Orchestra Etiquette by Blake Turner

The orchestra, if you take the time to think about it, is one of the more complex work environments in the world. Where else do you see groups of 100 people or more, all in the same room, sitting in very close proximity to each other? With so many musicians working together for hours on end, it is crucial that symphony members be professional and follow orchestra etiquette.

2013 Autumn Shepherd School Orchestra

The Shepherd School Orchestra

What is etiquette? The Cambridge Dictionary simply defines etiquette as “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in particular social groups or social situations.”

To my knowledge, there is no official set of rules that dictates orchestra etiquette. However, from my own experience and with some help from Joan DerHovsepian of the Houston Symphony and my colleagues at the Shepherd School, I have compiled a list of general rules.

Don’t Look Behind You

As a string player, I’m often tempted to look behind me at the wind and brass players. Sometimes a wind player will play so beautifully, I want to see who it was and acknowledge them. But I have to tell myself, don’t do it!! It is very distracting for wind and brass players when 20–30 eyes start ogling them. Be polite and look forward.

Avoid Tapping Your Feet

I sometimes catch myself tapping my feet in rehearsal, and I quickly stop when I realize what I’m doing! Even though I’d like to believe that I have impeccable rhythm (I don’t), I know how distracting it can be to other players around me when I tap my feet.

Inside Players Mark Parts

It is the responsibility of the inside player on a shared stand to mark the parts with bowings and changes during rehearsals. If you are the inside player, be proactive and alert. Once the conductor indicates something needs to be marked down, don’t wait for your partner to do it, do it yourself!


It may go without saying that orchestra players must have their parts prepared before rehearsals. You are showing respect for your colleague’s time, your audience, and yourself.

Talking During Rehearsal

Keep your conversation during rehearsals to a minimum. If you need to discuss something with your stand partner regarding the music, make it brief so that both of you can stay on track in rehearsal.  Leaving questions about notes or rhythms, etc., for orchestra breaks is preferred so as not to waste valuable time. Follow the chain of command. Consult the principal player of your section before going directly to the conductor.

Here are some professional tips from Houston Symphony Assistant Principal Violist Joan DerHovsepian:

Page Turning

“The most important responsibility an inside player has is to make a timely page turn for their partner, so the outside player can play seamlessly. Arrive for the turn early with page in hand, wait one second to make sure your partner has scanned the remaining music, and turn swiftly.  Dropping a few extra notes so this turn can be done at just the right time shows respect for your partner and is always appreciated.”

Rice Symphony Class Photo

The Houston Symphony

Staggered Bowing

“The outside player may change bow on held notes or staggered bowing passages where they are comfortable. It is the responsibility of the inside player to watch sensitively for this change and make their bow change just before or after their partner. This courtesy is easily overlooked, but I’ve always felt it creates harmony on a stand when there is this common awareness.”

Bring Your Own Pencil

“When two people share a stand, it is polite that each will bring his or her own pencil (with functioning eraser) to every rehearsal. Share music, not germs!!”

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