Wednesday, October 29, 2008

#53 Orchestra etiquette for the pianist.

Pianists aren't generally accustomed to playing in an orchestra. It is a small community in itself, with rules designed to prevent excessive loss of rehearsal time and a strict hierarchy. Here are a few simple tips about how to act when you are called to play with an orchestra, either as a soloist, or as a line musician:

- Not everyone is allowed to speak out with opinions or questions. Generally, only the conductor is at liberty to speak at all times. Not all musicians are allowed to address the conductor in the middle of rehearsal. If you are the soloist, speak directly to the conductor, and avoid disagreements in front of the orchestra. All matters of interpretation should be done in a private rehearsal between conductor and soloist, and if absolutely necessary, in a lowered voice directly to the conductor during a pause in rehearsal. If you are playing as part of the percussion section address your questions to the percussion principal, usually playing timpani--- he is the one that handles the percussionist distribution and charts. If you are set apart from the percussion then you may talk directly to the conductor, but only if strictly necessary. Opinions, and comments should all be done outside of rehearsal time, and not in all cases.

- As a soloist, usually the conductor will come backstage to take you to your seat and usually you will walk in front of him. Make sure to shake the concertmaster's hand before acknowledging applause and sitting down to play. Remember that, in some cases, you are required to play an A for the oboe, so the orchestra can tune. If you are not the soloist you must always stand up whenever the concertmaster stands, and you have to wait to sit down until he does. Sometimes after the piece, if you had an important solo, the conductor will make you a gesture to stand up and take a bow.

- Remember to always tell the orchestra librarian before taking a score with you or if you want to make a copy of the score. Never write with pen directly on the score and usually, the scores stay on the stand after you are done. Make sure you bring a couple of pencils to the rehearsal. Some orchestras will issue the parts directly to the musicians at the beginning of the concert season; take good care of them, they are not your property.

- You must always have your eyes either on the conductor or on your music. Resist looking at the audience, and never turn around to look at someone playing a solo.

- Counting measures is something pianists are not used to. Try and not count out loud, or with an audible beat. Also take time to write some cues into the music in case you lose count. If you have a hard entrance, make sure to have a look at the score, so you have an idea of what you should be listening to.

- Some more obvious things to remember are being on time, not talking during the rehearsal, and practicing your parts. Prepare for the performance as you would prepare any performance of your own.

Most other musicians have been playing in orchestras since they were children and have a somewhat instinctive grasp of what is right and what is wrong in regards to orchestra etiquette. As a pianist, try and follow along as a way of showing respect for your fellow musicians.


  1. I appreciated everything here. I did laugh however at the idea that one might take music from the library without asking permission from the orchestra librarian. It's probably a serious problem for orchestra's to lose music - but i thought that the only reason to compare scores would be notes that the orchestral director would write into his or the piano version. You'd then copy that into your own, right? And, take your own copy home? Who am i to know? I want to play with an orchestra! Where can i find one? Pottstown orchestra first - i hope! They have a woman conductor who might be very positive towards female pianists - and play the Leroy Anderson PC with me. (have to start practicing it again).

    OK. Ahmed - say you have your music learned, are on time, not talking during rehearsal, practicing your parts, and have a memory slip and cannot get back into the swing. Does the orchestra stop at some point - or do you just wait it out and hope you remember the next page cue or the next movement (pause). Should you look like you are perfectly fine sitting it out - or should you have a look of 'it's all your fault, orchestra - you played too fast and made me mess up.' Maybe walk out really burned up and then reenter for the next movement? I have no idea what i'm 'ranting' about excepting that in my 'ideal concert pianist world' - noone ever makes any mistakes. How is this possible unless one is superhuman. What if you DO make a mistake. IS this the most important point of whom you pick to work with as an orchestra and conductor? That they be nice and sort of ok with minor goofs. Not like the Chicago symphony and 'what's his name' that would tear into people who made mistakes and make them feel like they made the worst mistake of the entire world and should pay a fine afterwards.

  2. Turning around to look at someone playing a solo does sound a bit hilarious. I mean, what if you completely turned around on the bench (feet on the other side). Then, you'd have to pedal around really fast to get back to business. And, what then it was too late and another solo came up. Then, you'd have to pedal around to look again.

    You see, my neck won't turn so far now - so feet pedalling would be pretty much the way i'd do it if i was tempted. But, now i know it would not be a good idea.

  3. I actually did that too much when I started playing with the orchestra (I'm filling in for the local pianist, that had an accident). I kept looking around at the guys playing solos. Specially because the orchestral piano has such long stretches where you just sit around counting. Whole movements usually.

    My wife pointed out to me that it is considered extremely rude to do that.

    In my experience when playing as soloist, I've had good luck. I make a lot of mistakes in rehearsal, but as long as I keep an attitude of "this'll be perfect come concert day, no worries, no problem", I haven't had any problems with the conductors or the musicians. But don't act all panicky and nervous and apolegetic! line musicians can smell your fear, and they'll instantly change the way they play with you. Theres a certain demeanor you've got to have. When you play a concerto, you are the captain of the ship.

  4. Someday i want to be a 'captainess.' I like that feeling of command - second only to the conductor. It is a mutual working of the tempos, isn't it, so that the orchestra doesn't have to play too fast, and you don't either - unless you want to show off in a certain place. My greatest nightmare fear would be that it was only one notch above the speed that i was used to playing and there was a speed variation between me and the orchestra - and i'd be in a scalular passage and unable to catch up. Why is this such a fear, Ahmed? Do you always practice several speeds above what you plan to play? Just so you know you can?

  5. Definitely. But if I can't, I still just go for it until I land somewhere where I can play solo, and then I just take back my tempo and force them to go with it.

    When in doubt, a good orchestra will always follow the soloist, and not the conductor.