Why Is The Timpani Player Smelling His Drums and seven other awesome questions from the audience

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After publishing the articles What to Wear to the Symphony and When to Clap at the Symphony, there were a flood of comments questioning why these topics were even relevant. For When to Clap, there were comments saying, “Whatever! Everyone already knows this!” And for What to Wear, “Wear what you want. End of discussion.”

But it’s not the end of the discussion and not everyone knows this! Of the many reasons I wrote those two articles, one of them was the enormous volume of search terms that kept coming up when I would check my website traffic. Most popular search terms were: “What do I wear to a symphony concert” and “How do I know when to clap.”

What is obvious to musicians and regular classical music connoisseurs is definitely not obvious to others. Many musicians and regular concert goers left some rather terse comments on both my Facebook posts and on the articles themselves. But treating these questions with such tossed off comments as if everyone should automatically know or instinctively understand is just one more way potential audiences can get pushed away.

There is no such thing as stupid questions, only stupid answers. That is something most everyone has heard, yet the manner in how some questions are answered can be off-putting. For my article, What to Wear at the Symphony, one person wrote: “Wear what you want. End of discussion.” This may have been an exasperated music expert tired of the discussion, but future audience members are actually asking these questions. They should never be shut down, shut out, or made to feel like they ought to know something. Simply keep quiet or answer the question without the snark!

Over the past couple years I’ve collected some really awesome questions from audience members that offer a fresh and unique perception or perspective. Here are some that caught my attention:

1) Why is the timpani player smelling his drums?

It took me a while to understand what this audience member was asking. But looking back at the timpani, I saw exactly what she was asking. The timpanist was putting his ear close to the drum heads, tapping lightly and trying to retune the drum while the orchestra was playing. But looking at it through an audience perspective, it did look like he was smelling his drums. His face (especially his nose) was right next to the drum head.

2) Why are the string players’ hands quivering?

This must look very strange for those who are new to the symphonic scene. Looking again with different eyes, I was astounded how much a section of violinists left hands can look like birds doing a strange ritualistic mating dance. The quivering, or vibrato, is a way to round the sound and create a more beautiful texture. The opposite effect of leaving the hands still creates a different color. Perhaps it would be interesting to demonstrate the difference in some family concerts.

3) What are the white rags under the violinists’ chins? It looks so gauche against the black outfits.

Many violinists and violists choose to add a bit of protection from the chinrest rubbing against their necks. Skin is fragile and some people break out or have allergic reactions if they don’t have a barrier between their neck and instruments. I never had an issue with a white cloth until seeing this through the audience’s eyes. Is it possible to coordinate cloths to concert black? Yes.

4) Why is nobody looking at the conductor?

Admittedly, this does look suspect from the audience point of view. After all, why have a conductor if nobody is staring up at him or her during the concert? Occasionally this topic comes up and some conductors even go one step further showing how their orchestra can play without them. As when driving in a car, focus is on so many things at once. The road and other cars are essentially our music parts. The conductor is our GPS and radar detector, metaphorically of course. The point is, peripheral vision is a must to make music.

5) In between movements, the clarinets, oboes, or French horn players take apart their instruments. Why?

If one is used to listening to a recording with multiple movements, there is only a slight pause between each movement. But during live performances there is a ballet of sorts that takes place between movements. Wind players disassemble their instruments to swab out condensation, release the water, and reset for the next movement. Sometimes it adds extra time between movements, and since nobody else is generally moving that much on stage, wind players catch more attention during the pause.

6) Why is the concertmaster late?

It does look dubious when the most visible seat is unoccupied when the concert is set to start. I’ve even overheard some audience members in big cities remarking about how funny it was everyone applauded for the late musician. The lateness of the concertmaster is just another way audiences know the concert is starting and gives an extra minute to silence cell phones while the orchestra tunes.

7) It looks like the trombones are sleeping!?

I’ve seen this too! Going to the orchestra concerts as a kid, I use to joke about it with my brother. But for brass players who may not play a single note for 45 minutes, sometimes closing their eyes and listening to the music keeps them focused. While it may look disrespectful, it is never (usually) done with malice. Some musicians also don’t like staring at the conductor or colleagues for extended periods of time and find staring at their own feet difficult on their necks. Most important after a lengthy period of time of sitting without playing is entering with the right pitch and style. It is not easy! Take pride in your orchestras when the brass players nail their first entrance after sitting for so long. It’s much harder than one would expect.

8) Is there a reason you wear black mostly?

To some, what seems like a classy color may seem dark and depressing to others. We generally wear black so there is some uniformity on stage. Additionally there is a better focus if everyone on stage is dressed in the same color. Black just happens to be the most agreed upon color at the moment. There’s always room for discussion about different uniform options and different levels of formality, but what most musicians have in closets is black formal. To change that could cost a lot to the musician, and typically, while partially a tax write off, required uniform or dress is not reimbursed by the orchestra.

Final Thoughts

To those who know a lot about orchestras: Don’t treat any question as a stupid one, and please don’t answer with any hint of condescension or feigned surprise. Look forward to the questions because these questions keep you better connected to a preservation of something you love. These questions prove there is an active interest in the symphonic arts and there is a new concert goer in your presence.

To those who hesitate asking questions: Ask! And keep asking. Be bold and ask because people close to something they know well need gentle reminders that others are trying to understand and appreciate an art form in which they have grown to love themselves.

The photo above is The Chattanooga Symphony & Opera’s excellent principal timpanist, Colin Hartnett. 

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra and spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival where in addition to performing in the violin section, Holly volunteers as an active chamber musician. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.
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69 thoughts on “Why Is The Timpani Player Smelling His Drums and seven other awesome questions from the audience

  1. Thank you for recognizing that not all of us music lovers know all there is to know about participating as an attendee at concerts! There will always be the “snob’s” in the arts….what they fail to remember is that they were a novice at some point in their lives, too. They have not always known the answers to your reader’s questions either! I know this takes a great deal of your valuable time…. creating your informative blogs….so, thank you for doing just that…. I look forward to every one of them! And I am learning a lot!!
    My granddaughter, composer TJ Cole of Atlanta and Philadelphia (age 21), studied under Jennifer Higdon at Curtis for two years and this year, her Jr. year, is studying under David Ludwig…..my first CSO concert was in Feb. where I heard you play Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto. You were simply amazing….and hearing Dr. Higdon’s work and meeting her for the first time was awesome! CSO is very fortunate to have you as their concertmaster…..you play beautifully. I hope to hear many more CSO’s performances in the future.

  2. With regard to #8, I suspect that there are two main reasons for wearing black: when orchestras started becoming professional public groups (instead of some noble’s employees), they took on the formal dress found in other social situations, which was black for men. At that time, the members were all men,

    The most important reason for doing it today, though, is that uniform black dress distracts *least* from what is most important to a concert: listening.

    • The tradition was first noted in the Renaissance. In fact, the nursery rhyme words “four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” actually came from a lavish performance at the court of Burgundy, when a huge pastry shell with two dozen (apparently black-attired) musicians playing inside.

    • As a double bassist the thing I find odd is that all we do to accomplish this transparency, wearing black, I always have concert goers come up after and compliment on my enthusiasm as I play, which tells me people have an inerrant need to focus on something. I have had serious sinus infections all my life and always have a hat on to keep the chill away, however concert halls can be drafty places, even though I use the most non-distinct black knit cap the “old-guard” piano teacher will always berate me for having a hat on, never a word of the performance or the music, oh well.

    • The color black also creates a visual effect – the instruments stand out against the dark color in high definition.
      It’s the same reason why conductors usually dress in black – so it is easier to see the white baton against the background.

  3. The other thing trombone players are probably doing when they’re not playing is counting. Counting bars of rest is something orchestral brass players do a LOT of. If the first note they play doesn’t come until, say, the fourth beat of bar 171 in that movement, the only way to be certain that they start playing in the right place is to count every measure until they get there.

    • For what it’s worth, most of the time those of us in the back row who don’t play so much (I’m a percussionist) AREN’T counting every single bar. That would be like an actor sitting backstage watching the script go by, line for line, waiting for their entrance – usually an actor would know the story better than that! And so similarly it’s also true for musicians, that you know the flow of the work, landmark events that happen, and so on, so for me I’m usually only actually counting bars for the 10-50 bars before I make my entrance – or not at all if it’s a piece I know well enough.

      • Even though I know the piece well, I usually count, just to be sure! It adds a layer of confidence for me. (trumpet player)

  4. #6 late concertmaster reminds me of one of my favourite examples of stupid confusing performance practice.
    We were doing a project with a Shakespearian trained Actor as narrator. Conductor is for once reviewing the walk on protocol in the rehearsal instead of the usual figure it out after I tell them to go in the concert.
    Conductor says “After the orchestra tunes, we walk on together, the orchestra stands and we bow”
    Actor says “Why do we bow? We haven’t done anything yet!”
    Me in a Sotto voice “it’s the Symphony you get a bow just for showing up.”

    No wonder our audience finds it all a bit confusing.

  5. Love your work, Holly. Wishing I lived much closer (I’m in Iowa) so I could see (and hear) you in action.

    By the way, with regard to Mr. Aul’s “counting” response: I’m sure that those trombones have those 171 bars figured out so they don’t have to actually count at the concert. I recall a time long ago in my undergraduate orchestra where I had 298 bars of rest before an entrance (yes, it was Wagner). I did all the requisite counting (and marking of my part) at the first run-through. After that, whenever RW’s piece rolled around, I knew there would be at least 10-12 minutes (assuming no stops) before I had anything to do. If I knew that I’d eventually be conducting the piece, I’d have had a score in my hands!

  6. I love these questions! Some made me genuinely laugh, but not at the people asking them — laughing at the things we take for granted. Holly, you are doing a great service for preserving the live symphonic experience with these articles, and I applaud you. People with little to no experience in appreciating a live performance, but who have interest, deserve our respect. Unfortunately, most of what they get from us is snobbery, and that only contributes to the demise of their interest. Thank you for taking the high road! Or, what some would call the low road. Nope. It’s not that at all.

  7. Another thought: if kids were asking these questions, we wouldn’t think twice about answering them with joy.

  8. #8 Also with black, everyone can pretty much agree on what black looks like, from a variety of clothing providers. Schools may provide identical uniforms, but each professional musician purchases a uniform. Telling musicians to all wear burgundy would result in a mixture of shades. By comparison, how many ways do Target employees dress in red and khaki?

  9. Excellent article, full of interesting tidbits but more importantly, focused on encouraging audience members to enjoy and appreciate music, and not to make them uncomfortable about any lack of knowledge. You may want to correct a typo in the penultimate paragraph where I think you intended to discourage condescension but instead warned against “any hint of condensation”.

      • Hi Holly! As a horn player I can explain condensation. When warm moist air hits a colder hard surface moisture condenses. It happens when you take a jar out of the fridge and leave it on the counter, or when you get ice water and after the glass sit for a few minutes it will be wet on the outside. When I play 98.6° air leaves my lungs and goes into a 70° horn and water condenses.

        It’s also why we blow air through out instruments before we play, if we have been waiting. The closer the temperature of the air in the horn to our body temperature the better the chance of the right note coming out.

        • Scottito–Am a long time concert goer, opera attendee, and never knew what the reason was that musicians blew into their instruments till you explained it, to warm them a bit. The answer seems so obvious once the reason is given. Thank you for that bit of information. It will no longer appear odd!

  10. This is a very nice post and I’ll add a couple of tidbits. The reason classical musicians wear tuxes and tails is because it was what the servants wore in the 1800s. Musicians were frequently employed by very rich people and were dressed like their other servants. When concerts started to be presented to the public the musicians wore the best and most uniform clothes they had and the tradition stuck.

    Another reason there is a pause and activity in the winds between movements is many of them change instruments, whether it’s from a clarinet in A to Bb or oboe to English horn or flute to piccolo, etc.

    • If only composers did wait until between movements for instrument switches… Often it’s more like a bar or two.

  11. Excellent blog! I agree that we owe the audience respect if we want to have an audience. Too many musicians (and especially composers!) Seem to feel that people should implicitly recognize our superiority, and pay good money to see and hear it. To dismiss “pop” music out of hand alienates those who might be curious enough to enjoy both. And as a former tympanist and trombonist, tympanists can have 200 measures rest and then play 2 notes in a totally unrelated key.

  12. Best remark I ever heard from an adult first timer: “What was that short piece they played before the Conductor came out? It was awful!”

  13. Is there a polite way to tell newbie concert-goers that wearing a jingling bracelet (or any other noise-making jewelry) is not a great idea? This happens often when a concert venue is not full, and the empty seats are given to senior living facilities. (I am a senior, so consider this not snarky.)

    • One of the only polite ways to encourage people not to wear jingling bracelets is for a symphony to have that recommendation listed on their website under the “What to Expect” type introductory guides. Hopefully the organizer of such senior living outings might have a hand in gently persuading people who go to the concert to leave the jingling jewels at home.

        • Just a thought here, but it’s possible the seniors don’t even realize their bracelets make a jingling sound. I have been slowly losing my hearing since my early 20s, and it would never occur to me that a bracelet could make a sound that normal people could hear. When I first got my hearing aids, I was assaulted by sounds and had to continuously ask my husband to help me interpret what I was hearing. I had no idea that flip flops dragging across the kitchen floor made a swishing noise. And birds singing in the trees? I thought that was just a made up thing. I didn’t know people ACTUALLY heard that. It was beautiful! So, back to your original question, I think some education on that could be very helpful to seniors with hearing loss.

  14. Holly, you’re too modest! 😉 So I’d like to add, for those interested, that the tradition of the concertmaster coming out late is mostly just that: tradition. For better or worse, a great deal of what goes into an orchestral concert (and even moments in specific works) is about historical tradition. A perfect example would be the brass chorale at the end of Brahms’ first symphony. It has become tradition to take this moment considerably slower, though there is no indication in the score to do so!

    So, back to the concertmaster thing. Back in the day, by which I mean pre-Beethoven, concerts were performed without conductors. Orchestras were considerably smaller and the first violinist was usually the “Leader” of the performance. Giving the modern “Concertmaster” recognition is partly about respecting this early tradition, as well as the fact that the concertmaster is the primary representative of all of the musicians on stage.

    The conductor is not, technically, a member of the orchestra. As a young conductor, I was taught that we conductors serve the ensemble at the pleasure of the concertmaster, which is why we shake their hand as we enter. When functioning as a guest, many conductors, myself included, actually ask the concertmaster for their approval to ascend the podium and begin.

    • Thank you for your comment 🙂 I agree about the traditions you mentioned but I think today’s audiences don’t look directly back to how it started, but that it’s merely when the orchestra tunes. Until recently, many orchestras would have the concertmaster come out after intermission. I was never a fan so I avoid it at all costs! One orchestra I was trialing with had a manager and conductor have a small melt down because I was already on stage for the second half!

  15. When I was in college, I and some fellow students were talking about our audience, calling them yokels for clapping too often or the like. My instructor and conductor really took us to task, noting that without an audience, we were nothing, that we should be glad they were enjoying our concert, and that we were being disrespectful of people just like us who deserved better. That lesson stuck with me deeply.

  16. The Brass section is often facing directly downstage so sometimes the stage lights that are mounted over the audience are shining right into their eyes. A single stage light is puts out about the same amount of light as seven of the 100 watt bulbs you have in your living room, and there are often a dozen or more focused on the stage. The same lights that give a lovely shine to their instruments can be tiring their eyes, especially when they have been focusing so closely on following the printed music. So sometimes the brass players close their eyes to give their eyes a break from all the bright light.

  17. My son played with the ASYO, and we took some relatives to a concert at Symphony Hall in Atlanta. One of them pointed to the bassoons and asked, “What are those sticks?” Also, not applauding between movements is a fairly modern practice. Thanks for the blog! I’m going to enjoy following it.

  18. As former orchestra member for many years, who turned conductor, I do think it is time for the orchestra members to wear something more comfortable, especially the men. Those formal white tie and tales are beastly under hot lights. Black should continue probably, but not the tails. The conductors often now come out without ties of any kind, and often without even a coat – just a black shit. And recently I have seen young soloists wearing jeans and bright colored shoes. Time for the men in the orchestra to rebel.

  19. #6 – The reason the concertmaster walks in after the rest of the orchestra is already seated is because the concertmaster represents the orchestra and acts as the liason between the orchestra and the audience. When the concertmaster walks on in front of everyone and bows, he/she is thanking the audience on behalf of the orchestra for being there, and also graciously accepting the applause for the whole group.

    #8 – black is often worn not only for uniformity but also for visual effect – the dark color causes the color of the instruments to pop out brightly.

  20. Holly, I wholeheartedly agree. I own a music store with several hundred students in lessons, and the back page of our recital program has always contained a primer for those who have never attended “formal” concerts. Even things like not talking during a piece, refraining from getting up and walking around, and not flashing a camera in a performer’s face have to be explained. We consider part of our job to be audience education!

  21. Great article! Since it’s no longer a given that schools provide arts education, or experiences like toing to a concert, it’s vital that we get this kind of information out there. As a writer of program notes, I try to encourage people to always listen with an “open ear” and mind.

    And you are absolutely correct – never belittle an honest question from someone trying to understand the classical music world. (I once got *this close* to telling off a noted violinist for dismissing an audience member’s question about the Berg concerto. But they closed the question period before I got called on.)

  22. BRILLIANT!! And I DO mean that sincerely!! I’ve loved all of these… I hate snarky comments because they are off-putting. Well done in addressing the negative comments and for explaining so well the ins and outs of concerts and the things one will see and wonder about at them!

    • Even though some conductors are difficult to watch or deal with, the focus should be on the experience of the ticket buyer, not the experience from the stage. I have found that expressing frustration regarding a conductor turns away excited patrons.

  23. Thanks for the great article! I’ve read it with a smile and I’m going to share it with my fb friends.

  24. Thank you for such thoughtful words on why it is important to answer ALL questions about the symphony without malice or snark! It drives me crazy when musicians expect that everyone “should just know” about all the details of an orchestra concert. For many first-time goers, all of these little questions are part of the excitement, and we should all aim to foster and encourage that excitement!

    Thank you again!
    Jason Shafer
    (Principal Clarinet, Colorado Symphony)

  25. I was working as a stage tech on a Joshua Bell show years ago. People were clapping in between the movements. During intermission, our stage manager asked if it was bothering him and if we should make an announcement. Without giving it a thought, Bell said, “Oh, no! I love that! It means I’ve got a non-classical audience.” I’ve seen musicians on both sides of that argument, but I’m with him on this one. I’d rather have an enthusiastic group of newbies than a gaggle of persnickety finger-waggers.

  26. I love that you write these articles and I am reading them for the first time. As a parent of two musicians, I am aware of not clapping between movements, but has anyone ever explained why we do that? I am guessing that it is to keep the mood of the entire piece in tact, without boisterous applause…I once told someone to just wait for others to clap and they wouldn’t have to worry…

    I have also found that sometimes regarding “What to wear?” One needs to consider layers. I have often dressed for winter weather only to find that in the upper levels of the concert hall it gets a bit warm and causes me to be drowsy. My daughter was always dressing with more summerweight clothing in winter to avoid getting overheated…she would also use her elbows to alert me if I dozed off!

    I do like the idea that by dressing up a bit, we are showing respect for the musicians on stage. But that’s just me…but I still believe in being comfortable…

  27. Thanks, Holly. I teach music at a couple Chattanooga area colleges where students are required to attend concerts (for many, their first ever). I find articles like this extremely enlightening for them. They were just asking me some of these questions the other day. Can’t wait to share this with them and search your blog for more resources.

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