The Rules for Working in Ensembles

 

Here is a listing of all the rules of behavior you will ever need to find peace, happiness, and excellence in ensemble playing. Just follow these five simple rules and life will be wonderful, you will find bliss, contentment, and great wealth as a member of a chamber music ensemble.

"I know that these rules work, because life becomes miserable every time I break one of them." —Steve Rosenthal

 

  1. Respect the abilities of your partners.
  2. Try every idea before making a decision.
  3. Make comments and encourage the others to do so.
  4. Don't conduct all the time and don't follow all the time.
  5. Always remember that the problem might be you.
  6. Do not be thin skinned.
  7. Have fun—remember, you're playing!
  8. Don't be a jerk.
  9. Forgive others when they are jerks.
  10. Hope they forgive you.
  11. Talk about developing problems before they become big problems.
  12. Don't be afraid to fight about the music, but fight fairly and keep an open mind—be prepared to loose.
  13. Do some social, non-musical stuff together.
  14. Don't hang together all the time.
  15. Discuss and agree upon goals and levels of commitment.
  16. Change things sometimes.
  17. Learn to give a good compliment.
  18. Learn to take a good compliment.
  19. Work for perfection.
  20. Don't try to be too perfect.
  21. Don't misunderstand each other.
  22. Sound good together and enjoy it.
  23. Leave extra-musical stuff outside the rehearsal.
  24. Marry someone who can support you.

 

1. Respect the abilities of your partners.

I believe it is important to have all the members of an ensemble fairly well matched as far as performance level is concerned. Having said that, each person has individual strengths and weaknesses in terms of technical ability, musicality, and non-musical skills such as people skills, grant writing, graphic and web design, financial acumen, etc..

It is important for each ensemble member to be able to respect everyone else's strengths and learn from them. If one person believes she or he is better than the other members of the ensemble, there will often be trouble (an exception might be an ensemble with a teacher and students).

If there is strong mutual respect among ensemble members, then it is easier to give and receive constructive criticisms. Learn from everybody!

"Also, be ready to communicate that respect to your partners and to third parties. Be complimentary of your partners when talking to others - it often means more than just talking to the partner. This is often most effectively accomplished not with grandiose compliments or overstated attributes, but with humor and a demonstration of genuine respect."    —Former NYS Senator and current Director of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, University at Buffalo

 

2. Try every idea before making a decision.

In rehearsal, we often come to a problematic passage. How do we play it? Come up with several different ways of solving the problem. Then, rather than arguing about which way is best, simply try playing each one. Usually the correct answer will become clear. A warning however, make sure each test is played well--an idea may be the best one, but if it is played badly, it won't sound good and might be wrongly rejected.

"Don't focus on attribution for the ideas, but the ideas themselves. Members of the group should not hesitate to offer ideas because they are concerned the ideas might be rejected and later be attributed to them personally." —Former NYS Senator and current Director of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, University at Buffalo

 

3. Make comments and encourage the others to do so.

The best ensembles make use of everyone's perceptions, strengths, and intuitions. It is, therefore, important that each member participates fully.

By nature, some of us tend to talk more or less, lead more or less, and listen more or less. Discuss these tendencies within your group. Then try to work for a measure of balance. The more talkative among you might want to actively seek comments from the less talkative. Make sure everyone is welcomed into the discussion. Quieter members might try to comment more.

"Develop a culture in the group where it is expected and appreciated when members offer constructive criticisms. It is hard to make progress without that culture." --Former NYS Senator and current Director of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, University at Buffalo

 

4. Don't conduct all the time and don't follow all the time.

When it comes to the physical movement of playing, spreading the conducting around is a good thing. Let the score dictate who is leading at any moment--the music will flow more naturally. (By the way, if you are not used to leading, it may not feel natural at first. It takes practice.)

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5. Always remember that the problem might be you.

In the intensity of working, we all have gotten frustrated with colleagues: "Why are they being so difficult?", "They just don't understand!" It is sometimes helpful to stop and ask yourself, "Am I being the difficult one here?, maybe I don't understand." By turning the tables on yourself, it may be easier to understand the situation in a new light.

"In fact, at least a part of the problem is very likely to be you. Problems are rarely one-way streets. " —Former NYS Senator and current Director of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, University at Buffalo

 

6. Do not be thin skinned.

While no one likes to be treated rudely, being sensitive can get in the way of many an otherwise smooth proceeding. As artists, we need to be aware of every musical nuance. However, we need to learn to turn down this sensitivity when it comes to our interpersonal dealings. (I often get into trouble by blowing a small comment out of proportion.)

 

7. Have fun—remember, you're playing!

Most of the working world has to endure a 9 to 5 grind, without much autonomy. As musicians, we are attempting to follow our dreams. Celebrate that occasionally!

 

8. Don't be a jerk.

HEY. Just don't be a jerk. OK? SR

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9. Forgive others when they are jerks.

Lets face it--we are all jerks sometimes. Cutting the other person some slack may be just the right response. (If, however, one person is a chronic problem, talking about the situation is probably recommended.)

 

10. Hope they forgive you.

Self-explanatory. (And make sure you don't have to ask them to forgive you too often!)

 

11. Talk about developing problems before they become big problems.

This is a particularly hard one for me. I tend to hope things will just get better. Usually things only get better when you work on them. You might even want to talk, all together, with a professional marriage counselor. ...How do you FEEL about that?

 

12. Don't be afraid to fight about the music, but fight fairly and keep an open mind—be prepared to loose.

Playing at a high level takes creative input from ALL the players involved. The more passion and innovation everyone puts into the music, the better. If people agree too quickly about how everything should go, this can result in superficial performances and shallow understandings. Look for interesting ways to play each passage. This can mean there will be healthy conflicts of ideas. Fight for your ideas. HOWEVER, don't take your ideas personally. Keep an open mind to the joys of other people's innovations. If your idea is not accepted by the group, it is important not to take it personally. Often, an idea that is not initially embraced will surface in due time. Sometimes a 'failed' idea can produce great results in the long run. Finally, don't be afraid to offer a suggestion that might not be very good. If people are too timid or hesitant, great ideas can get lost.

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13. Do some social, non-musical stuff together.

You work hard together. Sometimes its great to just let all the work go and have fun. Partying as a group, without any talk of the music and/or business, can relive stress and build esprit de corps. It is so easy to be focused on your collective work that some balance is lost. Having some fun together can go a long way towards helping you through the difficulties of being an ensemble.

 

14. Don't hang together all the time.

You work hard together. (Sound familiar?) It is important to clear your heads and perspectives. If you spend too much 'social' (and even musical) time together, everything can get stale and stagnant. Also, it's important to deal with people outside your ensemble for emotional balance. I know of professional groups that could not handle any members socializing outside of the ensemble. Those groups are no longer together.

 

15. Discuss and agree upon goals and levels of commitment.

This is one of the most important rules of successful ensembles (which is why we made it the first rule on our list). A great many ensemble problems can be boiled down to members having different concepts of what they want their group to be.

A partial list of topics to agree upon might be:

 

  • full-time or part-time?
  • how often and how long are rehearsals?
  • how often are performances?
  • what kind of performances? (formal, casual, etc.)
  • how much and often is travel involved?
  • what repertory? (specialize, or mix, challenging or safe, etc.)
  • how to spend group money and resources?
  • how to distribute business tasks among group members?
  • will ensemble members work in other groups, and if so, which groups will be more important when time conflicts arise?

Many problems within ensembles stem from individual members having different answers to these questions. Talk about goals often (they may change over time). When individual goals diverge, groups must re-evaluate whether, and/or how, to continue.

Once goals have been discussed, focused, and all members have committed to them, many small problems may disappear. Often people start showing up on time and being well prepared, for example, when goals are held by all involved (as just one example).

 

16. Change things sometimes.

Sometimes we get too comfortable. Change often makes us uncomfortable, but also leads to growth. Playing music at a high level involves risk-taking (safe music-making can get to sound like boring music-making rather quickly). Even changing little things about the approach to an individual phrase, the ordering of programs, or rehearsal routines can bring freshness to an ensemble.

Weight lifters know that their muscles 'get used to' exercise routines. If they don't change exercises, and/or the style in which they do them from time to time, they stop improving (they stop being able to increase the amount of weight they can lift). A simple change in routine often makes it possible for them to grow. It works for musicians, too!

"Every once in a while, adopt the approach: "if it ain't broke, BREAK IT" and see if it leads to some innovations and explorations."    —Former NYS Senator and current Director of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, University at Buffalo

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17. Learn to give a good compliment.

Given properly, a compliment to a colleague can do wonders for morale. Everyone likes to feel more than competent, and so much of what we all do in rehearsal is to look for 'flaws.'

A good compliment is one that is sincere, and doesn't contain an implied criticism ("Gee, you did that a lot better than you usually do!").

One of the worst things you can do is give a weak compliment: one you don't mean, or one where extravagant praise is given for something rather ordinary. This can have the effect of 'cheapening' your comments when high praise is in order.

 

18. Learn to take a good compliment.

Nothing is more frustrating then giving someone a heartfelt compliment and having the other person not respond, act like they don't care what you have said, or diminish your words (oh, it was nothing). (Gloating and being ungracious isn't good either-"yes, yes, I am the greatest, and its about time you all realized it.")

If someone gives you a compliment, say "thank you." Stop and think about it--and enjoy it. We all work hard to do what we do. A compliment is the time to revel in someone else noticing!

 

19. Work for perfection.

This rule should be no surprise to any musician. We are all trained to seek perfection. We're taught to 'practice it right so we'll play it right'. We spend hours every day to get every note, every phrase to be just so, and then practice for consistency. The same discipline is necessary as an ensemble. The difference is that now all of you must agree on the same interpretation, phrasing, articulation, etc.. Also, intonation becomes a much more important consideration in group play than it can be when you play by yourself (bad intonation becomes worse and much more apparent when there are several people playing 'green' notes).

P.S. All of these can cause great strife within an ensemble. This is where is may be a good time to employ many of the other 'Rules for Working in Ensembles'.

 

20. Don't try to be too perfect.

For some of you who just read Rule 19, this may come as a surprise. There are many times when the blind quest for perfection is a good thing. However, I believe that it is not a good thing all the time.

If we just try to duplicate in performance what we have practiced in rehearsal, we may not be open to the inspiration of the moment. One of the things that makes live performance so exciting is the possibility that something new may happen. If we are too concerned with exactly duplicating what we have already done, performance may begin to get stale with repetition. Some of the greatest musical moments happen when one ensemble member gets a sudden new idea and the rest of the musicians are open to going along for the ride, and even adding their own inspiration.

Another pitfall of too much 'perfection seeking' is that it can generate stress in an ensemble. If everyone is so afraid of 'making a mistake' that it gets in the way of music making, we all loose out. Seek a balance of striving for perfection, with the sense of play that makes us human. Your music-making will be the better for it!.

"Talk about the difference between 'perfection' and 'excellence.' Excellence may be the most compelling goal."    —Former NYS Senator and current Director of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, University at Buffalo

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21. Don't misunderstand each other.

What?!?... We often argue about differences in approach, interpretation, vision, etc.. This is necessary. However, some arguments come from a different source.

I have had many arguments where it turns out that I said something that I thought was clearly stated. The other person seemed to understand me, but disagreed. After much discussion, it would finally become clear that the other person heard my words, but thought that I meant something different from what I meant. In other words, we had been arguing about what the other person thought I said, but we really agreed on the concepts once we realized the misunderstanding. The opposite has also happened, where I thought someone meant one thing when they meant another.

These misunderstandings can be a real time waster. They can also produce angst and bad feelings.

A technique for avoiding these situations is to:

  1. listen carefully
  2. when something in the conversation seems surprising, stop.
  3. say something like "What I hear you saying is 'x'. Do I understand you correctly?" (This should not be stated as a challenge, but as a sincere way of making sure the conversation goes well.)

I once had a 20 minute argument with a banker on our Board of Directors. He couldn't understand why a lawyer who had just done some work for the ASQ wanted to be paid by a 'Certificate of Deposit.' What I had said was "CD" (compact disc).

"Many things have the potential to be misunderstood. The real issue is whether, during such misunderstandings, you are willing to give the benefit of the doubt, to not assume the worst interpretation, and to be willing to talk it out"    —Former NYS Senator and current Director of the Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth, University at Buffalo

 

22. Sound good together and enjoy it.

I know that this rule is a lot like rule #7, but its so easy to forget that we should only be playing music because we love it. Revel in the music when it sounds good. There are so many other things to do in life, and if we don't remember to ENJOY the acts of ensemble music making, we might as well become something meaningless and high-paying.

 

23. Leave extra-musical stuff outside the rehearsal.

Rehearsals should be for exploring music performance. This takes a tremendous amount of focus, risk taking, and personal diplomacy. If you are having a 'bad day', your mood could scuttle the whole rehearsal. Try to leave the rest of the world out of your group time. Be aware that you might be more annoyed by something in rehearsal because of your pre-existing frame of mind. Be careful to realize your frustration may not be coming from the music-making and act accordingly.

On a different topic, many professional ensembles recommend scheduling regular meetings to discuss group business only. These are different from rehearsals. Keeping the two separate, they say, helps keep both kinds of sessions to be productive and efficient. While we in the ASQ think that this is an excellent rule, we seem to be able to talk about day-to-day business at the beginning or end of a rehearsal without too much problem. We do, however, occasionally schedule a pure business meeting. We also have regular Board of Directors meetings (we are a not-for-profit corporation).

P.S. Long car rides have often been great places for the ASQ to generate new ideas.

 

24. Marry someone who can support you.

We recommend doctors, lawyers, people of great independent wealth, teachers, plumbers, check-out clerks, bouncers, taxi drivers, Home Depot sales people, McDonald's assistant trainers (evening shift), etc..

Well, friends, that's all there is to it. Its sooo simple. By the way, these are all the rules. All five of them. There are no others. If you think you may have discovered more rules (we don't think there are any more), please post your comments below! —Steve Rosenthal

The Amherst Saxophone Quartet is available to give workshops on the art of working in ensembles. For booking information, email us.

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