Entering the professional workplace can be intimidating for anyone, not just musicians. Knowing what to do, how to prepare, when to show up, and what to bring can be confusing. Here is some advice for the incoming extra from a principal’s perspective so you will leave a great impression. Some of these tips are specifically for percussionists but a lot is applicable to all musicians. Every orchestra has their own feel and etiquette so as you play more you can observe and make adjustments to fit into the culture. A lot of this advice is on the conservative side for someone playing extra for the first time. And remember, just because you see others behaving a certain way doesn’t mean it is necessarily accepted behavior with the rest of the group.
I want to preface this post with the statement that none of this advice is meant to reflect poorly, be a slam or some sort of message towards any of the extras we use at the St Louis Symphony. We have a ridiculously good group of extras that make the concerts we play possible. This post is meant to be advice for those entering the workplace so they can show up prepared and behave professionally. Before I continue I wanted to make sure our awesome extras here in St Louis didn’t feel any of this was directed to them.
- Show up prepared.
This goes without saying but I will say it anyway. Your #1 job when hired is to play your part. No one expects you to be perfect, but they do expect a high level of preparation. That means knowing your own part as well as how it fits in with everyone else. The quickest way to never get called again is to not be prepared. Plain and simple.
- Show up early
This is the easiest way to leave a good impression. My rule of thumb is to show up a minimum of 20 minutes early. This is for the easiest possible scenario, like if you were only playing triangle and you can walk out and be ready in 30 seconds. Whatever time it might take you to get ready beyond the 20 minutes, add that to how early you show up. For example, if you are playing bass drum you will need to get your mallets set up, a table of some sort set up, and the calf head tuned. That could take 10 + minutes. So make sure you are there 30 minutes early. Keep in mind a very important factor. You are working with other people and what you do affects them. If you need more room to play, that takes room away from them. That may be perfectly acceptable but it is much better to deal with these compromises before the group tunes. It’s also nice for the principal and personnel manager to know you are there so the thought never runs through their head if they need to make a frantic phone call.
- Bring everything you need
OK, this may seem ridiculously obvious but let me explain why this is important. In some orchestras there is a culture of using specific equipment. For instance, you might always use that orchestra’s bass drum mallets, triangles or chime hammers. This is usually for a really good reason and should be continued because that is what sounds best and is what the group is used to. And here is where I insert the giant however… I still recommend bringing something in case these instruments are not available. You may know that 99 times out of 100 you will use that group’s tam-tam beater, but how foolish do you look the 1 time it’s not available? If you have questions, just email or call the principal beforehand and work it out. For most orchestras the obvious instruments like bass drum or xylophone will be provided and you can assume that. For a pick up orchestra though, you should confirm everything. You might have to bring some large instruments. As a principal I can say I would much rather get an email wanting to confirm some equipment will be there than having someone show up with the music and nothing else asking me where 6 things they need are.
- Behave in a professional manner; use good orchestra etiquette
I only say this because there is a good chance you will see others not behaving correctly (sadly) and it shouldn’t let you think that this is acceptable. Basic etiquette should never be a question. For instance, don’t talk once the rehearsal has started unless someone in the section approaches you about something. It’s not social hour. If you have a question wait for a quick break to walk over to the principal and ask them. Only pull out your smartphone if you have a really long time before you play. Cell phone etiquette is different in different orchestras so be conservative in your use. Or, just don’t use it! Use common sense. I know this makes me sound like a stick in the mud but it’s better to be quiet and boring than the person that causes the woodwinds to turn around because you are a distraction.
- It’s all about getting the best performance.
Don’t take elementary advice personally. If you are new somewhere you may get some pretty basic advice or direction. Don’t take it as a slam against your playing. They just want to make absolutely sure everything will be fine. The first professional service I played was with the NC Symphony. The section was incredibly welcoming but when it came time to play they were constantly make sure I knew where I was and pointing out rehearsal numbers. I thought to myself “Look, I can count rests! I don’t need my hand held.” Of course I didn’t say that but I was thinking it. Now that I look back I totally understand where they were coming from. They knew I could count the rests, but the performance was what was most important and they were just making sure everything would run as smooth as possible. What a great early learning experience! We do that here in St Louis a lot. Not in as obvious a way, but we tap out fingers to rehearsal numbers so we all know where we are.
- Bring your confidence, but leave your ego at the door.
Different groups have different styles and different ways of playing. Tune into that and see how you can contribute rather than looking for opportunities to show off your chops.
- If a conductor addresses you, acknowledge you understood the direction.
If the conductor asks you to play something different (louder, softer, whatever) acknowledge you understand. You don’t have to say anything but a simple nod of the head, thumbs up or “OK” let’s them know that the issue is taken care of. If you simply stand there with no reaction, it gives the conductor, the orchestra, and the section the impression you don’t understand. That’s not good! I know addressing a conductor can be intimidating which is why I am a fan of the thumbs up. It’s simple, doesn’t require talking, and let’s everyone know you are on it.
- Follow the same advice in #7 if the principal or a section member asks you to do something.
If someone in the section has a suggestion, be sure to let them know you heard them and understand. Because the section plays in that hall all the time, they may know or hear things you haven’t noticed yet. Acknowledge their advice and make the change.
- Don’t over-react to a mistake.
EVERYONE makes mistakes. That’s why we have rehearsals. The orchestra might be expecting a sudden tempo change, but the conductor instead eases into the new tempo. The first time through it probably sounds like a bunch of people were rushing. Everyone makes note of the change and it’s fine the next time through. Don’t think you will never get hired again if you make a mistake. Just make a mental note of it and get it right the next time.
- Leave religion, politics, and gossip at the door.
No matter how tempting this might be just don’t go there!!
- Help out when you can but also stay out of the way when can.
A lot goes on to make a rehearsal happen so pitch in when you can. Stay late to pack up stands and equipment. Do what you can to make the service run smoothly. However, sometimes that means staying out of the way! If you have a non-pertinent question, wait to ask it when you know there is time to answer, or don’t ask it at all.
- Remember we (the orchestra) want you to be there!
This is a really important one! I know it can be nerve racking walking into a new situation where you think everyone is judging you. You may even feel like some people are even being cold to you. It’s not that they are cold or stand-offish, it’s because they are there to do a job. They have their own getting ready to do. Sure it’s nice when lots of people come up to you and say “hey it’s great to have you here!” but that’s not realistic sometimes. You were hired because they wanted YOU. The orchestra is a family that is made up of more than just the members. It takes conductors, staff, and extras to make it happen. Showing you have what it takes will mean they will want to keep you a part of that family.
As I said in the beginning, a lot of this advice is on the conservative side. Some orchestras are more relaxed with their etiquette. However, as an extra playing for the first time, you would rather be thought of as quiet and shy, than disruptive and disrespectful.
Thanks to Alan Stewart and Rob Knopper for a few additions to today’s post and for looking it over before I posted.
I want to let me regular readers know that I am taking a few weeks off here in July so expect the next post around the end of July or beginning of August. Thanks for all the wonderful comments and suggestions. We will pick up our conversation in a few weeks!