V.com weekend vote: As a classical musician, were you taught stage deportment?

August 13, 2023, 1:29 PM · Last week, a Violinist.com reader brought to my attention this picture in a recent review of the Boston Symphony - "Disgraceful!" he said.

At first I couldn't understand the problem - the picture shows Joshua Bell, accepting what looks like enthusiastic applause for a performance with the Boston Symphony, the conductor Anna Rakitina also applauding, beaming at the soloist. Then I started to look around at the orchestra. Hmmmm. They don't look very engaged. Sure, sometimes the photographer catches you in an off-moment, but it seems like most of them were having an off-moment here...

Certainly, orchestral musicians can't be smiling all the time, and what we do takes concentration. Performing orchestral music can be physically tiring, and perhaps classical music is more "art" than "entertainment." But I would maintain that it remains "performance," and with that comes an element of - well, performing!

I can't reproduce the Josh photo (it's linked above), but here's an amusing stock photo that illustrates the idea: one person looking bored, another chatting like no one is watching, the cellist literally yawning in the background...

bored orchestral musicians

In general, I have noticed orchestral musicians sometimes behave as if they were completely unaware that they were on stage, while giving a performance. Sloppy dress, poor posture, scowling, failing to acknowledge the audience, 'mailing it in,' looking bored.... I don't think it's a matter of needing to smile constantly, but orchestral musicians need to be engaged and aware that they are making an appearance and trying to connect with an audience. To be fair, some groups seem more aware of this than others.

Which brings me to the question, are classical musicians really taught stage deportment? Were YOU taught stage deportment? Personally, I wasn't really schooled on this until playing for more of a pops orchestra, at Disney World, where it was definitely about entertainment. We had costumes, we were told to smile, to clap, to applaud and to absolutely always be "on-stage" when on stage. It might sound extreme, but the ideas did stick with me.

So what should our behavior on stage be, as classical musicians? Should we act like we are on stage, from the moment we walk on, to the moment we sit back down? Is there any room for a little socializing on stage? Does it matter what we wear, and whether we comb our hair? Is it okay to start chatting with our colleagues while the soloist is taking ovations, or do we stay in the moment, perhaps look at the soloist, applaud also, etc.? Where are the lines?

Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts about stage deportment among classical musicians - what is the standard in your community, and what you feel it should be? Is it something you were taught? Do you feel there is any general consensus about it?

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August 13, 2023 at 06:59 PM · I was taught the basics from the time I was in junior high orchestra in the early 1960s, from there, I picked things up along the way. I included the year because, in my community, good manners were expected and enforced. It wasn't a "free-for-all" the way it is now in some communities. Goofing off, unnecessary talking, chewing gum, staring at your phone, etc., have no place on stage during a performance, or, for that matter, during a rehearsal. They have long been pet peeves of mine. I'm retired from orchestral playing now, but in the last 10 years, I was annoyed at the lack of respect a few musicians showed to others and to the audience during rehearsals and performances.

August 13, 2023 at 07:28 PM · I selected, "taught specific rules" but not as a musician. I had a short career as an actor. (I thought I was great, but it seems some critics didn't agree. Alas, that's show biz! anyway ...) As actors, our entire stage presence was based on the assumption we were being watched every single second. The only time we were really ourselves was during the bows and curtain calls after the performance. Even then, we were taught to project confidence, gratitude, humility, and - whether we liked it or not - to smile. However the performance went, a good curtain call with energy, excitement, and pizzaz, can send them home feeling like winners. Perhaps you made some mistakes on stage, perhaps it didn't fly like you wished, perhaps the audience just sat there and never laughed or cried, so what? Bring it home with that curtain call, and you can make it look like it was great. Remember - until you're off stage - as an actor, musician, or anything else - you're on stage with everything being on stage implies.

August 13, 2023 at 07:48 PM · I learned appropriate on-stage behavior from doing non-classical performances. The visual aspect is part of the show; people are watching you (!), they want a memorable experience.

August 13, 2023 at 08:17 PM · I don't remember being taught any rules. When I started playing in orchestras I just did like everybody around me. If somebody was out of line most conductors would say a word.

What shocks me most of the picture is the fact that apart from the conductor and (I believe) the concertmaster nobody in the orchestra is applauding. We used to tap our bows against the stands. I understand if you don't want to do that but not applauding a soloist who just played with you is a sign of disrespect and lack of professionalism. Applaud some other way (like the CM on the picture maybe?).

August 13, 2023 at 08:21 PM · Growing up in the 1950s-60s, we were expected to be polite everywhere, so I'm really scandalised to hear that musicians check their phones on stage! I've generally been pretty happy with our performances, as I've enjoyed the music I've played. I usually get into the mood/groove with it all, and show it, naturally.

But if today's musicians don't, I'm sorry for them.

August 13, 2023 at 09:41 PM · For a small baroque ensemble, I was specifically told to smile and look like you're having a good time because the audience is here to enjoy themselves. Also given instructions on how and when to bow and leave the stage. One orchestra conductor gave us instructions to not cross our legs.

Kind of related, does anyone know the name of the violist who moves wildly while seated? It's pretty distracting but I guess she's good enough to get major gigs (I saw her on a TV show) in spite of it.

August 13, 2023 at 10:30 PM · “Specific rules.” My orchestra experience covered only about 7 years, from early high school, about 5 years after I’d started playing, till near the end of my degree program. I remember our music directors coaching us on what to do - and what NOT to do - on stage.

The most intense training in this area came during my degree program. I earned most of my semester hours in orchestra as a member of the CSO’s training school, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. Our music directors and section coaches had a lot to say about orchestral repertoire and discipline.

The 4th of my 6 violin teachers was also strong on stage deportment, stressing the importance of not lingering when entering or leaving the stage. Her very words: “Get on and get off.”

Re “Does it matter what we wear…?”: Yes. In my view, it should be neat and uniform. I recommend neutral colors, like the ones we see in the BSO photo, although I would like to see more symphony orchestras ditch the jackets and ties for the guys. Violin and viola are un-ergonomic enough as it is - without all that extra bulk. I started setting aside these 2 items at 20 y/o when doing some small-ensemble playing in Michigan during a late spring heat wave - about 95 F. outdoors, no air conditioning, although we did have fans. Jackets and ties off! So much more comfortable playing this way, whatever the weather. I notice that more chamber players are on board with this trend. I’d call it progress. Then, too, look at the outfits Josh Bell wears, like the one in the photo. I’m all for it.

August 13, 2023 at 11:43 PM · I was taught specific rules starting back in my elementary school orchestra. Cell phones certainly didn't exist during my training years, but we were taught to be attentive during rehearsals, even during those sections when the violins were not playing. (Something the conductor says to the flutes might actually be applicable to the violins as well.) As an aside, my siblings attended that concert at Tanglewood and said, not surprisingly, that Joshua Bell was fantastic. It is distressing to view that photo.

August 14, 2023 at 04:11 AM · As a player I don't believe anyone ever spoke a word about on-platform deportment in my hearing. As an audience member I hate to see an orchestra looking bored, particularly when taking the applause. Forced smiles aren't necessary but surely a few signs of interest and commitment aren't too much to ask? We should simply remember that the performance doesn't begin and end with the music.

And when there's some danger you may be caught on camera... At the BBC Prom concert broadcast at the weekend I was disappointed to see a prominent violinist looking completely disengaged and impassive during Yuja Wang's scintillating encores. If that's the way they feel about the music they shouldn't even be there.

August 14, 2023 at 01:05 PM · I started in 3rd grade in the U Missouri string program in the 80s, and they definitely gave us basic rules about how to sit and hold our instruments when not playing. And I recall having those expanded upon by different directors throughout my childhood. I'll say that very few emphasized anything about facial demeanour, though.

August 14, 2023 at 04:57 PM · It is hard not to show sheer relief when the music is over!

One small point: when a strings section is silent before the end, I feel we should all do likewise: place the bow upright on the right knee but keep the violin on the shoulder, or place the violin upright on the left knee.

August 14, 2023 at 05:47 PM · Every musical group of which I was a part growing up made stage presence and etiquette an important aspect of the learning process. These things are essential, and I consider it a major problem for any performer to reach the stage without having had at least a basic instruction in those areas.

August 14, 2023 at 06:09 PM · BSO publicists must have taken down the Josh Bell and symphony photo, maybe in response to this post! The link doesn't work.

August 15, 2023 at 12:01 AM · Actually, it seems like the entire Sequenza21 site has disappeared - I doubt that has anything to do with this. I hope it re-appears, we need all the classical reviews we can get!

August 15, 2023 at 03:35 PM · I wasn’t taught it, but good manners should be obvious in this case. Anyway, just to be sure, I do teach it: I have my students sit on the stage while their fellow students play their recital pieces. They all know they are supposed to be respectful (after all, how do they want people to behave when it’s their turn?), which means holding still, keeping quiet, not causing distractions of any kind, looking interested, and generally being polite. This means they not only learn how to behave on stage when they’re not playing but how to behave as a member of the audience.

August 15, 2023 at 08:47 PM · I wasn't taught anything, just learned stage etiquette as I went along. But then I've only played in ensembles as an adult, and there weren't many people around who hadn't already performed many times before. Most of it is general good manners anyway and shouldn't be hard to pick up.

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