Sunday, 30 August 2009

Performance etiquette

An issue that came up in the Yahoo mailing list a while ago is how quickly you lift your horn up and put it down at the start and end of a passage. It turned into a more general discussion of performance etiquette.

My view is that the number of bars ahead you need to be ready depends to on the speed of the music. I generally aim to have my horn ready, with me looking at the conductor a few seconds before I make an entry, so that if the conductor decides to specifically cue me, he can make eye contact and be confident that I am following him.

As for putting the horn down at the end of a passage and start of a rest, this very much depends on circumstances. Normally, I keep the horn up for a second or two after I finish a passage, just to make sure that the horn is completely steady until I have thoroughly finished the last note of the passage. It is too easy to crack the last note of a passage because you are already getting set to put the horn down.

If there is only a few seconds rest until the the next passage, then the horn will stay up and ready, but I might take the mouthpiece off my lips for a moment. If the rest is longer, I will slowly and calmly put the horn down until it is next needed.

There are exceptions of course. For instance, the horn will go down very quickly in the following cases:
  • If I have only a short rest in which to turn a page
  • If I need to empty the horn and don't have much time
The horn will stay up at my lips for a longer time in the following cases:
  • At the end of a movement, until the conductor puts his baton down and relaxes
  • At a general pause, until the conductor starts the next passage
These last two cases and the "slowly and calmly" bit perhaps need a bit of explanation, because they have no direct effect on the sound you produce.

If you are playing in a concert, you are providing a visual spectacle as well as an aural experience. As far as possible, your movements when not playing must not distract members of the audience from their enjoyment of the music and of the playing of your colleagues. So you avoid sudden movements where possible, and when there is a silence, a moment of stillness
in the music, you absolutely must not break that stillness visually or aurally by making any kind of movement at all.

Although this really only applies during concerts, it is good to get into the habit of doing it all the time in rehearsals as well so that it comes completely naturally to keep still where required on the concert platform.

Why avoid unnecessary movements when not playing? Primarily to avoid distracting the audience (who are after all paying to enjoy the performance). Doing the same in rehearsal is simply good practice - i.e. practicing doing it right. If as a result you reduce the causes of distraction of other players, so much the better.

I take the view that whether the players are being paid or not, the audience is paying to listen, and that they therefore deserve the best performance the players can put on, in all aspects. This might be thought of as a small detail, but it is a detail which is easy to get right, and good performances come from attention to a succession of small details.


  1. When emptying water do you shake the horn at all? Even if I don't shake it, rotating it to get all the water out always feels way more theatrical and attention getting than I'd like. Any hints on making that procedure less a distraction?

  2. Hi Lyle,
    It depends of course on where the water collects, which of course varies depending on what make & model of horn you have and how the tubing is wrapped. I have an Alexander model 103. On it the water collects in the following locations:

    1. The first loop of tubing. I have a water key there, so pressing the key and a discreet blow through the mouthpiece clears that water.

    2. In the F tuning slide. The tuning slide pulls out downwards, so to remove, empty and replace it is a simple manoeuvre.

    3. In the valve tuning slides. The water can be persuaded to go all down into the 3rd valve slide by holding the horn at an appropriate angle, pressing all 3 valves and blowing. Then the water will all collect in the 3rd valve slide. Removing the 3rd valve slides on F and Bb sides and emptying them is similarly simple and discreet.

    There is no need to shake the horn. The single drop of water you fail to displace by not shaking is not going to cause bubbles, and will make little difference to when you next need to empty the instrument.

    With experience, by blowing through the horn with different combinations of valves pressed, it is possible to work out with good accuracy where the water is worst. So that is your next emptying location.

    A certain amount of movement to keep the horn empty is an accepted part of playing the instrument, but you should try to minimise it. Of course, you especially try to minimise the occasions when you have to empty while music is going on, by emptying thoroughly everywhere at the start of the concert (after tuning and before the conductor takes the podium), and you empty between pieces and where necessary between movements while the audience are moving in their seats to get comfortable for the next movement.