Ensemble Etiquette

This spring marks the first time I’m really playing in an ensemble, a double-reed ensemble comprised of three oboes, english horn, and bassoon.  We are all artists of varying degree, with my being the least experienced.  So, I was curious about “operating procedures” or etiquette for ensembles, and poked around the interwebs for some commentary.  Below are excepts of some articles I found relevant:

  • Come having thoroughly practiced your music. Nothing is more frustrating to conductors than to waste time rehearsing passages that the orchestra members didn’t practice ahead of time.
  • Before you head to rehearsal, double check that you have your music, instrument, bow, rosin, reeds, and any necessary accessories. Be sure to note whether or not you need to bring your own stand to rehearsal or you’ll be scrambling without one.
  • Bring a pencil. This one gets its own paragraph. Attending rehearsal without a pencil is like sitting through a university lecture without a taking notes. Even if you think you’ll be able to remember every direction the conductor gives, every dynamic change, every cut, and every ritardando, really, you probably won’t. Keep a couple pencils in your instrument case so they’re always on hand.
  • Don’t under- or over-mark the music. Certainly write down bowings and musical directions as instructed. But don’t ruin the sheet music by circling every last key change, accidental, and dynamic marking until your music is black with pencil. And if you’re sharing a stand, especially avoid slathering the music with your personal notes and fingerings; it’s unprofessional.
  • If you’re sharing a stand, the inside player (or player further from the edge of the stage) turns the pages.
  • Be courteous to your colleagues. Position yourself so both you and your stand partner have enough arm and leg room and can see the music comfortably.
  • Don’t tune loudly. Tune as softly as possible so the players around you can hear themselves as well as the tuning A.
  • Leave your arrogance at home. Members of the orchestra are all equal; everyone is contributing. Don’t gloat if you have a solo, and don’t bust out personal solo concertos and performances pieces just to show off. Everyone will be more annoyed than impressed. Also, don’t practice another orchestra member’s solo to demonstrate that you can play it better.
  • Lastly, enjoy the music! Don’t take rehearsal so seriously that you lose your connection with the piece or with your instrument. Playing music in an ensemble is a real treat; don’t forget that you’re taking part in a meaningful cultural tradition that will edify your audience.      ~Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra Rehearsal Etiquette
  • Learn to accept criticism. 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. 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.
  • playing in a professional musical group is almost as much interpersonal dynamics as it is musical ability.
  • Learn to give criticism. 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. Try to use interrogatives and not imperatives when talking to people: “would you do this?” instead of “do this!”
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. ~Ensemble Etiquette, Group Dynamics and Music, Dennis Yao
  • No scents. Ever.  rehearsals and performances should be scent-free zones. This doesn’t mean we allow body odor though! So use that unscented deoderant, but refrain from colognes and perfumes.
  • Regarding intonation: It is more important to be in tune with your colleagues than to be in tune with your tuner. If 60 people are playing A-442 and you are playing your perfect A-440, YOU are wrong. If you are the principal oboe player and you are frustrated about intonation, talk to the concertmaster and work something out.
  • Having a good attitude can get you through a lot of rough times.
  • Remember that while we strive to be “perfect” our true goal should be to make great music. No one is going to shoot you if you make a mistake!  ~OboeInsight Musician’s Etiquette by Patricia Mitchell
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Be positive and encouraging to other members of your section and work as a team. ~Musical Etiquette, Phyllis Louke

Most of these commentaries are indeed common-sense, or at least they should be.  The most things I’ve seen mentioned deal with interpersonal skills and interactions, from not wearing cologne that others might be allergic to, to simply being nice.  These are all interesting reading, and pause for consideration. One last excerpt comes from Richie Hawley, former Principal Clarinetist of the Cincinnati Symphony, which can also apply to ensembles:


  1. Do not turn around and look at the people behind you while they are playing.
  2. Keep perfume and cologne to a minimum – many will appreciate none at all.
  3. Do not tap your foot or conduct along.
  4. Always help your colleagues count rests. (This is more complicated if you dont speak english)
  5. Do not tap/applaud/shuffle for every solo that section colleague plays. Save it for when it really means something or better yet… stay still and just give them your positive words afterwards.
  6. Do not tell someone he/she sounds good if he/she does not deserve the praise.
  7. Never complain about your reeds. (they might sound better than they feel)
  8. Do not cross you legs on stage in a concert.
  9. Swab out discreetly and not if the person next to you is playing a solo.
  10. Practice only your own parts… never play passages from another’s page or excerpts from different music.
  11. Be aware and sensitive to others’ lines of sight to the conductor.
  12. Leave your seat immediately when switching pieces or seats… swab out and pack up later. The next players want to play a few notes before tuning!
  13. Do not yawn or “buzz” your lips audibly if you are tired.
  14. When a conductor speaks to you, always acknowledge by making direct eye contact and possibly a nod “yes.” (this one became problematic as several students in my studio at CCM really enjoyed vigorous nodding with very loud “YES-MAESTRO” proclamations)
  15. Never ask questions about notes/rhythm during rehearsal – this wastes valuable rehearsal time. Check score during breaks or after rehearsal.
  16. Your pencil is your best friend…. Do not make the same mistake twice because you “forgot.”
  17. Write in cues before the first rehearsal… and after the second rehearsal…and after the third rehearsal
  18. Remember that every time you are in public, an impression is made, good or bad… This applies both to the music you play and the statements you make to your colleagues.
  19. Avoid nervous repetitive actions: Looking at reed, adjusting seat/stand, instrument adjustments.
  20. Do not turn a page during silence.
  21. At the end of a piece, do not finish playing and fling the clarinet out of your mouth before the conductor has concluded.
  22. Your non-musical accessories (phone, keys, etc.) belong in your case/purse/briefcase, not on the shelf of your stand waiting to tip over and clatter to the floor.
  23. Show up early to rehearsal to get your instruments together, reeds chosen and instrument warmed up to pitch at least 10 minutes before the “A” is given.
  24. Be direct and friendly about fixing pitches or rhythm. Do not be manipulative about your words.
  25. The only conversations should be about issues regarding the music and only at the appropriate times.
  26. Have good hygiene, keep your shoes on, wear appropriate clothing, etc.
  27. Do not pack up before the end of rehearsal…. you still might have more to play.
  28. Always double check rehearsal/performance times and locations.
  29. Never sight read in rehearsal. Prepare your part in advance

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