What's it like for orchestra members before a performance?
November 28, 2016 4:58 AM   Subscribe

For some fiction I'm working on, I need to know in some detail what the process is like for members of an orchestra before a performance. How early do they arrive at the orchestra hall? What do they do with their coats? Does everyone have a locker? Where do instrument cases sit during the show? Do people warm up at all before going out onstage to do the more public warmup? Is there a lot of chitchat? Basically, if you could walk me through the process step by step, that'd be a huge help.
posted by the phlegmatic king to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
For an Amateur orchestra:

THe dress rehearsal starts at 1:30 and finished whenever. People are on their own for Dinner wherever they wish to go. People start arriving back at the venue at 6:30 for a 7:30 start, but most people arrive about 7. Everyone arrives already dressed in their blacks. There are a series of rooms where instruments and other accouterments (coats etc) are put, and it is very haphazard. Certain sections stick together, but others mix. Warm up happens from 7 to 7:20 and you get mostly in tune. The orchestra is seated by 7:28. At 7:29 there is the usual tuneup "conducted" by the leader of the orchestra essentially pointing to the oboe and then to different sections and then the leader is seated. The soloist for the concerto comes out at 7:31 after the conductor at 7:30.

For professions it will vary, but I doubt that everyone has their own locker because a lot of town halls and other venues just wouldn't have the space for them if it is a big orchestra.
posted by koolkat at 5:27 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

In a full time pro orchestra everyone probably has a locker. Cases go in some combination of the locker room and green room. Orchestras with a full time stage crew and lots of equipment frown on cases on stage in favor of specialized holders/racks/etc onstage (this is typically just the most elite orchestras).

Most of the work for a performance goes into the preparation beforehand, either in rehearsal or individual practice. Before the concert people are typically doing whatever they've learned is best for them to find their focused happy place - this ranges from meditation and solitude to shooting the shit with your buddies and watching the Patriots game in the green room until 2 minutes before downbeat.

It's probably important to recognize that at the professional level, people are prepared and experienced to the point that an individual concert is no longer (usually) a special event. In school you might play 10 concerts in a year; as a pro it's more like 5 in a week.

Source: writing this from a bus with other musicians on the way to an early morning Boston Pops gig. Today it's 100% chatting with buddies.
posted by range at 5:35 AM on November 28, 2016 [30 favorites]

Yeah, in my experience pro musicians (orchestral, musical theatre pit, etc.) pretty much show up at the last possible nanosecond, and GTFO as soon as possible after.

Actors, singers and dancers, not so much. :-)
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:16 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

FYI- This is often because they are coming from another gig/have other gigs to get to.

Amazon's Mozart in the Jungle covered this a bit (you may want to watch it if you haven't. It's not real life but it's a decent glimpse into a relatively unknown world that IMO gets a lot of things right, or close to right).
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:20 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Have you ever heard of the kid's book, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed?
posted by colfax at 6:59 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Smaller orchestras have preparation/rehearsal areas in their orchestra halls. They're off to the side, underground... wherever they've been put. There's always a way to get backstage without audiences seeing it. Cases and coats go in the prep/rehearsal area. May or may not be lockers; it all depends. If there aren't lockers, there's someone to look after everything.

There's a bit of warmup, but not much. I think the earliest we arrived for major concerts (think regional US competitions) was half an hour beforehand. Enough to get the instrument and/or your body warmed up, and if tuning is needed, in tune (wind instruments have to be warmed up in order to be sure they are indeed in tune). If you're a pianist you're either doodling around on a practice room piano or just shooting the shit because your instrument is already on stage and everyone else will have to tune to it anyway – note that most pianos are tuned before a concert in which they're used, so there won't be major surprises.

As soon as it's over you take off OR go for beers. There are in-jokes about which instruments do what.
posted by fraula at 7:11 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

FYI- This is often because they are coming from another gig/have other gigs to get to.

I sing in the chorus for Holiday Pops touring shows for the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, which is mostly freelancers*, and there are definitely players who will squeeze in an afternoon Nutcracker matinee with the Boston Ballet and then do a Holiday Pops show in Worcester or Providence (an hour or so away). I've even heard tell of a percussionist squeezing in an 11AM Symphony Hall Holiday Pops matinee, a 1PM Nutcracker, and an 8PM runout, but they like to talk big.

Also I have on occasion observed a woodwind player or two doing crosswords onstage during warmup. I suppose from the house she might look like she's making notes on her score.

The orchestra bus arrives at the venue well after the chorus bus - the chorus members are either volunteers or paid via lump sum for the whole tour, while the players are paid by the hour.

At the venues we perform at, most of the warming up happens on stage - we generally perform either in older theaters with inadequate space or in arenas where you need to get used to the mics and pickups.

* This is a different orchestra from the Boston Pops proper, with some overlaps in personnel and lots of overlap in repertoire.
posted by mskyle at 7:16 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

And there is always someone who forgot their music. Or a piece of it. Or rehearsed the wrong thing. Or needs a stand. Or needs black socks.

Someone usually is in charge of such things; said person may or may not be a member of the orchestra/ensemble.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 7:17 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

In response to mskyle - I read a great deal of a book during a Christmas concert once on a Kindle. I was playing bass clarinet, I had parts on about 1/3 of the numbers, and the rest of the time the audience may have seen me quietly doing something on my stand...

I'm basically an amateur musician but sometimes play contract gigs that amount to professional work. The experience I can't help you with is being a part of a group that lives on buses/planes and plays 5+ times a week as professionals. However, I'll point out that professional groups tour a LOT so their "road experience" within the venue is going to be much the same as mine, and even their "home hall" often hosts a number of different acts so I'd assume it's not much different, except for maybe having a rehearsal room within the building that might provide some additional room for personal effects.

Some community groups have a dress/technical rehearsal just before a gig, as mentioned above; others have the dress rehearsal the day or two before and we just show up at the aforementioned 30 minutes or so in advance. Smaller groups "make an entrance" just prior to the show; if you go to a symphony orchestra their members typically wander onto the stage as soon as they're set and warm up and noodle until time for tuning.

If you can get someone to let you take a peek in the "back of hall" areas of a theatre/concert hall similar to the one you're imagining for this fictional venue, it will be highly instructive and answer a lot of your questions.

Modern constructed halls are generally more spacious - I think because modern theatre is more set/hardware intensive. But whereas it looks luxurious in the public side, the back end is all painted concrete block. There are some massive open spaces (you can only see maybe 1/3 to 1/2 the stage area from your seat, depending on how it's draped). Dressing room space is VERY limited. Actors/singers/dancers mostly strip* enough to make costume changes just offstage, and musicians in orchestras rarely change in or out of "concert black" at the venue, unless they've a) driven a long way or b) came from another gig that required different dress.

This is modern halls. Older halls/theatres are like something out of Dickens, mostly. Unbelievably weird, cramped, shoddy looking spaces. Structurally safe (safety is a BIG deal in the theatre), but no attention to aesthetics. I think there's actually a little bit of psychology there; I think we take a little bit of pride in contrasting the bright lights and beauty front of house with the weirdness backstage. But we artists are weird...

As for backstage warmup and mental prep behavior - as a rule the more central one is to the concert, the more likely one is to want to be alone or more focused on some kind of warmup ritual. If you're a clarinetist or sax player, as I've often been, you aren't that nervous or feeling the need for much prep. If you're a celebrity vocalist or just the principal violinist/solo pianist/whatever, you're probably in a room by yourself doing a warmup ritual (which is NOT rehearsing) and/or meditating. Some famous musicians/personalities famously seem to be in "casual" mode until seconds before they're on, but the ones I've worked around seemed to have their "game mode" on well in advance. They'd be friendly/casual at the last rehearsal or again after the performance, but not just prior.

Here's another 'secret of the guild' that I almost feel bad disillusioning civilians with. The band/orchestra often has little or no rehearsal. I just did a show Saturday where I not only had no rehearsal, just a brief walk-through, the parts were not given to me in advance. And it's not that me or most of the others I was playing with (also community pick-up players) were that great that we could just nail it. The company just doesn't care/doesn't have the budget to pay pros to travel around. As long as the principal singers/dancers get their parts right, along with piano and rhythm section, and the band doesn't fall apart, and we play some good solos in the band (which only means we didn't get so lost we didn't know where to play) apparently the public doesn't notice a lot of sloppiness.

*this is one part greater comfort with their bodies/occupational familiarity with the idea of changing in a coed environment and three parts IT IS SO DARK IMMEDIATELY BACKSTAGE YOU HAVE NO IDEA. I don't ever see musicians who are part of a band/orchestra/ensemble stripping down to their undies. They'll find a dressing room or restroom to change if it's more than changing a shirt, jacket, tie, etc.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:33 AM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Nthing the little-rehearsal part. If the concert contains soloists, singers, guest stars or guest conductor, or anything special (other than straight-up 100% orchestral music), it's more likely there was at least one rehearsal prior.

But lots of the time, repertoire is extant and players already know it. So the "show up just in time to play the gig" mentality makes more sense.

Being a pro instrumentalist, the higher you go in terms of quality, is not about rehearsal. You're expected to practice on your own and show up ready, and achieve the desired output in the moment. This becomes SOP and it's no big deal.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 8:14 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

How early do they arrive at the orchestra hall?

Tying in with randomkeystrike's point about "The band/orchestra often has little or no rehearsal. [...] The company just doesn't care/doesn't have the budget to pay pros to travel around" one thing I've seen is if there are featured soloists there will be a morning/afternoon rehearsal with the soloists - often pretty short and fast-moving, going over beginnings and endings and certain spots where the guests' approach to a section of music might differ from what the conductor expects. And this is usually about $$$, where paying for extra days for the orchestra members to rehearse and hotels & etc for the guests simply isn't in the budget.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:23 AM on November 28, 2016

I'm reminded of the appearance of a violinist with our local community orchestra. He was a "name", but not hugely famous. He played the Four Seasons. The critic in the local paper complained bitterly that he wore a business suit instead of the usual formal wear, and that he made some entrances in the wrong places. I'm sure there was no rehearsal for that performance.

I thought I would mention that the musicians have a fair amount of paraphernalia other than their instruments. I'm thinking of stands to hold instruments, mutes, etc. I recently saw a brass quintet concert during the which the tuba player (tubist?) used a mute that looked as big as a lady's hatbox, and which was very droll in appearance. I also remember an oboe player from years ago who swabbed her instrument with a scarlet cloth, very conspicuous against the mostly black/white backdrop.

I also recently attended a concert by the US Army Field Band. The whole band is on tour for weeks, if not months at a time, so it's a special case. They are accompanied by a multiple semi-trailers, and I'm sure there is a company, or at least a platoon or two, of support troops to handle the logistics. During the performance I pondered the question of whether they brought their own chairs. I'm sure they did bring the music stands and some of the audio gear.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:33 AM on November 28, 2016

Thanks a ton, all, this is extremely helpful!
posted by the phlegmatic king at 11:02 AM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a professional sub (oboe / English Horn) who plays for many regional and speciality orchestras in the southeast.

Call time is usually 30 minutes before downbeat. Some people arrive dressed, others get changed in the bathroom or covertly in their car in the parking lot. Lots of people sneak in at the last minute because they are coming from another job/gig or vehemently believe in only getting paid for when they are on stage. (If the orchestra must arrive early for a "run through" or "sound check," you'd better believe they expect to be paid for that time.)

There will be a green room, where folks can keep their cases, coats, and purses. If we're lucky, there will be some water or coffee. I have not been above pretending to be a waiter at a gala in order to score some free booze for the pit, or stuffing my pockets with tiny condiment jars if we play at a fancy hotel. Because here's the thing -- so many orchestras pay jack shit (assuming they aren't already 5 months late with paychecks). Nearly everyone in my regional orchestras (and these are major cities) work other jobs, from music professor to X-Ray tech to cashier at JC Penny's.

People with smaller instruments bring their cases on stage because they can. Oboists will always have all their crap on stage because we are very picky and have finicky reeds/instruments, so we need all our gear nearby.

Every orchestra seems to have that one 2nd violinist who is obsessively playing every standard excerpt in the 15 min of warmup time we have before a show. Strings tend to noodle around more than anyone else. Most people are chit-chatting or playing around on their phones and loathe to blow their chops too soon. You can tell who has big solo work, because they will actually trying to get into their zone. The principle oboist will be fussing over reeds and getting their "A" sorted out, because they have to tune the orchestra.

Most of my orchestras are just a bunch of working joes -- we're passionate about music and very good at what we do, but there's also a very blue collar atmosphere. The ones who are auteurs or consider themselves as such usually stick out. YMMV in other regions.

The usual topic of discussion is what bar everyone is going to after the show. Especially if this is a touring group. The atmosphere is very casual. Chit-chat and loads of body language continue on throughout the performance but it can be very subtle; one of my favorite things to do at concerts is watch the orchestra and see who is screwing around, ha ha. That is not to say we don't take music-making seriously, but, well in general, the orchestra life is a lot less uptight than it's made out to be.
posted by Wossname at 11:29 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Semi-professional part-time orchestral musician here; I play in a few amateur orchestras and have been fortunate to have done gigs in (or be familiar with) some very nice (and not-so-nice) halls used by some of the major symphony orchestras.

If you're talking about a well-funded orchestra in a dedicated hall -- think something like the Kennedy Center in DC or Avery Fisher ... er ... Geffen Hall in NY -- then the orchestra will have a dedicated locker room and musicians' lounge. The locker room isn't exactly posh, but it has a place for coats and purses and there are folks who do change in to "work clothes" there. The lounge might have cubbyholes of various sizes for instruments; the cubbyholes are cushioned so instruments don't get dinged up.

There might be a closed-circuit TV in the locker rooms and lounge showing what's going on on-stage.

There's a wide range of behavior, although at the high professional level the amount of boredom-fighting backstage might surprise you. Expect people on their phones, reading books and magazines, watching movies, playing sudoku or gossiping. (Back when I was a student, one of the guys in the major orchestra in my town was infamous for reading woodworking magazines on-stage.) Card games used to be common but are more-common in pit gigs than in orchestras. Napping sometimes happens, too -- some of those couches are VERY comfortable.

Just like you would have in any workplace with ~100 people who are together for extended periods of time, working together, there are cliques. Some social circles are section-based, others are not.

In addition to the boredom, there is a small amount of instrument maintenance -- brass players dealing with oil, woodwind players fidgeting with reeds, string players rosining their bows. A lot of this happens at home, but some of it happens backstage.

At the highest professional levels, also remember that the usual schedule will involve rehearsals in the morning or early-afternoon, followed by downtime, and then the concert in the evening. If you've been playing for 4+ hours earlier in the day you're probably not going to do an extended warmup backstage or on-stage. And in a lot of orchestras I'm familiar with, the musicians tend to book out pretty quickly after the applause dies out. Some socialize or go out for a beer, but YMMV depending on a lot of factors. Post-concert bar sessions are much more common when on-tour, of course.

Amateur gigs have a much different feel. Next week I'm playing an orchestra gig in a (very large) church; it is my local orchestra's regular concert venue. The stage is nice and spacious, but the orchestra's "green room" is a set of Sunday school classrooms and people who don't show up in their concert dress have to change in the church's restrooms. I'll throw my case on an elementary-school desk and will toss my coat on top of the case. It will be cramped and noisy from people warming up, and some will be noodling through some of the harder licks (but not as much as in other concerts, because, hey, it's Christmas music and the Nutcracker suite). We'll probably have last-minute tech problems with the stand lights and the amp for the synthesized organ. Most of the musicians will be pretty blase about all of that.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 11:29 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am so digging this thread!
posted by BostonTerrier at 1:17 PM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I played at a semi-pro level for years. I always stressed about checking in on time: there is a manager (if not several support staff) whose job it is to make sure you are there at call time. Do NOT stress him/her out, because it's usually the person that does the hiring for that concert, and the next concert. Remember that you may be battling different traffic patterns -- weekday rehearsals at 7pm, so rush hour, but maybe your venue is near a mall on Saturday night, and you're also a part of the traffic rush into the venue.

Also, trying not to trip backstage, which is almost always near to pitch dark, and you may be wearing heels or some footwear that's not your normal day-to-day, and there's curtain bottoms and weird support bars everywhere. Like someone said above -- it's usually a theater or some multi-purpose venue, and very industrial backstage.

Chit-chat is almost always "aren't you glad this week is almost over", or maybe carpooling arrangements for the next gig. Unless there were last-minute bowing changes (I'm a string player), in which case the section leader is scrambling to make sure everyone's parts are marked.
posted by Dashy at 1:37 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

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