Working in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (feat Nicole Greentree)

Although I’ve only met Nicole in person once, it was quickly evident to me that she was a passionate musician who was clearly eager to begin her journey with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. For those of you wanting to learn what life is like in QSO, how to get involved and whether it’s something you’d be interested in pursuing, keep reading.

Nicole Greentree was born in Sydney and has been playing piano since the age of 4, violin since the age of 8 and transferred to the viola as her principal instrument in 2009. Ever since she was young her goals were to play music as a professional and after joining the Nova Youth Orchestra soon after starting her violin studies, she knew she wanted to be part of an orchestra.

Can you please clearly outline all your current musical projects and professions which make up your life as a professional musician?

Currently, I am working as a tutti viola in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. I moved to Brisbane for this job so I am new to the city and the classical music community here and don’t have many other musical projects running concurrently. I’m a regular participant in a chamber music series in Sydney with some friends I studied with; this is a series that has a concert every few months. Aside from actual performing projects, I am starting to do some tutoring for youth/student orchestras in Brisbane and private teaching, a part of music that I’m passionate about.

Queensland Symphony Orchestra has a great variety of projects on their roster. We play for the ballet and opera here in Brisbane as well as our usual

symphonic concerts, which are the core of our identity. As well as classical we have some projects involving cross-over work with other disciplines, such as our WAVE festival in which I was part of the group which played with The Kite String Tangle. There are also a number of excellent community outreach and education programs that we do. Each week on the job here in QSO is different and that’s part of what makes it so musically satisfying.

What made you interested in working with The Queensland Symphony Orchestra? -I’d like to explain this really well and be completely honest here.

When I started to pursue a career in music I knew that I wanted to be part of a group. I grew up playing in a community string orchestra and playing in a large-ish group became part of my musical identity. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being surrounded by like-minded people working together to create something special. The classical music world is an extremely competitive and highly saturated one; (I’m sure other music disciplines experience the same thing, but I want to be clear that I only know about classical music life) there are not that many orchestras in Australia, compared with Europe for example, and yet there are many great players. Knowing that I wanted a career as an orchestral musician was the first step, the next was knowing that I really wanted one in Australia. From that point on it was important not to be too fussy or invested in any particular orchestra. Of course, I had/have dreams of who I’d really love to play with but my realistic dream was to get a job with any of the major orchestras in Australia because they are all of a very high quality and I would be lucky to have a position in any of them. It’s also hard to know what an orchestra is truly like until you start working with them, and I hadn’t worked casually with QSO before I took the audition. Once I started and was playing with them and experienced all the facets of their culture, including more than just the playing part, I knew this was a place I really wanted to work and live. I still pinch myself that I have this job.

What is your primary role/s in QSO? 

An orchestra is a large organism made up of many small parts that work together. It has sections: strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion, and within these sections, there are hierarchies: principal, associate principal, tutti. I am a tutti musician and in a string section, there are many of us. In a viola

section there are usually 8 or so tutti positions (depending on the size of the orchestra and this number can be expanded or reduced drastically according to what repertoire is being played), and two or more principal or associate principal positions. Principals lead the section: helping us play together, not only as a section of violas but with the rest of the strings and the other sections in the orchestra too, with one idea or sound; associate prinicpals support the principals; and the tutti musicians follow and contribute to the main sound. I hope this explains what my role as a tutti viola in QSO is. Sometimes I sit near the front of the section, sometimes I sit in the back, but all the time it’s about playing the music as best I can individually whilst also playing together with my colleagues.

Had you been performing full-time prior to taking this new role?

Before this full-time position with QSO I was freelancing in Perth, and prior to that studying and freelancing in Germany. In the past I have also freelanced in Sydney. As a freelance musician sometimes you’re working full-time hours, and sometimes you’re not working at all, which is part of what makes being a musician really hard. So yes, I have performed “full time” before but this is my first full time, salaried position. It feels really good.

What are the key skills you need as a musician in QSO?

These key skills are the skills needed as a musician in any orchestra, not just QSO:

–  Listening. This one seems really obvious but there is a special kind of listening when playing in an orchestra. You have to expand your sphere of attentiveness and hearing to be greater than just yourself.

–  Sight-reading. This one is perhaps quite specific to orchestral playing. I’m not advocating that anyone show up to a rehearsal without being prepared, but it’s important to be able to do a certain amount of the work by sight. As a string musician we play a LOT of notes, and it’s impossible to practice them all. Some material doesn’t need practice, because by the time you get to a high level you have the technique to support you, so being able to read at a speed that’s as good as your base technique is important.

–  Technical proficiency. As mentioned briefly above, having a good solid technique stands you in good stead to work as much as we do.

–  Communication. This is important for working well within your section and for getting along generally with colleagues. Some sections are quite small, for example, most wind sections generally have only 4 members, so it’s important to get along with them and communicate well and considerately when you have issues to discuss.

–  Knowledge of style. Classical music encompasses a huge amount of repertoire over hundreds of years. It’s important to understand what period the music you’re playing comes from as this will inform how you play it. For example the vibrato you use (and how often you use it) for a Mozart (b.1756 d.1791) symphony is very different from a Mahler (b.1860 d.1911) symphony. A good knowledge of style comes from listening to a lot of music, and your general musical education through your studies.

–  Specific to QSO: baking skills are very important. Every so often we have scheduled Cake Day for the whole orchestra, and in the viola section whenever there’s a birthday there must be cake and we have a roster for this.

What performing positions are available at QSO? For eg: do they take drum set or anything outside the traditional orchestra lineup?

In addition to full time, contract, and casual performing positions at QSO, sometimes extra instrumentalists will be employed if we’re performing repertoire that includes instruments outside the traditonal orchestra lineup. For example, we played Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances recently which includes saxophone in the score. There may also be the need for drum set, sitar, harpsichord etc., it depends purely on the repertoire!

What should a musician realistically expect as a full-time musician in QSO?

Musicians looking to work at QSO should expect a varied spectrum of projects as part of our roster. As I mentioned previously, we have a range of different projects outside of what people might envision a symphony orchestra undertakes. Personally, I find this aspect exciting and I like to get involved with education, community outreach and cross-disciplinary projects as well as playing the big symphonic pieces. They should also realistically expect that it is essentially a company. There are company meetings and discussions about things that don’t seem to relate to the actual playing but are in fact a really important part of what makes up the fabric of QSO and the creative product.

What would you suggest to someone wishing to be fully prepared for an upcoming application with QSO and how they would go about applying?

Any classical musician could and should apply for a job with QSO if they think that being an orchestral musician would be musically satisfying for them. Job vacancies are listed on the orchestra’s website but are also advertised on The first step of the application is sending a resume and any application form (some orchestras have a personalised application form) and then you may be asked to the audition. Anyone can apply for a position by looking it up and sending their information and can do it on a whim, but someone who wishes to be fully prepared for applying should be fully prepared for the audition part of the process.

There are standard repertoire choices for each instrument that will always be heard at an audition. An audition for an orchestral position usually happens all on one day and comprises a few rounds. In the first round usually, a classical concerto is heard (for viola this is Hoffmeister or Stamitz) and a few of the excerpts from orchestral repertoire that have been selected by the orchestra. After this round the panel (mostly members of your section, and depending on the instrument you audition for or whether it’s a principal position, members from other sections will be present too) will decide who they wish to hear more from and these people will play in a second round. In this second round usually a romantic, or later period, concerto is heard, (for viola this is Bartok, Walton or Hindemith) as well as a few more of the orchestral excerpts. If the audition progresses to a third round more excerpts are heard and perhaps some from previous rounds may be asked for again. An orchestra can set any number of excerpts; the most I’ve ever experienced was 31! They can ask for any of them at any time in any order. Auditions are also often performed behind a screen: this is an attempt to create a fair and level playing field (no pun intended) and eliminate discrimination. Personally I am a fan of the screened audition. Once you start auditioning you will get into a rhythm and after time you will find yourself in a perpetual state of “top form”.

Sometimes the time frame between sending your application and actually doing the audition is a matter of weeks and it is common practice in Australia for the audition excerpts to be released no more than 3 weeks before the audition date, so it’s important to be at a certain level proficiency in order to undertake auditions.–

Audition preparation is a massive undertaking and not for the light-hearted, and there is a lot of advice to be given on the matter so I’ll try to keep it short here. All of your heart and soul, time and focus, go into preparing for an audition. Auditions are different for everybody and are a necessary evil, for some people things seem to fall into place quickly, for others it will be a long and gruelling process involving many, many auditions. Have a good support system and make sure you have the time to commit to it so that you feel you can show your best self on the audition day.

Can you best describe the type of person who would best fit a full-time position at QSO, and include what traits are best left to other occupations? -Honestly not sure about this question… I feel like I’ve addressed some of it in the skills question above.

If you’re a diva/divo and like to be the centre of attention then perhaps an orchestral performance career is not for you. There are opportunities to shine but essentially you must be able to accept you are a cog in a large and complicated machine.

What have been your biggest relevant challenges since working at QSO?

I have always felt extremely comfortable playing in orchestra, and it’s an environment where I feel I excel, which is part of the reason why I chose this career pathway. The one big challenge has been organising myself around the full-time schedule of QSO. Some weeks are extremely busy, and some are quite light, and it’s been a challenge organising myself so that I work on future things during the light weeks, instead of preparing project-to-project, which results in erratic practice. I suppose my biggest challenge is settling into the routine.

Can you please outline the key differences between being a freelance musician in the music industry, and working full time with QSO? 

The biggest difference in my life, since transitioning from freelance to full time, is realising that I don’t have to say yes to everything that is offered to me. As a freelancer sometimes you don’t know how much work you’ll have next month, so you have to take everything that comes your way in a ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds you’ kind of mentality. Naturally, I still like to do as many things as I can!! Otherwise, the nature of the work is the same when working freelance in orchestras and playing full time in an orchestra.

If you could only practice three things, what would they be and why?

This is a hard question! If I could only practice three pieces I would have to think about it very hard.. but it would certainly include the Bach cello suites (transcribed for viola) because Bach is essential for the soul. In terms of three technique things I think are essential to practice that would include double stops, technical studies/études that I change out frequently, and shifting.

What’s the most valuable career investment you’ve made to get to where you are now?

The most valuable career investment I’ve made has definitely been investing, both financially and emotionally, in studying overseas in Germany. Classical music was basically born and raised in Germany; the big composers, the staples of our repertoire, are German or Austrian. I experienced a feeling of connection that I’d not felt before when I was there. This transformed me as a musician, it cemented my goals and aspirations for an orchestral career, and it informed the style of my playing. My time in Germany wasn’t easy either and this built me, emotionally. I learnt and experienced so much; it is definitely an invaluable investment I made in myself as a musician and therefore in my career.

Did you ever have an 8 hour a day practice schedule before working full time?

No, I didn’t, and personally, I don’t think it’s healthy or useful to be practising 8 hours a day. Practice is as much a mental activity as it is a physical one, and even if you’re able to hold your instrument and move your fingers for 8 hours I find it hard to believe one can focus to that high level for that number of hours

in the one day. I pride myself on efficiency in practice and in the throes of audition preparation I practised at most about 4 hours a day. I do a lot of mental practice as well as listening which I think are equally important.

Do you/did you spend much time transcribing other musicians?

In the past, I have done the odd arrangement of a pop song for string duo/trio/ quartet for various wedding gigs when there’s a specific request. I don’t think I am particularly skilled in this area, and would rather leave it up to others. There’s nothing more satisfying than playing a great arrangement, and likewise nothing more frustrating than playing a badly done one!

If you had to play in one band only, who would it be?

If I could only play in one existing group? This is quite a tough question. I have huge admiration for the Berlin Philharmonic and the Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig, and I would love to have the opportunity to play in either of these groups. Locally it would be awesome to play in the Australian Chamber Orchestra, or in a quartet with some like-minded mates, but I don’t know if I could ever just play in one group only! Variety is the spice of life and as a musician, there are lots of different groups available to play with so it’s great to take advantage of that. There is also the question of what type of group, would I want to play in only symphony orchestra, only chamber orchestra, only quartet? If I was playing in only one type of group it is inevitable that I would miss the great things about playing in the other types of groups. I want to have it all and play as much music in as many different formations as possible in my one life!

If you could pivot to another occupation, what would it be?

As a musician, the thought of switching careers has come up fairly often for me. Music is not an easy path to walk and it’s fun to fantasise about working in an office or doing some other stable, in-demand job. Open to cutting this next section: [I always felt that music is the only thing I’m really good at and equipped for doing so I kept persevering and am very happy to be able to call it my occupation. I don’t know if I could leave it but] if I were to pivot to another occupation it would be something creative with design elements, such as full-time knitter designing knits or working for a larger creative group styling their creative things so they look lovely online or in store. I’ve also always had a little pipe dream of a cafe with live music, like a jazz cafe, but

classical chamber music. I want to make cakes and ice creams and provide accessible live classical music.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests outside of music?

As you may have guessed by my previous answer I’m an avid knitter. I find the actual process to be meditative and the element of creating something from nothing is an amazing feeling. I’ve also just started sewing and I have the goal of, in 10 years or so, wearing a wardrobe that is almost completely made by me. Baking and cooking (and eating the baked and cooked things) is also a bit of a hobby for me and I like to do it for pleasure and to challenge myself as well as just for necessity. I just love creating anything with my two hands and my creative mind and that’s part of why being a musician makes me so happy.

If you could study with any musician who would it be?

I’d love to study with Patricia Kopatchinskaja. She’s a violinist with such vibrancy and creativity and I’d hope to get an insight into what inspires her and how she forms her musical decisions. I highly recommend looking her up on YouTube to anyone that hasn’t seen her perform live, or listening to some of her albums (particularly “Take Two” which is available on Spotify), she’s got an incredibly innovative approach.

Any other comments or insights you wish to share?

Thank you, Isaac, for asking me to share a bit about my life and experiences as a professional classical musician. I don’t have any experience with any other disciplines and it’s been interesting to think about what being a musician is in any style and from a different perspective. You’ve certainly opened my mind and I’ve been inspired to go out of my comfort zone a bit more and get involved with any cross-over projects that come my way.

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