More accurately, this post should be entitled “Advice for New Professional Orchestra Musicians”. Before we embark on this list of dos and do nots, I’ll state for the record that I have (and most likely will) failed to do what I have presented here. We’re all only human, but part of the joy of life is striving to be better, and that’s what I try to do every day. Enough armchair philosophy – on to the list.
- Arrive early to services. I try to arrive about 30 minutes before the start of rehearsals and concerts. It doesn’t always happen the way I plan, but I’ve always got a cushion in case traffic is worse that usual or there is a problem with parking or my car breaks down. As the old youth orchestra adage goes: Early is on time. On time is late. Late is unacceptable.
- Prepare your music thoroughly before the first rehearsal. When you’re new, and you haven’t earned tenure, this is a given (unless you don’t want to work at your orchestra for longer than two years). As the years go by, it becomes easier to grow complacent. I try to avoid this – even though my job isn’t necessarily on the line, I know that it can become a habit not to be prepared, and then my job might actually be on the line. If you’re a titled player, especially a principal, there’s no excuse for not knowing your part thoroughly and how it fits in with other sections’ parts, too.
- Bring a healthy snack for rehearsal breaks. Sometimes, especially when you have 9:30 a.m. rehearsals like my orchestra does, you don’t eat breakfast. Big mistake! Your brain needs that nutrition to enable you to be at the top of your game, even early in the morning. Failing breakfast, make sure you have some nuts or dried fruit, and some water (or all three) ready for rehearsal break. It will perk you up and get you going again. Coffee or espresso alone won’t do the trick.
- Warm up before services. If you live in an apartment and don’t have a place that you can warm up at 8:00 in the morning, get to the hall early to warm up. You will save yourself a career full of injuries if you warm up well before rehearsals and concerts. In addition, you’ll be looser and much better able to be on your toes if your physical mechanics are all in order right from the get go.
- Be flexible. As the old maxim says, the reed that bends in the wind will outlast the rigid branch through the strongest storm. Don’t be “right” – pay attention to your principal and the concertmaster (as well as the conductor) and try to fit into the group dynamic, pitch, and rhythm. Things tend not to be absolute in the orchestral sphere, go with the flow as best you can. Play chamber music, it will enable you to tolerate – or even enjoy the dullest of pieces.
- Play with your eyes as well as your ears. It can get easy, especially when the conductor isn’t being particularly reference-worthy, to just put one’s head down and play with what you hear. But as anyone in the back of the orchestra can attest, that already puts you at a rhythmic disadvantage. Getting you head out of the part and seeing what your principal (or even just the front of the section) or concertmaster is doing can save you in harrowing times. Plus, it’s more like playing chamber music, and you never know if you might catch a colleague’s eye and share a smile.
- Give your colleagues (and conductor) the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to be a hater. There’s a lot to get one riled up in our business, especially with the high standards we’re asked to live up to, and our own even tougher (and perhaps unrealistic) expectations of ourselves. It’s easy to transfer those expectations to others, and to judge them harshly. I try to keep an open mind – everyone starts with 100% – and people can either gain or lose points in my estimation. Think of it this way: you are just reserving the right to hate at a later date.
- Try to enjoy yourself. This is key. Sometimes, when I’m having a bad concert experience, I just try to act like I’m having a good time. After all, the audience is paying to see real people play great music on stage – not to watch mannequins sync to a recorded soundtrack. And I find that if I pretend to have a good time, I start to actually have a good time.
- Don’t make faces when the oboist tunes the orchestra. Sounds like common sense, but I see this a lot. There’s nothing more passive-aggressive and rude than making faces when the oboist’s pitch doesn’t meet your preconceived notion of what the ‘A’ should be. They’re using a tuner (or should be) and it’s actually harder than it looks to give a good tuning note. Be professional, and remember, those oboists are crazy and have knives.
Let me know about your own experiences in the comments section below!