By Adam Groh

Leave the conductor alone!

The one mistake that many people make is to be too over-zealous about getting to know the conductor. In most situations, the conductor of a group wants to have a very simple relationship with you. He tells or shows you how he wants something done, and you do it. As a general rule, avoid speaking with the conductor in rehearsal. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with a casual conversation that may arise on a break, but most conductors are juggling a lot of responsibilities, and you don’t want to come off as annoying or needy.

In rehearsal, it is rare that you would need to say more than a few words to a conductor. Again, most conductors do not want to have a lengthy discussion about artistic decisions. They want to give an instruction and have it be done. In this situation, a simple “yes” or a “no problem” would suffice. If you have questions about your part, save them for a break, and before going to the conductor, start with your section mates and principal player for possible answers. Approaching the conductor should be your last resort. Imagine trying to micro-manage every measure of every part in an 85 piece orchestra. You can quickly see why players who take the initiative to solve their own problems make conductors very happy.

Observe the Hierarchy

As mentioned before, there is a hierarchy within most ensembles. Decisions are made at a variety of levels, depending on their possible influence on the group. For example, the conductor makes decisions for the entire group, but smaller details may be left to the concertmaster or principal players to work through on their own. It is impossible to overstate the importance of maintaining this hierarchy and knowing your place within it. The benefit to this system is that it allows for a great deal of control at the local level. However, should you disrupt or attempt to circumvent the structure that is in place, it can cause a potential rift between you and other members of the group. Make a point to go to the right people with your questions or concerns. Whether it is a question about the dress for the concert, or what mallets sound good in a particular passage, your answers can most likely be found with the people around you. If not, those people will be able to direct you to others who can answer your questions.

Be considerate of other people’s ears

This is a very common issue with inexperienced players, and it is also a very quick way to upset those around you without even realizing it. When other people are onstage to warm up for a rehearsal or concert, you should not be playing loudly. Being able to run through all of the loud entrances in your parts is another advantage to arriving early. Get your loud cymbal crashes, fortissimo xylophone, and Shostakovich snare drum licks out of the way forty five minutes prior to the start of your rehearsal or concert. If you need to continue warming up on those instruments, consider using a practice pad, soft yarn mallets on xylophone, or taking your crash cymbals backstage and away from others.

Be iCourteous

This is the information and technology age, and it seems that every day there is a new crop of iPhones, Droids, and other smartphones hitting the market. However, while technological devices are becoming a huge part of our culture, they should not be part of the concert experience. In a concert setting, you should never be using your cell phone anywhere that the audience could see you. In rehearsal, outside of a break time, keep your cell phone put away. The last thing that you want is for the conductor to think that your texting is more important than their rehearsal. The same goes for iPods, laptops and any other electronic devices. If you want to check your email on a tacet movement, move backstage or to another room. Also, taking pictures on stage should be done before or after the concert starts. Once the house is open for patrons, your cell phone or camera should be out of sight. In the meantime, bring a good, old fashioned book to read while you wait during rehearsal.

Social media is another part of our culture that is gaining popularity at an alarming rate. In the past couple years, many of the top percussion educators and performers have joined the thousands of college and high school-aged percussionists on Facebook, Twitter, and even on PAS’s message board. The long-term ramifications of social media are still being debated, but the possible negative effects of acting irresponsibly online are quite clear. Remember that if your profile is linked to the people you work with, or for, they can see all of your posts. Your harsh comments on politics, streams of curse words, or any other vitriolic rant that you may put on your page will be seen by all. It is easy to forget that the conversations we have with our friends on Facebook are not private. Teachers in public school systems have lost their jobs over their behavior online. Don’t let a moment of carelessness affect how your employer or colleagues view you. Keep it clean and be professional.

Present yourself the way you want to be perceived

As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. While I am certainly not suggesting that you show up to your first rehearsal in a suit and tie, take a moment to consider how you will be presenting yourself. There is nothing wrong with wearing jeans, but pick a pair that is free of holes. Make it easy for people to take you seriously, and avoid anything that could distract from your playing. Remember, you are not rolling out of bed for an 8am class in your pajamas, you are going to work.

Prior to concerts, do not enter the stage area (where audience members can see you) unless you are in your full concert dress. Male percussionists have a tendency to venture out to adjust equipment and set out mallets with their tuxedo only partially on. If someone in the seats can see you, then you need to be dressed appropriately (that includes having your bow tie and jacket on). After the concert, feel free to relax and “let your hair down,” but before the concert be sure to maintain the professional appearance of the ensemble. Audience members and your employer are paying you to be there (if you are a student then your scholarship funds are your salary). This is a professional setting. You would not show up to work at an office building without adhering to the dress code, and your music-related jobs should be no different.

Additionally, as unnecessary as it may seem to state this, practice good personal hygiene. It is distracting to stand next to a person on stage with a “casual approach” to showering. If you are a student and sharing practice rooms, then you know how poor the circulation usually is in them. Do not punish the student coming in after you by making the room unbearable. It seems crazy to have to include this, but it happens more frequently than we all wish…

In addition to your appearance, make sure that your setup for rehearsal is tidy and organized. This is why you brought those towels for tray tables. Resist the urge to place mallets on the floor or even on the instruments themselves. Keeping your area free of clutter is not only aesthetically pleasing; it also makes your performance more efficient. People have a tendency to judge things on first sight, and you want to be perceived as someone who is organized and prepared, not aloof and messy.

Play Great

This is the one thing that most students practice the most; however, it still bears repeating. After being hired by the ensemble, you should attempt to contact the principal percussionist to confirm all of your part assignments for the concert. You can get that information from the personnel manager who hired you. Once you know exactly what you will be playing, you can start to collect recordings and isolate the entrances that you need to practice. Remember, learning your music takes a specific amount of work. You can either do the work in advance and go into rehearsal comfortable and prepared, or you can put it off, be nervous, and then be forced to cram the learning process into one or two days. I think it is obvious which one is preferable.

One last note about your playing… I have often seen players fail to use their “poker face” in rehearsal. An important lesson that I was taught early on is that if the audience cannot identify a mistake, it never really happened. Despite all of your preparation, mistakes are bound to occur. However, should you make a mistake, do your best to downplay its significance. Make the correction and move on. I have seen people raise their hand in rehearsals and confess to mistakes without being prompted by the conductor. I am still not sure why they felt compelled to do that. While their honesty is admirable, the last thing that you want to do is undermine your own credibility and give anyone a reason not to bring you back in the future.

Final Thoughts

In the professional world, musicians are often hired (for the first time or a return engagement) based on factors other than playing ability. In almost every situation, music is a “team sport” and necessitates the ability to work well with others. Even if you are playing a solo recital, you still come in contact with stage workers, booking agents, and your event hosts. You spend thousands of hours honing your playing abilities. Make sure that your behavior and presentation represents all of that hard work. If you remember to consider these points you will find yourself getting more gigs and enjoying a more successful career.

What lessons have you learned about being a professional? What insight can you offer students who may not know concert hall and rehearsal room etiquette? Share it below.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on October 15, 2010.


The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by sheila miguez on

Dave Gerhart

Dr. Dave Gerhart, Product Manager, Percussion for Yamaha Corporation of America and Lecturer of Percussion at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at CSU, Long Beach, is a nationally recognized performer, composer, and educator. Dr. Gerhart, originally from Fairfield, California, holds a D.M.A. from the University of Southern California, M.M. in Percussion Performance and Instrumental Conducting and a B.M. in Music Education from California State University, Long Beach.
Dave Gerhart

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