Being a big fan of orchestras and the amazing sound produced by so many individual instruments in strict harmony with each other, the element that always fascinates me is the discipline and etiquette that is essential for a top performance. For instance, it is impossible to be a left handed string player. You will never see a violin, viola, cello, or any bowed instrument played left handed. Why? This is because all the bows must point in the same direction to avoid clashing. Aha, you never thought of that did you?
I recently spotted the lead violinist of a Symphony Orchestra break a string. In an instant, he swapped instruments with the violinist next to him leaving them to try to play with three strings only. Protocol/etiquette.
There are many reasons why the way a pop or rock band playing together is far removed from the classical musician’s style although many a guitarist, drummer or vocalist could learn a lot from some of the do’s and don’ts that I’ve assembled here.
Arrive in plenty of time, at least 15 minutes before rehearsals and learn your material thoroughly.
Be kind to your neighbouring musician at all times
Check with your stand partner that you’re both sitting comfortably and able to see the music clearly.
Watch the section leader carefully for bowings, length of notes, style of bowing, etc..
If you have a question, you ask the section leader and not raise your hand to pose questions to the conductor. If the leader of your section can’t answer your question he or she should pose the question to the conductor.
Be sure you can clearly see the conductor. Count the notes and bars carefully.
Listen, not just to your own part, but to everything else that is going on around you. Be respectful of other people’s space.
Don´t talk or whisper if the conductor is talking or rehearsing other sections and you´re not playing.
Play with confidence and don’t be ashamed of messing up, keep your cool and be aware of what’s going on.
Observe dynamics, i.e. soft or loud, especially extreme soft dynamics otherwise you might stick out and destroy the effect for the whole section.
It’s better to follow your section, even if your leader is wrong, than to strike out on your own if he or she has entered at the wrong spot. Hopefully you have a good leader who isn’t wrong very often, preferably, never.
No matter how tempted you may be to take your finger and “thump” on an instrument in the percussion section, don’t. In fact, refrain from walking through the percussion set up at all.
Keep your ears and eyes open and your mouth shut.
When the oboe plays 440 Hz at the beginning of rehearsal or after a break, stop what you are doing and be silent. He/she is setting the tuning tone. Tune only when it is your section’s turn to tune.
When you are done tuning sit quietly until all others are done.
Do not practice while others are tuning. Tune quietly and not loudly.
Begin by tuning your note of A until everyone has done so then proceed to tune the rest of your instrument.
Don’t practice loudly before rehearsal so that everyone can hear how great you are. Many will hate you immediately. Look over your part and practice softly instead of showing off or do some quiet warm-ups. Play scales, arpeggios, your part, or whatever you need to play to feel ready.
Don’t text or surf your phone (or any other electronic mobile device) when the conductor is working with another section. Instead, pay attention to what he/she is telling the other section.
Bring cough drops in case you or someone else has a coughing attack.
If you must choose between getting all the notes, or getting the beats, choose the beats.
If you have to completely fake a section, get the bowings in sync with your section at the very least.
Know which notes and exposed sections exist for your part and learn them to the best of your ability.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions.
Don’t be the loudest player in the group unless asked for.
Arrogance wins no friends. A pleasant attitude makes for a player that others want to have around.
Do not wear perfume/cologne, or at least limit the amount. Some people are allergic.
Make sure your case is properly stored.
Do not handle other people’s instruments unless they offer you.
Play with both your feet on the floor and never crossed.
Make sure that your violin/viola is not directly in the line of sight of your partner. They need to see the notes on the music sheet.
Try to always have your instrument in top condition, carrying an extra set of strings and be sure your bow hair is in good condition.
Keep your focus up by sleeping well the night before a performance, and eating right. Bananas are good for nerves if you get nervous before a concert, though if you don’t have a solo there’s not really much reason to feel nervous. Your colleagues are all there and you have nothing to fear if you know your parts inside out.
For women – be careful what kind of skirts you choose if you’re more comfortable sitting with your legs apart to play.
If you can’t play your part learn how to air-bow (i.e., look like you are playing when you’re not – when the going is too tough) because one person playing wrong is still heard under ten playing correctly.
Even some professional orchestral musicians fake things from time to time.
Last but not least, whether in a pop/rock/jazz band or a full orchestra, smile and have fun. The audience will always be responsive to a great attitude.