Orchestra 101?

November 4, 2008 at 08:01 PM ·

Hi everyone,

I'm a film student at NYU in the process of writing a feature script for class about a violinist and the orchestra, and would like to ask about the life of a performer in an orchestra.

What kind of relationships exist between the orchestra members?  Competitive amongst like instruments?  Lots of time spent together?  Collaborating on the kinds of music played, and how to play them?

Who would be the boss of the orchestra?  How do conductors control the direction of the orchestra?  And does he/she have any important collaborators in the running of the show?

Sorry if some of these questions seem basic, but I would appreciate as many details as possible.


Replies (23)

November 4, 2008 at 09:10 PM ·

Boy, did you open a can of worms!

November 4, 2008 at 09:30 PM ·

A good start would be to get a copy of Fellini's "The Orchestra Rehearsal."

November 4, 2008 at 10:32 PM ·


after writing the Inner Game of Music timothy Greene (?) wrote a book about music organized around the idea that each insrumnet is associated with a certain type of human being.   You might find a lot of helpful insights in that.  Note for example the chapter abou bass players. When the orchestra is on tour they are the ones who go out together and have he most fun etc.

I forgot the name of the book. Anybody?



November 4, 2008 at 10:41 PM ·

 The Mastery of Music: Ten Pathways to True Artistry, by Barry Green.

November 5, 2008 at 02:30 AM ·


many thanks. So what if I mixed up Timothy Gallway and Barry greene?

Somebiody on this site always knows what I am talking about....



November 5, 2008 at 03:21 AM ·

Well, it doesn't seem like anyone has directly answered his question. I can't do so on a professional level because I am only a student.

But I'll give you information from a high school orchestra that is similar to a professional.

The "boss": Concert Master; Sits in front of the first violins, leads them, and is in charge of sectionals, etc. You can't be a good orchestra unless you enjoy playing together and have a strong relationship. Being competitive keeps things lively, and keeps people on their toes. You audition for an orchestra seat.

I really won't go into much more because I'm sure as much as a high school and a professional orchestra can have in common, they can have diffrences.

But wait for someone like Laurie to chime in as she is in the Pasadena symphony.

November 5, 2008 at 03:26 AM ·



Buri, do you make all the typos on purpose?:)

Your blogs are mysteriously typo free

November 5, 2008 at 04:18 AM ·


I also recommend you lok at the DVD of Simon Rattle conducitng the Berlin Phil- Mahler five and or the documentary Rythm it is .   Some evry interesting discusiion in both as well as the chance to watch rehearsal.

The relationship between a conducter and an orchestra is a svaribale as conducters are.  There have always been relatvely humorless Martinets such as George Szell(for a great discussion Read `Indivisble by Four- Steinhardt) who kept iron clad control and scared the beejezus out of people. Fritz Reiner was of the same mold.

The job of ythe cocnert master includes bowing parts in advance while trying to anticipate the conducters wishes.  A condcuter who ha sbeen a stirng player may have their own ideas including fingerings.  Interesitngly,  Baremboim has both although he is a keyboard player. Sheer genius.

If the conducter is no god the concert master may have to rescue the orchestra a sthings begin to fall aprt in perfomance. Thus they have to know the score as well as the condcuter.  Atmosphere in orchestras ranges from backstabbing hatred to mutial cooperation and friendship pretty much on a case by case bass. It has a lot to do with job satifactin and security.



November 5, 2008 at 04:30 AM ·

Try the book, The Dynamic Orchestra by Elizabeth Green 

December 26, 2008 at 07:53 PM ·

No discussion of life in the orchestra would be complete without the jokes.  They're cruel, but insightful.


The orchestra is an interesting slice of humanity.  Your stand partner could easily be your best friend or your worst enemy.  Some of the best orchestra players I've met are the ones who don't take the job or themselves too seriously; a conductor I knew told me about a litany of practical jokes that were a rite of initiation for any new member in the orchestra he performed with.  Also useful to know: a conductor is like the President of the United States. (S)he lives in a fishbowl where every move is scrutinized, analyzed, criticized, and few are universally popular (often for good reason, though not always).  But that serves the useful social function of giving us something to bond over as we chat 'round our equivalent of the water cooler.

There is so much...try to shadow some orchestra players if you can.  Especially the gregarious ones who hold nothing back.

December 26, 2008 at 08:20 PM ·

I particularlly liked the trumpet jokes. You can tell members of the string section wrote them:

How many trumpet players does it take to change a lightbulb?
Five. One to handle the bulb and four to tell him how much better they could have done it.
What's the difference between a Trumpet player and the rear end of a horse?
I don't know either.
What's the difference between trumpet players and government bonds?
Government bonds eventually mature and earn money.
How do trumpet players traditionally greet each other?
"Hi. I'm better than you."
How do you know when a trumpet player is at your door?
The doorbell shrieks!
Why can't a gorilla play trumpet?
He's too sensitive.

December 26, 2008 at 09:04 PM ·

My favorite was the string quartet joke.  Go to the page and search in the page for "mental institution".  :-)

December 28, 2008 at 01:54 AM ·

Another funny thing about the orchestra is that we tend to get to know our mates in the violin section quite well, while not being able to positively identify someone on the other side of the ensemble.  Say, the trombonists.  You'd think I would at least know people's names after spending five hours a week with them!  (This does not stop us from making jokes...)

December 28, 2008 at 02:39 AM ·

One book you want to read is "

In Concert: Onstage and Offstage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Paperback)

by Carl Vigeland


It is mainly about a "paranoid" trumpet player and the BSO, but covers lots more than that.  It has been many years since I read it, and I can't locate it in my library right now - but that is the book.



December 28, 2008 at 09:20 AM ·

An orchestra is a professional organization.  Most professional orchestra rehearsals I've observed don't involve a lot (any) chatting between members.  Nonetheless people get to know each other within a section like at any workplace. 

The concert master may occasional ask the strings to play things a certain way (for example, avoid a certain fingering, bow it a certain way) but the better an orchestra is and the longer they've been together, the less frequently this happens (for example, in festival orchestras that have been together a very short time this seems to happen quite a lot).  The section will be able to pick up the bowings and important fingerings on their own and as much as possible the concertmaster will pass the bowings and fingerings back in their section so that it doesn't interrupt rehearsal time.  If a concert master is too micromanaging of their section it can be considered quite rude. 

Since I've never been in a real professional orchestra (only festival orchestras), I can't give details of social life within one of those outside of what people have told me.  I know many violinists who were in major orchestras and they are very critical of the manners of other artists (something you might be able to include).  If a certain soloist didn't acknowledge the audience or orchestra they are judging them (for example, Lang Lang is considered quite rude because he often neglects to bow to the audience and sometimes begins playing piano solos before he has finished sitting down) and are equally critical of other orchestra members (for example, I know people who think it VERY rude to play the solo part to a concerto that the orchestra is performing with a soloist before a rehearsal, orchestra members will be resentful of an overbearing conductor or concertmaster, etc.).  The last thing is that there IS some tension between instrument types.  I've heard of wind players from big orchestras who think string players are idiots for tuning too high (even accounting for the opposite ways our instruments change pitch as we play on them) and I've met string players who furiously rant about that time the oboist didn't take the A from some fixed pitch instrument (i.e. if there's a celeste or piano part in the orchestra and they played a 440 using their tuner instead of checking against the piano before rehearsal).  

Then again I've met professors who rant about that one administrator who didn't fill out such and thus necessary form in time and I've met scientists who rant about that one collegue who didn't perform such and thus experiment correctly.  I hardly think any of that is unique to one profession. 


December 28, 2008 at 02:04 PM ·

It is, of course, rather difficult to talk while playing. Especially for the winds. :) Fortunately verbalization is not always necessary: a good eye roll will do the trick.

Also, we do take breaks...

December 28, 2008 at 03:44 PM ·

 If the conducter is no god the concert master may have to rescue the orchestra a sthings begin to fall aprt in perfomance.  (q from Mr. Brivati's post, Nov.5)


What's the difference between God and a conductor?

God knows He's not a conductor.




December 29, 2008 at 04:30 AM ·

I think the original topic is now doomed!  Oh well. :)

First Famous Conductor: I am the world's greatest conductor.  I have had the most #1 recordings.

Second Famous Conductor: No you idiot, I am the greatest.  I have conducted every major orchestra in the world to rave reviews.

Third Famous Conductor: You're both wrong, I am the greatest.  God told me so.

von Karajan: Liar!  I never said that!

August 9, 2009 at 12:39 AM ·

"I know people who think it VERY rude to play the solo part to a concerto that the orchestra is performing with a soloist before a rehearsal"

Or indeed any concerto part. They're known as "band-room soloists". Not frequent in professional orchestras - the rude comments would soon shut them up, but especially prevalent in student orchestras. And usually their orchestral playing is in inverse proportion to the "virtuosity" of the chosen piece i.e. those playing a Paganini caprice usually can't do a short down bow to save their lives!

Or maybe I just get more cynical as I get older.

August 9, 2009 at 01:36 AM ·

We call that a p*ssing contest where I'm from. One person will start playing the Sibelius concerto, then another person will play Paganini, etc. I use to be like that until my teacher yelled at me for it. She was a great teacher, kind and encouraging, but you never wanted to tick her off (plus, she has connections).

August 14, 2009 at 04:02 PM ·

Josh: You penned your question almost a year ago. Are you finished writing? In any case, I just came across this discussion. I'm surprised no one recommended the book by Hector Berioz, "Evenings with the Orchestra."

But for some reason this discussion reminds me of someone (I forgot who) who penned the two basic rules that apply to all academic deans -
Rule Number One: Hide.
Rule Number Two: If they find you, lie.

August 14, 2009 at 10:42 PM ·

There's also a very clearly written and funny book by Justin Locke, a pro bass player, titled Real Men Don't Rehearse.  It covers much of the world as freelance and salaried orchestral players see it.

August 16, 2009 at 12:18 AM ·

If you'd like an amusing slant on this, see:


Toby Appel's Guide to the Orchestra


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