The Unspoken Rules of an Orchestra

Recently, I was talking to some friends – neither of whom are classical musicians – and mentioned someone in the string section asking questions of the conductor during rehearsal, and how you “just don’t do that”. My one friend was confused. “Why?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you speak up if you’re confused about something?”

“Well,” I replied. “You should ask your stand partner first, then your principal. Usually, only the principal players are supposed to ask questions.”

Civic Violin and Fellow Carmen Abelson reacts during an open rehearsal with Maestro Riccardo Muti | © Todd Rosenberg Photography, September 2017

“Wow! – So many rules!”
Yes, I thought, I suppose there are.

Rules are necessary in almost any situation involving a large number of people, especially if those people are trying to do approximately the same thing. Riders of the CTA will no doubt be familiar with the “Rules of Conduct” signs that have appeared on trains and busses in the last year. Let riders off the train before boarding, don’t block the doors, etc. – I had thought these rules to be unspoken. You “just don’t” get off the train and stand stock still right outside the doors. Most certainly, the fact that people (for the most part) follow these rules allows us to make our daily commute with minimal hassle.

There are almost 100 musicians in an average orchestra. There are eighty-six musicians in the Civic. Our job is to make music together – to express ourselves artistically, play in time and, hopefully, together. Somehow, eighty-six people have to do approximately the same thing for many, many hours, and not get on each other’s nerves. And thus there is this cumbersome but, I think, necessary list of rules on orchestral etiquette. Are they a bit antiquated? Probably. In some cases, I would argue it is, in fact, their antique nature that makes them interesting.

Dear reader, I hope you find this brief foray into “orchestra culture” a bit like visiting a foreign country: perhaps a country you’ve visited before, perhaps not. In order to get a well-rounded list, I asked my colleagues at the Civic for their favourite, and least favourite, rules on orchestral etiquette. Gathered here are their responses.


  1. Always bring a pencil to rehearsal, as well as any other musical paraphernalia you may need. Many agreed this is the rule they break most often. It was then added that, should you forget something, it is much better to go get it straight away than to try to fake your way through rehearsal (for example, writing important notes from the conductor with an imaginary pencil).
  2. Bring a pencil, but don’t use it to scribble all over your part. This is unkind to the librarian, who has to erase your scribbling after the performance, as well as your stand partner (should you have one), who may struggle to read the notes.

    Civic bass players break rule #2 during a Stravinsky reading session with CSO coaches. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography, April 2017
  3. If you are a woman dressing up for a concert, make sure your all-black outfit includes a top that covers your shoulders (and potentially, elbows), bottoms that are ankle-length, and close-toed shoes. If you are a man, don’t forget your cummerbund! Tuxedos are required. Apparently, this dress code, though fairly uniform throughout the United States, is quite conservative compared to other countries’.
  4. Never chew gum, even if you can chew and play at the same time.
  5. While warming up, do not play, under any circumstance:
    • exactly what your stand partner is playing
    • anything other than the orchestral repertoire being rehearsed
    • a solo to which you have not been assigned
  6. Don’t have your tuner on too often – other players may find the screen or its blinking red and green lights distracting.
  7. Choose carefully when to clean your instrument, if necessary. As a string player, I usually don’t do more than wipe a bit of rosin off of my strings. Wind players, what with the “condensation” (otherwise known as spit) constantly building up in their instruments, have a more complex system as to when they can blow into their keys, empty their “condensation” valves, etc.
  8. Respect principal players’ rank– after the conductor and concertmaster, they are in charge of making musical decisions.
  9. For string players sharing stands, the inside player should always be the one to turn the pages. It was discussed, but not decided, whether the inside player is also responsible for bringing a pencil for the stand, writing in the music, counting rests, and pointing at the measure where the conductor has asked to start. Personally, I feel this puts an undue amount of stress on the inside player!
  10. Don’t wear strongly scented personal hygiene products – quarters are close!
  11. During rehearsal, if you want to compliment a player whose solo has just gone really well, you have a number of options:
    • shuffle your feet
    • (string players only) wave your bow in a vague sort of up and down motion, as though you were about to tap your stand with it
    • raise one of your feet
    • I had never heard of this last option, which was told me by a brass player. If a soloist plays really well, he said, you’ll sometimes see a row of brass players’ feet out in celebration.
  12. Never contradict the conductor, or the concertmaster, or your principal. In fact, where conductors are concerned, it’s best not to correct them at all.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I think a good number of the most interesting rules made the cut. Also, it should be noted that, though definitely a part of orchestral etiquette and the culture of an orchestra, these rules are for the most part, trivialities. The most important rules, it would seem, remain unspoken: to be kind to one another, to make beautiful music, and to have a darn good time doing it!

By Carmen Abelson, Civic Violin and Fellow

Top: A violin reflects the lights of Orchestra Hall during an open rehearsal with Maestro Riccardo Muti.| © Todd Rosenberg Photography, September 2017