Orchestra Rule Book?

February 7, 2011 at 03:42 PM ·

Around the middle of this month I'm planning to start playing with a "beginners' orchestra" (operated through a local college).  I live in fear of breaking some sort of unwritten (or maybe even written) rule of orchestral etiquette.  To save me from committing any sort of terminally-embarrassing faux pas, could someone give me a few tips so I look like I have at least a microscopic clue about what's going on?!

Replies (73)

February 7, 2011 at 04:03 PM ·

Wow how wonderful, you're going to have a blast.  Seeing as this is a beginners orchestra I'm sure the conductor/instructor will do all they can to help you adjust to your new setting.  Meanwhile don't fret, being in an orchestra isn't as daunting as it sounds.  The difficult things are playing together, listening to other sections, and learning the notes.  The rest is easy to learn.  Here are some pointers.

- always have a pencil on your stand to write down bowings and instructions.
- be kind to your stand partner
- the person on the inside (left) of the stand turns the pages of the music and is in charge of handling the music and trading out pieces.
- the person on the outside plays the top part of the divisi parts.  the person on the inside plays the bottom.
- look to your section leader for guidance.  If you have a question, ask the section leader, don't raise your hand to pose questions to the conductor.  If the leader of your section can't answer your question he or she will pose the question.
- tune only when it is your section's turn to tune.  When you are done tuning sit quietly until all others are done tuning.  It's not acceptable to practice while others are tuning.

Have fun!

February 7, 2011 at 04:17 PM ·

I will echo some of the advice Marina gave you; I was finishing my reply when she posted hers.

Although I began playing in elementary school, I didn't start orchestral playing till I entered high school; in fact, my total orchestral experience covered only 7 years -- from about ages 14-21.  But I can tell you a few invaluable things I learned:

Arrive in plenty of time for rehearsals.  Learn your material thoroughly.  Isolate the hard parts and work them out in your individual practice sessions -- and possibly a little during lessons; don't dwell on the parts you can handle well.

As Marina said, have a pencil at the ready during rehearsals.

Be sure you can clearly see the conductor and follow the beat.  Count carefully.  Listen, listen, listen, and listen -- not just to your own part but to what else is going on around you.

After high school, I trained for a couple of seasons for this profession via the CSO's training school.  Although I decided at length not to pursue a career in music, this was a great experience -- one I wouldn't have wanted to miss.

The cardinal sin of orchestra playing, according to my trainers, is playing in the rests.  Be careful not to do it.  Again, watch for the beat.  I will always remember what CSO co-concertmaster Victor Aitay, leading the Saturday afternoon section rehearsal, told us: "A wrong note here and there -- forgiven.  But please don't play before my beat."



February 7, 2011 at 04:49 PM ·

Don't show up clutching drum sticks or a trombone, and no one will immediately assume you're a barbarian!  You'll have the benefit of the doubt.

Have a pencil with you.  Plan on sharing a stand with the person next to you.  Person in the inside, usually lefthand, chair turns the pages.  Don't scribble on the music.  Watch the section leader for bowings, length of notes, style of bowing, entrances, etc.  Don't bring fried chicken to the rehearsal, and eat it during breaks.  (I actuaolly saw this done once!)  Be respectful of other people's space, and don't step or sit on their instruments during the break.

Are you familiar with the beat patterns conductors use?  If not, you'll want to get a grasp on that.  Anyone know of online resources for this?

Most volunteer orchestras are friendly and accomodating places.  Let people around you know you're green, and most will be happy to help you find your way.

After the first rehearsal, before if you have the music, practice!  Come back with the notes under your fingers, know where the key or time changes, be ready to help make music out of it rather than just crash through it.

February 7, 2011 at 05:03 PM ·

 Have fun in orchestra! I love being involved in my youth orchestra and I´m sure you´ll love being an orchestra musician. My humble advise is:

-Bring a good pencil :), don´t talk or whisper if the conductor is talking or rehearsing other sections and you´re not playing, make sure you check with your stand partner that you´re both sitting where you want (like I always sit on the left because I can´t see the notes properly if I´m sitting on the right side), remember to write any additional bowings/fingerings into the pages immediately and if something is unclear then don´t be afraid to ask, practise makes perfect and getting an orchestra piece right is a heck of a challenge so patience is the key :)

But above all have fun!

February 7, 2011 at 05:11 PM ·

Thanks to all of you for the GREAT advice!!  I'm really looking forward to the experience.

I think I'll take the quieter of my two violins -- if I do make a counting mistake and miss a rest, it won't stick out QUITE so much!!  :)

February 7, 2011 at 05:17 PM ·

Good advice here already.

The best advice I heard was from a friend who, at my first night of rehearsal, told me to pretend I knew what I was doing. It was fantastic advice. Don't be ashamed of messing up, and keep your cool and just pretend you know what's going on. I think almost everyone feels lost the first time out. Orchestral playing is a skill that you learn just like any other skill and it will get easier.

Learn the art of "fakeando" as it's known in my local orchestral community... If you can't play every note, at least play the one note on the start of every beat. Some professional orchestral musicians even fake things from time to time.

Take special note of dynamics, or at least extreme dynamics (pp, especially). Otherwise you might stick out a bit.

I've heard that it's better to follow your section, even if your leader is wrong, than to strike out on your own if he or she has entered at the wrong spot. That advice has served me well. Hopefully you have a good leader who isn't wrong very often.

Enjoy the jokester of the group, the one making wry observations about everything happening around you and causing everyone to start giggling uncontrollably. There always seems to be one.

Enjoy yourself, period! If you feel like everything's going over your head, give it time. Pretty soon you'll love it. Everyone I know loves orchestra. It's one of the great joys of playing the violin.

Report back and let us know how it went.

February 8, 2011 at 12:53 AM ·

No matter how tempted you may be to take your finger and "thump" on something in the percussion section, don't.  In fact, refrain from walking through the percussion set up at all.  :)

February 8, 2011 at 01:08 AM ·

Everybody mentions bring a pencil. Bring a SOFT pencil. preferably 4B. Minimum 2B. Standard pencils are out - you can't see the markings and they wreck the music. So - soft pencil and good rubber. BTW - the Concertmaster is God and section leaders are his/her deputies. This happens in professional orchestras - I've seen some failrly horrible mistakes, but if the whole section goes together nobody notices. After all, it's no good being the only one who's right!

One of my funniest recollections from years back. I was playing with our local amateur orchestra. Shostakovich 5. In the slow movement, the cellos moved early. Immediately, the rest of us focussed on our leader - would he go with them or hold his place. He went with them, indicating clearly what he was doing. So the rest of the section followed. Except for two old dears towards the back who obviously thought "Gerry's got it wrong" and came in a bar behind the rest of us. For about one micro-second until the laser glare over the shoulder. They stopped and I don't think they played another note in the concert . They weren't missed!


February 8, 2011 at 01:32 AM ·

Don't worry if when you sightread a peice or even play it for the first few times with the orchestra, you feel as if you are the worst of them all, not even able to follow. 

When I played at the string ensemble, I was terrible at first tries.  I was convinced I was the worst player of them all.  But after home practicing (alone), I was much better and at the concert, I was in the best ones.  

-  I think that not beeing good at sigh reading doesn't mean you'll not be able to play with them.  (in the long run, one becomes better at it and if not, home practice works perfect at that level of orchestra) 

- The others are also wonderful actors.  In fact, when I heard each member of the ensemble play a solo peice, some were way more horrible than me (and I though I was horrible...).  These poeple were probably just as lost as me in the first rehearshals...

Good luck!!


February 8, 2011 at 01:40 AM ·

Lots of good advice above.

I'd add this for your first session.

1. Keep your ears and eyes open and your mouth shut (until you learn how things are).

2. Learn how to air-bow (i.e., look like you are playing when you're not - when the going is too tough) because one person playing wrong is still heard under 10 playing right.

Have a wonderful time. I still remember my first evening of community orchestra rehearsal - over 60 years ago - and still going (only 4 orchestras later) tonight's rehearsal starts in 90 minutes.


February 8, 2011 at 01:43 AM ·

And clip well your pages because if their is a slight breeze on them, they fall off the stand.  Have something to be able to turn them fast and efficiently and (the least often possible).

Bring sunglasses if ever you do outside summer concerts they could save your life...

And be careful to the kind of skirts you choose (if ever it's needed) since one is more comfortable sitting with legs appart to play...   A detail but we all know some not too fun stories that happen to someone with that! 

February 8, 2011 at 01:59 AM ·

15 minutes early = on time.

Don't stare at wind players who make mistakes.  As a flute player, I can say that the heads whipping around while I'm trying to play something difficult can be kind of annoying.

Don't forget that you LOVE THE MUSIC.  It's easy to lose track of that when you're trying to play up to tempo / in tune / rhythmically accurately / etc. etc. etc.   (That's not really a question of etiquette, but it will make you more fun to sit next to.)


February 8, 2011 at 02:18 AM ·

Some great advice here.  I'll also add:

- don't text or surf your iPhone (or any other electronic mobile device) when the conductor is working with another section.  Instead, pay attention to what s/he is telling the other section.

- when you here the oboe play 440 Hz at the beginning of rehearsal or after break, assume it is a queue to tune and stop what you are doing.

- bring cough drops or mints/hard candy.  Either you or someone else will at some point have a coughing fit and having those on hand will be a life saver, but not necessarily with the wind/brass section. 

In regards to the art of "fakeoso" (note:  you should always try you best to get everything right, but when all else fails....):

- if it is a choice between getting all the notes or getting the major beats, major beats win. 

- if you have to completely fake a section, get the bowings in sync with the section (principal) at a minimum. 

- it is better to skip a note/ measure than to play an unwritten solo during a rest

- find out what the important notes / exposed sections are for your part and learn them to the best of your ability.

- find out what sections are more for "effect" and practice the "effect"

Most of all, enjoy yourself.  These groups are about learning, gaining experience, making friends and making music.  Don't be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions. 

February 8, 2011 at 02:47 AM ·

 You've had great suggestions.  (FYI, in case you are as American as I, 'rubber' in the previous post about a soft pencil is our 'eraser'...and, yes, you need one).

Rhythm is more important than getting all the notes at first.  You also don't want to be the loudest player in the group (Bill McLaughlin used to say he didn't want any heroes in his orchestras--and it's a good thing to remember.)

Listen to what's going on around you and fit in, as long as what you hear matches the conductor's beat--conductor's the boss.

Arrogance wins no friends.  Pleasant attitude makes a player others want to have around.  ENJOY the time.

February 8, 2011 at 07:15 AM ·

One thing you could do is to engage the conductor squarely in the eyes and ask him to explain which is his down beat ... That always makes 'em nervous!! (wink).

February 8, 2011 at 12:19 PM ·

I didn't read every word, but enough to see that there are a few things I'd like to add:

Most Conductors don't like it when you scrape your chair across the floor while the orchestra is playing. So make sure your chair is in the right spot before he raises his hands.

Do not wear perfume. Some people are allergic or just don't like your personal choices, and it's very distracting also.

Make sure your case is properly stored. Nobody likes to see your case crash to the ground.

Don't play with long fingernails. It's gross!

Do not handle other people's instruments unless they have specifically asked you.

Never, and I mean never...tap your foot in time. It's very rude and disturbing to others.

Play with both your feet on the floor. It's considered bad technique to play with your legs or ankles crossed.

Make sure if you end up sitting on the right, that your violin/viola is not directly in the line of sight of your partner to your left. It's rude, they have to try to see the notes and you are not more important just because you are on the right!

Once everyone is seated you may be asked to move to the left or right because the stands behind you cannot see the Conductor. Do not move your chair back after.

If you are playing near the front be careful to follow the bowings. If you are always doing your own thing you distract everyone behind you.

Do not talk or whisper, even about bowings, or technique. It disturbs everyone. You can ask questions after. You may ask questions of the Conductor but only after having raised your hand/bow and been recognized.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of "Fudge" on occasion if it means that keep up with the others!

February 8, 2011 at 01:49 PM ·

 One of the best advice I have ever gotten is:"Act like you know what you´re doing and then everyone else will think you know what you´re doing". So relax and have fun :)

February 8, 2011 at 02:33 PM ·


You might find that a lot of professional players are doing some of those things you say are forbidden. A lot do tap their feet, and sit with their feet crossed and slouching, especially in rehearsals. Banning such things would probably cause a riot!! Amd a lot of players crack jokes and make comments whilste playing in rehearsals (and occasionally in concerts ...)


February 8, 2011 at 07:42 PM ·

 "never...tap your foot in time"

I've seen players tap their feet out of time, so I suppose that's alright :-)

Seriously, if you do feel a need to tap your feet to keep a difficult time, perhaps in a passage with "interesting" cross-rhythms, or there's a tricky entry coming up, or the conductor doesn't know what he's doing, then what you can do inconspicuously is to tap your foot within the shoe without obviously moving the shoe. Whatever you do, it must not be audible. Anyway, a player who keeps looking at other players' feet should be having his eyes on the conductor/music/section leader – not necessarily in that order!

February 8, 2011 at 08:53 PM ·

With a lot of conductors flaying about, someone needs to keep the rythm going!!

That's why leaders of sections and the concertmaster have to give strong beats - you can't rely on the stick waver ...

February 8, 2011 at 10:32 PM ·

Played for a leader once whose violin went up and down like Tower Bridge - and about the same angle as well. If suggested that the section was pretty well together, he was convinced that this was only because of his fiddle-waving. One concert I sat number 4 and we had big metal stands. I couldn't concentrate because this violin kept appearing and vanishing over the top of the stand. I had the temerity to ask him to tone it down in the interval. I thought he was going to hit me!. He actually did tone it down in the second half and I was going to make peace - but after taking his bow, he turned back and stood there waving his bow at me - "Don't you dare to tell me - or any leader- how to play the violin - ever again!" Then he walked off. We didn't speak from that day until I left. No names, but if you ever heard of someone going for a small Chinese, it was probably me!


February 9, 2011 at 04:11 AM ·

If you make an obvious mistake that is heard, keep a straight face and surreptitiously point with your bow to your stand partner, or some other unwary individual. :)

February 9, 2011 at 09:14 AM ·

Peter, your kidding! Tapping one's foot is probably the rudest thing someone can so while playing with others. I'm surprised to hear that in your experience you see that often. You are welcome to play on our orchestra anytime, come on over!  Btw, I call my Conductor, "The Flying Frenchman". He seems to spend more time in the air than on his podium! As far as the leg crossing, that drives me nuts. Maybe that would qualify more as a pet peeve, but to me (and our Conductor who wouldn't be shy about pointing it out) it seems very unprofessional.

Maybe when you are learning (as in, being quite young) you may feel that you need to tap your foot on occasion. But, the OP asked about behavior when playing in an orchestra. Whether you think you need to do it or not, it is rude to tap your foot. If you think you must tap your foot then what you really need is too practice more with a metronome. The whole point is that your attitude should be one of not disturbing others around you and tapping your foot is very rude. Have some consideration for people around you, and please don't tap your foot.

Now, someone did refer to when section leaders use their body to beat the time for their section. That is completely different. It doesn't disturb anyone. Although, personally, a violinist who sways back and forth and exaggerates their movements and does pizz with a huge flourish, is distracting!! We have a violinist like that, that we have nicknamed "Dramamine"!

February 9, 2011 at 12:02 PM ·

February 9, 2011 at 05:18 PM ·

About tapping the foot; I recall my third grade trumpet teacher; she was always tapping her foot to the music, even when listening to it on the radio.
That can be a very frightening experience to an 8 year old, riding in the car on the freeway!
I'm suprised I still remember it.

February 9, 2011 at 05:50 PM ·


I'm not talking about loud foot tapping but maybe very small and unobrusive. As it happens I don't do it myself.

I'm pleased you think I'm young and still learning! In fact I am still learning - but I'm really retired now after about 30 years plus of professional playing.

I would have to turn down the offer of playing in your orchestra, for several reasons. I like playing only chamber music or duos, I don't enjoy playing in orchestras anymore, and I find a lot of conductors a pain in the A!

But if it was a quartet - yes, I might be interested.

February 9, 2011 at 06:23 PM ·

A bit silly, but if you happen to "dance" when you play (i.e. swaying back and forth while you play) be wary of where your stand partner is. Make sure you're not swinging in and out (and in and out and in and out) of his or her line of sight. Had a stand partner once that did this... very annoying :) 

February 9, 2011 at 09:04 PM ·

@ Lisa

"Btw, I call my Conductor, "The Flying Frenchman". He seems to spend more time in the air than on his podium!"

THAT sounds like a total nightmare of a conductor. Should be stangled at birth.

February 9, 2011 at 10:10 PM ·

Just think - people like Sir Adrian Boult managed with small movements. A very long stick, but basically just rolled it in his fingers. And could still whip an orchestra into really exciting playing. In fact, I think he got faster as he got older!

February 10, 2011 at 12:07 AM ·

re:  foot tapping.  A toe inside your shoe is much more discreet, less distracting for your colleagues and audience members who may care about such things, and rhythmically just as effective.

I do enjoy watching people's feet sometimes.  Usually the busiest feet stop tapping when the notes get difficult  ; - )

February 10, 2011 at 12:55 AM ·

Match your stand partner if you can. When I play principle viola from time to time, the two things I look at most are the conductor (time, emoting, leading) and the concertmaster (to match bowings whenever possible).

Don't (DONT!) be that guy who plays during a rest or a pause...

Learn your music. I see nothing wrong with tapping your foot during the first rehearsal, so long as it doesn't affect anyone else.

February 10, 2011 at 05:54 AM ·

I agree with Peter: sometimes it seems like the pros are more lax than the beginners.  As long as we ultimately deliver, I haven't seen it become a serious problem.  Maybe my orchestra is particularly laid-back.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend it now, but when you are comfortable in your role, you may be able to do other things.  One of the secrets of playing section violin is that you don't have to count obsessively all the time.  Also, when you become experienced you will know when the conductor's comments to the brass bear any relevance to you and you should pay attention, or if you can safely tune out for a bit and not miss a thing, including your entrance.  A wise conductor, I believe, will know this too and not take it personally, not demand that every spare neuron be fixated on his pronouncements at all times.  My recent stand partner was studying physics in the breaks, and I know someone who wrote an etude book just in his downtime playing South Pacific

That same guy gave my class one of the oddest, most amusing, and probably most underrated pieces of advice I've heard: 'don't be the weird one.'  It goes along with things like playing in the rests in that you don't want to stick out and get yourself noticed in a bad way.  He told us about a sub that showed up to the gig with some sort of posture cushion -- well, that's all good, but it resulted in his literally towering over the rest of the section, making everybody feel awkward.  It seemed implicit that he wasn't asked back.

Oh yes, as one poster reminded me: if you are lucky enough to have a harp in your orchestra, don't touch it.  I know pianos in public spaces are sometimes considered fair game, so don't be confused, it's not one of them.  Personal experience (I was very green then). 

February 10, 2011 at 09:54 AM ·


"Don't (DONT!) be that guy who plays during a rest or a pause..."

There is another side to this, such as the players who play so carefully that they never play in a rest.

I know its embarrassing, but we should all play a domino occasionally. (but if its a great sounding one then take a bow ...)

Section principals are always suspicious of players who have never been heard to play one, and quite rightly so, especially in rehearsals.

February 10, 2011 at 10:08 AM ·

Laugh at the concertmaster's jokes, and chances are that they're funny anyway. Also, don't make fun of the viola section unless the concertmaster does. I remember this one time during rehearsal, the third chair first violinist messed up badly and loudly, and when the conductor had us stop, the concertmaster turned to her, hit her on the head with his bow, and said, "BAD. Go join the violas!" The violas didn't find it so funny, though.

If the principal chairholder of your section schedules a sectional outside of rehearsal, you should probably go to it. It's a really useful time to sort out bowings, dynamics, rhythm, and those tricky parts as a group. During one of our second violin sectionals, the concertmaster even showed up and worked with us.

Most importantly, have fun. The thing I love most about orchestral playing is the energy that everyone just gives off, and with everyone feeding off of that collection of energy and putting more in, some of the most beautiful pieces of music can be made, and sharing it with other people is a joy in itself.

February 10, 2011 at 10:11 AM ·

I have deleted a few posts in the interest of keeping the peace, because it is clear to me that complaining does no good at all  ....feb 18

February 10, 2011 at 10:44 AM ·


I do not quite see the connection with a conductor leaping in the air and the making of music? In a professional orchestra such conductors are not easily tolerated, and often not asked back. Don't forget that the conductor always conducts in the key of C major and never makes a sound. It's the players that produce the music. The conductor is the least productive and useful member of the orchestra, and only the really good ones that can mould the phrasing and balance in rehearsals are the ones that are really any good.

Conductors who leap about should be foced to use a rostrum with several sharp 2 foot spikes built in so that their landings are very painful, and this will hopefully cure them. Other than that a long walk on a short pier.

You should suggest this to your conductor and the winner might be the music. (wink)

February 10, 2011 at 10:48 AM ·

@ Cyril Millendez

"I remember this one time during rehearsal, the third chair first violinist messed up badly and loudly, and when the conductor had us stop, the concertmaster turned to her, hit her on the head with his bow, and said, "BAD. Go join the violas!" The violas didn't find it so funny, though."

That sort of behaviour from a concertmaster will never get him/her any brownie points and only hold him/her in contempt. That's what rehearsals are for, a chance to mess up badly, and if the conductor and concertmaster don't realise that then they should be working in a meat factory in Siberia rather than in an orchestra.

February 10, 2011 at 03:58 PM ·

@ Pierre: why cannot one practice your own pieces during the breaks? if one is not feeling for being social, it can be wonderful to use the breaks during the rehearsal to enjoy your own music.

February 10, 2011 at 05:05 PM ·

@ Pierre: why cannot one practice your own pieces during the breaks? if one is not feeling for being social, it can be wonderful to use the breaks during the rehearsal to enjoy your own music.

Lena, I must say I agree with Pierre.  I see this behavior from time to time but only from young immature violinists of school age.  Nobody said you can't do it but it's a little unspoken rule that we orchestral musicians have.  It's like flexing your muscles in public, nobody wants to see that.  Obviously nobody will tell you so to your face but if you're playing bach fugues during the break people are most definitely annoyed and rolling their eyes.  Rehearsal time is respectably spent on practicing orchestral music.  Concerti and cadenzas are for another time.

February 10, 2011 at 05:46 PM ·

 @ Marina: what about sonatas? or parts of chamber music? these are seldom for show off?

February 10, 2011 at 06:52 PM ·

Oh, but usually they are.

February 10, 2011 at 07:04 PM ·

 But this is something I must say I never have heard about, or even thought about! I wonder, why is it found as intimidating if you practice something non-orchestral during the half an hour break of orchestra (when most people anyway do not stay in the hall) or before the rehearsal? Why do people get intimidated? And why do people hate you for that? (That reaction looks pretty immature to me!) Do you get intimidated if you hear somebody practicing a piece? I never got intimidated by that, and usually rather enjoy listening to people practicing.

Often, at least for us amateurs, playing one day in the orchestra takes away the chance for own practice. When one is working intensely on pieces, one longs for fixing that bar, or trying the phrasing you discovered the day before. The break during the orchestral rehearsal is a great opportunity when you can try these things you have been thinking about the whole school/working day, and when fingers are warmed up. Its not about "showing off"-- its about getting a chance finally that day to do what you have been longing for all the time. At least for us obsessive amateur musicians!

And sometimes, playing in an orchestra is compulsory for chamber musicians who want to perform chamber music...

February 10, 2011 at 10:18 PM ·

February 10, 2011 at 11:26 PM ·

Lena, I think what people see (or imagine) when they see someone practicing a solo piece during a rehearsal is:  "Oh, look at me -- I am so... [choose from the list below]"

  • "technically brilliant"  (depending on what kind of piece it is)
  • "musically sensitive" (depending on what kind of piece it is)
  • "dedicated"
  • "possessed by the spirit of music that I can't stop, not even for 10 minutes"
  • "so good that I don't need to look at the orchestra music so I can fix the mistakes I made during the first half of rehearsal"

I don't think people get intimidated, I think they get annoyed.   (I agree it may be an immature reaction; but I'm talking about what people do, not what they should do)


I just realized, though, that I was imagining someone who sits in their chair practicing loudly during break.  If someone goes off to a quiet corner and practices there, they do not give the same "look at me" impression.   If someone wants to practice in your chair but doesn't want to look like a showoff, a practice mute can help with that.


February 11, 2011 at 08:40 AM ·

 @ Bruce:

Hmm. Interesting. But is not any of those words to fill in the gap actually a potential reflection upon people's jealosity? 

Because, imagine a hypothetical scenario. You enter the rehearsal hall and there is sitting somebody practicing a difficult etude, and it sounds like real struggling, lot of flaws. You say "Hmm, he is learning. I wonder how difficult that is!" or somebody else says "That sounds interesting..." (and cracks a small smile).

Next day you enter, and there sits a girl practicing, and she plays so damn well a piece totally beyond anything you ever can do, that you realize that it must be a niece of Jascha Heifetz.  Wow. That is unreachable. I think, nobody objects.

The third day, you enter, and you hear a collegue practicing a technically difficult and musically sensitive piece (a piece that you could do OK) and does it actually pretty nicely. But it is not so good that it is unreachable. As a soloist/chamber musician, you here get a bit inspired or challenged. Interesting. But as somebody who only has time for orchestral playing (and somewhere in the deep dreams for some solo stuff)? No, if you would stop to rehearse the orchestral stuff and instead focus on that piece, you would probably do it as nicely. Or better. You are feeling clearly irritated.

Where I want to head, is that annoyment arises from the following conditions:

(a) The one who practices plays an instrument from the same group of instruments.

(b) The listener only is doing orchestral music.

(c) The one who practices is not recognized as the greatest music genius, but is clearly a bit better than the listener, but still in what the listener perceives as an "achievable" way.

Those three conditions should be more likely to happen in orchestras where individuals have spaces to make their "carreer" (like getting stipends), and therefore in more competitive areas.

And I claim that the one who practices is not responsible for (a), (b) and (c). 

Actually, this is a great new discussion thread!! I will post it :)

February 11, 2011 at 09:42 AM ·

You guys made an excellent point about practicing at rehearsals. It's true. If someone considers themselves such a great violinist then it should be because they have practiced at home. I never really thought about it before but it does kind of bug me when someone shows up and rehearsal and starts doodling so loudly that others feel they can't even have a little chat before rehearsal starts. It bugged me without even realizing it bugs me! "Rehearse at home" is the best advice ;o)

Once again, it's best to blend in than to stand out (unless you are the soloist)!


February 11, 2011 at 11:42 AM ·

 Rule number one:- remember to smile and nod at the conductor whenever he/she utters anything, however stupid, that might possibly be meant to apply to you or your section.

February 11, 2011 at 11:50 AM ·

Many years ago in a symphony orchestra I was in at the time the soloist with us in the Bruch G minor was Clarence Myerscough, sadly no longer with us. Most unusually, he didn't use the soloist's green room but joined in with us in the orchestra's room, wandered round and chatted with everyone, and when he was ready to warm up he put on a practice mute and warmed up there and then amongst us. Great guy. 

February 11, 2011 at 12:24 PM ·

 @David Beck, "Rule number one"

When I joined my chamber orchestra the principal viola was an elderly gentleman (must have been in his late 70s) who was deaf and used a hearing aid. He was chairman of the orchestra, and so wielded some clout.  When the conductor addressed the orchestra he'd turn his hearing aid off and sit there beaming a beatific smile up at the conductor. We didn't think that particular conductor ever realized what was happening under his nose.

February 11, 2011 at 02:56 PM ·

 @ Lisa F.:

Well, if you can't speak during a break because somebody is practicing, you just can move out with your friends to another room? Nobody forces you to stand right under the violin of the player.

Well, I do not agree with you about "that it is best to blend". I only agree with the statement while actually playing in the orchestra on rehearsal or recital-- there for sure one needs to blend in order to make the orchestra work and for fulfilling the same artistic intention.

People try to blend because they are (generally speaking) cowards, judgemental and driven by survival instinct (think of high school, were everybody were trying to blend with the cool guys or with the geeks). Being afraid of being wrong or not blending with others, is what let things as Holocaust to  happen, without that the big mass reacted or made it stop. It is also what allows bullying in schools: one single person gets bullied, and nobody from the great mass dares to support him/her out of fear of not blending with the rest.

February 11, 2011 at 04:06 PM ·

This is a very entertaining thread!! There's been a lot of good advice. I agree with pretending that you know exactly what is going on around you :)  We learn a lot more by listening and observing than by talking.


February 11, 2011 at 04:27 PM ·

Lena..."Well, if you can't speak during a break because somebody is practicing, you just can move out with your friends to another room? Nobody forces you to stand right under the violin of the player."

You must be confusing me with someone else since I never talked about anyone playing violin during a break since we don't take breaks. We do not have "another room" either so I'm not sure what that's about either. You assume too much.  Not sure what the attitude is about.

What's with the snitty comments in here? Let's try to get along.

February 11, 2011 at 04:42 PM ·

Wow, how did the holocaust come into this?  Lena, it's perfectly fine if you are asking a question about what the atmosphere in a professional orchestra is.  If you don't llike that atmosphere then stick to what you do in an amatuer orchestra where the egos are not so big, the pay is non existent, the pressure to play the right notes is minimal, and the fear of getting fired doesn't bother you.  However we're talking about 2 different things here.  When I show up to an orchestra I'm there to do a job.  The pieces that we are asked to play are difficult enough without wasting our valuable warm up and practice time on our own solo repertoire.  That's now what we're there for.  By playing your personal repertoire in the orchestra it's quite disrespectful to the atmosphere of the rehearsal.  The more I think about it the more I have to disagree with you.

If you worked in an office, you woudln't use your break time to do yoga in the middle of the workplace.  Probably you would go to a room alone, but nowhere where you would distract other people from their jobs, nowhere where they could even see you.  It's no different in an orchestra.  I got hired to play in an orchestra because I do play well, as do all my colleagues, there's no need for showing off.  It's not about showing off, it's just unprofessional to do personal practicing in an orchestral rehearsal.

This has nothing to do with jealousy, it is professional courtesy to stick to the task at hand.  Break times are used to break, go outside and get a cup of coffee, chat it up or have a cigarette.  But if you stay on the orchestra floor you're either softly practicing the orchestral music, rosining your bow, copying bowings, asking the principal players a question, or looking at your music.  This is what happens in an professional orchestra. 

February 11, 2011 at 05:16 PM ·

Well, I think this thread has got to the point where it can include rules for fiddlers, too.

  • Always try and wear a clean shirt, if you have one
  • Always wear a shirt
  • Don't try and follow the beat of the drummer; he isn't consistent enough. Follow the bass player. He's sober
  • Bring your own bottle, but be willing to share (just not with the drummer)
  • Wear shoes; the lead gitaur and vocalist sometimes try to dance, and neither really can. Toes need protection.

February 11, 2011 at 05:57 PM ·


"Many years ago in a symphony orchestra I was in at the time the soloist with us in the Bruch G minor was Clarence Myerscough, sadly no longer with us. Most unusually, he didn't use the soloist's green room but joined in with us in the orchestra's room, wandered round and chatted with everyone, and when he was ready to warm up he put on a practice mute and warmed up there and then amongst us. Great guy. "

Yes, I knew Clarence M, I only met him briefly, and he studied with the same teacher as me at the RAM. I think he was a few years ahead of me. He taught and did solo work and chamber music as he hated playing in orchestras. Very sensible.

His daughter, also a fiddler, was teaching in London at a Saturday centre until a year or two ago. She was highly regarded. Not sure what she is doing now.

February 11, 2011 at 06:01 PM ·

Lisa F

"What's with the snitty comments in here? Let's try to get along."

Were you looking in the mirror when you said that?

February 11, 2011 at 06:34 PM ·

 When I was in a youth orchestra the new conductor took a few minutes to explain a bit of the protocol on stage. He said that when we had tuned and were ready to start he would come on to the platform, go to the podium and we would all stand up. The standing up, he said, was not for him but so that all of us as an ensemble, orchestra and conductor (and choir because we were performing a choral work on that occasion) would, by so doing, acknowledge the audience. He would then turn round to face us, we would sit down, and the music would start. This, he added, was the reason why it was not necessary for us to stand when he returned to the podium after the interval, or with a soloist.  

February 11, 2011 at 06:46 PM ·


You mention the reasons for wearing shirt and shoes.  Pants optional?

Marsha- have you been yet?  How was it?  What music are you playing?

February 11, 2011 at 07:18 PM ·

Lena - good points.  You are making me think about this beyond the point of simply "I wish _______ would shut up."  Now my head hurts : - )

In my experience, the ones who are the best players don't show off.  (Maybe in youth orchestras, but it's pretty rare with adults.... or maybe I should say people who deserve the title of "adult")

In a youth or school orchestra, the situation is a bit different since everybody is still taking lessons and everyone else understands that you have to practice for your lesson every possible minute (especially if your teacher's name is Sylvia R. :-), because everyone understands that she will make you cry).  In a professional orchestra, it is understood that the reason you are there is to play this music, not any other music.  The reason you practiced all that music is so that you could get good enough to be here, playing this music.  That's an unwritten part of the ethos of an orchestra.  Working on other music in public is like announcing "what we are doing here is not important to me," in other words, "what you are doing here is not important to me."  It seems like a mark of respect to treat the group you are in as the most important thing while you are with them.

Imagine something similar in a different area of life:  you are at a party with a lot of people and don't know many of them.  Someone you know, but only slightly, comes over and starts talking to you, and after a minute of pleasant conversation he suddenly says "oh, excuse me -- I just saw one of my friends" and walks away from you.  Or maybe he says "oh - I just remembered something really good is on TV!" and walks away from you.  Or whatever.  Whatever it is, he has just informed you that whatever you have to offer is not as important as that.

As for the "blending in is better than sticking out" idea, personally I believe that's more important while you are playing, and not necessarily so important the rest of the time.  In an orchestra, we are all (even the principal flutist) there to be part of something larger than ourselves, so we agree to submit ourselves to that larger thing -- our musical selves, not our entire selves.  You can still prefer dark chocolate or dress all in yellow if you like.  Nobody will care.  (Or if they do, you don't have to pay any attention.)  But if you insist on playing the 2nd violin part of Schumann's "Spring" Symphony as if it is a solo fantasia composed especially for you by Ysaye, then you're breaking your agreement to become part of the larger entity, and the group will be better off without you no matter how well you play.

(LOL - now my head really does hurt)

February 11, 2011 at 07:27 PM ·

Lisa -- Haven't started yet.  First session is next Wednesday (Wednesdays and Thursdays for 12 weeks -- then a concert!) 

Roland -- Also advisable to keep fiddles out of drip-range of the washboards!!

February 11, 2011 at 07:48 PM ·

...moving right along...

I was going to ask you the same thing Marsha. Please post your impressions and it would be fun to see what kind of things you notice! Seems like a lot of us have the same impessions.

Bruce, I totally agree and that's what I was referring to...while we are playing. That was really cute what you said about the 2nd violin solo! You hit the nail on the head! ;o)

February 11, 2011 at 08:39 PM ·

@ Lisa


You have some strong opinions. You certainly don't keep them to yourself. Is it conceivable that you are making a mountain out of a molehill? You are extremely judgemental. Neither my Conductor, nor I, feel the need to explain ourselves to you. Who are you anyway?  I find your statements offensive and crass. I'm particuliarly happy that you do not play in my orchestra."

Let me just get this right and correct me if I'm wrong.

You are an amateur player who plays in an amateur orchestra and you have a conductor you are in love with, who spends a lot of his time leaping in the air, and the audience does not listen to the music, but spends its time trying to have photographic competitions to catch him ten feet in the air. And you have a rule book that you think applies to all musicians in all orchestras?

So you are an important expert in orchestral protocol? But you have never played in a professional orchestra with a professional conductor? But you regard youself as an expert in all things violinistic and orchestral?

I'm pleased to say I am very pleased I don't play in your orchestra. I'm afraid the invitation would be turned down.

February 11, 2011 at 10:18 PM ·

February 11, 2011 at 10:48 PM ·

@ Marina: I have not ever intended to play in a professional orchestra, but I do have played with only young top professionals in an orchestra, and in chamber music with very good professionals. in both, I have seen people practicing their own solos (and even so more in the pro orchestra) and I do play with amateurs in chamber (as much as i can) and orchestral (as little as i can).

You mention it yourself the problem: "where the egos are not so big", because this is what I think is the source of the problem-- a bunch of hurt egos that all at some points wanted to be soloists, but ended up doing orchestral stuff. and then, there are of course dedicated orchestral musicians. but blending these, can create quite some fire!

Regarding the office: as a scientist that sits most of my time in an office, I can say that we very often do our private things in front of others during working time, but since we all have a relaxed view, nobody gets bothered. we work in groups, but THE INDIVIDUAL is allowed to exist and people are in general not feeling failed or frustrated. that is why, perhaps we are rumored to have a lot of eccentric people, like Sheldon Cooper. We read comics very happily on the lunch table, we watch movies during evenings at our office, we come when we want, we go when we want from work.

The only thing that matters, is that we do the work, tasks and research we are supposed to do well and deliver good articles. (Which would be an equivalent of that one plays the orchestral part well according to the conductor.)

The rest, is not anybody else business. My colleague is singing in her opened office every day at 16.00. She sings well and has a beautiful voice. Nobody has ever commented anything about it.

I do not think your analogy is universal.

February 11, 2011 at 11:05 PM ·

Hi Bruce,

I see your point and it sounds reasonable. It might be valid in some fields of work. However, such an atmosphere would more remind me of the one in a factory rather than in an intellectual field, which is to me pretty unexpected.

I would although not agree on your analogy with the party, I would rather see it as one stands with a group of people (since an orchestra is a group of people), and somebody comes to the group and says "Hi guys" talks a bit and then says "oh, excuse me -- I just saw one of my friends" and walks away from you. And then, it gets much more natural and normal. And nothing wrong or unpleasant or rude about it. It is not personal, and should not hurt any egos.

February 12, 2011 at 12:42 AM ·

Lena -- fair enough. 

I'm using only examples of things I have seen or experienced myself.  Since I've never worked at any other kind of job, I don't know how "normal" people behave at work.  

I think orchestra life is a lot more rigidly structured than people realize, and the rules are mostly unwritten.  That might explain why some people get so upset when these "rules" are broken (as we can see from the way this thread has gone).

February 12, 2011 at 02:56 AM ·

Lena, I can only assume that there are cultural differences between where I live and where you live.  What may seem rude to you may not seem rude to me and vice versa.  I've said my opinion and my experience and that's all I can offer.  You still seem to believe that this rule was created by jealous egotistical musicians who hate when other people play well.  Not all of us are frustrated soloists who "can't make it," none of us are in fact.  Just as you quickly pointed out that I don't know what's going on in your work environment I can just as quickly point out that you don't know what's going on in mine.  I can't argue with you and tell you that what happens at your job is wrong or that the rules are silly or say how you conduct yourselves is unprofessional or not.  So kindly accept that I have given you an accurate description of what happens at my job and let's leave it at that.

February 12, 2011 at 03:25 AM ·

and hence why everyone should come over to the dark side and play viola ;)

Roland - "Follow the bass player. He's sober"...  LOL, that's a good one!

February 12, 2011 at 05:36 PM ·

Lena -- I've just GOT to love any thread into which a reference to Sheldon Cooper enters the mix!  :)

February 14, 2011 at 12:57 AM ·

Lisa, in your post to Peter, you said

"You have some strong opinions. You certainly don't keep them to yourself. Is it conceivable that you are making a mountain out of a molehill? You are extremely judgemental. Neither my Conductor, nor I, feel the need to explain ourselves to you. Who are you anyway?  I find your statements offensive and crass. I'm particuliarly happy that you do not play in my orchestra."

and then Peter defended himself and his point of view. With his credentials to back up his view. I totally agree with him, and think he was totally justified. "Who are you anyway" is a pretty personal attack, is it not? As Peter stated, he's a professional of 30+ years. And yes, things go on in professional orchestras that you'd probably disapprove of. Like me sitting with my legs crossed so I could rest my right wrist on my knee - it really does make tremolando so much easier! (only in rehearsal)

If you look at Peter's many posts on this forum, they are informed and witty. Yes - he has a very cynical view of conductors, but that's pretty justified as well. One orchestra I was in, we had a procession of pretty duff guest conductors. Then we spotted the link - they all had their own orchestra! So it was obviously arranged between our current (also duff) principal conductor and them - you come and conduct my orchestra, and in return, you invite me to conduct your orchestra. And because they were all equally bad, nobody's position was put under threat. Like the old theory - never book a dep. better than you are.


February 14, 2011 at 11:28 PM ·

Thanks for your support Malcolm. This is the first opportunity I've had to reply, and it's probably best if I don't comment on the reaction my posts had.

Of course we all know what goes on in orchestras and your description of the conductors and their return invitations happens a lot. I don't really think the public know just how badly some do not measure up. At the same time we know conductors who are pretty phenominal, but of course they are relatively rare.

A comment which will probably be disaproved of in certain quarters, made by one of the really great conductors when rehearsing a boys chorus for a performance of Mahlers 8th symphony was " you are such nice polite and hard working boys, but I want you to sing like football hooligans."

Yes, orchestras need their hooligans too, and that can be the difference between amateur and professional. But a lot of people won't understand that concept.

February 18, 2011 at 04:15 PM ·

I just submitted a blog post about my initial orchestra experience.  Look for "Orchestral Newbie Survives Day One".  Don't know how soon (or if?) it will be up.

Overall impression?  "Not for the faint-of-heart!"  (But I think I love it!)

February 19, 2011 at 01:37 PM ·

 OK, I'm late to this particular party, but lots of the scoop here was good.

The discussion about playing your own stuff during breaks kind of skirted the real issue -- which is, "don't be an arrogant jerk." 

I've heard it said there are two kinds of people:  those who come into a room and say "Here I am," and those who come into a room and say "there you are."  If you play quietly on breaks, without drawing attention to yourself, you don't come across as a "Here I am" person.  But totally eschewing playing in breaks might make you miss out on neat experiences.

In the last orchestra I played in, I got back to my seat early during a break.  I put on the mute and noodled around with a folk tune VERY softly.  I didn't think anyone could hear me.  The player right in front of me heard it, and started playing along softly.  Then the concertmaster heard it, and joined in from his chair.  Pretty soon, break was over.  In the meantime, we had made a musical connection outside the orchestra's mainline, that we all enjoyed.  I'm not sure anyone else even paid attention enough to notice.

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