Don’t be a twit.

A publication I write for recently asked me to contribute a short piece on the things university students could do to make the most of their student days. I listed a few of the things people wish they’d done more of at university, such as huge amounts of practice (of course!), practising orchestral excerpts as often and as carefully as etudes, learning to transcribe and arrange music, seeking out many mentors to supervise one’s early professional experiences, and so on. I rather wish I’d wrapped them all up up in as smart a parcel as this blog post from, but I was pretty pleased with what I’d written.

The next morning, it occurred to me–and it’s maddening, isn’t it, the way such ideas occur to one twelve hours after submitting one’s copy?–that I hadn’t covered an extremely important point in the path to professionalism. Perhaps even more so than the possession of sheer talent, these four words of advice are probably the deciding factor in who gets gigs and who doesn’t. Simply:

Don’t be a twit.

University students are still teenagers. Their brains aren’t fully formed to make good decisions, so they often act impulsively and, I’m sorry to say, twittishly. I gently address twittish behaviour when I come across it, but in my more cynical moments I want to write a list of ways for students to teach them not to be twits, and possibly paste it all over the walls of the music building. So here goes.

  1. Always show up early for rehearsals and concerts. At least fifteen minutes early for rehearsals; at least half an hour early for the concert. At orchestral gigs, I sometimes notice that the string players are the last to arrive–sometimes mere seconds before the downbeat! You wouldn’t catch a wind or brass player acting like this. Aim to arrive at the same time as the principal oboist. The conductor and the other players will notice your reliability–they notice more about rank-and-file string players than you think.
  2. This may seem too obvious even to mention, but bring all your stuff to rehearsals and concerts. Seriously, folks. A professional cannot lose or forget her music/stand/rock stop/rosin/mute/metronome/spare bow/spare strings/wolf adjuster/etc. Ever.
  3. Another obvious one, but behave yourself in rehearsal. (3a) From the moment you arrive, you’re at a rehearsal. So even if you have to warm up on stage before the rehearsing starts or during a break, do so undisruptively. You should only play scales, exercises, or the work being rehearsed. No one wants to hear you playing your fabulous concerto. In fact, it’s incredibly annoying. (3b) Also, when the conductor stops the orchestra, you have to stop instantly. Trying to impress everyone with your glorious playing not only doesn’t impress, it’s really disrespectful to the conductor. (3c) If you’re the page-turning stand partner, turn your page in a timely and non-distracting manner. This is especially true if you’re in the front stand: please don’t give the principal a heart attack, especially if the page turn is a tight one, or if there’s a solo coming up.
  4. Know the music. Again, this is obvious, but far too many people show up to the rehearsal sounding little better than as if they were sight-reading. It isn’t enough just to know your part; you must study the full score, listening to as many recordings as you can find, until you know all the other parts extremely well. If you’re playing in an orchestra, you should know exactly what the other strings, the wind, the brass and the percussion are doing at all times, because you’ll need to listen to them for cues and blend your attacks and your sound with them. A really professional string player doesn’t hide behind more prepared members of the ensemble.
  5. Speak respectfully to your colleagues. Even though you need the hide of a fairly rugged rhinoceros to succeed in this profession, it’s still easy to hurt people’s feelings. Over the years, I’ve found it useful to phrase suggestions neutrally rather than negatively. “What would happen if you delayed the third note in the phrase?” and “Would you consider bringing that F sharp out more?” are so much more effective than “You came in late, then rushed, and your sound was uneven.”
  6. By the same token, respond to your colleagues’ comments graciously. It’s hard not to take criticism personally, but I’ve found it helpful to think of it as a gift. It ‘s almost never intended to make you feel bad; it is for you, to help you, and to further your group’s shared goal of sounding good. Try all your colleagues’ ideas and give them a chance, even if you think they won’t work. (I know, it’s unbelievably difficult to do this. Trust me, I know.)

I’m sure there are many more aspects to not being a twit. I’m also sure that I’ll think of them all at half past three in the morning, then fall asleep again, sending them once more to blissful oblivion.