Classical music groups in Northern Virginia, long the province of part-time musicians who played for fun and their communities' enjoyment, have increased in number so rapidly over the last several years that some groups frequently find themselves competing for audiences and financial support.

Officials involved in the management and musical direction of the Prince William and Fairfax symphony orchestras say they are concerned that the final leap to steady financial health may not be possible because of the overwhelming number of classical music groups in the Northern Virginia area, estimated to be about 200 by the Fairfax County Council of the Arts.

Even the smaller groups, such as chamber orchestras, choirs, ensembles, quartets and youth groups that provide training ground for the larger groups, have financial realities to face.

"There are five large symphonies all in the Northern Virginia area, and George Mason University is starting one up," said Clare Mountfort, who has been public relations director for the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, whose audiences have grown steadily over the years. "There is so much going on; for any one group to develop, it has a real task ahead of it."

John Welsh, music director of the Prince William Symphony Orchestra, said he is concerned about keeping the quality of music strong in the region, where he sees an overlap of musicians and audiences that results in audience and musician "burnout."

"There is so much for musicians to do, and the audiences to listen to, that if there were some kind of quality control it would help," Welsh said.

Welsh said he thinks it is impossible for the public to provide financial support for all the groups in the area. "With all the obligations and not enough wealth to go around, we are spread thin . . . . We have to compete with the best symphonies in the world that come to the Kennedy Center. As a result we have in this [metropolitan] area a very sophisticated audience. They know instinctively what is good."

Welsh says that some musicians play just for the gratification of their own egos and not for the quality of the music. "I think we have to be more careful and change the balance toward a quality product and performances."

The Virginia Commission for the Arts gives a number of grants to many of the classical music groups in the area. Welsh said he thinks its quality guidelines could be more stringent.

Small musical groups face similar problems of audience size. "We are a small community orchestra," said Jane Arenberg, publicity director for the 25-member Mount Vernon Chamber Orchestra. "We play for the love of it . . . for people who love classical music but don't want to get dressed up, spend a lot of money, and can bring the kids and watch people they know play . . . . But it can be difficult to play for just 10 people in an audience."

Despite the problems that arise with so many groups vying for audiences, Arenberg sees the competition in the area as a good development. "The more the base interest in local symphony grows, it enhances the whole picture. When I was a kid growing up in Washington, I had one place to go and play. That is no longer true. Anyone who wants to play in a group can certainly find a place."

Clare Wood, spokeswoman for the Arlington Symphony, said, "There is always competition to get new audiences, but it works out. As the public becomes more educated musically, the better the product . . . . Quality control should be left up to the individual group."

Many local groups do not see themselves as competing on a larger scale. George Steiner, music director of the Alexandria Symphony, said "People come to hear us because they want to . . . hear music near their homes. Steiner said about musicians who come out and play hard and show faithfulness, "I would not get rid of these people for a super talent."

Toni McMahon, executive director of the Fairfax County Council of the Arts, believes there are a number of financial resources that have not been tapped by arts groups. "The true secret of fund-raising is identifying the businesses and corporations that have not yet been asked [to contribute] and get them involved."

McMahon believes that the high population in the region can support the multitude of classical music performance schedules. "If you can make it available and accessible and the publicity is good, you will find audiences."