Words of Wisdom on Becoming a Good Colleague
By Soo Kyung Park
The Juilliard Journal—November 1996
There’s more to being an orchestral musician than playing superbly. No matter how talented you are, familiarity with the finer points of “orchestral manners” will greatly enhance your ability to get the most out of your professional working relationships. “Making music is one of the most social of all activities,” explains Jeanne Baxtresser, principal flute of the New York Philharmonic and Juilliard faculty member. “As with any communal activity, behavior has evolved over many centuries to a point where we have established rules of etiquette. We observe these rules of behavior out of respect for ourselves, for our colleagues, and for the music itself.”
Miss Baxtresser will address these issues in a special lecture/seminar this month for orchestral instrumentalists at Juilliard. She will also share her personal experiences in professional orchestras and guide us with her knowledge about things that are (and are not) appropriate in the orchestral setting. I took the opportunity to speak with her briefly about some of these issues beforehand; her answers to my questions, which I share here, should convince one and all of the value of learning more about this vital subject!
SKP: What will you discuss at your lecture?
JB: I will talk about how to be a good musical colleague, and a good ensemble player—the kind of skills that are important no matter whether you are playing in a high school band, a conservatory orchestra, or beginning a new job with a professional orchestra.
SKP:For each concert, we rotate players to give everyone a chance to play different parts in the section. However, we often encounter intonation problems due to the limited amount of time spent together. Could you suggest a way to help us solve this problem?
JB:Intonation is certainly one of the most important issues in playing well in an orchestra. One has to learn how to be very flexible. First of all, you have to learn to play at home with a tuner to find the tendencies of each note in your scale. However, when you get into an orchestral setting, you will find that what is “correct” is not always in tune, so it is important to be able to adjust to other people.
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JB:The ultimate goal is to have it sound in tune, not to prove how well you play. The two things to remember when you are wanting to reach a resolution to an intonation problem are diplomacy when asking someone to tune with you, and openness when someone is asking you.
SKP:When I am sitting in the second flute chair and the first flute player plays a solo, I tap my knee to show support. But sometimes, when I forget to do so, I feel guilty. What would be a nice way to show my colleagues that I am always supporting them?
JB:You are right; tapping the stand, shuffling the feet, or tapping your knee can become a trap. Even though it’s encouragement, once you set yourself up as a judge, you have to keep that job up. It’s a burden, and it’s also hard for the person playing because they are going to be aware of you. My personal opinion is, less is better in that area. I would much prefer people to come up to me at the end of the concert and say, “I loved the way you played that solo,” or after a rehearsal to say, “I enjoy hearing you play that.” Also, music exists in the moment. If you are reacting to something that’s already happened, the flow of the music stops for you and for the person watching your feet or your hand. I will speak about this at greater length in the lecture.
SKP:What else can one do to become a better colleague?
JB:Play duets with colleagues in your section, and with others in the orchestra. Many orchestras have established chamber music series that provide wonderful opportunities, but you can also seek out your own. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and this is a great way of learning from players you admire.
SKP:What are some of the things that would be considered “bad form” in rehearsals and at concerts?
JB:Don’t practice anyone else’s solos—including concertos of visiting soloists—where you can be heard by your colleagues. Save your competing for home practice or for auditions. Also beware of creating visual distractions. You should never turn around to see who is playing a part, good or bad. There is nothing more distracting than seeing a head swivel around and stare at you when you being to play! And if you must tap your foot to stay in time or subdivide a slow tempo, try to do it silently and invisibly, by moving the toes of one foot inside your shoe. Facial expressions—other than a pleasant smile when you are enjoying something musically—can also be very distracting. Remember, you may feel anonymous in the midst of all those faces, but you are always being watched by someone in the audience…not to mention the conductor.
SKP:While some of your advice involves developing a certain degree of musical experience, some of it
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having simple consideration for those around you. In many ways, being in an orchestra is like having an extended family—we all spend many hours a day together. I can’t stress enough the importance of learning these lessons at an early age, of developing a team spirit as well as an individual musical personality. We all know how important it is to bring a high degree of professionalism to our work. I hope, in my session with the students, to help them understand how this is accomplished. The result will enhance not only their enjoyment of the wonderful working relationships that can exist among colleagues, but also, ultimately, the performance of the music. I look forward to this time with the students, and I will encourage questions and discussion of all these issues.
A graduate of Juilliard, where she studied with Julius Baker, Jeanne Baxtresser has been on the faculty since 1986. Principal flute of the New York Philharmonic, she joined the orchestra in 1984 at the invitation of Zubin Mehta. She is a former principal of the Montreal Symphony (where she met her husband, bassoonist David Carroll, who also teaches at Juilliard and is associate principal bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic) and the Toronto Symphony.
Miss Baxtresser also performs extensively as a recitalist and concert soloist. The New York Philharmonic recently commissioned Andre Previn to compose a flute concerto for her. She gave the world premiere of Peter Mennin’s Flute Concerto with the Philharmonic, under Zubin Mehta’s direction, and the New York premiere of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Flute Concerto, with Kurt Masur conducting.
Jeanne Baxtresser wrote an article about “Becoming a Team Player” for The Instrumentalist in 1988, and has lectured frequently on the subject to groups of young musicians. Her new book entitled Orchestral Excerpts for Flute with Piano Accompaniment, published by Theodore Presser, also contains a chapter on auditioning for and playing in an orchestra. A companion CD on Summit Records features Miss Baxtresser performing major orchestral excerpts for flute.
Soo Kyung Park, a second-year master’s student, studies with Jeanne Baxtresser.