Wednesday, April 20, 2011

No Good Questions

The older I get, the more convinced I am that there are no good questions to ask during rehearsals. Consider, if you will, commonly heard questions asked in rehearsal:

1 – “What note do I have in measure X?” REALLY? You have to ask that question? What’s everyone else playing? If someone else is playing an F#, and you have an F, play F#. If that doesn’t work, look at your section mates’ parts. What are they playing? What’s the group playing? If it’s D major chord, play F#, if it’s D minor, play F. If I think I have a wrong note, the first thing I do is look at the trombone parts. If that’s no help, I look at the bass part, then the bassoon part. If you really can’t figure it out, check out the conductor’s score AT BREAK, or after rehearsal. Don’t waste everyone’s time with a note check, really.

2 – “Are you in 2 or 4 there?” Again, REALLY? If the conductor’s motions are generally up & down, I’d guess 2. If there is some side-to-side movement, I’d guess 4. If he* is in one speed, and then suddenly changes speed by a factor of 2, roughly, figure he’s changed from one to the other. If that’s not enough information, ask the tuba player. He isn’t doing anything but watching anyway. He’ll know.
*In this narrative, I use the masculine for the nameless conductor. There is no gender implication here; it is simply for convenience.

2a – “How fast are you going there?” Aren’t you watching? Go with the stick. If you can’t get it, go with the principal of your section, or the concertmaster.

2b – “What’s my dynamic at …. ?” What’s the guy next to you got? What’s the rest of the section have? What’s the rest of the group doing? Is the conductor conducting big, or small? If none of these help, look at the score, at the break. A good rule of thumb is blend with the group.

2c - "What's the bowing at ... ?" Really, you have to waste the whole orchestra's time with this? What's your section principal doing? If you can't tell, look at the concertmaster. Man, if I had a buck for every minute wasted on bowing discussions, I could retire now. Besides, isn't this supposed to be figured out ahead of time? If not, is this a discussion that can take place at the break?

3 – “Are you changing speeds there?” Well, DID he? If he did, he probably will again. If not, he probably won’t. Aren’t you watching? Even so, he may do it differently each time. Just watch. Forget about what’s in, or what’s not in the part. Parts are wrong all the time. If you honestly can’t figure it out, sit out one pass through that section and see what everyone else does. Go with the group.

4 – “How long do you want the notes there?” This one is only HALF bad, because sometimes it is hard to tell. I always listen to the first trumpeter. If I do what he does, 99% of the time, I’m in good shape. If the trumpets aren’t playing, I listen to first trombone, or first bassoon, or the basses, or the celli. Or … I do what the concertmaster is doing. There is nothing wrong with going with the principal violin (or principal clarinet in the band).

5 – “Someone (or some section) is playing a wrong note (or wrong note length) at …” REALLY? Do YOU want someone telling YOU that you are screwing up? The conductor will figure it out, or he can’t, or won’t. Still, it’s HIS job. Keep it to yourself.

6 - Recently heard at a professional orchestra engagement: "Is the (section brass part) supposed to be muted there?" SERIOUSLY? What is the rest of the section doing? If they ARE muted, use your mute. If not, don't. Do we have to interrupt a rehearsal for this question?

At recording sessions, never, EVER point out that you made a mistake, EVER! What’s the point? It’s the conductor’s job to hear clams, or the recording engineer. Make like Yo-Yo Ma, you played everything perfectly. USUALLY, you are the only one that heard the mistake. Don’t WORRY about it. If you are making a ton of dough, you could be costing everyone MORE tons of dough to make another pass at that section, PLUS you are pointing out to the contractor that you messed up. You just might not get that call next time. Clam up on the clams. Someone is making a helluva lot more money than you to make sure the performance is clean. Let THEM worry about it. You have ENOUGH on your plate when the red light is on.

These are a few, I am sure there are others. As always, I welcome & encourage your comments.


  1. Even as a non-professional, I know better than draw attention to myself with stuff like this. But inevitably some smarty pants soprano has to point out the altos are missing a note. Hey, it's not like we get to sing the melody all the way through, we actually have to figure it out! Thanks for a great smile and words to live by, and not just at rehearsal!

  2. Nice post, Tony. Some good caveats to play by. Learned some insights. What will I do-our band doesn't take a break anymore. ;-) I won't say I've messed up, because the author makes a lot more money than I do!

  3. 1a. "My measure is missing a beat." or "I have a half beat too many." -- You should be LISTENING FOR WHO YOU ARE PLAYING WITH and do what they do. Worse case, if it's bad enough, check the score later. Or check your OWN copy of the score. Or use your phone to check the score on the IMSLP online.

    If it's a Philip Glass piece, don't bother and play what you feel like.

  4. Heard: "Can we start at measure number such-and-such?" Meaning: "I don't have my part down yet, so let's waste everyone's time and make them play what they already know so I can get my little solo just perfect."

    And my all time favorite, heard as everyone readies his/her instruments to start playing: "Wait, where are we starting?" LISTEN to the conductor, instead of yapping! Besides, when they start playing, if you have the slightest familiarity with the music, you ought be able to figure out where they are. GRRRR!!!!!

    BTW, Tony, I used to subscribe to the SJS for many years, starting when I was 16. Sat in row 1, seat 28, and have many, many good memories of concerts, compositions, musicians and conductors.

    Oh, and I play cello in two orchestras. And the comments always come from the woodwinds. (Or sometimes the violas.) :-)

  5. Great comments for musicians of all ages. Thanks for putting them all in one place (although the list ain't complete without Dean's comment about "where are we starting?").

  6. My words to live by: "Play what's written!" --Wilbur Sudmeier
    Regarding "where are we starting," I've noticed as I've gotten older that some musicians' hearing starts to go and this can be an artifact of that!