Who do you think you’re fooling?

December 31, 2011 at 10:15 PM · I was just wondering about what truly outlandish things you have witnessed in the world of music. We already have the “Crazy things done by conductors” discussion so maybe give them a break.

In fifth and sixth grade (c 1963-1965) I was a beginning coronet player and had a love affair with music going back many years before that. We were lucky, the Kingsvile, Texas school system was always bringing wonderful performances to town for the elementary schools. One of the big events each year was the San Antonio Symphony. A bus would take us to the Former A&I University (Now Texas A&M at Kingsville) and we would get a really nice concert.

Being in love with the instruments I paid really close attention to everything that was going on. One of those years I would periodically hear a mistake and see one of the string bass players look condemningly at the bass player next to him. After a while it became obvious to me that the person making the mistakes was the person looking at the other player.

This did not really teach me proper music etiquette, but I did learn something of human nature. I wonder if he really thought he was fooling anyone and I wonder what he would think knowing almost fifty years later he hasn’t been forgotten.

How about you, any “interesting” musician stories to tell?

Replies (24)

December 31, 2011 at 11:10 PM · A good friend of mine used to play flute in a small rural school in the Ozarks. She recalls sitting next to a girl who never even made an effort at learning to play the flute. During concerts, she flapped her fingers in random formations as fast as she could and just blew really, really hard.

January 1, 2012 at 12:35 AM · I don't know if this really counts but sometimes when I have to play things that stretch my left hand, my middle finger sticks straight up. It doesn't happen constantly but on the occasions that it does I've been told "if it's in tune and you're making it work, go with it, at least it doesn't happen often". I have attempted to make it curve over so I don't offend anyone, but there are times when I simply have no choice. I had a lesson recently on the Joachim cadenza and there are a few chords that cause this phenomenon to spring into formation. I turned away from him during that part and he asked me why. When I told him that I really didn't want to flip him the middle finger he thought it was funny.

January 1, 2012 at 01:03 AM · Michael, maybe you need to carry a card with a disclaimer similar to the one in

Lorraine and Gregory Irwin’s “Finger Fitness, The Art of Finger Control”:

”. . . we do not feel that social gestures should restrict the smooth flow of these exercises. Therefore, none of the positions . . . are meant to have any social meaning.”


Pat T.

January 1, 2012 at 02:14 AM · A reasonably good amateur orchestra I was in some years ago had the auditioning policy of inviting an applicant to play alongside the the section leader for the first half of a rehearsal where the leader would unobtrusively assess them, backed up by assessment by the conductor and other principals. During the break the section leaders and the conductor would have a talk among themselves and make a decision which would then be passed on to the applicant there and then. A successful applicant would then be allocated a chair somewhere in the section. All fairly standard stuff for an amateur adult orchestra.

On the particular occasion I have in mind a lady in her early forties or thereabouts was being auditioned in the first desk of the seconds. I understood her to have said she was a little out of practice because she hadn't played for a while. What I saw from my vantage point in the cello section was a player who sat frozen in front of the music for the best part of an hour, hardly moving her bow and fingers during that time, and certainly not making any sound. If you've ever seen a "living statue" street performer, it was a bit like that.

During the break the conductor and section leader immediately had a quiet talk with the lady, who was evidently a little distressed, and it transpired that what she had said was correct: she indeed hadn't played "for a while", but that "while" had lasted about 30 years, going back to when she was 12, and she had had only 6 months of lessons then. Kind words were said, tea and biscuits provided, and she was advised to start lessons again and after a couple of years perhaps join one of the less demanding "returner" orchestras where she would doubtless feel much happier and be able to make a satisfying contribution.

A sad little story in its way, but I would like to think she took the advice and is now happily playing in an orchestra somewhere.

January 1, 2012 at 06:06 AM · You'd be surprised how many students "shadow-bow" their parts in school orchestras.

January 1, 2012 at 08:42 AM · .. or play a computer game, instead of violin, in the back of the violin section ..

January 1, 2012 at 10:49 AM · "You'd be surprised how many students "shadow-bow" their parts in school orchestras"


You'd be surprised how many professionals "shadow-bow" their parts in professional orchestras.

January 1, 2012 at 02:17 PM · like this ? the best "shadow-bow" LOL

January 1, 2012 at 03:00 PM · Decades ago, I joined a rather decent community orchestra a week before their concert, so I had only one rehearsal. There was a Beethoven piano concerto and the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto, and the soloists were (then) teen-age brothers, who were both excellent.

I was in the last stand of the 1st violin section. I had played the Beethoven before, and was familiar with the music. But I had never played the Saint-Saens, but fortunately I was a pretty good sight reader and was well familiar with this piece too, and had no problem in the rehearsal.

HOWEVER, the last piece on the program was the 1812 Overture. And (as you may have noticed) Tchaikovsky was not very kind to violinists. Although I was of course familiar with the piece, the music looked to me like wallpaper, and sight-reading it at my level was truly out of the question. To make matters worse, I wasn't allowed to take the music home to practice, and these were the days before the Internet and even readily available photocopying.

What was I to do? I spent the week in a panic. But the night of the concert, the way the orchestra was set up, I was (at the back of the 1st violin section) sitting right smack in front of a percussion section big enough to win a war. You couldn't hear someone screaming right next to you, let alone your own violin.

And so, I confidently and proudly faked my way through the 1812 Overture. God only knows what I sounded like, but DID I EVER LOOK GOOD !!!!!

Happy New Year to all.



January 1, 2012 at 04:59 PM · Wow, I see this "phenomenon" also happens in the upper levels? Do you mean Berliner Philharmoniker level players or local symphony orchestra players?

January 1, 2012 at 05:09 PM · Well, it can happen even in the best orchestras, but I woud say more so in the provincial orchestras and in some part time or occasional professional orchestras. I wouldn't say it was widespread - but it's there to some degree.

Certainly in Britain there are not enough good players to fill all the sections, so the orchestras are forced to take on some that are not, let's say, of the best quality. But things are probably improving because of less jobs available and an influx, perhaps temporary, of some foreign players.

January 1, 2012 at 06:03 PM · This is another wonderful discussion, I'm glad somebody started it.

To tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, "professional" orchestras are full of dead souls who pretend to be playing but no real sound comes from their instruments. Take for example the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra - as soon as the principals take off their bows (sometimes done for the sheer fun of it), the section drops into abyss and what is heard is some indescribable noise. But boy, do they all look great on TV! Such expressions, such grace!

January 1, 2012 at 06:56 PM · Great topic!

I'm willing to poke fun at myself a little bit. For years I had the bad habit when playing in symphony of stopping if my fingers got "tangled" up in the notes and then starting again. Well, every time I had to stop and everybody else kept playing, I pretended my violin had gone out of tune and would loudly pluck my E string with my LH like it was my violins fault.

Of course, I was fooling nobody and I might have continued doing this for years except for a conductor who called me on it in the middle of a rehearsal and said if my strings were going out that bad - maybe I needed a new violin. It wasn't long after that comment that I decided to break that habit. Embarrassing!! :-)

January 2, 2012 at 12:49 PM · Just before Christmas I was in a 20-piece orchestra for two back-to-back carol concerts in a large church. Each player was individually mic'd (we each had our individual sound checks), there were 6 mics covering the 16-strong choir, mics for soloists and speakers, and behind the orchestra the church's in-house rock band with its own PA (we played along with them for one piece). In addition to all that there were CCTV cameras covering the stage and projecting the images live onto 3 screens back in the church.

So, no place to hide - for anyone!

The music wasn't just straight-forward carols, either; there were a few non-trivial pieces by composers such as John Rutter to get to grips with on just one rehearsal.

Anyway, it was great fun and we were all fed and watered really well between the rehearsal and the concerts, and in the break between the concerts.

January 2, 2012 at 05:17 PM · Mariam, I know what you mean. Occasionally in amateur orchestra rehearsals I've known the conductor to tell the first desk of a section to stop playing. The results were nearly always like what you described, but sometimes there would be someone who would be coming through strongly and accurately and effectively holding the depleted section together. That person would be noted as potential first desk material for one section or the other.

Another rehearsal ploy I've known conductors to use was to invert the order of the desks so that the first was last and the last first. Again the results were dramatic, but not quite to the extent of the first desk dropping out, and you'd see some very worried looks on faces.

Yet another ploy, this time to strengthen the sound of a large section, happened to me some years ago when I was deputy principal of a 7-desk cello section (too large imo, but that's a community SO for you). The conductor and those of us up front were concerned at the asynchronous chthonic sounds coming from the back end, so I was asked to move to outside 4th desk, in effect acting as a mirror leader they could see and hear. I can't say I really enjoyed it (it was hard work), but it did improve matters.

January 2, 2012 at 05:26 PM · "I'm willing to poke fun at myself a little bit. For years I had the bad habit when playing in symphony of stopping if my fingers got "tangled" up in the notes and then starting again. Well, every time I had to stop and everybody else kept playing, I pretended my violin had gone out of tune and would loudly pluck my E string with my LH like it was my violins fault.

Of course, I was fooling nobody and I might have continued doing this for years except for a conductor who called me on it in the middle of a rehearsal and said if my strings were going out that bad - maybe I needed a new violin. It wasn't long after that comment that I decided to break that habit. Embarrassing!! :-)"

Bev - I have to say that if you were sitting near me in whatever orchestra, or string quartet say, and you did that more than twice then I would be bawling you out and saying that that sort of behaviour is annoying and not acceptable. It's bad enough having to sit through what are often tedious rehearsals with sometimes unmusical and incompetent conductors, but that sort of thing only makes matters worse.

Rather than doing that you should be trying to work out why your fingers were getting tangled. Sounds like a technical or reading problem.

January 2, 2012 at 06:24 PM · You know Peter, this thread is for having fun. Not for you to insert some self-righteous comment about how you would bawl someone out if they had the nerve to make a mistake in front of you.

I make no apology for my comments to you. I am proud to look back over my musical life and see how far I've come, and have a sense of humor about it. Perhaps you might try a little humor as well - it might shake up your world a bit.

January 2, 2012 at 06:45 PM · I think its you who needs the humour and maybe learn a few manners too. Your orchestral ettiquette is enough to get you sacked from any decent orchestra.

If you want some humour look at some of my other posts.

January 3, 2012 at 01:08 AM · Thank you very much Peter. Your reply to me, and about me, made my point about you better than I ever could.

By the way, I have read many of your other posts and quite frankly, I've been appalled at the some of the things you've said to people about questions or concerns they've been looking for help with. The way you come down on people it seems like you think you are Heifetz or something. Perhaps you might try and ease up on your harsh words? Kindness and carefully phrased criticism will take you a lot further than your current approach.

But I don't expect for moment that you would even consider the words of a musical "loser" (your implication, not mine) who had the nerve to try and cover her mistakes 19 years ago in high-school. Those days were fun, filled with mistakes and lessons learned, and most importantly for this discussion, the time to develop a thick skin and a sense of humor when it comes to dealing with other musicians.

It was fun sparring with you while it lasted. But, for my part, I think it should end now.

Take care of yourself, Peter.

January 3, 2012 at 02:12 PM · Dear Trevor, just a few points I'd like to make. The rotation of the players is in itself not a bad idea but there is also a maybe not so common belief the back of a section should be just as good (or better if possible) as the leading wing. Ask some military experts and they will probably agree :-)

The problem is when it happens in professional orchestras where people get PAID for occupying chairs, flailing their arms and basking in lime-lights. The Thailand Phil I was talking about likes to pretend to be a professional orchestra but in reality it's anything but. (Watch my blog, I'm preparing a big pamphlet on their wondrous existence).

Then there was one funny moment with another local orchestra when we played with the amazing Barry Douglas. Beethoven's 1st Piano Concerto, One section in the 1st violins, something a bit tricky but by no means unplayable... The section including the concertmaster just drops, Barry looks at us from his piano amazed and last stand (that's us) plays solo until the dangerous waters pass.

Life is surely worth living for moments like this! 

January 3, 2012 at 03:49 PM · Remember that first Beethoven piano concerto well, whenever it is played on the radio. The University orchestra of Rotterdam played this in the mid seventies and us in the first violin section are supposed to start those 16th runs just off the beat, after the opening chords. Great fun for an amateur orchestra. The conductor managed to get it reasonably together at the dress rehearsal, but that was probably a bad sign. Maybe we should have all dropped out and let the concertmaster play it.

January 4, 2012 at 09:58 PM · Peter said :

You'd be surprised how many professionals "shadow-bow" their parts in professional orchestras.

A conductor we had once for Viennese concerts was also an accomplished violinist. He told a lovely story about his student days - his teacher was in the Vienna Phil, and one day they needed a dep, so he told the student - "You're playing".

"Maestro - I couldn't".

"If you do not play, I will never teach you again"

So he played.

Was totally lost - on the desk in front, his teacher was really going for it, so he leaned forward and whispered

"Where are we?"

"Haven't a clue" came the reply.

Sometimes, looking at orchestra lists, I've seen people playing that I know - I'll be polite and say they're not very wonderful. But they can talk the talk.

On one occasion, I was sitting on the front desk. Just sitting up - the post was vacant. Saw this colleague (a dep) chatting up the leader at a party. Next week, we were doing Siegfried Idyll, and the conductor decided to do it with just the front desks. I like to think that was thinking I'd be there. Just before the first rehearsal, the leader told me "X will be on the front desk this week. He's doing a trial" (No audition, no advertising etc.) Luckily, at the end of the week, the conductor (a regular guest) went to the leader and said "He's on trial? How can I give an opinion on him. I haven't heard him all week. Have you heard him?" End of trial. I heard on the grapevine that he went back to London and rang round the orchestras telling them "I've been doing sub-leader of ... What can you offer me?"

Probably works because I doubt if anyone's ever heard him make a mistake.

January 4, 2012 at 11:34 PM · Responding to a much earlier post, I find it odd that someone can rip you apart and can then conclude by imploring you to take care of yourself!! I sense some possible insincerity when I read that.

January 4, 2012 at 11:38 PM · Malcolm - now that does remind me of something similar!! Need I say more?

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