What orchestral habits drive you crazy?

Clarinettist Richie Hawley has a list.

And it’s not a short one.

Tick the behaviours that infuriate you most. Click here to read.

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  • I think it’s safe to say most people could come up with a list of 25 habits/behaviors/trends in their industries that annoy them frequently and actively. I don’t find anything on this list to be unusual, and some of them really do bear repeating again and again.

  • 26) Never, ever giggle, shake your head, or otherwise show disapproval when someone in the orchestra flubs a solo. When the conductor screws up, then it’s ok.

  • I would love to know maestro Hawley’s rules of how to remove stubborn problematic water from ones woodwind instrument effectively with out disturbing the music and or colleagues.

    Ideas…suggestions…go

    • In times of recurring water problems it may help to apply a water line on the bottom side of the bore (where you want the water to run down) before starting to play. One can use the weight of a pull through swab dipped in water for that purpose. In obstinate cases one could also add a drop of dish detergent to this water.
      If the water is always in the same tone hole(s), take down the keys as far as necessary to get there and clean the chimney of the hole. Don’t use pipe cleaners, because they tend to leave little fibres behind which will attract even more water. I use rolled up cigarette paper (with the glue strip removed). Coating the chimney or the octave valve lightly with oil or something water repellent (‘Anti Aqua’ fluid, silicone spray applied on cigarette paper, or Ballistol if you have it) may help further.
      In orchestra keep always a ready to use cigarette paper at hands.
      It is often a good possibility not to try to blow out the water, but to suck dry (or at least drier) outside air through the hole into the inside. For this you take off the respective part of the instrument, close with your fingers all tone holes except for the one you want to dry out plus one end of the inner bore, and suck in the air at the other end. This technique, if applicable, is more efficient and far less noisy than blowing under the key trying to aim into the affected hole.
      Good luck!

  • Another one (which I’ve actually seen several times):

    Women, leave your handbags in the dressing room. A handbag’s place is *not* on stage during a concert.

    Also: women, if every other woman in the orchestra is in a dress or gown, you look ridiculous in your tails (and pants).

    And a last one, especially for orchestras playing opera: we don’t care if you have nothing more to play for the next 40 minutes, do not get up and leave the pit during the performance. It is disturbing and rude.

    • “Women, leave your handbags in the dressing room. A handbag’s place is *not* on stage during a concert.”
      – Agree, as long as management is able to guarantee the safety of handbags backstage.

      “Also: women, if every other woman in the orchestra is in a dress or gown, you look ridiculous in your tails (and pants).”
      – Simple solution: let women wear what they want, as long as it’s dressy, black, and at least ankle length. Rest assured that every woman will NOT choose a dress or gown 🙂 and the mix will be agreeably heterogeneous.

      “And a last one, especially for orchestras playing opera: we don’t care if you have nothing more to play for the next 40 minutes, do not get up and leave the pit during the performance. It is disturbing and rude.”
      – Wow. Totally agree. Never heard of musicians actually doing this, but I believe it.

      • To add to which, at the end of an opera, please stay in the pit as if you were on stage. You can be seen, you know. Packing away, dusting down, shoving rags down sections of woodwind instruments, chatting away and then putting on coats, slinging violin cases on your shoulders and then all walking out, leaving one or two stragglers, and a bloke walking on to officiously collect the music up while on-stage soloists, chorus and actors are still receiving applause looks an utter mess, and gives an air of complete contempt for your musical colleagues on stage and the audience. Most of the time we’re talking about saving thirty seconds or a minute before the final curtain comes down, it really wouldn’t hurt anyone to wait out of courtesy, if nothing else.

        • Simple solution here is to get the orchestra to take a bow actually on the stage with the conductor after the soloists have done their bows, I’ve seen it happen and think it is an excellent opportunity to really applaud the hardest working group of the evening.
          Of course loads of reasons why this is not possible, health and safety rubbish etc, just sort it and do it!

          • LOL, it would be fun to try to get a whole opera orchestra out of the pit, through the backstage tunnels/stairs and out onto the stage before the applause died down 🙂 Not at all practical, but fun to think about.

            Acknowledgement from the stage/ conductor gesturing for us to stand is quite enough, thanks. Much less risk of sprained ankles and damaged instruments.

            The opera orchestra I played in for many years has a rule that musicians must stay in the pit until the applause is ended — as long as the clock has not expired. They own our time from 7:35 to 10:35 (and later if are were overtime periods scheduled for a longer show). If the show ends at, say, 10:34:45, musicians are “requested” to stay in the pit. (There is an official clock, to avoid any “but my watch says…” controversies.) I’m not aware of anybody ever leaving, although there were plenty of folks behind me that I couldn’t see.

          • Yes. Barenboim does that regularly when he thinks that the orchestral playing was of a specially high or at the last performance of a run.

      • Easy for you to say. You try the gruelling schedule of an opera orchestra musician, and get back to us. They are going to sound better with breaks and being able to leave before the endless ovations, rather than being stuck in the pit. Do you really want the trombones to sit through the whole 2nd act of Don GIovanni just so they can play the last 10 minutes, just because it distracts you (and isn’t that your problem, not theirs)?

    • As Bruce has said, handbags come onstage because management won’t assume responsibility for them if left backstage. Certainly, they should be moderately sized and dressy, but after my conductor husband had his wallet and keys lifted from his dressing room at a major hall during a performance some years ago, you can be sure I’m never leaving my smartphone plus debit card plus credit card backstage out of my immediate control. We’re not going to agree on the pants issue so I won’t waste my breath there.

      On departing from the pit during bows: I agree that this is awkward and ungracious to the audience. It comes from contractual language regarding when the performance is actually “over,” and therefore whether management is or isn’t liable for overtime pay to the orchestra. I have worked in orchestras where, at management’s insistence, the contract states that the performance ends following the sounding of the last note and the musicians are free to leave at that point, and therefore they are not liable for overtime if the curtain calls last beyond the contractual length of a performance call. I personally would advocate for OT being applicable only if the orchestra is still actively playing past the cutoff point, and being willing to give the audience the courtesy of staying in the pit for the bows, but if management has (for example) a long history of putting on productions that are scheduled to run only 30 seconds shy of standard call time assuming everything goes perfectly and then balking at paying OT when the show inevitably goes over, that’s going to be a hard sell to the orchestra. For the most part, seeing what you describe is an indication of musicians that feel disrespected by the administration; I agree that it’s unfortunate that the audience winds up paying the price.

      • I just remembered this one: it’s not a question of bringing some huge piece of luggage onstage that doesn’t belong there, but — my conductor had his wedding ring stolen from backstage during a concert. (He didn’t wear it because he didn’t want to risk it flying off; guess he thought it would be safe in his dressing room :\ )

      • Also, regarding staying onstage: there was a small flap with the Montreal Symphony a few years ago, where I believe the soloist (at the end of the concert) played an encore that went into overtime. Management didn’t want to pay the orchestra musicians overtime because they weren’t playing; musicians countered that they were still “at work” because they weren’t actually free to leave the stage. Don’t remember how it got resolved.

    • Wow, a lot of replies 🙂
      Let’s do this schematically…

      – having the orchestra greet on stage after an opera performance is extremely difficult; the set doesn’t always alow for a large group to get on there in an acceptable manner. Also, musicians are sadly enough more interested in packing their bags and get out as soon as possible, than in showing respect for the audience who largely pays their salaries…

      – the idea that “management” is responsible for your personal belongings is just prepostorous. You are the only person responsible of your own things. You can put a wallet or a ring or whatever in your pocket and take it on stage if you want, there is no need of bringing a complete handbag. Most venues who are used to having orchestras over also have cabinets to be used, and sometimes the orchestra’s stage hands reserve one of the flight cases to put in handbags etc, locking it during the performance. The management and the venue should help and support you in keeping your things safe, but it is still *your* responsability.

      – if you don’t want to sit through the 2nd Act of Don Giovanni to play 10 minutes, maybe you have chosen the wrong job… That’s like saying “I want to be a car technician, but I don’t want to get oil on my hands”.

      – about the planning: musicians should sometimes be a little more considerate about others before complaining; while they think it is “too much” to sit through a 4h performance, they forget that for example the singers are there in costume and make-up over two hours before the start, and they have to stay longer afterwards to get cleaned up. Management the same: when you have a 4h performance, they often work a 16h day. If you hear someone complain because they need to be present 3 or 4h, actually work only 10 minutes, and still get paid 3-4x more, that is very vexing. I know there is also the “home work” which is considerable, but many musicians have other jobs on top of their fulltime job at the orchestra. That is 100% their own choice, and they shouldn’t complain that they are tired or have not enough free time. They could always let go of one of their multiple jobs. But this is getting a bit off topic 🙂

        • I have played in an orchestra, but not professionally.
          For the past 11 years I have been working on the organisatorial and management sides though. And the problems I describe above are the things which annoy us the most. Especially the part where people complain they have to work “too much” and don’t have time for their 2nd and 3rd full-time jobs.

      • So let me make sure I’ve got this right: it’s the musician’s responsibility to keep her handbag safe, but she shouldn’t bring it onstage (which is the only location where she can fulfill her responsibility to keep it safe)?

        • They can leave it in the provided facilities, they can leave it in their car, they can also simply not bring any valuables.
          It is always easy to push off responsibility onto someone else… But that’s typically American. It makes me think of the cage and the microwave. Always blame someone else…

          As I said: any venue or orchestra management with a bit of self-respect will provide something. But that’s an act of kindness and/or professionalism. Not because they are responsible.

          • Tom, what “provided facilities” are you talking about? Perhaps lockers and such are available for some few full-time, large budget orchestras who play in their own halls, but at the US regional orchestra level, nothing like that exists. The only “provided facility” for my and my colleagues’ valuables is out in the open on a folding plastic table backstage, next to my case. As for the question of responsibility, if management requires me to leave valuables in an unsecured location, it jolly well is their responsibility if something happens to them. And if my female colleagues and I abide by your preference not to wear slacks onstage, there is zero chance of our having the pockets you blithely assume will be available for valuables.

  • No. 15: “Never ask questions about notes/rhythm during rehearsal – this wastes valuable rehearsal time. Check score during breaks or after rehearsal.”
    I wonder what ‘valuable rehearsal time’ is wasted if mistakes and inconsistencies are cleared up. The assumption that the full score is correct if single parts are faulty is more often wrong than right in my experience. So it is up to the conductor to decide on these matters, and quite often it is of interest to others as well, because they may have a similar mistake in their parts elsewhere. The poor editorial standards particularly of rental materials where the editors don’t have any competition never stops to amaze me. Even if the stuff has been played many times it is rather often still full of uncorrected mistakes. Perhaps because too many believe that verifying the text only wastes ‘valuable rehearsal time’? Luckily where I play this rule doesn’t exist, and conductors are usually quite appreciative of intelligent and sensible questions. If there is nothing unclear or doubtful, nobody will ask, of course.

    • I make it a habit of saving the really difficult questions for the last 10 minutes of the final rehearsal. 😉

    • It often happens that, upon asking the conductor about a possible error in the part, he is unable to provide an answer, particularly if one plays a transposing instrument. Perhaps this is why Mr. Hawley is loathe to waste time asking questions when he could check the score himself.

    • When a question is NOT asked as soon as possible and musicians continue playing what may be a wrong note or incorrect rhythm, it is then that rehearsal time is really wasted because this makes it more difficult to fix the error later.

  • One of my pet hates (among quite a few listed here) during over thirty years playing in symphony, opera, and ballet orchestras, is the conductor saying during a rehearsal, words to the effect of ‘Right, let’s take it from the top’ (beginning for the less initiated), WITHOUT giving a reason for going over the piece again. SO frustrating! Quite a number of my colleagues would mouth ‘WHY?’ in the ‘maestro’s’ direction, but more often than not they wouldn’t notice.

    • You do realize that every orchestra, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the West Memphis Community Youth Philharmonic, needs to go over great pieces of music more than once in order to create a truly great performance, right? The “ok, we read through it and it was more or less together and in tune, so why do we need to do any more?” attitude is one of the reasons halls are emptying out. Those kinds of performances(becoming more and more common) are just utterly boring. Unprepared and unrehearsed concerts may be “accurately” played when considering the sight-reading level some orchestras have achieved, but they are rarely more than that unless detailed, diligent, musically deep work by both conductor and musician is done. Notes and rhythms alone don’t cut it. The great orchestras know this, which is why most of them don’t mind rehearsing in great detail.

      • I think you missed Rugby’s point, of which I agree 100%. It’s not working on a piece again that’s irritating, it’s not knowing WHY that is irritating. What is it that the conductor didn’t like? What needs improving? Is it the balance? Is there a rhythm problem? What exactly needs to be different? There are many conductors who have no idea – it’s “good enough”. But they want to run the work again for themselves, either for fun or to practice their voodoo. That’s when it really gets upsetting. Just saying my take, from 40 years of sitting in orchestras.

        • I would imagine that after running through a piece(or movement) once, there are any number of things that need to be worked on. Would an orchestral player rather sit there while the conductor enumerates the 35 things they would like to work on and then start at the beginning to go through all of them? No, because then the conductor would be “talking too much.” I’m an orchestral player who has dabbled in conducting – having seen it from the other side I see that conductors are often placed in an impossible position. Now, with that said, there are conductors who don’t know what they want and just go to the beginning to fill time – I’m not denying that – but the general stereotype is so ingrained in orchestral players that it seems to create a sense of indignation even when a conductor stops once or twice to correct something that the offended player didn’t hear themselves. Having done it, I wish all orchestral players would take the baton in their hand for 1 rehearsal and see how easily and efficiently they manage it.

        • After a run-through, I always have a list in my head of things I want to do better next time. When the conductor says “from the top,” I start making plans.

          We get the usual chorus of eye-rolls and deep sighs when the conductor says “from the top” too, but usually what happens is that the conductor conducts differently the second time around instead of taking time to explain “I want to take a faster tempo, I want to make a bigger ritard here and a smaller one there, etc.” He might even use hand gestures to try to adjust balances without talking, but that never works.

    • There is a difference between a conductor who starts over from the beginning to attend to details missing in the first run-through, and one who starts over because he doesn’t know what else to do but must use his allotted rehearsal time.

    • Really good and intelligent conductors know that it is always better to explain at least a few main things they want to improve before repeating something during rehearsals. Some are even smart enough to make a few points before the very first run through. They know what they want in a piece that may be a little or a lot different from standard interpretations and so they warn musicians about those points in advance. It is always helpful because it saves rehearsal time and leads to better performances. Knowing all that, Yuri Temirkanov often followed his request of playing something again by intoning an ironic “WHY” in his low alcohol-enhanced bass voice, to which he would invariably reply himself even more ironically: “The concert is tomorrow, that’s why!”.

  • It may have been mentioned above, but to me there is nothing worse, whether as a performer or audience member than to see musicians grimace, shuffle music on their stand, fiddle with (or worse, put away) their instruments, etc. while the audience is applauding. It’s incredibly unprofessional, but many highly paid orchestral players are guilty of it. I think many musicians are either unaware of or forget how visible they are or simply don’t care.

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