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7 Hidden Rules of Symphony Culture

Want to become a valued member of a symphony? Are you auditioning for a place in an orchestra? Or about to attend your first rehearsal? While having pencil in hand(with extras either tucked behind your ear, or on the music stand, etc.) is one of the more obvious rules of a symphony musician, the symphony culture also has some unspoken rules and traditions that are worth knowing.

Here are some of the unspoken rules of symphony musicians that are worth knowing ahead of time to unknowing mistakes or offenses.

1. Prepare to take instructions from the first violinist

Depending on how formal your school orchestra training was, the first chair violinist may not have had the level of power that they do in a professional orchestra. In that domain, the first violinist is also referred to as “the concertmaster,” and you may find yourself spending more time listening to instructions or rehearsing under their command than you would have imagined.

Unlike your school orchestra or strings class, the first chair violin isn’t a position you have the opportunity to compete for. Rather, they are hired or specially selected as second-in-command to the conductor, and you should respect a concertmaster’s experience as such.

2. Being "on-time" means at least 15 minutes early

In the symphony musician’s world, being “on time” means getting to rehearsals at least 15 minutes early. Being late is an absolute no-no as it’s disruptive to the entire group. You are expected to be in your chair, set up with any accessories you may need, music and pencil(s) at the ready, and completely warmed up when the concertmaster or conductor begins the rehearsal.

If, in an emergency, you arrive late, do not join the orchestra and take your seat. Wait until the music has finished and there is an obvious break. There is nothing more awkward than working your way into your place through the rows of prepared and annoyed musicians.

3. Immediately honor a conductor’s instructions

Unless you are asked, never challenge, ask why, or second guess a conductor’s instructions. If they tell you to play something an octave lower or higher, just do it. It doesn’t matter if it completely alters the dynamics of an emotional section that is one of your favorites or changes the tempo to something you feel completely diminishes the mood of a piece. Your opinion is irrelevant. Your job is to smile respectfully and make the change. Period.

4. Have a music stand at the ready in the trunk of YOUR car

You may want to check ahead of time to see if music stands are provided. In some cases they are, but some orchestras require players to bring their own to rehearsals and only provide the symphony stands for the dress rehearsal and performance night(s). For ease and portability, we recommend getting a lightweight, fold-up, wire music stand. In fact, a music stand is number three on our list of must-have accessories for string musicians.

5. Do not assume you can read (or be on your phone) during rehearsal

Every conductor is different. Some let you read or spend time on your phone during a long tacet as long as you always bow the first note on time when the tacet has ended. Others have a strict no-reading policy no matter how long the tacet may be. Make sure you know where your conductor stands and get the information about what is and is not allowed directly from them. 

Assuming you’re allowed to read, check email or texts, snack, chat, etc. because others are doing so is a mistake. This behavior is disrespectful and can diminish your reputation in the conductor’s eyes meaning you’ll have to work hard to regain their trust and respect. 

6.  Be mindful of your neighbors, the group, and communal versus personal property

Use good common sense and an outward mindset to remain mindful of your neighbors as well as communal and personal property. 

  • Leave plenty of room for everyone else’s legs, cases, notes, etc.
  • Don’t over mark the music (the orchestra’s librarian will have to erase each and every mark, so be judicious, mark as lightly as you can, and still be able to read it)
  • Tune softly and with respect to the group
  • Refrain from tapping your feet
  • Remember that the “inside player” (the player furthest from the edge of the page) turns the pages when you’re sharing the stand
  • Do not wear any scent at all
  • Never pack up your instrument until the orchestra is completely finished playing
  • Do not chat unless it is a designated break
  • Always pass down any bowings or comments from the concertmaster or conductor (never, ever be the break in the chain)

Leave any arrogance at home

You may have been the star of your previous orchestra group, but when you join a new one it’s important to be humble. Honor the experience and wisdom of your fellow string players and musicians. Confidence is appreciated, but arrogance is offensive. Your symphony experience will be more positive for you and everyone else if you maintain an egalitarian attitude.


Understanding the hidden rules of symphony musicians will help you assimilate into your new family. And, remember, each orchestra has its culture and set of “unspoken rules and agreements,” so pay attention and follow the cues. Ask questions politely and discreetly if you’re uncertain. It’s far better to ask and get an answer than to assume and be wrong.