Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Orchestral Etiquette -- An Uphill Battle Worth Fighting

Written by: Matt Lammers of Fein Violins

Having spent a summer and nine orchestral performances with the Brevard Music Center Orchestra this year, I was dropped headfirst into a culture of high standards and professional level playing. Eager to study orchestral playing technique and musicianship, I was not expecting to make any modifications to how I went about acting during and around rehearsals on a non-musical level. This, however, can come between a job and unemployment for even the most competent orchestral players. Getting on the wrong person's nerves--or your entire section for that matter--may have devastating consequences when tenure, or being hired in the first place, is on the line, and in a festival situation it can be what separates you from being an asset to the ensemble and the object of collective hatred. It seems to me that this is something worth paying attention to.

While a great deal of the do's and don't's are either intuitive or were told to us as we sat down in elementary school string orchestra, many of them require experience and the inside line to recognize, and are generally unnoticeable to the outsider. It would be an oversight to not mention these that are seemingly obvious, so here we go: don't eat during rehearsal, don't talk back to your conductor or principal, don't smell bad, know your part, don't talk during rehearsal, be on time (EARLY) to rehearsal, and turn the pages on time. With that out of the way it's time to dive into the finer points of playing in an orchestra that I noticed during my time with the faculty of the BMCO.

Etiquette pertaining to playing in a section:

  • As you warm up before rehearsal or a concert, stick to what you have to play in the next three hours. Your section mates will hate you incomparably before you've played note one of rehearsal, regardless of how much flawless skill or compelling artistry you exemplify in your Sibelius cadenza or latest Paganini Caprice. They probably do not care how well you'll play Don Juan for your next audition (although if it's on the program, go for it), and they will be insulted that you think your showboating is worthy of their time, attention, amazement, or that you should really be the concertmaster. Even if this isn't your goal, it will be interpreted as cavalier boasting. 
  • Leading from the back or middle of the section is something that goes on in all phenomenal orchestras. It must be done properly and unobtrusively. When done well it leads to unmistakable section cohesiveness, but when done erratically it leads to disastrous confusion among those sitting behind the culprit. Good back-of-the-section leading should aim to compensate for any phasing resulting from distance related sound lag and anticipate the concertmaster's moves to avoid the communication delay that occurs from an inability to see him/her from far behind. There are some general rules to follow that make for clear leading from the back. Sideways scroll swinging (appears as though one is trying to pull the section) comes off as an indication to push or pull back the tempo suddenly as if the section isn't following properly. It is also an instinctual way of showing musicality in many cases, so care should be taken when doing so with others behind you. Vertical motions have a more definite intent and clearly mark a beat, a good method of helping the rest of your section keep tabs on where the beat is from further forward. As a whole, however, excessive motion of any sort is usually counterproductive unless you're in the concertmaster seat. A flurry of erratic motions will cause your section to ignore you after some time and looks comedic to an audience. 
  • Something that can be irksome to many section players is your willingness to give others space. If you have that perfect, too-good-to-be-true window from the back to see the conductor, it probably is too good to be true. If you notice someone's bow running dangerously close to you or your stand partner, err on the side of compromise and scoot over a bit. Nothing bothers a musician more than the inferred conclusion that you think your playing is so much better than theirs that your comfort is more important than their ability to play at all. In addition, a common reaction to this is to become irate with the stage crew. They do not have time to measure out your wingspan between every chair, and taking up the issue with them makes you appear to be a whining excuse-monger. That said, if there is a noticeable problem with the section's spacing or placement as a whole, stage crew is the place to go. 
  • The concertmaster is boss of the orchestra while you're in motion. Staring at the conductor will do you little to no good; only attentiveness to the concertmaster will help section stability. Ultimately, the conductor is making no sound and does not contribute to ensemble, so attention should be paid where a difference is made: to the rest of your section and its leader. A competent concertmaster will interpret accurately what the conductor desires, so through the chain of command the conductor's input will be made regardless.
  • Lastly, you must be able to pass comments from the concertmaster through the section quickly and communicate clearly. Instead of trying to explain the direction to the stands behind and next to you, simply tilt your stand upward and point it out to them, no words necessary. The rest of the orchestra will be less bothered by your chatter this way, and any discrepancies resulting from the game of "telephone" will be avoided.
Etiquette pertaining to playing with a stand partner:
  •  Always do your best to arrive before your stand partner if you have had the music the night before. Nothing is more awkward than arriving to rehearsal appropriately early with no music in front of you to look at those passages you're not quite sure of yet. Putting your stand partner in this position makes them uncomfortable, less prepared for rehearsal than they were planning, and annoyed by you from the get-go.
  • Once you do arrive to rehearsal, be sure to warm up independently of your stand partner. Try not to warm up with the same scale at the same time or to mimic them as they work through a difficult passage. Some may view this as an arrogant move, and let's be honest, nobody wants to know that someone is listening to their warm-up. 
  • Another common faux pas can be stumbled into during those awkward pauses before tuning when the oboist isn't ready and the like. As compelling and relevant of a subject as it may be, wait until you are more familiar with your stand partner to ask them about their instrument. This can be a sensitive matter to many musicians, and your effort to generate polite jabber may be seen as an attempt to share how superior your instrument is to theirs.
  • If the instrument of an outside player fails during a performance, it is procedure for the inside player to give their instrument to the outside player for the rest of the performance, or until the repair can be made. 
  • A commonly overlooked aspect of performance takes place before the music begins and after it stops. It is easy for the outside player to get on the inside player's nerves while the orchestra stands during applause. If the outside player stands right next to his/her chair, arms spread wide, and legs six feet apart, it is very difficult to see the inside player trying to peek around the sprawled limbs. It is respectful for the outside player to step to one side, violin held in front with bow straight up or down, and feet together. This allows the inside player to step to the other side and find a window to the audience.
  • Sandwiched between these photogenic moments some music usually happens (unless you've accidentally purchased tickets to the John Cage concert featuring 4'33''). Despite the brainpower devoted to making sure fingers land in the right places, there are many opportunities to rub the remaining 5% of your stand partner's attention the wrong way. Do your best to keep your eyes glued to the music or your section mates in front of you. It can be tempting to watch the demigod trumpet player fly through the Petrouchka solo, however it is often bothersome to wind players having the entire string section staring at them in expectation, especially if you find yourself in their peripherals. The same rule of thumb applies to your stand partner. While playing with them in a chamber music manner is essential, angling your body towards them and staring them down will generally make them feel uneasy and on-the-spot. This will wear thin with time. When communicating musically with them, slight body motions and the occasional lean-in will do the trick. 
  • The marking of parts is the #2 leading cause of stand partner tension. Responsibility to write in the part defaults to the inside player during rehearsal, however the outside player should feel free to do so as well, especially if the inside player happens to be juggling their instrument, the music falling off the stand, finding the correct piece, and moving their chair. When it comes to bowings, be as generous as you must. Bowings may clutter the part slightly, but in a hairy passage bowings can only help. In addition, mark EVERYTHING the concertmaster passes back. If you forget to do these, you and your stand partner will look inattentive and lazy. Fingerings, however, are where most orchestral musicians prefer to avoid clutter. As a rule of thumb, the inside player writes fingerings below the staff, and the outside player above to stay out of each other's way. Despite this effort, a number over or under every single note on the page is distracting (for both your stand partner and the librarian who has to erase them). A fingering above the note before and after a shift is usually acceptable and understandable, and amidst an especially technical passage more clarification fingerings won't yank your stand partner's chain either. It is often appreciated if the player not writing in the part holds the stand steady while the other writes. 
  • Last, but certainly not least (and possibly even most), page turning. The most common cause of a strained relationship between stand partners is an inside player who doesn't turn pages to the liking of the outside player. There is, however, some general etiquette to follow that will start you out on the right foot with your stand partner. 1) The inside player is the default page turner. If the inside player is unable to turn it for whatever reason (divisi, etc.), it is not out of line for the outside player to do so; 2) make sure to turn the page a bar or so before the music on the page runs out. Most musicians read ahead a bar or two, so turning the page "on time" would actually be behind your partner's eyes; 3) try to grab the page at the top corner. Many times an arm at the bottom of the page obscures what your partner is trying to read; 4) keep your bow in your violin hand to the side so as to not jam it into your stand partner's face; 5) before playing, ensure that your pencil is in front of the left page so it will not fly off the stand when turning the page forward; 6) when in doubt, ask your stand partner in passing if they prefer the page turned any particular way. This does not need to be a formal conversation akin to negotiating for the purchase of a new instrument. 
While being a constructive member of an orchestra appears to be a daunting task, getting into the routine of being a good section player is easy once good habits are established. Common sense will usually do the trick, but always keeping an eye open for subtle criticisms from your peers and constantly evaluating your habits will keep you in the clear.

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1 comment:

  1. Matt, nice list of unwritten orchestra rehearsal rules that were in place way back in the 1970's at Brevard, good to know that the highest standards of performance and rehearsal still prevail with the BMC Orchestra. Summer of 1977, 78 and 79 cellist