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16. How should I act as a member of a performing group; do you have any suggestions on the "group dynamics" of musical organizations?

There is certainly more to playing than practicing and getting the part right. The complete musician also understands that how he gets along with others is critically important, for even the most accomplished player will not be hired back by a contractor or may not receive tenure in a position in an orchestra if he cannot get along well with others.

The subject of ensemble etiquette is one I speak of frequently although I have never gotten around to putting my thoughts on the subject down on paper. I'm glad I didn't! My friend Robert Fraser, a bass trombonist in Canada and an officer in the American Federation of Musicians union, has written a better article on the subject than I ever could. Originally written for his students, Bob has graciously allowed me to put his excellent article here in my web site. This is a comprehensive treatment of the subject of getting along with others in our complicated world of music. Heed his suggestions carefully and you will go a long way toward being a good musical citizen in whatever group you happen to play with.


"Playing well is only part of it"


Robert Fraser

A friend of mine from my school days who is now a successful musician said to me recently that "playing in a professional musical group is almost as much interpersonal dynamics as it is musical ability." While playing music is arguably one of the most enjoyable professions there is and music-making transcends the human experience (Edward Kleinhammer calls it "a keyhole peek into heaven"), in almost every instance music-making involves people working together in groups, with all their human faults. In my career as a professional musician and as a local officer of the musicians' union (the American Federation of Musicians of the U.S. and Canada) I have observed this paradox first hand: music may be a perfect art form, but the people who recreate these works of art everyday are just that: people, and people are anything but perfect. This paradox goes even deeper: while playing music should be a joyful, satisfying activity, it is well-documented that there are a lot of joyless, unsatisfied musicians in the profession. There are many reasons why people are unsatisfied with their jobs or their lives in general, but I cannot help but think that poor group dynamics contribute much to the problem.

Musical studies almost exclusively focus on mastering musical skills. Although it is paramount to be able to play your instrument to the highest possible standard, your career as a musician may well depend on your ability to work well with others as much as it does on your playing ability. Through my personal experience and contact with colleagues all over the world I have unfortunately known many cases where a fine musician did not last in the music profession because they inadvertently or deliberately alienated their colleagues. Worse still is a colleague who somehow stays in the profession for years and leaves a trail of burnt-out, cynical musicians in his wake.

This article will put in writing some of "the unwritten rules" of playing in ensembles. Most of these are learned through experience, although a few astute teachers make sure their students know these rules before they get out into the workplace. I am indebted to my teacher, Ted Griffith, for spending time with all his students to make sure they understood these principles, and Nancy Cochran Block, who wrote a similar article for "The Horn Call" - the Journal of the International Horn Society (Vol. XVI, no.2 - April 1986) which I used to form the outline for this article. The headings of most of my sections are from that article, and quotations from that article are reprinted here with her permission. The quotation of George Roberts at the end of this article is taken from an interview with Michael Millar: "George Roberts: Tribute and Conversation", published in the ITA Journal, Vol. 27/1 (winter 1999).

Most of these points may seem like good common sense, or so obvious the reader will likely say "of course, I knew that!" to him or herself. Yet it is surprising (or maybe it is not surprising) that these principles go out the window when people get together in a large group in a tense situation, working on an impossible task.

In all tasks involving people, nothing really beats the universal principle known as "The Golden Rule":

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.
(Matthew 7:12)

When in doubt, this rule can be applied in many ways: "treat others the way you would like to be treated" - "help others the way you would want to be helped if the tables were turned", etc.

General principles for all kinds of groups

1. Always come to an engagement (whether a rehearsal or performance) with your music prepared. This is not as obvious as it sounds. Having your music prepared means more than knowing how to play your own part. It means:

In large ensembles this means studying a score and listening to available recordings of the work(s) to be performed. If you don't have an extensive collection of recordings and scores yourself, hopefully you live near a good music library (even if you're not a student or a teacher at a university, most of their libraries allow "outside readers" access to material). When listening with a score, if you have a great many bars rest in your part, find obvious cues and write them in. Being a trombone player I do this a lot. Editors are people too, and they make mistakes; no cues, badly written cues, mistakes in clefs, wrong number of measures rest, wrong notes. Do your homework.

These things may seem like overkill, but they are not. In many professional organizations, money is tight and groups cannot afford extensive rehearsal time. Everyone I knew as a student who is now working professionally has said that the biggest shock of working in the so-called "real world" after graduating from school is how little time you get to rehearse. Although sight-reading is an indispensable skill, wherever possible you should not have to rely on sight-reading alone to get you through a gig. Know the music beforehand.

There are exceptions to this rule, the obvious one being a rehearsal set aside to read new compositions, or a job where everyone will be expected to sight-read a standard book of repertoire (or a gig where no music is used at all!). There are ways you can prepare for these situations even when you don't have the music beforehand and don't know what repertoire you will be playing. For example, as a symphonic player I don't do a great number of jazz big band gigs. When I am called to fill in on these types of engagements I will pull similar music off the shelf (jazz etudes, "real book" tunes) and spend some time "getting my head into the style". That way my mind is focused on the type of music I will be playing. Players who can play well in a variety of styles are particularly valuable in the freelance world and are asked back for many gigs.

2. Always arrive early enough so that you are warmed up and ready to play at the starting time of the engagement. Nancy Cochran Block writes: "Someone who walks in at 2:00 for a 2:00 rehearsal can be a major source of irritation for those players who were considerate enough to have come earlier. . ." Following this rule is not always as easy as it sounds. If you are a freelance player who plays in different places all the time it is sometimes hard to know how much time you will need to get to the location of the gig, park, unload gear and set up. Doing reconnaissance never hurts - if you are a leader on an engagement it is always a nice consideration to give your side players clear written directions and instructions on where to park, where to keep valuables, etc.

A word about warming up: in spite of best efforts, things can go wrong and we arrive with no time to do our usual half-hour warm-up routine. A good habit to develop is "playing cold". Not totally cold, but being in shape well enough to be able to start one's day with a good warm-up or practice session, then pick up the instrument a few hours later and be able to play with minimum preparation. You never know when you will be expected to perform on some gigs so if you are a person who absolutely must have warm-up time before playing you would do well to learn the skill of "playing cold".

3. Always bring a pencil to a rehearsal - and use it. Better yet, bring a number of them if you can - a colleague who is trapped on stage without one will appreciate the use of your spare. The need for pencils is obvious; bowings, cuts, directions from the conductor, and perhaps most important - correcting mistakes in the parts. Have a good eraser on it as well. Pencils are especially important for substitute players or ensembles where the music will be handed along to other players the next time (a "travelling book") - you will be marking the part for the next person who has to play it so be sure to mark things clearly. There are conventions for marking certain things like cuts (don't "obliterate" the music to be cut) and conductors' beat patterns. Learn them; you will make it easier for the next person who plays your part.

4. Never miss a gig if you can help it. There are four ways to miss a gig; illness, an emergency or unforeseen circumstance, human error (getting the date/place/time wrong) or "subbing out" to take another gig or do something else.

Illness is sometimes unavoidable, but some musicians are chronically ill often because they don't take good care of themselves. If you are in a demanding steady job or busy freelance situation take good care of yourself. Get lots of rest, stay away from illegal drugs altogether and avoid the legal ones where possible. Eat a healthy diet. Take care of your body with proper stretching and exercise to avoid overuse and repetitive strain injuries. Nancy Cochran Block points out: "a player who is ill frequently will be avoided because they will be considered undependable." Players who cannot take good care of themselves will not survive in the freelance world; in steady jobs they will make others miserable or be constantly passing on the latest in designer viruses.

If you have an illness or unforeseen emergency (accident, family emergency) always know whom to contact in case this happens and do so immediately (if possible) - don't hesitate. In some instances there may be time to arrange a substitute, and the people in charge will not hold it against you. In cases when you don't show because of an emergency or accident people will worry about you and they will be relieved to know you're all right.

In the third instance, human error does happen. On a freelance job it is always best for side players to double-check details with the leader or contractor and vice versa. A phone call the day before never hurt anyone; especially if the job was booked months in advance. As I mentioned before, clear written instructions are appreciated from leaders. On steady engagements with complicated schedules always be on the lookout for changes. Pay attention to all announcements, both verbal and written.

As to the fourth instance, there are only certain circumstances where "subbing out" is permitted. When a musician has a personal contract with an employer or works under a union collective bargaining agreement, there are sometimes provisions for personal leave. On some Broadway shows, for example, players must get permission from the union to take leave. However, in the freelance world, players make enemies really fast when they give up jobs because something "better" comes along. This can be a difficult situation - when you are struggling to make ends meet you want to get the highest-paying gigs possible and schedules don't always permit you to play everything. However, the contractor you left hanging in order to take the higher-paying job may be the contractor for an even higher-paying job someday and he or she may think twice about hiring you next time. Leaders like to have steady personnel - some more than others. Particularly annoying for leaders are musicians who do two overlapping jobs and sub out of one to do the other (it happens!).

If you do a lot of amateur playing (i.e. for no pay) amateur groups are usually understanding of the fact that you have to make a living playing music and will allow you to sub out to do paid work. In these instances, be considerate; make sure the group knows of your situation and give them as much notice as possible. Have a good sub available for you and know when to leave a group completely if you are unable to devote enough time to them in your schedule.

5. While on the job, focus on music, and nothing else. If you are in charge of details like set-up, library, taking care of the client (bridal party, event planner, hotel manager, etc.) collecting the money - get these details worked out well in advance and have a good system set up so you can focus on playing without distractions. For example, a leader I know who does a lot of weddings actually has the bridal party pay her in advance with a post-dated cheque (i.e. dated the day of the gig) this way she doesn't have to hunt down the purchaser in a big crowded reception.

Don't be thinking about how much you hate so-and-so's playing, what a jerk the conductor was in rehearsal the other day, how much you hate the piece you are playing. Your responsibilities are playing the music as best as you can and pleasing the people who paid you to play it - in that order. That tune that you've played a million times until your brain is numb may well transport someone out there on to another plane.

Break times and after services is the time to let loose and relax. If you must complain (some people seem to have a basic need for this) then is the time - not while others are trying to make music. However, an overriding principle of group music-making is "we are all in this together." If you spend more time complaining that the boat leaks than you do patching the boat, don't be disappointed when the boat suddenly sinks!

Dealing with colleagues on and off the job

1. If you're new: eyes and ears are open, mouth is shut. Pay attention to what is going on around you, not just musically but otherwise. Who speaks within the group and when? How do the players react with each other and the conductor (if there is one)? There may come a time when you are an accepted member of the group and you will want to express an opinion - by then you should know how to suggest things to people in a manner which conveys respect and does not hurt feelings or put people on the defensive. This is especially true of chamber music groups. You must learn over time what makes the group tick so you can strike a balance between saying too little or too much.

2. In large groups, know the "chain of command": follow and match the style of the principal of your section. This is especially important in string sections, but also paramount in winds where there is one to a part. Even if the principal has a radically different style, match it - as a section player it makes you a valuable asset when you help unify the sound of a section. The principals are responsible for following each other and the conductor closely to ensure the unity of the group. By "principals" I really mean "section leaders", especially the lead or highest players in a section. Some solo instruments are designated as principals but they really are part of a section (tuba and bass trombone, for example are often "principal" positions but are really part of the low brass section).

By "chain of command" I mean just that. Section players are under principals are under the conductor. Nancy Cochran Block writes:

"It is not appropriate to make suggestions or corrections to the principal player unless you are very close and are sure that your comments will be welcomed. Better to be silent than sorry. This also applies to other members of the section. The principal player is usually the only one to suggest things to the section and this should not happen too often if the other players are listening and matching his style. . . If you have a question about your part and you not the principal player, direct your questions to the principal, not the conductor."

3. Learn to accept criticism. When someone "higher up" (the conductor, your principal) tells you to do something, do it. Don't talk back, make a puzzled face, or contradict them (you'd be amazed how many musicians do this!). Don't take things personally - just because someone is telling you to do something different it doesn't mean your way is invalid or that you are less of a human being. Learn to detach your ego - although we all need a strong ego and lots of self-confidence to be musicians, too much can be detrimental to group music-making.

Some people are just plain rude. Stories of abusive, tyrannical conductors, band leaders, or other musicians are legendary in the music business. Like any large group of people, ensembles have their share of bullies. Don't let these people get to you and don't feed their need for attention by attacking them back and provoking them. Focus even harder on playing better than your best - in the end that will cancel the effects of the negative energy generated by these "nay-sayers" that unfortunately pervade all walks of life. See rule nine in this section for more information.

4. Learn to give criticism. In time, you may become a leader within the group, or even the leader. When the time comes that you may have to make a suggestion, remember that Golden Rule: "critique others the way you would want to be criticized." Be respectful and courteous, and especially know whom you are talking to. We can usually be a bit more frank with people that we've worked with over a long period of time than with strangers. Less is more. If a passage is sounding problematic, often "can we check that passage" and one run-through are all that needs to be said and done - most professionals will spot the problem once isolated in this manner. Try to use interrogatives and not imperatives when talking to people: "would you do this?" instead of "do this!"

5. Don't show off. Some people show off verbally - constantly talking about how they did this and that, whom they played with before, etc. Others do it when they play, especially when warming up. As a brass player, I try to be considerate to my colleagues when warming up. Since the facility I do most of my work in does not have proper warm up rooms and we are all crammed into small spaces, whenever possible I try to warm up off-site and show up a few minutes before the concert and just play a few mf notes. Nobody wants to hear you playing fff orchestral excerpts (that are not on the show that night) or high range exercises. Practice mutes are handy tools; not only do they give you a "handicap" to blow against (like a batter swinging a bat with a weight on the end) they are usually appreciated by your colleagues. If you don't like the feel that mutes give there are other alternatives - mouthpiece buzzing, e.g. or sometimes just mental practice alone is all that is necessary. Some orchestras and other groups do not allow their musicians to warm up on stage at all, and those that do often get complaint letters written by audience members who "can't stand the noise before the concert".

Do not play solos or difficult passages from other people's parts within earshot of others, especially solo parts that aren't yours. Nancy Cochran Block writes: "No one will want to have you around if you play flawlessly the solo that is giving them problems." Also, don't practice your tough licks on stage over and over again just before the start of the show. You're just making yourself and others tense, wasting your chops, and spoiling the surprise for the audience.

On jazz gigs, some people "noodle" while others are trying to play solos or heads. With all respect to your colleagues, this is not the time to be figuring out the changes!

You will have plenty of opportunity to impress your colleagues on the job - you don't need to do it outside the job.

6. Don't distract colleagues. Music requires a great deal of concentration and even barely noticeable things can be amplified into major distractions. When someone sitting near you has a solo or important passage and you are not playing, sit perfectly still and don't make sudden moves. I have heard that some players insist that their colleagues plan their page turns so people are not flipping pages during their solo. If you have to change a tuning, empty a water key, pick up a double, etc. only do so if it is absolutely necessary and be as discreet as possible.

Don't stare at players when they play solos. Especially for string players or musicians at the front of a group - don't turn around and leer at folks (because they played out-of-tune, too loud, etc.) We all have our inner critics, the conductor, and the audience to deal with - we do not need to feel like our colleagues are putting us under the microscope as well.

Shuffling feet on the floor lightly is a way of "applauding" colleagues in many groups when they have played passages particularly well. Be careful when doing this - different groups develop a different rapport with each other and some groups will do this quaint little custom more sparingly than others (if at all).

7. Dealing with mistakes. When you or someone else makes a mistake, do not let your manner indicate that a mistake has been made. Don't raise your hand when you drop a note (a strange habit I have seen in English church choirs!) or stare at another culprit, laugh, make a flippant remark, swear, etc. Do nothing at all. First of all, chances are that the person knows he or she has made a mistake and they know how to fix it. If they don't they will figure it out. Secondly, in many instances if you made the mistake yourself you maybe the only one who actually heard it and it does you no good to point out your error to everyone (especially the audience).

8. Counting the rests. if you have a lot of bars tacet, give a small hand or finger signal at all the important rehearsal letters, double bars, or the cues immediately before your next entrance. This allows all the players in the section to ensure they have the correct count. If you aren't sure of the count, don't make a signal. With everyone counting carefully, no section should get lost. Don't make your signals visible to an audience.

9. Know the non-musical roles within the group. In many large groups there are people who play key "non-playing" roles: the union steward, the personnel manager, the stage crew, the librarian, the orchestra players' committee, the general manager and his/her staff. Know the roles these people play and when to go to them for assistance. They are all there to make your job easier.

There are times when it's best to turn the other cheek with colleagues, but sadly in large groups there are occasionally times when abusive situations call for action. Things like sexual harassment or repeated abuse can occur, and most groups have grievance procedures or policies to deal with them. Take time to familiarize yourself with your working conditions and know whom to talk to if you really need help.

10. Above all, be a "team player". This is not some gobbledygook badly borrowed from sports or business jargon. Be part of a team. You are there to serve the music, not your own ego. Balance, blend, intonation - listen all the time. Don't think to yourself "this is how it's done" and then paste it all over everybody. This includes times when you have solos, or passages where you are supposed to predominate. Know when to step into and out of the spotlight. There are few things that break more hearts in this business than a musician who always has to be heard over everyone else and must always impose his/her interpretation on everyone, including the conductor and all the other musicians.

As a brass player, I feel that the louder instruments in the orchestra really have a particular moral responsibility. I have heard too many tutti passages become blowing contests and too many insignificant passages turned into solos. Don't spoil the music-making process for everyone by always insisting on being heard.

Dealing with conductors

1. Respect the conductor's position, even if you don't respect the conductor. Many ensembles develop adversarial relationships with their conductors. Orchestras and other ensembles have grown considerably in the twentieth century and we have the benefit nowadays of drawing on the experience of the ages: most of us have built on the experience of many more generations of musicians, conductors, and composers than our predecessors did, and it is now very easy to criticize someone coming in with a few years' training and telling us how we should play.

A concept that has grown out of favour in the latter part of this century is the notion of respecting a person's position. In other times, we respected the President, the King, or the policeman simply because they held the office, owned the title, or wore the badge. Nowadays, respect is not automatically there, and the power of the individual reigns supreme. Respect seems now to be something that must be earned on an individual basis. With one hundred supreme individuals holding their own ideas firmly in front of them, it is little wonder that few conductors earn the respect of the whole ensemble.

However, the conductor is as necessary now as ever. In a large group, no matter how good the players are, in order to achieve the best performance possible there must be strong leadership on the podium, and that leadership must be followed. In a group as large as a hundred, each person must focus as a "team player" to achieve the best performance possible, and this requires submitting to the authority of the conductor. Even the best player will admit the fact that if everyone played they way they wanted to the music would not sound very good. We must learn to respect the conductor's position, even if we don't respect the person's ideas very much.

A friend of mine in the Boston Symphony puts it best: "whether it is a two-year-old on the podium or someone just flapping his arms, just by virtue of the fact he stands on the podium he gets my best."

2. Don't waste time in rehearsals with questions that deal with your part alone unless the conductor asks you specifically about something. Save note checks for the break or afterwards; you can often get a peek at the score and put things to rights fast enough. As a bass trombone player, I often find just checking a unison passage in the basses, tuba or bassoons clears things up without wasting valuable time.

3. Stop playing when the conductor (or the rest of the ensemble) stops - some people have an annoying habit of practicing the lick they just finished when the conductor stops. I even know players that "noodle" during the applause on a show! This is truly counterproductive.

4. Acknowledge directions from the conductor - conductors don't have a lot of time to get their points across, so make sure that you acknowledge that their remarks are understood. Don't argue or make a face, just nod politely and play. When a conductor cues you or your section - make eye contact. This lets the conductor know that you are with him or her when it counts. With really good conductors who make the ensemble play beyond themselves, you will be riveted to them anyway.

5. If you are a concerto soloist, direct questions and comments to the conductor and not the ensemble that is accompanying you. An orchestra will not appreciate two "chefs" - especially if one of them contradicts the other!

Even if you have your solo memorized, use the music on the rehearsal - you will need it to know where the conductor is stopping and starting. I have seen soloists waste valuable minutes by having to walk back and forth to the podium to figure out where the conductor is starting from or worse, by having the conductor sing the passage where he/she wants to start from.

Some parting thoughts

I have written another article called "career questions" - a list of questions that everyone considering an orchestral career should ask themselves. Without repeating that whole piece, here are what I think are the most important points.

Learn to accept things that are out of your control - We live in an imperfect world (I prefer the term "fallen" world but not everyone understands the theology!) and although bad conductors, colleagues, halls, and even bad weather occur, you are not doing yourself or anyone else a favour by focusing on negatives. Focus on the music - play great, do your best, and hope that things will be better next time. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't.

Don't burn out - keep seeking new musical experiences, techniques, teachers, etc. Don't lose sight of your fundamentals. Keep going to concerts. If you find your work to be repetitive, don't let it get monotonous. Find new ways of improving that piece you've played so many times before. This is one of the hallmarks of great musicians - they always seem to be getting better and better.

That having been said - don't burn out on music, either. While you don't want to lose sight of good music making there are always other important things in life as well - family, friends, and just enjoying the silence now and again. These things will help you become a better musician, too. I knew some music students who spent so much time in the practice room they lost sight of what life was all about and they ended up quitting music in the end with nothing to fall back on.

Above all, be nice to people. Remember the Golden Rule quoted at the beginning of this article. In some instances, you will be spending many years and many hours with these people - they will be your other family. Treat people with respect and be helpful and you will make their lives and yours much happier.

My parting words are from a great musician, George Roberts:

Shut your mouth, play great, smile a lot, and listen!

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