the orchestra world

questions, anyone?

I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here, and address something that has been a sore point for some of us at the Oregon Symphony. Bear in mind, as you read this, that orchestral etiquette is not a cut-and-dried, set in stone set of rules. Generally, each orchestra has its own special set of unwritten rules (and written ones, too) that evolve during the life of the ensemble. Perhaps no area of these unwritten rules inspires as much conflict (with the possible exceptions of stage deportment and concert attire) as the subject of asking questions in rehearsals.

When I first joined the OSO, chaos reigned. The last stand violist might stand up and demand to know what the bowing was (from their section leader), or what a particular bow articulation was (from the music director). Questions flew from everywhere, at almost any time. Principal winds didn’t always get along very well with each other (or brass, or any other principals, for that matter), and they would wield questions like cudgels, seeking to either prove themselves correct, or their colleagues wrong.

Things are much better these days, with a much more professional attitude prevailing in most respects. But the question remains: when is it best to ask a question in the midst of a busy rehearsal, and when might it be better asked (and answered) at the rehearsal break, or after the rehearsal time is ended? Here are some basic guidelines that I, as a string player, adhered to. I don’t know whether I was instructed at some point to do things this way, or if I just picked it up by osmosis along the way.

  • If you are a section string player, then discretely pass up your question (at a pause in the rehearsal process) through the section, being clear about what you are asking about (otherwise, like the game of telephone, things can get pretty garbled after passing through four or five people along the way). Your principal will get word back to you about the answer.

If you are the principal player, and you’ve gotten a question from the section, you have a few options. You can:

  • Answer the question immediately yourself, or in consultation with the concertmaster or other principal strings.
  • Wait until the break to ask the music director, if the matter is not of some urgency and does not affect other sections.
  • Wait for a pause in the rehearsal to ask the music director, if the matter is urgent and relates to another section or sections.

The key is the context of the issue. Let’s say you are playing a passage with this figure:

As written, it would be played legato – slurred together under one bow, with no stopping of the bow to re-articulate the eighth notes. But let’s say that you can hear the french horns (who often double the viola or cello lines) playing the eight notes articulated, like this:

Now, if it’s the first rehearsal, it would most likely be best to wait until the rehearsal break to ask about this issue. Chances are, the music director will have noticed it anyway, and would instruct the sections involved in the correct articulation. But if the MD does not seem to notice, after playing the passage several times at the first rehearsal, and it is more than an isolated situation, then that would be a good time to wait for a pause and ask during the rehearsal proper. If you’re doing a one-rehearsal program (this happens a lot for pops and specials), there won’t be time to get the answer to everyone if you wait until the end of rehearsal to ask – it will be too late! That is a time where asking questions within the rehearsal is pretty much essential if it involves more than your section, or if you’re leading a string section where getting word to everyone in time is more difficult than in a smaller woodwind or brass section.

But so often, it seems that questions that could be best answered in a sidebar conference at the rehearsal break, or directly after rehearsal (or even via phone later in the day), are deemed to be of sufficient urgency to require the time-taking and mind-sapping extra pauses that rob a rehearsal of its flow and efficacy. If you are an orchestral musician, what do you think about asking questions in rehearsals? Who are the major offenders in your orchestra? (my wife coined the term “ask-hole” for these denizens of the orchestral sectionverse) Does your orchestra have a policy about addressing the podium in rehearsal?

Send me your thoughts in the comments section below.

By Charles Noble

I'm the Assistant principal violist of the Oregon Symphony.

11 replies on “questions, anyone?”

You have hit upon a pet peeve of mine. Having played in many orchestras over the years, from student amateur ensembles to top 10 majors, I have come to judge an ensemble’s maturity and professionalism based on this point. Fine, experienced players have learned not to interrupt the proceedings with a question that, most likely, will have to do with their own uncertainty over a small matter. Many amateurish players don’t seem to grasp the concept of the good of the many outweighing the needs of the few…and thus rehearsals with them can bog down and become mired in minutiae.

For my money the worst thing an orchestral player to do is complain about a colleague’s playing during rehearsal; fortunately it happens rarely, but it does happen. We musicians are always complaining we’re not treated as professionals, but I think it behooves us to actually behave as such. Besides…who wants to work in a tense, rude atmosphere?

With age comes wisdom? I hope so. I have been a slight (I hope) offender in the past. Starting last year it is my goal to ask no more questions on stage ever.

In my humble opinion, I think if something very special is going on (musically) and asking a certain question in the moment would be in character of that special moment, and may even substantially add to good of the moment-ask away!

I find it very annoying when a question that is uniquely technical comes up during these “special” moments and seems to take the “train off the tracks” so to speak.

some more perspectives:
a) Bothersome, or very dull, LUFU conductor……..questions with a shadow of humor are always appreciated to help with the agony of the dire situation

b) Questions asked in a very extravagant way, almost artfully asked even………………………Fun to listen to and examine conductors reaction. (I know of a trumpeter who is very skilled at this).

c) Questions asked with an intention of “informing” other musicians and/or conductor……….These are tricky. If it is asked in a very thoughtful manner, I think its great. In my mind it is only appreciated when it is genuinely about the music, not an ego. Or a musicians way of saying “Hey you, my idea is better than yours, hear me out…”

Overall, It is mentally less taxing to stop numerous times in a rehearsal so someone can ask more questions. If it is an effective rehearsal, this can really wreck the flow. One can’t even use the time the question is asked as a “brain break”. That question is still flowing through your ears, and gets the gears turning upstairs at some level, whether you approve or not.

In my amateur orchestra, the “rules” are much more loose. Especially after being handed a piece of modern music with a major font issue when printed. I was actually surprised with how few questions were asked when trying to decipher the jumbled mess we were given.

However, I wish we were given simple things such as bowings before rehearsal. Too much chatter is going on trying to work this out within and between sections.

Thanks Charles for writing this. I’m really interested in hearing people’s answers which is why I suggested you write something on this subject. Since I always have an opinion about something here’s my take, but I’m writing this during the Browns game and my emotions are all over the place:)

1) I think string section questions for the MD should only be asked by the principals or at least the first stand. In addition, I find it really distracting when players stand for bowings. Do the lean, squat whatever, but I hate when people just stand up as if that one bowing will alter their lives.
(Stupid Bengals just threw a TD-ugh)

2) If the question only pertains to you, take that to the MD during a break. My biggest pet peeve is people who already know there is a misprint (or at least know the answer) but still ask the question in rehearsal as if they need praise for being right.

3) Principals are hired to be leaders. Leaders make decisions. It makes me nervous when principals have constant uncertainty about what’s happening in their parts and can’t use their ears/eyes to make decisions.

4) I think this ties into how differently strings and winds (meaning brass, woodwinds) think and approach music. Not gonna get into it, but after sitting on several committees with and living with a bassoonist for 2.5 yrs someone should write a book titled Strings are from Cleveland (shout out to CIM:), Winds are from Jupiter (I mean that with love, I heart wind players) featuring the different approaches to learning orchestra parts, practicing, warming up, intonation, and rehearsal etiquette.

5) Back to the question part, I think it is NEVER appropriate to ask the director just to do something over for yourself. Ever! Since when has it become mainstream to admit we make mistakes? I subscribe to the if he didn’t notice it was wack, I’ll close the folder and take it home and fix it so it’s great next time.
(Crazy sayings are being made up because the Browns actually are back in it.)

6) I’m not a big fan of we are at Letter Z rehearsing and then someone raises their hands and asks a question about Letter D. Question should be asked when we are on that page or when we are done rehearsing it and are moving on to a new work or packing up.

Since I’m now writing about things in detail I will stop. Long response short, questions don’t bother me in rehearsal if they are kept short, are actually questions and not passive aggressive ways to correct things, and do not make me play things again just because someone messed up personally.

I’m a big fan of finding the conductor at break or after rehearsal because ruining the momentum of rehearsal for suspect questions is not fair to the group as a whole and disrupts the flow of music making.

That said, I once asked Carlos what he thought about fixing bowings in rehearsal. (bowings that were opposite or changed because they weren’t in sync in the first reading, not changes he asked for-also a pet peeve of mine) He just said that he doesn’t mind stopping rehearsal for those things and that they need to be done, so he probably could care less about the amount of time taken away from rehearsing for questions.

I’m out!


BTW, this is lengthy and disjointed because most of it was written from 10am-1pm during a Browns/Bengals game on Sunday. We lost. Enjoy!

Great post, Charles. After reading it and all of the comments, I have to say: it’s truly amazing how many orchestral musicians seem to think their shit doesn’t stink. Love, -p.

Although the discussion has devolved, er, been elevated to comedy, I still gotta chime in. ;>)

I think Charles and the commenters gave a pretty complete accounting of the variables and outlined a good set of guiding principles. If there were a way to calculate such things, I would love to know the percentage of my mental bandwidth during rehearsal that is devoted to deciding when it’s needed or desirable to ask a question — plus, throw in when to address the section! Mental wheels spinning…Of course, sometimes I make the wrong call, but at least there is only one cellist at a time juggling this particular set of steak knives.

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