Choosing Orchestra Music – Playing to Your Strengths


Every spring, orchestra teachers anticipate getting next year’s rosters. They give a good indication of the instrumentation they’ll be working with in the coming fall when school begins.

It’s always great to have a balanced group, but sometimes there is a section that really stands out. We all know that the first violins usually get the best parts in terms of challenging material, but what do you do when you have other sections that are just as strong?

Much pedagogical music written in the last century used the same model: melody in first violin, harmonic accompaniment in middle voices, and a bass line. More recently, composers and arrangers have realized that all sections of the orchestra need to receive interesting, challenging material to have a well-rounded music education for all students. It’s actually more than that. Music that does not challenge parts of the orchestra fosters lack of motivation and even behavioral issues. It’s encouraging to know that much of the educational music being written today tries to balance the natural structures of melody and harmony within all the sections. Then there are pieces in which the composer purposefully gives certain sections an unusually good part.

To help spread the wealth among your sections, we have hand-selected pieces for each section of the orchestra at the easy, medium-easy, and medium levels that will give that section a better-than-average part. It may not necessarily be the melody, but it is crucial to the piece’s success. The first violins are not mentioned because they have the luxury of almost always having the most interesting parts. Before moving on, though, you should know about Serendipity Suite by composer Richard Meyer. It gives ALL sections a soli feature which they will enjoy playing.


Second violins can get complacent when they are not challenged. They tend to rely on the first violins a great deal, especially when they have similar parts. However, for that year when you have a truly strong second violin section, you have many more musical options. You may even consider placing them on the outside where the cellos traditionally sit. Then you would move the violas to the traditional second violin spot, and the cellos to the traditional viola spot, with basses in the back of the orchestra.

Pieces to play when you have a strong second violin section:

Easy Level:
Fiddles on Fire by Mark Williams
Bourree by Handel, arr. Christina Hans
Concerto in D by Vivaldi, arr. Bob Phillps

Entrance of the Queen of Sheba by Handel, arr. H.B. Fisher
Blue Fire Fiddler by Soon Hee Newbold
Dance of Iscariot by Kirt Mosier

Medium Level:
Flower Duet from Lakmé by Delibes, arr. Frank J. Halferty
Bold Venture by M.L. Daniels
Presto from Symphony No. 1 by Haydn, arr. Robert D. McCashin


Violas are an interesting section which can vary greatly in ability level. Sometimes there is a strong principal player leading a weak section. However, for those years when you have a solid section throughout, consider picking pieces that showcase this overlooked group. Many European orchestras place the violas on the outside in the traditional cello spot. This gives them a more visual spotlight and is especially useful if the principal violist is one of your best musicians.

Pieces to play when you have a strong viola section:

Easy Level:
Measured Tones by Alan Lee Silva
Viola Hero by Stephen Bulla
Goblin Dance by Doug Spata

Viola Country by Richard Meyer
Viva Violas by Richard Meyer
Across the Wind by Doug Spata

Medium Level:

Viola Concerto by Telemann, arr. Todd Parrish
Winter Solstice by Todd Parrish
Cantique by Fauré, arr. Douglas E. Wagner


Cellos are often one of the strongest sections of the orchestra, if not the strongest. The cello is such a versatile instrument, playing melodic lines and bass lines equally well. There is nothing grander than displaying a large cello section on the edge of the orchestra for all to see. For years when you have a small cello section, put the basses directly behind them or move them over to the traditional viola spot. Their sound will be more directly focused on the audience. However, since the principal cellist is usually one of the top musicians in the orchestra, it’s great to keep them in their traditional spot.

Pieces to play when you have a strong cello section:

Easy Level:
Cello Squadron by Richard Meyer
Cellos Ole! By Richard Meyer
Dos Fuegos by Robert Sieving

Contrasts in E minor by Francis Feese
Christmas Cello-Bration by Bob Phillips
Cello Song by M. L. Daniels

Medium Level:
Circinus by Shirl Jae Atwell
Perpetuoso by Brian Holmes
Fugue (L’Estro Armonico) by Vivaldi, arr. Bob Lipton


Basses definitely complain the most about not getting good parts. They play such a crucial role holding down the harmonic fort that the orchestra sometimes loses its foundation when they veer off into melodic territory. Although basses usually understand their traditional role, it doesn’t hurt to give them the spotlight on occasion, especially if they are a skilled section. They will almost always live up to the challenge, since they know it’s a rare treat!

Pieces to play when you have a strong bass section:

Easy Level:
Toccatina by William Hofeldt
Deep Sea Fandango by Deborah Baker Monday
Kinetic by Shirl Jae Atwell

Moon Bass by Todd Parrish
Bass-ically Bluegrass by Bob Phillips
A Maid in Bedlam arranged by Shirl Jae Atwell

Medium Level:
Symphony No. 44 “Trauer” by Haydn, arr. Todd Parrish
Kings of Orient by Shirl Jae Atwell
The Sailor’s Hornpipe arranged by Sandra Dackow


Playing music that showcases your strongest sections will reward students for their hard work and dedication. Students know that the first violins carry much of the difficulty for the orchestra, but spreading the challenge around creates a more motivated orchestra that feels included in the music-making process. They will enjoy sitting in nontraditional places of the orchestra, and they will feel a sense of pride having more meaningful and challenging parts to practice and perform.










Todd Parrish
Todd Parrish
Todd Parrish was the former the orchestra editor for J.W. Pepper. Previously, he taught public school orchestra for 17 years in both Virginia and Illinois. His compositions and arrangements for school orchestra are published by Highland/Etling, Belwin, and Wingert-Jones Publications.


    • Hi Matt,

      Here are some options for strings and harp. Just copy and paste each number into the Pepper website search box:

      I hope some of these pieces will work for you.

      Todd Parrish

  1. Hello, it was great to read your blog, and you have given the minute details regarding the orchestra materials and their significance in having a balanced music. My daughter is also a part of some band, and so, I will share this blog with her. She will be happy to read this blog. Thank you for sharing such important information on music with all the music lovers.


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