Jen Cluff ~ Ensemble Survival Kit

Canadian Flutist and Teacher

  Ensemble Deportment
~Survival Kit~

Presented by Sarah Jackson, L.A. Phil Picc./Flutist
At the 1996 Courtney Summer Music Camp.
(original author unknown)

There are so many things to learn when one decides to play an instrument. Lessons are filled with attention to high range, low range, breathing, tonguing, tone and intonation. One aspect of playing is ensemble manners, how one interacts with one's musical colleagues. There are certain "unwritten rules" that most players come to know through experience, and players who don't follow the "rules" may find themselves being invited to join fewer and fewer ensembles.
The result that I've seen personally is that some outstanding young players who were destined for major careers never realized their potential, some even giving up, feeling bitter at their lack of success. It was not that these players were not "good enough", but rather that they alienated their colleagues by unprofessional behaviour. The tragedy is that they were probably unaware of the negative impression that they were making until it was too late.

As with all manners, ensemble "rules" are based on consideration and common sense. The way one interacts productively differs to some extent with the nature of the ensemble, but certain rules apply to ensembles of all sizes and types.
These are:

1) Come to rehearsals with your music prepared. If you don't know your part, you are not ready to rehearse. A rehearsal set up to 'read new music' is an obvious exception. Most rehearsals are really concerts in disguise.
Note: if your parts are particularly difficult ask for help in your private lessons, and/or find a recording of the work, if possible, and be familiar with the entire score.
2) Always arrive early enough so that you are warmed up and ready to play at the starting time of the rehearsal. Someone who walks in at 2 pm for a 2 pm. Rehearsal can be a major source of irritation for those players who were considerate enough to have come earlier, warmed up and tuned etc.
3) Bring a pencil to rehearsals. No player can remember everything that is discussed, and time will be wasted at the next rehearsal repeating things for the players who did not mark their parts.
4) Never miss rehearsals (or concerts!) except for very extreme emergencies. A player who is frequently ill will be avoided because they will be considered undependable.
5) Always be conscious of your personal hygiene. It is difficult to perform when a stand partner's garlic breath or gym-odour interferes with your breathing. Conversely, perfume or scent can cause allergic reactions for other players, so avoid it.
6) Once you have agreed to play a concert with the necessary rehearsals, it is unwise to cancel that commitment, even if something more important or more rewarding is offered to you. Would you be anxious to play in a group where people only honoured their commitment if nothing better came along?
7) Think twice about criticising your colleagues to others by revealing the mistakes they may have made in rehearsals or concerts. Music making is a very intimate time of sharing and the players must be able to trust one another in order to achieve the best results. By knocking one member of the group, you are tarnishing the reputation of the entire ensemble.

Certain guidelines apply especially to SMALL CHAMBER ENSEMBLES, that is, groups without a conductor such as brass quintets, wind quintets, and string quartets.

1) The success of a fine chamber group depends on the good ideas of all the members but each member must strike a balance between saying and suggesting too little or too much. No one will have their ideas agreed with or followed all of the time. The collective judgement must prevail, and players whose ideas have been rejected must not feel rejected themselves. This can become a very destructive tension in the group, and takes open-mindedness in order for peace to reign.
2) When suggesting a change to another player, try to convey respect along with the suggestion or criticism you are making. For example:
"We seem to be not too well in tune at letter 'F'. I may be high, or maybe you are low.
Can we check it?" rather than:
"You are flat. Can you bring the pitch up?"

The longer a group plays together, the freer the communication can become. This is especially true if the members respect each other, and they are secure in their self image and rapport with the group. With some of my colleagues, I can be very blunt and accept blunt criticism. With others, I need to be more careful, and more diplomatic. We must all try to be sensitive to the degree of frankness that will be welcomed by others.

Other guidelines apply more to large ensembles such as ORCHESTRAS AND BANDS:

1) Always try to match the style and intonation of the principal player. It is not appropriate to make suggestions 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 applies to all 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 or her style.
2) Before or after rehearsals do not play passages from parts other than the one you are playing yourself. No one will want to have you around if you play flawlessly the solo that is giving them problems. Pracising the other parts at home will help you grow, but don't alienate your colleagues by doing it in public.
3) When someone in the section or sitting near you has a solo, freeze! Don't make any sudden movements which might startle or distract the player. Even emptying your instrument (or other adjustments) must be done slowly if it is absolutely necessary to do it at the time.
4) Don't stare at a player, or turn around to look at them when they are playing. Rehearsals are not the time to examine your neighbour's technique.
5) If you are in a section that has a lot of bars tacet, give a small hand or finger acknowledgement of all rehearsal letters, numbers, or double bars. This allows all the players in the section to double-check that they have the correct count. If you are unsure of the count, don't make a motion, but wait to see one from the other players. With all players counting carefully, no section should ever get lost. The motions should be small enough that they cannot be seen by the audience.
6) If you have a question about your part and you are not the principal player, direct your question to the principal, not to the conductor.
7) If someone in the section makes a mistake, do not immediately look at the culprit. In a performance, do not let your manner indicate that an error has occurred, either by a colleague or by yourself. It serves no purpose to call attention to an error the audience may not have noticed.

Finally, there are customs of behaviour that apply to an ensemble player's relationship to THE CONDUCTOR.

1) Always speak to the conductor in a respectful manner, whether or not you think that respect is deserved. You must at least respect the conductor's position and alienating the conductor is never in a player's interest. Many players seem to view the conductor as the "enemy" this is quite natural since we are all creative musicians with individual and valid ideas, and it is easy to resent someone who tells us what to do according to their personal ideas. In solo and chamber playing, there is more freedom of expression, but a player in a large ensemble must be able to adjust to the necessary dominance of a conductor or he/she will waste time being frustrated. Large ensemble repertoire includes much of the greatest music ever written, so try to develop a positive relationship with your conductors and your own life will be more enjoyable.
2) Do not take up rehearsal time by asking questions that only apply to you and/or could wait until the break or after the rehearsal. Most conductors are more relaxed when approached privately rather than in the midst of a rehearsal.
3) Stop playing immediately when the conductor stops the ensemble. Continuing is rude and wastes time.
4) When a conductor makes a suggestion to you or your section, acknowledge that you understand by a nod of the head or some facial response (preferably not a grimace.)
5) If a conductor usually cues your entrances, look up to acknowledge that cue. Many conductors seem to enjoy eye contact from their players.

These "rules" may seem obvious or even petty, but they are too frequently ignored, and following them can help groups to function smoothly and allow the music to become the major issue. If our energies are not diverted by difficulties in working together, we can bring full attention to the joy of creative music making.

________________end original document

There are some ensemble manners listed off the ASU flute page --
[404 Not Found]

And specifically for flutists, there are some great words of advice printed in Jeanne Baxtresser's Book of "Orchestral Excerpts for Flute", in the introductory pages. (see pg. vi ). This is a great book of excerpts, and her advice is very very wise.

Back to Jen's homepage


© Jennifer Cluff