Observations on Performance Etiquette

I was playing a choral rehearsal the other day and the conductor made a joke comparing choirs and orchestras that has left me wondering ever since:

Why such a drastic difference between pre-concert performance etiquette of an orchestra and that of a choral ensemble?

We’ve seen it every time – an orchestra’s members casually enter the stage at their own leisure, walking between chairs to their respective section, to their own stand, and freely warm up their instruments and practice excerpts prior to tuning and the concert master and maestra entering the stage.

MONTREAL, QUE.: SEPTEMBER 7, 2011-- Musicians enter the stage during the inauguration ceremony of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra's new concert hall in Place des Arts in downtown Montreal on Wednesday, September 7, 2011. (Dario Ayala/THE GAZETTE)

What if choirs did this?

Imagine each member of the choir making their way to their place on the risers as individuals, each to his or own music stand, immediately commencing with lip trills, body kinesthetics, sighs, excerpts from an aria, clearing phlegm, and other things that singers do before they ever reach the stage. Finally, the tenor section leader draws his trusty tuning fork and the entire choir agrees upon pitch and tunes a chord before the maestra enters the stage…

I was in Salt Lake City for the 2015 ACDA National Convention and I had the privilege of hearing the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir perform. It was a euphoric performance full of deep artistry and masterful professionalism. Among other pieces they performed Pärt’s “Adam’s Lament,” a wickedly challenging dose of repertoire. Every vocalist had his or her own stand, and even more striking, actually had their own tuning fork to assist in finding their pitches. Of all choirs I have ever seen perform, they could have certainly made their entrance to the stage similar to the aforementioned description. But alas, they did as all choirs do – processed onto the stage in single-file fashion. They have the street cred and talent to perform such an entry, but they didn’t…

…Why not? What’s the big deal and does it really matter?

I suppose one could argue that carrying instruments is more cumbersome. Vocalists naturally carry their instruments with them wherever they go. Choirs are intended to represent a blend of voices and colors…but isn’t that the same intent of a string section? I have also heard a myriad of other pejorative comments toward either singers AND instrumentalists that could sway the reasoning behind the enormous differences between pre-concert rituals. However, none seem to hold any validity or HISTORY behind why this dichotomy exists between practices.

Frankly, per the choral rationale, the adages expressing first impressions and the audience “hearing first with their eyes” are rather tiresome in today’s age of stimulating concerts. What if we want to see and hear and witness each singer as an individual, a professional, an artistic technician? I saw that in Salt Lake, but would have loved to see and hear those Estonian first sopranos vocalize just as much as I enjoy seeing The Philadelphia Orchestra’s tubist play her long tones to warm up her embouchure (she’s a rockstar). 

I say what seems bizarre or uncouth in choral performance practice today may be tomorrow’s innovative move toward genius.

Maybe, just maybe, you may see a choir in Denver make their way to the stage in ways you wouldn’t expect…

6 thoughts on “Observations on Performance Etiquette

  1. Most choirs with which I have sung are rather large and need to fit in a tight space. If each singer walked to his place on his or her own, s/he would be stepping all over his/her colleagues. Logistics require an orderly entrance.

    On the other hand, I have sung with a smaller group where each singer walked to his per position on his/her own.

    Singers don’t need to tune their instruments. Vocal warm-ups are much more lengthy than intstrumental ones.

  2. well a flute player for example can’t exactly warm up on the way to a gig whereas the singer can easily warm up in the car. instruments have to also adjust to the atmosphere of the room as well as tune to 440

  3. Great observation, Kevin. You probably are aware that orchestras have in their requirements that the stage be clear 30 minutes prior to the downbeat for the sort of preparation you describe.
    Frankly, I think we as choral organizations have it right, and I think we look great entering the stage as if the performance has already started. What your blog has made me think about is how sharp it would be to see an orchestra enter with the same sort of precision, perhaps choreographed throughout their sections for their entry, and then the conductor and soloists coming right on cue as the players sit. Wow, would that get my attention and prepare me to listen!

  4. I am simply intrigued by the difference – I am not sure that I really feel strongly toward either practice. Simply pondering the differences.

    @SJ and Stephen – large groups make sense, yet chamber choirs of professionals? Also, I’m not arguing the contrast between types of warmups – but what if both ensembles took the same approach? How would the audience react?
    @Tim – agreed. But wouldn’t it look different if every type of ensemble took the same care and thoughtfulness to entrances?

    Just seeking to provoke thought toward our modern day performance practice.

  5. The Berlin Phil enters orderly and pretty much is ready for the concertmaster to enter and commenced tuning. Helps set the scene and mood for a very professional performance. Much preferred to the typical haphazard entrance and ensuing auditoey cacophony.

  6. It is common for European orchestras to warm up backstage and enter together. Whether that is better or not can be questioned—backstage may not be the same temperature as the stage, certainly won’t be under stage lights, etc. But it does create a certain uniformity of appearance, and Europeans often consider American orchestras sloppy in that regard. Regardless, it is part of professionalism in American orchestras that you get yourself in place in plenty of time (onstage, in the pit, etc.), WITH any and all gear you may need: instrument(s), reeds, swabs, mutes, extra bows, and so forth, in plenty of time to be ready. For some instruments that is more gear and more time. For others, it can be shortly before the performance begins. But you have to know that, and be there in plenty of time for tuning. Not to do so is highly unprofessional.

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