in other rooms around you," she says.

Michelstein says overhearing other musicians was somewhat intimidating, since "some of the musicians here are really amazing."

Group leaders say they found auditions chaotic as well.

"We were all auditioning freshman at the same time, and so everyone was seeing the same people coming through the halls," says Ben W. Rous '00, co-conductor of TCO.

Somehow, during the confusion of the audition process, musicians must also gather enough information to select among the groups to which they are admitted.

And for most musicians, the decision they make will remain with them for the rest of their Harvard careers, as students generally stick with the orchestras they first choose.

Distinct Identities

Group leaders say that each of the groups has a unique identity, and that while they often compete for performers, each group has a role on campus.

HRO President Alex S. Caram '00 says his group's identity derives in part from the group's size.

"We are the largest of the three orchestras, so we tell [first-years] that we play some of the grander pieces," he says.

A different set of factors--principally student conductors and a lower time commitment--draw students to TCO, Rous says.

And while MSO and BSO are about the same size, MSO is more "relaxed" according to MSO President Jessica I. Chuang '00.

Musical selection distinguished the recently revived Harvard Pops from the others. The group's repertoire includes music from popular cinema.

Trying to Pick Up the Tune

Many first-years say the subtleties of the groups' identities are lost on them.

"I don't really know the difference between Bach Society and Mozart Society," says Michelstein, who tried out for all five orchestras.

"They both seem like great orchestras, but I didn't really understand the difference. Bach Society doesn't just play Bach, and Mozart Society doesn't just play Mozart," she adds.

In order to inform and recruit first-years, many orchestras sent out mailings over the summer, and some students say these mailings were helpful in choosing a group.

"I received a number of letters from each of the respective orchestras detailing their goals or what they were about," says John M. Gansner '02, a violinist who tried out for all the orchestras.

Gansner said that the letters he received helped him decide on an orchestra, but that ultimately his decision to join BSO was based in large part on his contact with student leaders.

"I was impressed by the student directors who gave me my auditions," he says.

Some group leaders say they fear that when first-years decide on the basis of brief mailings and quick impressions, the less prominent orchestras get short shrift due to lack of name recognition.

"[First-years] know HRO and they know Bach Society," Rous says, but then they wonder "and what's this Mozart thing and what's this TCO thing and what about the Pops?"

"I think normally people say, well, if I get into HRO, I'll do HRO, and if I get into Bach Society I'll do that because they're the most competitive and prestigious," Rous adds.

Try Before You Buy

But while Caram, who leads Harvard's largest orchestra, agrees that prestige is often a determining factor in first-years' decisions, he says by shopping orchestras--attending multiple groups' rehearsals before settling on one--first-years can get a better feel for the groups.

"There are some who look at just [prestige]," he says. "But then there are others who try all the orchestras and then pick the one they like."

"I think a lot of freshmen [shop orchestras] and I encourage it. We want freshmen to be happy with the orchestras they choose," Caram says.

Chuang says first-years often shop her group as well, but that this often makes it difficult for MSO to work out its roster.

"It makes it kind of difficult for us, in terms of not knowing what our orchestra will look like," she says.

Other orchestra organizers say they discourage shopping altogether.

"I've had a lot of people say they're going to come to the first rehearsal, and I hope that they're not shopping me," Rous says.

Even with the option to shop, many first-years decide on the basis of inaccurate or incomplete impressions.

"A lot of the things I had heard [about the orchestras] when I was a first-year ended up being incorrect," Chuang says. "Some of the information I had was old."

But Chuang argues it is hard to make a wrong decision.

While she says her decision "was almost random," she is "happy with [her] choice."

In fact, some leaders say, the most dangerous misconception might be that in order to play music at Harvard, musicians have to fight their way into a spot.

Many first-years, Rous says, "are mistaken about the idea that there aren't enough spaces, because there are enough spaces for everyone to play. There aren't enough spaces in HRO [for everyone], but everyone who wants to play can."