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Ensemble Etiquette: What Not to Do

Recently, I sent out a poll to my musician friends asking them to rank a list of ensemble faux-pas from most to least offensive. 20 musicians responded to the survey, the majority of them professional flutists. Represented instruments included flute, oboe, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, and harp - quite a diverse range! 75% of respondents identified as professional musicians, 25% as non-professional. Most played in an ensemble, even if just for fun.

Here was the survey question:

How would you rank these ensemble etiquette faux-pas, from most offensive (1) to least offensive (15)?

  1. Arriving late to a rehearsal or performance

  2. Arriving to rehearsal unprepared

  3. Wearing too much perfume/cologne

  4. Non-music related conversations during rehearsal

  5. Foot-tapping

  6. Emptying spit/cleaning instrument while other people are playing

  7. Others staring at you while you're playing a difficult solo

  8. Loud page-turns

  9. Talking back/being disrespectful to the conductor

  10. "Showing off" during the tuning note or while the ensemble is warming up

  11. Audible reactions to others' and/or your mistakes

  12. Having to lend a pencil to a colleague

  13. Using a phone during rehearsal

  14. Playing other people's solos

  15. Others making excuses for their unpreparedness, wrong notes, bad intonation, general inaccuracy

The top three offenders were:

  1. Arriving late to a rehearsal or performance

  2. Talking back/being disrespectful to the conductor

  3. Arriving unprepared to rehearsal

The least offensive were:

  1. Lending a pencil to a colleague

  2. Loud page-turns

  3. Cleaning out your instrument while others are playing

I very much agree with the "most offensive" results! "Early is on time" was the golden rule that was drilled into me as early as my middle school band years, and it's common knowledge in the professional world that latecomers don't get called back.

As for disrespecting the conductor... it's just plain rude and unprofessional. Conductors are known for having colorful personalities... but even if you do not agree with his or her interpretations and/or instructions, it is best practice in rehearsal to nod your head and demonstrate a willingness to comply. Discussions and clarifications should happen offstage in private after rehearsal.

I was surprised to learn that "cleaning out your instrument while others are playing" made the bottom 3. Personally, I do find it very irritating when wind players blow water from their keys, swab indiscreetly, or empty their spit valves loudly during a quiet section, or worse - during someone's big solo.

If you want to explore more on this topic...

This is a great article on orchestral etiquette that borrows from legendary flutist Jeannie Baxtresser's tips found at the beginning of her "Orchestral Excerpts" book.

This list by Richie Hawley, principal clarinetist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra offers some more insight into behavioral errors addressed in this survey, and even some that I did not include.

In conclusion

The results of this survey reminded me of a previous blog post in which I shared 3 stellar pieces of advice for musical success from a professional jazz trumpeter: 1) Show up on time, 2) play everything the best it can be played, and 3) be cool. It's worth noting that all of these can perhaps be considered the inverse of the top 3 faux pas that I identified from the survey:

  1. "Show up on time" - Don't be late

  2. "Be cool" - Don't disrespect the conductor

  3. "Play everything the best it can be played" - Don't come unprepared to rehearsal or a gig.

Happy fluting!

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