Conductor & Soloist Protocol

Recently we focused on solo and chamber music recital stage protocol:  bowing, acknowledging applause, and presenting a stage presence that is appreciative of the audience and one that helps put the audience at ease for a performance.

This issue will focus on protocol for orchestra conductors and soloists.  As conductors we have nightmares of being in the middle of a performance for which we had not seen a score and yet are struggling to conduct from memory!  Then we notice that we are conducting in our pajamas…

We would never conduct a score without serious preparation, yet we think nothing of winging it with our podium manner.  Each of us should evaluate our work to be sure that what we do on the podium heightens the music effect for our audience.

Here are several distractions observed at performances during the last few months:

  • The conductor’s stand was too low but the conductor did not take the time to raise it at any point during the concert.  The conductor had to bend his knees and stoop over to turn pages.
  • The conductor took solo bows but did not have the orchestra stand to take applause for an orchestra piece.
  • The conductor crossed in front of a soloist.
  • The soloist did not take a preliminary bow.
  • The conductor tuned a symphony orchestra by having the concertmaster give an A-440 rather than the oboist.
  • The conductor walked on stage too slowly before each piece.  The applause practically died away before he reached the podium.
  • The conductor did not instruct the soloist how to quickly and graciously return to the stage for a solo bow.  The audience began to wonder whether to keep applauding.

Having worked with pre-college and university orchestras for over 30 years I am well aware that occasionally, despite thorough preparation, crazy things can happen in a live performance that can not be anticipated.  That is understandable.  We as conductors should not however bumble along choosing to remain ignorant about the traditions of world-class orchestras and soloists.  Some would say that making music is more important than executing proper protocol.  I agree but hasten to add that how we as conductors handle ourselves on stage is very much a part of making music come alive for our audiences.

How can we improve our podium manners?  We should actually think through and rehearse every move to and from the podium, every bow, every acknowledgement, every gesture, and our facial and body language from the beginning of a concert through the end.  This may seem unnecessary to some.  I challenge those conductors to videotape their next concert and view the tape.  They may be unpleasantly surprised.

I have conducted concerts for which I spent several hours rehearsing what needed to happen on the podium in order to cue lights, narrators, transition music, signal choirs to stand or sit, acknowledge soloists, and set up curtain calls.  I scheduled time to literally walk through the concert from beginning to end, without conducting one note of music!  While this is unusual for most concerts it has shown me that I need to rehearse normal concert podium manners with the same care and attention to detail that I would give to the printed scores.

Now let’s fix the problems noted earlier.

  • The conductor’s music stand height should be set at the final rehearsals and checked again before the doors open on the day of the performance.  If for some reason the stand gets out of adjustment at the performance the conductor should fix it before beginning to conduct.
  • For an orchestral number it is always appropriate to signal the orchestra to stand and take applause with the conductor.  It is a team effort.  The conductor should not take a solo bow.
  • The conductor should never cross in front of a soloist.  The logistics of movements by the soloist and conductor should be worked out in rehearsal.  The orchestra may have to scoot chairs back and forth to help accommodate such movement.
  • Soloists should always enter the stage and take a preliminary bow.  After playing or singing the soloist should take a solo bow, then the soloist and conductor should bow, followed by the orchestra standing while the soloist takes another bow.  It is also appropriate for the soloist to shake hands with the conductor and acknowledge the orchestra.  The soloist and conductor should leave the stage briskly and the soloist should return immediately for a final solo bow while the orchestra remains standing.
  • When a string orchestra is performing without winds, brass or percussion, it is appropriate for the concertmaster to stand and tune the group playing an open A-string, A-440.  When winds, brass or percussion are added to the string orchestra to form a symphony orchestra then it is customary for the first chair oboist to give an A-440 to the orchestra.  (I have conducted groups where the aspiring oboist’s A-440 was difficult to tune to, but with encouragement and understanding young oboists can learn to sound an A-440 with a beautiful open tone.  Insist that the group wait for the A-440 to “settle in to the pitch.”)
  • Our body language and demeanor as conductors should reflect the music we conduct, starting with our walk onto the stage.  We must move briskly and energetically onto the stage, engaging our audience and generally looking like we know what we are doing!  A slow, languid walk kills audience excitement and stifles applause, especially when there is a great distance to cover before reaching the podium.

Attention to the accepted protocols of major orchestras and outstanding solo artists adds the finishing touch to high standards of music making.  Training for this begins with young students in pre-college orchestras and continues with university level, community and semi-professional orchestra musicians.  As conductors it is our responsibility to teach those within our sphere of influence.  Our audience will appreciate our effort to give them the best musical experience possible!

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

Jay-Martin Pinner teaches over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students at Pinner Studios, a private string studio in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.  He studied conducting with Dwight Gustafson, Dean of the School of Fine Arts at BJU.  Jay was also selected to be a conducting fellow at the University of South Carolina’s Conductor’s Institute, where he studied with Donald Portnoy and Samuel Jones.  He has conducted the BJU Symphony Orchestra in concert and opera performances, and he has guest conducted District, Honors, Regional, All-State Orchestras and Festival Orchestras in Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina and Georgia.  In 2015, Jay was the rehearsal conductor for the Furman University Symphony Orchestra in preparation for Furman’s production of Handel’s oratorio, the Messiah.