Musical Etiquette

Musical Etiquette by Phyllis Avidan Louke

When playing in ensembles, it is important to follow proper etiquette in order to have a successful and satisfying musical experience with other members of the ensemble.  Musical etiquette is the practice of following the unwritten rules that help musicians get along and work effectively together.  Many of these rules are common sense and many are learned through experience in playing with other musicians.  As musicians begin to play professionally, making a favorable impression on others, both musically and personally, can increase recommendations for additional paying gigs.

Following musical etiquette has more to do with working as a team with other musicians than with being the star performer.  Even when playing a solo line within the ensemble, consideration needs to be paid to the roles of the other musicians and how the solo line fits within the music.  The ability to follow musical etiquette is an indicator of musical maturity, as well as an indicator of the ability of a musician to sound their best while bringing out the best in others in the ensemble.

Avoid distractions to other players.  Internalize the beat rather than bouncing the flute to the beat or tapping the foot audibly, to minimize distractions to others.  Tapping the big toe silently inside the shoe helps keep the beat and cannot be heard or seen by other players.  In addition, strongly scented colognes and aftershaves should not be worn while playing in ensembles.

Stay with the conductor and the rest of the ensemble.  Set the level of the music stand at a height that enables a clear view of the conductor’s beat as well as reading the music.  Use visual cues of the baton and body language of the conductor to anticipate tempo changes, dynamics and stylistic nuances.  Rushing or dragging the indicated tempo can disrupt a good performance.  Use auditory cues to confirm that the musical line being played fits with the rest of the ensemble; if the music doesn’t seem to “fit” with the rest of the ensemble, make every effort to find the correct place in the music.  During rehearsals, bring a pencil and mark all tempo changes, meter changes, and subdivided measures on your music to use rehearsal time efficiently and insure a more polished performance.  Be respectful of the conductor and the other musicians—remember that the conductor is always right.

Be conscientious and learn your music.  During practice at home, make note of all key signature changes by marking reminder accidentals as needed to minimize playing wrong notes.  Carefully work out notes and rhythms, and mark difficult sections in the music needing extra practice time.  Allow extra individual practice time to master the difficult sections.

Offer to find a competent substitute, in case of absence.  In case of illness or unavoidable schedule conflicts, notify the conductor or section manager of the ensemble as soon as possible about an absence.  Although, not generally applicable to school groups, and depending on customs of the ensemble, a competent substitute should be provided for missed rehearsals and performances.  The absentee should take the responsibility to provide music and instructions to the substitute player to help them perform successfully.

Following rehearsal etiquette makes efficient use of rehearsal time.  Pay attention to the conductor and be ready to play when the baton is up.  Always have a pencil available to mark the music.  Conversations during rehearsal should be limited to sharing information about the music, using very quiet voices.  Personal conversations should not take place during rehearsals, as it is distracting to the conductor and other players. 

Take responsibility for playing in tune both with yourself and with the rest of the ensemble.  Listen carefully to the tuning note and adjust the head joint position as necessary.  Work with a tuner at home to learn the idiosyncrasies of your instrument’s intonation.  Be flexible and be willing to change your pitch to blend in with the rest of the group, as the group’s prevailing pitch might change during the course of rehearsal or performance.  In the music, mark notes with flat pitch tendencies with an “up arrow” as a reminder to raise the pitch, while marking notes that are sharp with a “down arrow” as a reminder to lower pitch.

Following section etiquette helps the members of the section work as a team.  Avoid unnecessary movements and distractions while the principal player of the section is playing a solo.  The second chair player should follow along with the principal’s music in order to be of assistance if the principal in unsure of an entrance.  Follow the lead of the principal player during tutti sections, matching intonation, tempo, and trill speed, keeping harmony parts subordinate to the melody, and blending tone and vibrato.  The principal’s line should predominate, so keep notes slightly shorter and softer.  Watching other players helps in the precision of ensemble playing.  Keep count of measures rest, and share the count with others, if necessary.  Be positive and encouraging to other members of your section and work as a team.  During warm up, practicing standard warm-ups and exercises and the music being prepared by the ensemble is acceptable, while practicing the solos of another player is not.

Good performance etiquette gives the ensemble a more polished and professional look to the audience.  Sit up straight with feet flat on the floor and look attentive and avoid excessive movement while playing.  Conform to concert dress requirements for the ensemble, taking care that skirt length is modest and not too short.  In addition, any jewelry items that are worn should be insignificant and barely visible from the audience; many group’s concert dress regulations do not allow any jewelry to be worn.  Following the cut-off at the end of a piece, instruments should be kept up and frozen in playing position until the conductor puts the baton down.  During the applause, the conductor may acknowledge soloists and have them stand.  When the conductor motions for the entire ensemble to stand up in response to the audience’s applause, players should face forward toward the audience and stand quietly and attentively.  Watch the designated player for the cue to sit down—in an orchestra, it will be the Concertmaster (first violin); in a band, it will usually be the first flute or first clarinet.  Be alert:  when that person sits, everyone in the ensemble should sit in unison.  Music should only be rearranged for the next piece on the program while sitting.

If in doubt, observe the actions of others in the ensemble to determine an acceptable course of action.  Following musical etiquette increases the musical effectiveness of individuals, creates a team atmosphere and a provides more satisfying musical experience for all involved.


© Copyright 2004 Phyllis Avidan Louke.  All Rights Reserved.