Five Secret Things About Orchestras

Social comedy
05/02/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Isabel Rogers, author of Life, Death and Cellos, spills the beans on what really goes on behind those music stands…

I could never have written Life, Death and Cellos if I hadn’t spent a lot of time playing in orchestras. If you never have, they might seem a daunting bunch of people dressed in black looking serious. There’s a guy (almost always still a guy) with untidy hair waving his arms around at the front. But things aren’t always how they appear.

The baton

It may look like a conductor waggles his baton, the orchestra starts automatically and then carries on until the notes run out. In fact, there are specific arm movements to indicate what beat of the bar you are on. Usually bars have two, three or four beats ­– sometimes five or seven if a composer is particularly adventurous or hungover, and there’s compound time where six beats pretend to be two groups of three… look, it’s complicated, is all I’m trying to say. There’s a bloke doing one-handed semaphore with a little white pointy stick, using movements that differ between people as much as handwriting does.

To start a bar, the baton draws an imaginary vertical line downwards. Imagine you’re waiting to play on that first beat. Do you start when the baton is at the top? When it starts to move? When it hits the bottom of an as-yet-unspecified length of line? When it starts changing direction? Do you follow the conductor’s eyebrow lift, his sniff or his buttock-hitch?

The secret, of course, is to time your entry to a microsecond after your neighbour and thereafter confidently lead the way.


When the oboe plays an A for everyone to tune to, not everyone plays an A. The strings do, then twiddle about on their other strings to make sure everything’s okey-dokey. The horns will pretend to play an A but really they’re thinking E, because they transpose, which means every time they play a note they are lying. Trumpets will pretend to play an A but sneak in a B. Clarinets can’t even agree among themselves how much to pretend: it could be either B, C or F sharp. This is for historical reasons I can’t go into here and also life is too short. Just know that junior orchestras spend a LOT of time arguing about what note the horns or trumpets or clarinets got wrong once they’ve stopped, because everybody knows it is a lie. This is why musicians have trust issues. That and the drinking.

Fun with transposition

I once played horn in a piece that started with a horn fanfare, followed by an identical trumpet fanfare. Just before we started, the whisper came down the line of horns to ‘play it up a tone!’. We could of course transpose at sight because horn players are brilliant like that and have to do it all the time, for historical etc. see above reasons. So, we played it and it sounded AMAZING. The trumpets came in and sounded AWFUL and WRONG and couldn’t work out why. We did it again: same result. By the third go, the trumpets were looking stressed and the conductor had started to twitch. We eventually owned up, but never underestimate the satisfaction of making another section of the orchestra look stupid. It is low-grade war all the time. The conductor sometimes barely brokers peace deals.

Musicians have the dirtiest minds

Especially in youth orchestras, where the hormones swill around at alarming levels and everyone is in love with everyone else at one time or another, possibly all at once. Trying to get young musicians to play as a unit is difficult, and a conductor must try different approaches. In one symphony rehearsal, our conductor told the horn section – who had to time their chord entry carefully to the end of an oboe solo – to ‘watch Jenny’s back for when she comes’. They never did get it right: one of them always corpsed.

Playing the cello while pregnant can surprise the whole orchestra

There comes a stage in pregnancy when you have to rest your cello on your bump. That’s all fine and dandy when your baby is sleeping. They have excellent hearing, however. Some orchestral layouts have the trombones sitting behind the cello section, and during one rehearsal I’d leaned back in some bars rest to ease my aching spine. The whole trombone section came in very loudly and suddenly and woke my baby, who flung his limbs in all directions in a quite understandable alarm-clock-terror-scenario. My cello, which had been resting lightly on top of him, was also flung off the bump entirely, and the whole rehearsal had to stop while I picked it up and apologised for the inconvenience.

Next time you see an orchestra play, remember some of them are remembering jokes from the last rehearsal, some fancy the conductor, and a lot of them are simply fibbing about what notes they’re pretending to play. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse for you. Sorry.

To find out more about how orchestras really work, join the Stockwell Park Orchestra for a rehearsal or two with Isabel’s latest book, Life, Death and Cellos!

Related articles