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.