Pre-Concert Stage Etiquette

November 21, 2016 at 08:36 PM · I am a member of a string ensemble for adult beginners/restarters. At our concerts, one of our members plays on stage while the audience is filing in. She's only playing the challenging bits. When asked why she did that, the explanation was that the local community orchestra conductor required it when she played with them years ago.

Why would practicing on stage prior to a performance while the audience is gathering be appropriate? After all, we all warmed up in the green room and nobody else was playing on stage. I honestly don't have any experience outside of this group to compare the situation. What is the etiquette for pre-concert warm-up?

Replies (52)

November 21, 2016 at 09:25 PM · Odd.

November 21, 2016 at 11:13 PM · In my experience, it's pretty typical to warm up (quietly) onstage before the performance. The main exception would be if the orchestra is doing an European-style entrance (all walking out together), in which case often people will go out and warm up until the stage manager gives a signal to come backstage. That said, if the norm for your ensemble is to not play onstage, then don't play onstage.

November 21, 2016 at 11:27 PM · Almost all orchestras do. Especially violin section and sometimes the wind warm up on stage, some even practice. When I go to a concert, I actually get excited when they do that, in anticipation hearing great music, I guess.

November 21, 2016 at 11:46 PM · A bit of practice/warming on stage holds the audience's attention to a certain extent, and is an assurance to them that something is about to happen. From the other side of the rostrum an experienced musician warming up on stage will be able to assess the acoustic when the hall is filling (often different to rehearsing in an empty hall), and play accordingly.

November 21, 2016 at 11:46 PM · The current conductor (or leader if there is no conductor) should establish the rule for this group and all musicians should stick with it. It is weird to have only one person noodling before the concert.

November 22, 2016 at 12:36 AM · Warming up onstage is normal.

November 22, 2016 at 03:04 AM · Could be normal, but I do not like, neither as a performer nor a listener.

Can you imagine a choir doing the same on stage?

If one has not warmed up properly, those few minutes on stage will not make any difference whatsoever. I would rather have orchestra enter the stage once the audience is seated and supposedly ready to engage in listening.

November 22, 2016 at 03:28 AM · It's normal for every orchestra I've seen. I really enjoy it; builds up anticipation. All that wonderful noise!!

November 22, 2016 at 03:28 AM · It's normal for every orchestra I've seen. I really enjoy it; builds up anticipation. All that wonderful noise!!

November 22, 2016 at 03:41 AM · I used to listen to live concerts on radio. Remember those days? The radio announcer would be talking about the concert, the composer and music, sometimes interview with conductor or performer, with background sound of orchestra warming up. When it became quiet, we knew the light dimmed and the conductor was about to walk on stage. I can't imagine a concert has no on stage warm up.

Now, when I am on stage I don't warm up because I'm a wimp. It take some guts to do it ;)

November 22, 2016 at 04:10 AM · "Warming up" also applies to the instrument; stage lights can wreck havoc with an instrument not accustomed to the temperature.

However, with most orchestras I have played in, the convention has been to warm up QUIETLY--as in pianissimo--not by playing recognizeable passages from the program to come (particularly if it's more 'practicing' than warming up). I used to use the next week's/cycle's music, or something a chamber group was preparing, or if nothing called, quiet scales.

November 22, 2016 at 04:13 AM · I knew they warmed up and tuned back stage. When they came out and "warmed up" it seem that is what was expected so they did it as part of the show. I can see some advantages for section leaders to get their people to blend etc.

November 22, 2016 at 09:16 AM · Neither I like it. Neither pilots read the preflight checklist to the cabin radio.

November 22, 2016 at 01:10 PM · It seems to be a European thing to keep the stage clear until the whole orchestra is ready to go on and tune. I've never seen an American orchestra do that.

November 22, 2016 at 01:28 PM · I would prefer they don't warm up, but I concede it's considered normal. What seems weird is when they start sawing through some difficult part, as if they actually need to work on it. And if they need to work on it, does the 20 seconds they spend working on it on stage really help? Once when I went to see our regional orchestra I noticed they were all warming up in this manner except for ONE guy in the first violins who, I noticed, was playing slow scales. Also the brass section, thankfully, does not warm up on some high-volume blasting portion of their parts.

November 22, 2016 at 03:04 PM · We do the European entrance occasionally, usually at a gala or some other special event like that. I can see how it has an effect on the audience but personally I dislike it.

Even then, though, we are allowed to warm up on stage (and most do) until five minutes before concert time when we are required to leave the stage.

Warming up onstage is not practicing and it is not showing off. It is just that, warming up. Maybe playing through passages with tricky fingerings or an ill-timed page turn, but not blasting the audience, not playing concertos at full volume, in short, not being a jerk. We are not supposed to warm up backstage so where else would we? It's incredibly annoying to be backstage trying to unpack one's instrument, maybe ask the librarian a question or chat for a moment with a colleague if musicians are playing there too. Keep in mind it isn't just violinists; winds and brass players need to warm up too and do you really want a trumpet in your ear backstage?

November 22, 2016 at 03:19 PM · Practical point: it's good to warm up in the same space and temperature as the concert; backstage can be cold and draughty and detune our instruments.

November 24, 2016 at 01:33 PM · Especially cellos. Not sure about horns. Okay, Adrian's practical point wins me over. See? Internet discussions do actually change people's minds. But then, I'm not an alt-righter either. (Notice how there's no alt-left?)

November 24, 2016 at 02:31 PM · I've tried alt-left and alt-right on my computer but all they seem to do are slightly odd and indeterminate things to the display. Doesn't seem to have anything to do with concert etiquette.

November 24, 2016 at 07:34 PM · When I pressed alt-left it uploaded all my scores to IMSLP. When I pressed alt-right it brought up a firewall and e-mailed bills for it to everyone on my mailing list.

November 24, 2016 at 07:47 PM · Rocky wrote:

"Can you imagine a choir doing the same on stage?"

Come on, We are talking about musicians here ;)

November 25, 2016 at 12:45 AM · We have always warmed up on stage since I joined in 1987.The temperature ,humidity and lighting is totally different from backstage. Modesty and professionalism is always the order of the day so we warm up quietly and take one last look at the difficult passages,get the seat adjusted and make sure the music is in order.

November 25, 2016 at 09:42 PM · As a conductor, I will give you a simple answer.

It's COMPLETLY normal.


November 26, 2016 at 04:35 AM · I'm with the majority opinion that it's completely normal - and I've always liked that seemingly chaotic sound of an orchestra warming up!

Also, to amplify a bit on one of Mary Ellen's earlier points: what usually is NOT considered good etiquette is to warm up back stage. There, usually musicians, who are so often surrounded by sound - their own and that of others - appreciate some quiet, where they can chat with others, read, check their cell phones, do games and puzzles, rest - whatever. In that environment and context the most brilliant performance of a concerto comes off as insensitive show-boating. Having said that, I will admit to having done some of that kind of show-boating of my own on occasion. But it was usually in response to a friendly challenge or someone asking me to try their violin - and in an orchestra that I have played in for years. But even in this orchestra every gig and every place we play feels a little different - and I am sensitive to the feel of a situation. When I am a new kid on the block I am especially careful to get a sense of the culture and style of the orchestra at hand and am careful not to rock the boat.

November 26, 2016 at 06:36 AM · Raphael, I bet you played soloist part during warm up. Confess confess! I would be super tempted if I were as good as you are. I heard your recording.

November 26, 2016 at 07:37 AM · I heard of a visiting dignitary from some remote Arab land who was taken to a "western" symphony concert. Asked afterwards if he had enjoyed it he said that he "liked the piece the orchestra played before the man with the white stick came onto the stage."

November 26, 2016 at 01:20 PM · Yixi - thanks for the compliment! OK, I confess! I've been known to occasionally obnoxiously tear off a concerto passage or solo Bach excerpt. But when I go out on stage, after some preliminary warming up, more often than not, I look through some passages of the orchestra program that we're about to play. If I'm one of the first people on stage I usually keep it sotto voce. But once the brass start to come on stage and warm up, all bets are off!

David - that story reminds me of a scene from the old sit-com, "Taxi" where burned out but lovable "Jim Ignatowski" attends his first symphony concert and when the conductor comes out and stands before the orchestra he shouts "hey - down in front!"

November 26, 2016 at 04:24 PM · I've accompanied guitar concerti many times over the years. So what's the deal with guitarists? They sit there just doodling for a couple of minutes while everyone watches.

November 26, 2016 at 05:56 PM · And while on the subject of what happens before the man with the white stick arrives, what's the reason for that stupid ceremony where the oboist plays an "A" and then all those fiddlers start playing concerto passages at a sharper pitch ??

In retirement I was persuaded to fill in at my local amateur orchestra by taking up the oboe. I play an "A" carefully checked with one of those electronic devices, and, lo and behold, the pitch I give is totally ignored !

November 26, 2016 at 11:26 PM · Playing anything other than tuning notes while tuning is incredibly rude and unprofessional. I can't imagine anyone over the age of 12 actually doing this, but if someone in my orchestra were to do so, it would result in a reprimand.

November 26, 2016 at 11:59 PM · Or players that perform "tuning concerti" during the A.That is people who have not kept up proper maintenance on their pegs and keep tuning even as the conductor walks out on stage.No reason for that.

November 28, 2016 at 03:34 PM · Thanks to everyone who replied. It has certainly been enlightening! Sounds as if it is perfectly normal and expected. I wonder why no one else in the group does it?

November 28, 2016 at 03:49 PM · Tuning should just be a quick, fake show. There's no reason anyone shouldn't be tuned to 440 when they walk out on stage, unless the temperature is way high or low.

Has anyone experienced the "proving-they-still-have-it-but-really-don't-oboist"?

They're a special breed you occasionally encounter. Usually an emeritus prof, long retired from the U. but still playing in the orchestra. He or she has to demonstrate that they still have great lungs, and refuse to breathe between A's for the different sections. So by the time they get to the strings, the pitch has fallen a quarter tone.

November 28, 2016 at 04:56 PM · In the community orchestra I play with, there is no "green room" to speak of, and it has hardly enough room to even tune up, so the "stage" (a.k.a. gym floor) is the only place where one can warm up and revisit difficult passages to refresh muscle memory.

November 28, 2016 at 07:30 PM · Given the style of some modern music, there's not much difference between the orchestra warming up and the Overture to Glyxtbxit, by Rossamer Flmstarch.

At a rehearsal, Sir Thomas Beecham once asked the oboist to give an "A" so the orchestra could tune up. This particular oboist had a very wide vibrato. Beecham looked around at the orchestra and said, "Take your pick."


November 29, 2016 at 12:20 PM · I don't know enough about the oboe to understand why this should be, but I have experienced this innumerable times: that while they usually have an electronic tuner on their stand (to show them when they have centered on 440 or whatever pitch was decided upon), many oboists just don't give the same A twice in a row. I wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea at an oboe audition (among the usual excerpts etc.) to ask candidates to do just that - give two identical A's in a row.

When the concertmaster asks the 1st oboist to give the A, typically an orchestra gets 2 A's - first for the winds and brass, and when they are finished, a 2nd A for the strings. To make this clear, a CM will sometimes hold up 2 fingers as if to say say "remember, we're taking 2 A's." Some orchestras sub-divide further. Almost inevitably, in my experience, there are a few string players who will start to tune during the winds and brass turn. Then if they are gently reprimanded by a look or gesture from the CM, they act genuinely surprised, as if to say "oh, I wasn't supposed to tune now? I didn't know!". Then, when it's the strings' turn it's not unusual for a fiddler or two to try to get in a few bars of a concerto, but it's also not unusual for a ww or brass player to keep playing during the strings' turn.

With all of the above I often wonder how helpful it really is, for the orchestra's collective intonation or anything else, to have two or more A's.

November 29, 2016 at 01:16 PM · In a couple of orchestras I deputise with it is the custom for their w/w and brass to tune to a B-flat provided by the oboe, before the strings get put through their paces on A (the lower and upper strings are attended to separately). I don't know why they do this, and as a deputy it is not my place to ask, but personally, I find this tuning protocol a little confusing, especially as I always pre-tune to A440 with my tuning fork.

November 29, 2016 at 02:38 PM · This thread is hilarious.

I actually like the warming-up and tuning sounds, provided no one is concertizing. Living so close to IU, though, you do occasionally run across the new conservatory student who hasn't quite realized it's no longer cool to rip through Tchaikovsky as a "warm-up."

November 29, 2016 at 03:29 PM · I'm a serious amateur violinist. In my local orchestra woodwind and brass go on around 10-15 minutes before the start to warm up. Strings then go on 5 minutes before the start and the co-leader (I think first assistant concertmaster outside of the uk?) tunes us up in stages and then conductor comes on and we get on with the performance.

Strings don't do any warming up and we wait for the cue to go on stage which is usually given by the leader who comes onstage once tuning is complete and just before the conductor appears.

I like it this way. I like to take in the noise of the audience chatting and admiring the other sections warming up. I also use the time to mentally prepare which I find very useful!

November 29, 2016 at 03:29 PM · I'm a serious amateur violinist. In my local orchestra woodwind and brass go on around 10-15 minutes before the start to warm up. Strings then go on 5 minutes before the start and the co-leader (I think first assistant concertmaster outside of the uk?) tunes us up in stages and then conductor comes on and we get on with the performance.

Strings don't do any warming up and we wait for the cue to go on stage which is usually given by the leader who comes onstage once tuning is complete and just before the conductor appears.

I like it this way. I like to take in the noise of the audience chatting and admiring the other sections warming up. I also use the time to mentally prepare which I find very useful!

November 29, 2016 at 03:38 PM · Trevor, just wondering if these are community or professional orchestras that give the winds a Bb for tuning? In the U.S., the only orchestras I have ever heard give a separate Bb for the winds/brass followed by an A for the strings are student orchestras and usually only middle school at that. The better high school orchestras, and certainly all orchestras by university age, have everyone tune to the A. The division of lower/upper string tuning also makes me think of student orchestras.

Incidentally, not all orchestras tune to A = 440. We tune to A = 442 as do some other professional orchestras. I don't like it at all but that's a topic for another post.

November 29, 2016 at 05:49 PM · I don't know why brass like to tune to a Bb. It's not as though they are all Bb instruments. What about trumpets in C? I was CM of a small orchestra for a number of years just for the Christmas season. A few times the brass asked if they could tune to a Bb. I felt it was no hair off my bow (- yes, that's my expression but feel free to spread the word! -) so I said OK. But the conductor didn't like it and told them to cut it out. The main culprit was the conductor's son!

November 29, 2016 at 10:47 PM · Mary, you've probably identified the reason. The two orchestras I mentioned are community orchestras, but not quite at the top end of the scale. However, there are other community orchestras of which I am a full member, each having a number of retired pros in its ranks and a professional conductor, and all tune to A440 - no time wasting with B-flat tuning for the w/w and brass!

November 30, 2016 at 04:24 AM · In my community orchestra, it is generally assumed that people who came early to the rehearsal will have tuned up, but enough people will have walked in close enough to start time that the A is genuinely necessary. I may ask (as the CM) for as many as four As (winds, brass, low strings, upper strings) when we're doing some big orchestral work with an expanded orchestra. My conductor also expects me to listen for anyone who stops tuning when they're still out of tune, and to call for another A for that section if need be.

Concerts, we do two As (winds/brass, strings), but that's mostly pro forma -- everyone is expected to have tuned backstage.

November 30, 2016 at 06:13 PM · Many years ago as a student, I attended a concert in the New York area by a major visiting orchestra - I want to say Minnesota but I won't swear to it. It started out normally with musicians evidently drifting in on stage and beginning to warm up. As more people came on stage you heard the din get louder. Then suddenly it stopped because the concertmaster evidently came on stage and the orchestra started to tune. Then it got quiet.

Why do I say "evidently" and "heard"? Because you couldn't see! Up to that point the curtain was drawn closed. It only opened moments before the conductor walked on stage. The curtain was suddenly drawn open and you were presented with the spectacle of the entire orchestra. I must say that it was a very impressive effect which I never saw before or since. Of course, many halls don't have such a curtain so it's a moot point. Anyone else ever see this?

December 1, 2016 at 10:58 AM · Interesting point about the curtain. I don't think I have ever played in a venue with a curtain and have never been to a concert where a curtain has been used prior to the start!

From an audience perspective did you like not being able to see the orchestra until the conductor appeared?

In my opinion I think I would prefer to see the performers rather than have them hidden away until the advertised start time. Seeing them tuning, chatting to colleagues or generally noodling is all part of the experience.

If this were to happen when I was performing I imagine it wouldn't particularly bother me and I'd just get on with the job of delivering a top notch performance as always.

December 1, 2016 at 12:31 PM · I've played on a theatre stage a couple of times, although the curtains were kept open all the time. However, the consensus of orchestral opinion on the night was that the curtains and other hangings round the stage wrecked the acoustics.

December 1, 2016 at 12:39 PM · This was a great many years ago. But as I recall, I felt intrigued. Definitely, when he curtains were drawn open to suddenly - visually if not sound-wise - reveal the whole orchestra, it had a dramatic impact. It was like HAZA!!! Here is the orchestra, a great presence on the stage, rather than visually being built up piecemeal.

December 2, 2016 at 11:40 AM · Big changes since I began playing in professional orchestras in 1965. Back then, a great many people smoked. One conductor of our band, (who later died of lung cancer), would proclaim a cigarette break several times during the final rehearsal. When the concert began the platform would be littered with squashed fag-ends (or butts, I think they are called in the USA).

I retired from this job some 16 years ago and have not attended any symphony concerts recently. I imagine that before and after the ridiculous tuning ceremony players will be taking selfies, posting on social media, or texting furiously these days.

Regarding tuning, and the English conductor Sir Henry Wood:- "Another feature of Wood's conducting was his insistence on accurate tuning; before each rehearsal and concert he would check the instrument of each member of the woodwind and string sections against a tuning fork". This was done off-stage.

The fault with this procedure was that players would hand their "tuned" instrument to the next person in line Sir H.W. was checking the same violin, viola or whatever again and again !!

December 2, 2016 at 03:09 PM · We are not permitted to have cell phones onstage. No selfies or texting. Holy moly.

I've heard that story about Sir Henry Wood and the tuning, though I heard it as only a one-time event and the instrument in question was a cello.

December 2, 2016 at 04:29 PM · Years ago I heard a story (and I'm not sure if it's true or that I got it right) that Fritz Reiner (who was famous for giving a very small and non-demonstrable beat) was having a rehearsal of the Chicago Symphony and noticed a telescope on the music stand of one of the violists in the front. He asked what it was for, and the musician replied, "I'm following your beat." The way I heard it, the guy was fired immediately.



December 2, 2016 at 07:55 PM · I am of the "love to enter a concert hall, pre-concert, to the strains of musicians onstage quietly warming up" camp. I agree that it adds a certainly level of excitement and pleasurable anticipation to me as an audience member.

David Beck, this is hilarious! : " [...] Asked afterwards if he had enjoyed it he said that he "liked the piece the orchestra played before the man with the white stick came onto the stage."

LOL! : )

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