One of my teachers, Bernard Adelstein, told me a funny story about when he was just a teenager during the 1940s, playing second trumpet in the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra under the famous conductor, Fritz Reiner. Reiner was rehearsing outdoors for a summer concert. The principal trumpet player, Irving Sarin, got frustrated with Reiner, slammed his music shut on the stand and walked out of rehearsal. Reiner then looked at the young Adelstein and asked him what was wrong. Quick-thinking, Adelstein replied, “I think Mr. Sarin is allergic to bees. He tried to kill a bee with his music, but he missed. He walked out quickly, so that he wouldn’t get stung.” Because conductors at this time had absolute power in an orchestra, Adelstein probably saved Sarin’s career by coming up with this wonderful excuse.
Being a musician in an ensemble requires that you learn how and when you can speak up in a rehearsal. If you monopolize rehearsal time with your personal questions and observations, or, worse, if you openly criticize the conductor, then you are hurting your relationship with the conductor and holding back your ensemble. You want to nurture great relationships with your colleagues and with the conductors you play under.
Here are some of my guidelines on how to ask questions diplomatically in an ensemble rehearsal:
- First of all, do not chat during rehearsal. If you have to talk to your neighbor about important things related to the music, then you can whisper. But be careful to not distract from the rehearsal or from the conductor’s comments.
- Quick fix. If you have an obvious wrong note or some other serious error in your part, you can raise your hand during rehearsal when the conductor does not seem too pressed for time (or when he or she asks if there are questions).
- Timing. The best times to ask questions are after rehearsal (or before). If you’re in a chamber group of something like 15 people or less, then you can talk about your view points, as long as you don’t monopolize the conversation.
- Size. In large ensembles, make it a general rule to not question the conductor’s tempos out loud in rehearsal. It usually comes across as disrespectful.
- Your tone of voice. This can be difficult to figure out sometimes, since what might seem an innocent question to you sounds like an insolent question to the conductor.
- What part do you play? If you are the principal and/or section leader, then you can more understandably ask questions in a large ensemble. If you play a lower part, then you should limit your questions to your section leader. The power flow in a large ensemble is pretty much top down. That’s the most efficient way a group like that works. Work within that system.
- Ask yourself, will my observation benefit the performance or will it simply point out some mistake? For instance, if the conductor chooses a tempo that is too fast for you, you might be able to say something like, “I’m having a hard time playing my best at this tempo, and I was wondering if we could try it a little slower?” Unfortunately, this question does not work as well in a professional ensemble, because you are supposed to be capable of fast tempos.
- Spidey sense. Use it. If your intuition (that little voice at the back of your mind) is saying, “Don’t say it”—then listen to that intuition.
- If damage is already done by making the conductor angry, then try to talk to the conductor after rehearsal. And, above all else, be conciliatory. Make SURE you understand the conductor’s viewpoint before leaving the conversation. Then apologize for the perceived wrong—even if you still feel like you were in the right.