Musicians are Territorial Animals

People think musicians are sophisticated, cultured creatures.

Yes, of course we are. At least in public.

Behind the scenes, though, we are animals. We may act polite, but don't get in the way of a musician who has delineated his or her territory.

In my section, the second clarinetist will politely push away any stray objects which have slid or flopped into his circle of peace. He often comes to rehearsal early to push up all the chairs of the row in front of us. That way, when those players inch back they end up where they started the day before. He is always quiet about it. When another player crosses the line, he will bide his time and move them (or their "stuff") at the first opportunity.

Our principal oboist needs lots of space side to side and front to back. He and the principal flutist are constantly sliding back into my turf. But our oboist spreads wider than most wind players, not because he's width challenged, but he likes to spread his legs way apart to make room for all the air he takes in before a solo. Elbows splay and legs anchor in an open V. His torso rises way up and back, so his head usually touches the music stand behind him, violating the turf of the first bassoonist.

Our bassoonist likes her music stand about as far from her as she can get it. It's pushed right up against the chair of the oboist. She needs the distance to accommodate her far sightedness, or something or other about seeing around the bassoon. So here we have a dangerous intersection of turf claims. One can feel the tension rising. Though there is rarely an outright war, the persistent jogging for turf bubbles beneath the surface, a cold war of sorts.

String players are another breed. They don't ask for space, or move chairs quietly between services. They just push their chair where ever they want and claim it as their own. You see, string players have the perfect excuse: they need tons of room for their bow arms!! Yes, they need a few feet in either direction outside the area necessary to move their arms. They need air space in which to vibrate their auras.

Now we begin to see tensions beyond members of our own tribes. When situations develop between separate races and cultures, the peace talks become untenable, with little in common to allow sensible negotiations.

The winds need a clear line of sight to the conductor. Granted, each musician needs to see, but the principal winds have numerous solos, and so feel an urgency in this matter. In our orchestra, we have a number of string players with big heads. Huge heads with big hair on tall bodies! Or so it seems to us when they are positioned in front of us. Before each concert or rehearsal, one of the principal winds usually needs to ask a string player to move a bit to allow us to see. Boy, if looks could kill. "You want me to what?!"

They usually relent and move. But within minutes after the concert starts, guess what? Yup. The stage seems to miraculously move under the chair of that string player and they end up back where they know they deserve to be. Pooh on the sight-lines of anyone else.

Most wind players unpack a huge array of paraphernalia before each service. We set up house. I used to bring in a little table on which I kept all my tools, reeds, etc. Oboists, bassoonists and clarinetists need an array of knives, chisels, drills, files, water holders, backup reeds, reeds to be tested, stores of old reeds, reeds kept for nostalgia. We need these to function. We cannot breathe or think without them. In the chaos of preparing for a big concert, there's a flurry of activity in the reed sections as they fine tune their reeds for the weather that day, and for the particular needs of the repertoire we are about to play. Tools are strewn about, reed cases opened up, dozens of vulnerable reeds spread out for testing. You get the picture.

Occasionally the dam bursts and hell breaks loose. Once in awhile, a conductor asks us to move up a row, usually to fill empty chairs during a piece with a smaller orchestration. Being closer also helps the players hear each other better. For the reed players, it's a huge undertaking to move all their stuff up to the row ahead. And the stage hands who are usually available to help us move know better than to touch anything, lest they lose a hand or worse.

When we are asked to move, the rumbling begins. The battle cry sounds. "I refuse to move all my stuff up there! The acoustics are more familiar back here. How are we expected to sound our best when all our stuff has to be packed up and moved? I'll never remember that special reed I was going to play. There's just NO WAY this is going to happen!! How dare they impose such ridiculous requests on us!"

Though the conductor usually gets his way, there are occasions when the players shouts of dissent hold sway in order to keep the peace. And we are allowed to remain in our cozy caves, surrounded by all our beloved and familiar tools.

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18 comments for “Musicians are Territorial Animals

  1. November 12, 2009 at

    This is comparable to being in the opera chorus – all this fun jogging for space happens onstage AND in the dressing room! As a mezzo-soprano, we always joke about "soprano spread" in the dressing room, whereby the belongings of sopranos end up three mirrors over. 🙂 Onstage, as often happens in big productions (most notably ALWAYS the Tosca "Te Deum"), supernumeraries (who aren't singing at all) often get staged in front of the chorus, so we are unable to see the conductor. Also, there are always those notables in the chorus (the big guy who's an overactor, the elderly soprano who needs to have her day) who tend to re-stage themselves in front of everyone else. Lots of fun!! And still, as Elaine says, beautiful harmony is produced. Perhaps it's because, as a group of music-makers who work together, we truly end up being a "family" who, despite tensions, work together to present the world with a unified product.

    • November 12, 2009 at

      Rachel, I'm not surprised that all musicians, not just orchestral ones, exhibit territorial habits. Thanks for the entertaining and detailed comment. Musicians DO like the spotlight if they can get it, even if it rumples the staging! And, as you say, our \”group\” thinking hopefully ends up winning in the end, and the music itself becomes the show. I always say, in performance, do whatever it takes to sound good, even if you don't agree with what you have to adjust to!

  2. November 10, 2009 at

    And yet out of all that tension comes the most beautiful harmony! The ability to turn attention from personal needs to the the needs of the music is perhaps the key to orchestral music AND world peace.

    • November 10, 2009 at

      Hi Elaine. That is such a wonderful point you make!! Of course, basing world law systems on the feudal oligarchy of the orchestra might not go over so well. 🙂

  3. October 2, 2009 at

    Hilarious! This brings back so many memories. Well written and accurately observed. I really enjoyed this post.

    • October 2, 2009 at

      Thank you, Marion. We are a quirky species, aren't we?

  4. July 20, 2007 at

    huckle- Now isn’t that just like a string player, to expresses such concern for the welfare of a section colleague, then remember they will probably be GONE next year!

    And HOW could I forget the brass! Perhaps I figured everyone would be familiar with their “point of view”, best described as the cross hairs of a dangerous weapon!

  5. July 20, 2007 at

    Beth- Your words rings true, and ring and ring. Spoken like a true percussionist! Thanks for stopping by and reminding me of those distant lands I barely see, but always feel.

  6. huckle
    July 12, 2007 at

    So true, so true. I play ‘cello in a youth orchestra (I’m 16), and even with my limited experience I know all too well that there is ridiculous rivalry between ALL players. In particular, those positions where there is the possibility of promotion, but it’s a delicate business seeing as to upset a fellow ‘cellist is like stabbing your mother in the back; unthinkable. Being a youth orchestra, there is quite a high turn over – a new leader pretty much every year – so the tension is all that much higher.

    You also forgot brass players (not including horns, of course ;p) – loud, brash yet witty and cynical. No-one would ever dare trespass into their territory for fear of decapitation – or worse…

    Great article!

  7. Beth
    July 12, 2007 at

    You forgot the percussion section! We should get the entire back half of the stage, because we have so many instruments – timpani, bass drum, marimba, xylo, snare, chimes, bells, etc. etc. etc… Somehow, though, we always end up being crowded into the very corner by the string bass and the harp. But we have our ways – if you play loud enough, the person in front of you is bound to give you extra space as he tries to protect his eardrums by scooting as far forward as possible!

  8. Lord Doomhammer
    April 20, 2007 at

    Hey Dave,

    It seems like this post gets funnier every time I read it. You *just might* have outdone yourself on Reeds, or even Dorky Music. I’m definitely in the mold of your second clarinetist, quietly biding my time until I can correct the offending objects in my surrounding area. For example, my dolt of a roomate likes to turn up the TV / his CD player super loud when he’s in the room. When he leaves the room, there’s no need to turn it off–we don’t pay for electricity, so just let it go!! I take off my headphones, deactivate the offending idiot box or whatever, and return to my Schubert.

  9. November 8, 2006 at

    Ah LD, nice to see you again. You shapeshifter, you. But I cannot divulge, even to you, my friend, the inner secrets of musicians’ subtle and mystical forms of revenge upon each other. I cannot tell you that a musician might find a quarter inserted in one of the joints of his clarinet blocking all sound as he attempts to play a solo after a few bars rest. I cannot tell you that photographs of a naked Pamela Anderson or appropriately sexed inividual might mysteriously appear on a page where he has to play a huge and difficult solo which requires utmost concentration and clarity. No, I cannot share these things with you. You need to bide your time until you have learned the sacred rituals of the inner musician before you are ready to accept these high rites of the mature, professional musician.

  10. Lord Doomhammer
    November 7, 2006 at

    P.S. This is probably your funniest post since Dorky Music. I LOVE IT!!!

  11. Lord Doomhammer
    November 7, 2006 at

    Wow Dave, I would have thought that you High Guardians of Western Culture would work better together! Dear, dear!! For me, it isn’t so much the space as it is the music. I absolutely hate it when I have a solo and the idiot next to me plays along with me for whatever reason. But since the instrument’s in your mouth, your retaliatory options are limited. How do you CSO guys “get even” with each other?

  12. November 6, 2006 at

    Hey Jennifer- I’m very aware of how dangerous a string player can be with that spear waving around in their hand. I always shield my eyes as I pass among the sea of strings during breaks. Who knows when some emphatic gesticulation to make a point, will blind me with another point. Perhaps I should be gentle in my criticisms of them, if I value my well being!

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  14. November 6, 2006 at

    Hehe. Well, there is nothing worse than a crowded bow-arm, that’s all I can say. Most often it’s my stand partner annoying me, though, because they insist on playing with their scroll too far to the left (I usually sit outside). Oh, and you need plenty of room on your left, too, or else someone’s liable to get an eye put out by the tip of your bow. You gotta watch where you point that thing!

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