How to Work Effectively with Your Fellow Musicians

Mike Lawson • String Section • December 13, 2016

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Some ensembles have set seating throughout the season, with minor changes as unanticipated circumstances require. This means you will sit with the same person for the duration of the season. In such an environment, one learns the inherently unique quirks, postures, musicianship idiosyncrasies, stylistic identities, and preferences of the person you share a stand with.

If you are seated next to someone for multiple services, it is helpful to be as courteous as possible without overly compromising your own ability to see the conductor, music, and sit comfortably with ample bowing space.

Some issues can be remedied professionally and politely; but fester if not addressed with care. We’ll focus on common (and commonly ignored) behaviors. It is useful to be aware of them so you can be sure you are not causing any of these problems. The objective is to find a good balance between getting what you need to play your best and allowing the same opportunity to your fellow musicians.

Don’t be a stand hog. Place the stand between the chairs and facing a spot between you both.

Make sure the page to the right is reachable at both the top and bottom corners for the inside player to turn pages without undue reaching or movement of the entire upper body. It is difficult to be effective at turning pages if you have to twist (and possibly knock your violin on something to the left of the body — like a stand or colleague — both undesirable events for different (and hopefully obvious-reasons). Develop a system of nodding the head slightly to indicate the timing of turning the page.

Try to avoid bringing your belongings onstage. It is not acceptable to have items on the floor around your chair for a classical/ traditional symphonic performance. Security for your personal valuables should be provided for the musicians’ belongings for the duration of concerts.

During rehearsals, in most cases there will be a place backstage or in the seats/pews directly in front or to the side of the orchestra to put cases, coats, bags, et cetera. It is usually permissible to bring some things onstage with you, if it is not expressly prohibited and will be of use during the rehearsal. Drinks that can be spilled should be positioned with care, if allowed at all.

Before anything else, it is prudent to be sure the relationship between the stand, the conductor, and the chairs are adequate. Hopefully someone familiar with the string sections’ special needs will be a member in the team which gets all the invisible jobs done for us. If the chairs and stand are not positioned correctly, try to adjust them immediately. There is nothing more frustrating than having to turn your torso and head back and forth between the conductor and your music. If you were to draw a straight line from a spot between and behind your seats to the podium, the stand should be placed perpendicular to and directly within that line so as to create an imaginary 90-degree angle in the center of the stand.

Manage your chair so that it complements your posture and supports your core in both a playing position and at rest. This is quite personal; it is very important that you learn an awareness of how you need your chair to be positioned. You will be in a lot of pain at the end of the day if you do not use your body correctly.

Try to keep the talking/discussions to a minimum during rehearsals. If you have something to communicate, try to wait until the orchestra is stopped, and only when the conductor is not addressing you. If it is not important, keep it out of rehearsal. Attempt to follow and make note of anything another section is rehearsing that can help you better play your part and play well as an ensemble. Writing in cues and indicating who has downbeats or other similar details can be especially useful to how you execute your part. It is disrespectful to talk during rehearsal, and also robs your stand partner of useful information.

Cell phones: I have seen appalling behavior in ensembles that should know better. Do NOT use your cell phone during a rehearsal, even if you have a break from playing.

If you are not watching the conductor, it is potentially embarrassing and hazardous. When the conductor stops, all musicians should stop playing immediately. It will irritate everyone and is professionally unacceptable to continue playing after the conductor has stopped. Likewise, to play, (yes, even pizzicato) while another section is being worked, is not appropriate. It is distracting and, obviously, creates undue noise against which good rehearsal is difficult.

Getting along with your fellow musicians is a tricky business at times. It requires a lot of interpersonal relating skills and awareness; a vital aspect of your professional image and reputation. The way in which you interact both in and out of the rehearsal hall will be noticed by your colleagues. If you have bad habits or habitually exercise bad etiquette, it will be the topic of talk between the other musicians. Musicians can be quite a notorious bunch of gossips. This is scary, but can also allow for your career to grow in positive directions. Networking in this field is everything if you want to support yourself with it. If you have generally positive experiences with those you work with, that will be reflected in the conversations between other musicians. You will find yourself recommended well for other jobs and engagements.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include a section that addresses a professional in which we find both an employer and a fellow musician: the conductor.

Anyone who has had any orchestral experience knows that one of the mainstays of orchestral survival is to watch the conductor! Be sure to set your stand high enough and, as mentioned, positioned well at a good angle of sight to allow the music to stay within your visual field. One will develop a specific skill-set in peripheral and inclusive foci with time and experience in the orchestral setting. At all times, try to keep both the conductor and your music within your line of sight. Although peripheral sight is necessary in general, be sure to look directly at the conductor and the baton during any transitions, rhythmically difficult sections, pizzicato (any and all), syncopation, or rehearsed sections in which ensemble is perilous and insecure.

Making eye contact with the conductor both in rehearsals and the concert is one of the fastest and available ways to ingratiate one’s self with him/her. It is crucial to maintaining a valued chair and/or a spot in the orchestra for further work; it is a sure way to be noticed in a positive way.

Orchestral Posture for maximum visibility and health:

From the very beginning of a student’s education with me as a private instructor, I emphasize this topic quite intensely. If a student has played tennis or baseball, the stance is a good comparison for positioning the body in relation to the violin and the music/music stand. One wants to face at a 90° angle away from the stand with their violin to the side and as parallel to the floor as it can comfortably fit. They learn to sight down the fingerboard to the music with an open upper body at the cusp of having to look over and behind the shoulder to see the stand/music. Music is placed as close to the eyes’ height as possible. This allows for several comforts at once, while creating a center of balance that sits with the core muscles of the lower back and abdomen. While standing, sometimes it helps to have them imagine a “dinosaur tail” or some similar tripod model of balance in which one leans back just enough to maintain that balance and not get any early habits of re: poor use of the hips, the knees, the feet, swaying, or overcompensating movements that labor the playing, masked as phrasing.

I try to start incorporating orchestral skills, since a continuing education on the instrument will involve an orchestral experience. I have students experiment with both sitting back in the chair and using the chair’s (or an ergonomic type of pillow’s) support for the lower back, and sitting on the edge of the chair. Sitting on the edge is what works best for me during performances and most of rehearsals, but there are times when nearing exhaustion in long rehearsals or double rehearsal days, when I am glad to be able to play while relaxing into the back of the chair. There are a few ways one can sit on the edge of the chair and have good posture that is strengthening and works with all the above mentioned positioning( s). One can sit on the corner of the chair with your knees far enough from the extension of one’s bow stroke so as to not hit your lap or leg at the end of your stroke. Sitting on the chair straight requires a different way of supporting from the floor, but has the advantage of being more streamlined to both inside and outside chair positions without so much adjusting to get the chair just so.

Regardless of any of those things, I stress carefully the tilt of the head. There are tendencies to tilt so one’s cheek is in the chinrest. Ouch! If you are familiar with the “Alexander Technique”, this fits right into that school of body alignment and use. The most sustainable way to hold the violin involves looking to the side and dropping one’s chin, keeping the head as natural as possible while still supporting the instrument between the chin and shoulder correctly. If there is one thing I hope every student gets adequate personal care for, it would be the initial setup and sizing of the instrument, which involves finding the best possible supporting shoulder rest, chinrest type, additional cosmetic pads or rubber bands and sponges… (you have seen the crazy things we attach to our instruments to get the setup perfectly suited to our individual needs). It will shape their technique in just about every way, hopefully for years to come.

Celli/Bass; Stand Issues

Friend and professional cellist, Deidre Vaughn Emerson, provides insight into managing a stand partner in the lower strings. The way your cello is pointed is important; check for bow space. If both inside and outside cellists angle themselves in towards the stand, it leaves both players with more flexibility and range in the bow stroke. Professionals can play in awkward or small venues and compensate fairly well; they know what to expect. Deidre touches on something that is probably the best way to start repairing one’s relationship with their stand partner when that happens. It starts off with courtesy. Some specific ideas she shared:

Celli and bass sometimes struggle with the unwieldy nature of their instruments. Offer to prop the instrument (holding respectfully and very carefully) while they get something. Bringing extra things like pencils, rosin, or a rock stop can make you friends very quickly. Being courteous and gracious is very important.

Mrs. Emerson’s final comment is written beautifully: “Many of us are secretly nervous when we have a new stand partner. If you get the exchange right you can have a friend for life — if you get it wrong, you can have a terrible and awkward experience for a long time that will slowly pull away from the joy and performance of your work.”

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