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Orchestra Etiquette

Orchestra Etiquette

by Joanne Garcia

Whether you’re an adult beginner joining a community orchestra or the parent of a young child selected the first time for an All County or other regional orchestra, there are unwritten etiquette rules that should be adhered to in order to ensure a productive musical environment.  Parents of young musicians who are participating in a large orchestra for the first time might want to discuss proper behavior before they attend the rehearsal.  It is likely that your child will be very excited and may not really know what to expect.  Adult beginners who join a community orchestra for the first time may not be familiar with what is expected in an orchestra rehearsal.  Here’s a few tips and some of the rules, some obvious, and some not so much.

Understanding Hierarchy in an Orchestra

The conductor is in charge.  They run the rehearsal, oftentimes assign seats, and usually select or help select the music.  The concertmaster is second in line.  The concertmaster leads the first violin section, is responsible for the bowing, and tunes the orchestra.  There is usually an assistant concertmaster who will back up the concertmaster.  The other principals are responsible for their section and make decisions on bowings, how parts are divided and may have a say in the seating order.  If you have a question, you should ask your section principal.

Orchestra Rehearsal Etiquette

Arrive at least 15 minutes early to rehearsal.  You are expected to have a pencil and spare strings.  Many of the newer cases include a removable pouch that can be taken to orchestra to hold strings and rosin and a spare pencil.  If you play outside, take a pair of sunglasses and some clothespins to hold the music.  If you arrive early, there will be time for your instrument to acclimate.  You’ll have time to unpack, rosin your bow, check your instrument and be in your seat before the rehearsal begins.  Find your seat and introduce yourself to your stand partner.  If you are late, it can be difficult to navigate through a sea of seats, stands, instruments and people and you will disrupt the rehearsal.  If you are unavoidably late, sit in a chair at the back of your section.  If there isn’t one, stand. The conductor will see you and let you know how to proceed.

The Tuning Process

The concertmaster will stand and play an A in a strings only group or ask that the principal oboe player play an A if it is a full orchestra.  You should remain in your seat and sit quietly during tuning.  The principal oboe player is the leader of the winds section and will give the A for everyone to tune to.  Strings will tune last so wait your turn.  After the winds tune, the oboe plays the A again and the concertmaster will tune their A.  The rest of the strings will follow.  You should only play your A until it is in tune and stop.  Wait for the concertmaster to sit down and then tune your other strings.  After you’ve tuned, stop and wait.  Now is not the time to show how well you play a cadenza or an excerpt from a concerto.  Rehearsal is going to begin momentarily.

Orchestra Concert Etiquette

If you are sitting on the outside, that would be on the right if you are to the conductor’s left, usually the violins, or the left, if you are to the conductor’s right, usually the violas and cellos, you play the top part any time the part is divided.  This is indicated as ‘divisi’ in the music.  The inside person plays the bottom part and turns the pages. This is important as the outside part should keep playing through the page turns, it is less noticeable to the audience, and you won’t have a scroll collision. Sometimes there are more than two parts and your section leader will give you instructions on which part you or your stand will play.  Use your section leader as a resource, if you have a question about the bowing, ask them. 

Addressing Difficult Passages

If a passage is particularly difficult and you aren’t quite ready to play it, don’t.  Maybe you have two measures of sixteenth notes.  Choose the rhythm over the notes and play the first note of each beat.  Mark your part so you remember to review that at home.  One instrument playing something incorrectly rings clear over eight playing it correctly.

Conduct During Rehearsals

When the conductor stops, stop and listen for instructions.  Don’t stop playing and start talking.  If the conductor is rehearsing another section, look at your part and learn how it fits into theirs.  Don’t crane your neck backwards to stare at the flute player who might be struggling through a difficult section. 

Dress Code and Personal Conduct

Dress appropriately.  If you are a cellist and rehearsal is after work, ensure your outfit is suitable for the office and cello playing.  Parents of musicians, ensure your child is comfortably dressed for rehearsal.  It can become warm in an orchestra room.  Also, make sure you are aware of the concert attire, and that your child has clothes and shoes ahead of the concert date.

Respect other people’s property.  There is usually a break, especially if the rehearsal is long.  Some orchestras even serve refreshments and it’s a time to chat with other musicians, make some new friends!  However, remember that instruments are expensive and can easily be damaged. Do not leave your instrument on a chair or your bow on a stand.  Take it with you or pack it in its case during the break.  Also, walk carefully through the orchestra, do not touch anyone’s gear.  Leave the percussion equipment alone.  Don’t touch or tap xylophones, timpani, chimes or triangles. 

Mark your music during the rehearsal and practice the sections that give you trouble.  Set your goals and try to learn the music to the best of your ability.  You may have competed for this seat by being selected for All County and you’re representing your school.  Take your time, learn the music and ask your teacher for help.  Do not be afraid to ask questions.  It is important that you are prepared for rehearsals.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you will absorb. 

Playing in an orchestra is a rewarding experience.  You will meet new people, develop friendships, and get to play in concerts.  Once you’re a member of the local musical community, you’ll be surprised at how many people you will get to know.  Even the young musicians are networking and often have friends from other schools, other orchestras, and other towns.  Enjoy yourself and have a wonderful concert. 

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